Friending the Middle East

By Jennie Ebeling
University of Evansville
June 2011

I recently accompanied a group of American undergraduate students on their first trip to the Middle East. During our two weeks together, I frequently compared their experiences with my own during my first days in the region two decades ago when I participated in a summer language program followed by a semester at university. I shared with them my memories of bonding with fellow students and the local people whom we met; some of them – both trip participants and locals – are now some of my close friends and colleagues. Some of this bonding, I thought, was due to our limited ability to communicate with people back home, for at the time we had no email, no cell phones, and no way to contact family and friends that didn’t involve paper and stamps or brief, expensive calls on public phones. Since I wanted my students to experience this place the same way I had, I advised them not to bring computers or cell phones on the trip; we would bring two university phones to use if necessary, and students would have access to the Internet during most of the trip. To my dismay, nearly all of them brought cell phones anyway, and this annoyed me greatly at first.

Now, I am one of those old-school profs who does not allow laptops in my classes, even to take notes; in my experience, the temptation of Facebook, email, tweets, and texts is too much for students to resist, and I prefer that they pay attention in class and leave the social networking for non-class time. I don’t object to social networking, however; as a matter of fact, I was the one who created a Facebook group so students and faculty participants could share photos with each other. I simply wanted my students to spend their first trip to the Middle East absorbing everything around them without constant distractions from home, and to see, hear, smell and taste this new and exotic environment for themselves without keeping up with every mundane detail of their friends’ lives and constantly reporting on their own activities in sound bytes. I also felt that the constant presence of technology ran counter to the slow pace and intimacy of life here. Although I complain about it, I generally like to drink tea and coffee slowly in pretty much every social situation, and I appreciate the conventions that force people to slow down, sit, debate, laugh, talk, and just be together.

So I bristled whenever I saw the phones come out. Fortunately, because of the time difference, actual conversations with people back home occurred in the evenings, so rarely did I see them talking, texting, and tweeting while we were touring a site or engaged in some other activity. I knew that some of them were spending a lot of time and, in some cases, a truly shocking amount of money, talking to friends and family at night. But I also noticed that the phones were being used for other things. Although most had brought good cameras along, phones were sometimes used to take snapshots; students also used them to listen to music on the long bus rides during the final days of our trip. At least one student was taking notes, or maybe journaling, about the trip on her phone. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the phones were used to make connections with people they met. Despite my fears that they would have trouble getting to know local people given the short length and packed itinerary of our trip, several of them spent free time with young people they met through mutual friends and had the opportunity to experience this place in ways that we could not have planned. Soon enough, some of these people became Facebook friends. It wasn’t like the locals aren’t connected; as the events of the Arab Spring have revealed to the world, they most certainly are. Since I am Facebook friends with the students who participated in this trip, I can see for myself the connections that are being made and the new relationships that are developing. I myself made several new Facebook friends during this experience, but apparently not as many as my students.

So now I wonder how much my own first experiences in the Middle East would have been different had I had access to this kind of technology twenty years ago. What if I had become Facebook friends with my fellow classmates, dorm mates, and dig volunteers from the start and could keep up with their every move, everyday? How much better connected would I be now? And what if I had access to hundreds if not thousands of other people’s photos from early trips to the region, and no longer had to lament (still!) those accidentally exposed rolls of film that recorded some of the quintessential events of my youth, moments that I half-remember now because they are not preserved in pictures? I simply can’t imagine what it would be like because I’m from another time, much like those travelers from earlier generations who could not dream of instantly contacting people half a world away while standing in the middle of a desert in one of the most remote (seeming) places on earth. It will be interesting to see how my students use technology to stay in contact with new friends made – both fellow students and locals – during this trip and make plans to return and experience more. I have a lot to learn from them.

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