Perry Keziah is a senior at the University of Washington who, for years, was set on studying pre-med. A year in Turkey as an exchange student changed her mind, and she now studies Turkish and Arabic in the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization Department at UW. Keziah reflects on her experiences in the following interview, and discusses how the FLAS fellowship from the Middle East Center has impacted her life.
How did you become interested in studying Arabic? How did your time living in Turkey influence your academic experience and goals in life?
Growing up, I was always fascinated by the Middle East. However, I never gave myself the time or opportunity to nurture this interest until I had the chance to study abroad in Turkey for a year with Rotary International after graduating from high school. For ten months, I lived with a host family in Bursa, a city of 2.5 million people south of Istanbul, and attended a Turkish public high school. It was an invaluable experience because I had the chance to both observe and become a part of a Middle Eastern culture.
My real motivation for studying Arabic came from my growing awareness of current political events in the Middle East, especially the thousands of Syrian refugees trying survive in Turkey. I had only brief glimpses into what many refugees were experiencing at the time, such as young Syrian mothers and their children maneuvering chaotic intersections trying to sell packets of tissues or running in front of waiting cars to clean the windshields for money. However, it made me realize the extent of the devastation the war in Syria has caused for millions of people.
A year later, after taking a course on global justice at the University of Washington, I knew that I wanted to devote my academic studies to learning Arabic, continuing my study of Turkish, and developing my knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and politics in order to someday participate in efforts toward helping Syrian refugees navigate life in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East.
What is the most interesting thing that happened to you while traveling abroad?
One of my favorite memories from living in Turkey is attending the wedding of a relative of my second host family. On the night before the wedding, the bride and her female friends and family gathered for a Kına Gecesi (Henna Night), a celebration that, despite the dancing and music, is actually a melancholy occasion for the bride and her family. My host mother insisted that I keep a cloth over the wet henna on my hands for the rest of the night, which resulted in a large, dark brown mark on my palms that drew attention at school the next week.
The day of the wedding itself, the family of the groom drove to the bride’s home, where the families gathered outside. Unlike most western-style weddings, the signing of the official marriage license is the most important part of the ceremony. It was definitely a special experience for me because it was utterly different from anything I had seen in the U.S., it was a meaningful glimpse into Turkish culture, and my host family enthusiastically invited me to be a part of it.
How has FLAS impacted your experience at UW?
One of the most exciting ways the FLAS has affected my experience here is by allowing me to meet and learn from other students who are learning Arabic (and even Turkish) for a variety of different reasons. Some, like me, are interested in international relations and humanitarian issues, and want to be equipped for short or long-term involvement in the Middle East. It has inspiring to learn from other students in my Arabic and Turkish classes, while simultaneously sharing a common interest in the Arabic language.
Studying Arabic with the FLAS has also impacted my experience here by allowing me to build friendships and make connections with Arabic-speaking students on a deeper level. Through FIUTS and Bridges, another organization I am involved in, I have been able to meet many students from around the Middle East, practice Arabic (however clumsily), ask questions about their particular culture, and discuss differences between life in the U.S. and life in a Middle Eastern country.
Through FLAS, I have had the opportunity to both learn in the classroom and learn outside of it by forming connections and friendships with my peers from Arabic-speaking countries and cultures.
What’s next for you down the road?
Though my plans have shifted back and forth over the past few years, my experience studying Turkish, Arabic, and the Middle East in the NELC department at UW has encouraged me to put everything I have learned here into practice. I want to return to Turkey for two years to study Turkish language and literature at Boğaziçi University in İstanbul. I am in the application process at the moment and hope that, while I am there, I can discover how to participate in efforts toward helping Syrian refugees navigate life in Turkey.
Ultimately, my desire is to develop friendships and connections with refugees in Istanbul, not only so that I can know them as friends, but also know their stories and their needs as they seek to rebuild their lives in Turkey or continue to another location. My hope is that this academic journey will equip me with the knowledge and skills I need to be an efficient part of efforts to advocate for, represent, and aid refugees in the Middle East.
FLAS Fellowships are funded by the International and Foreign Language Education Office of the U.S. Department of Education. FLAS fellowships support undergraduate, graduate and professional students in acquiring modern foreign languages and area or international studies competencies. Students from all UW departments and professional schools are encouraged to apply. Find out more about the FLAS Fellowship here.