The UI Arabic program has brought Middle Eastern experience to the classroom with the addition of two new faculty members this fall.
Asila Al Ma'Awali is a visiting Fulbright Scholar from Oman, a country east of Saudi Arabia. She teaches an advanced Arabic class, and she will stay in Iowa with the program through May 2009.
Al Ma'Awali didn't seek out a Fulbright scholarship - she was nominated while teaching English in Oman and was later selected to participate.
She also said that she didn't specifically choose to come to the UI, but was looking for a U.S. city with a relatively low crime rate.
"I'm from a really peaceful place, and I come from a small town that is just like Iowa City," she said. "I find there's not much difference except for the cold here." The unusually chilly Iowa City fall is "like winter in Oman," she said.
Al Ma'Awali joins new UI Arabic lecturer Hope Fitzgerald, who will coordinate Arabic classes at the UI.
The duo arrives at a time of growth for the program. Thirty-four students were enrolled in Arabic classes in the fall of 2006; 83 signed up this fall. Al Ma'Awali's advanced Arabic course is in its first semester.
Fitzgerald began studying Arabic on a trip to Jordan between her junior and senior undergraduate years. She has since made several trips back to Jordan and spent a year in Egypt in 2006.
Egypt's unique culture was a point of both interest and frustration for Fitzgerald, who recently finished a graduate degree at the University of Texas-Austin.
"There are these huge upper-class shopping malls, and Gucci stores and all these things, and at the same time 80 percent or more of the population can't get by from month to month," she said. "It was just a combination of features that I just couldn't understand that just kind of fascinated me."
On her first trip to the United States, Al Ma'Awali said she has found it fairly easy to adjust to cultural differences, although she chooses not to adopt some U.S. customs in favor of preserving her own - such as not shaking hands with men.
"When I came here, everyone was just putting his hand out," Al Ma'Awali said. "It's not there in my culture, so I had to just stop it. I don't have it in my culture, so why do it here?"
Al Ma'Awali's background adds a unique element to the program, said Roland Racevskis, the head of the French/Italian department, under whose aegis the Arabic classes are held. Fitzgerald, who is originally from Kansas, "is what you would call a near-native speaker of Arabic, which is quite extraordinary and fairly rare," he said.
Although both new teachers come from backgrounds outside of Iowa City, Al Ma'Awali and Fitzgerald have enjoyed their time so far in the state. Al Ma'Awali said she has seen why the Midwest is known for its corn and friendly people.
After accidentally getting on the wrong Iowa City bus, Al Ma'Awali said, the driver offered to drop her off at her exact location.
"It was really nice of him, because he could have said, 'OK, you should get down here; I'm not responsible for that,' " she said.
As for the corn? "It's really, really tasty."