Taking the Plunge- Research in Lebanon


September 14, 2012

Each summer the Department funds a small number of top graduate students to engage in research directed toward the development of skills related to their dissertations or theses. Some students use the funds here in Boston and others use it for research overseas.  The following are some thoughts from current MA Student, Victoria Gilbert, who studied and conducted field research in Beirut, Lebanon.

Exploring the City of Beirut

Almost every time I have been abroad it has reminded me of the first dive into the pool each summer. There’s nervousness- after all, you have not been diving for almost a year and you could belly flop with a painful smack or find the water painfully cold. Then there’s the excitement- taking the first plunge and inaugurating the summer with all of the fun splashing about that can be crammed into a three-month span. Each time I have gone abroad, whether to Europe, Yemen, or Syria, the feeling has been much the same.

For my latest trip to Beirut it was no different, although I was perhaps a little bit more nervous than usual. It was going to be my longest trip to date, almost three months.  It was also the least structured. I had found an apartment via facebook and had arranged to live with an American and a Canadian whom I had never met except via skype. I had never been to Lebanon before and did not know anyone there, although I had been in contact with a few people and had a list of people to look up. In many ways I was preparing to jump in and just hoping I would not find any rocks on the bottom.

Just outside Beirut at Ancient Ruin

As it turned out the water was fine. There was so much to love about Lebanon. The pace of life, the countless events, the people I met were all wonderful. My original goal was to go and take classes in the local dialect and to take advantage of the library at the American University of Beirut in preparation for a Master’s thesis on the development of Syrian national identity. Clearly, given the conflict which has been raging there for over a year, going to Syria was not an option. This means I will have to rely heavily on reading various types of media sources (including social media) and listening to sources in Levantine Arabic, which made going to the Middle East to work on my Arabic extremely important.

My schooling was made possible by a research and experiential learning grant from Northeastern University’s Department of Political Science and I took classes in Levantine dialect at the Saifi Institute for Arabic as well as ALPS (the Academy of Languages and Practical Skills).  During the second half of the summer I also took private lessons in modern standard Arabic with a tutor from Syria who even had me try to translate an article on Syrian identity. While the article proved perhaps too advanced for me it was a wonderful experience and led to many fruitful and interesting conversations about my intended thesis topic.

Victoria (first row, third from right) with colleagues at the IFI

In addition to my Arabic classes I also participated in the internship program at the Issam Fares Institute (IFI) at the American University of Beirut. So in June I began spending much of my day at the university in addition to my Arabic studies. It was not always easy to balance everything but working in the Research, Policy, and Public Advocacy Program at IFI gave me several opportunities to gain further insight into the policy-making process in Lebanon and how policy research institutes like IFI go about designing their research projects. I also attended several lectures including their symposium on the Arab Spring, which was held right before my internship began and brought together minds from across the region as well as several from the United States for a fascinating discussion. I also found myself lending a hand on another project conducted by IFI’s UN in the Arab World program in which I helped analyze some of the statistical data generated by a survey the institute had conducted to analyze the opinion of the Lebanese public on UNIFIL’s role in Lebanon. I also got to work with a wonderful group of academics, researchers and fellow interns from Lebanon and the United States. It was a great learning experience in many ways absolutely added a great deal to my experience in Lebanon.

Despite my busy schedule I did make a concerted effort to get out and enjoy the Beirut social scene as well as travel outside of the city and even outside of the country. Beirut has done a great deal to reclaim its pre-civil war distinction as the Paris of the Middle East and there always seem to be concerts, lectures, and performances of various kinds. I attended a couple of film festivals as well as a couple of free outdoor concerts. With my classmates or fellow interns I took trips to many of Lebanon’s well-known historical sites, such as Baalbek, Byblos, and Beiteddine. I even took a weekend trip to Jordan with an Austrian classmate and had fun chatting with our tour guide in Arabic. My fellow interns and I were even invited to iftar (the breaking of the fast feast which takes place each night during Ramadan) by a friend of a friend. While I know there are things I did not get to see or experience on my trip to Lebanon I felt that I was able to experience a great deal in only three months time, more than I could possibly have imagined when I left.

After almost three months in Beirut I came home pleased with my progress. I feel that my Arabic has greatly improved and I believe I have found some sources which will prove useful to the research I plan to conduct for my Master’s thesis. I am now more prepared to take on my thesis and to start gathering information. My internship also gave me a greater understanding for in the field research and how research is created and used in non-academic settings. It also gave me a new appreciation for the importance of sometimes setting the books or work aside and going out to learn something new or take the time to appreciate something beautiful. This past summer in Beirut taught me not only Arabic but also emphasized the importance of enjoying life and always trying new things that are outside your comfort zone. Once again I took the plunge and this time the water was simply…beautiful.

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