Thomas Neil ’14 got his wish, spending the summer immersed in the Arabic language and Omani history and culture.

As a guest of the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Education, Neil spent five days a week in immersive Arabic courses. His instructors included a Bedouin, who invited the class to his hometown and a camel race, and an Omani of Zanzibari origin.  “My classes in Grinnell are more based around literature, which is fantastic, but this was a class built around current events, politics, and what was going on in the region while we were there,” said Neil. 

Each year, the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington D.C. awards scholarships to a group of Americans who travel to Oman and participate in the two-month-long program. Assistant ProfessorMervat Youssef encouraged Neil to apply, knowing he wanted to travel to the Middle East and already had ties to Oman through a past language assistant.

When Neil started, he discovered another Grinnellian in the program — Laura Goffman ’09, a doctoral candidate in history at Georgetown University. Unsurprisingly, he said, “We hit it off.” 

Everyone in the group knew some Arabic, he said, and many were more fluent than he was.  Neil was majoring in German and political science at the time, and many of the others, including Goffman, specialized in Arabic and the region.

They took courses in Modern Standard Arabic, media Arabic, and the Omani dialect, with plenty of opportunities to practice as they traveled. “There was lots of forced down time with taxi drivers; that’s where the real conversations came out,” said Neil. 

Omanis place emphasis on the family, he said, adding “You’re never alone. You always have people over. You’re always with friends; you’re always with family.  Americans were perceived as a far more individualistic culture.”

His adventures included meeting several sheiks and a central bank economist, playing soccer with local youths, riding in an SUV alongside a camel race, and traveling the country.

The most beautiful spots?

  • The Wadi Shab river valley: “The river valleys along the coast were absolutely stunning — out of a fantasy.”
  • Jebel Akhdar, the green mountain: “Old orchards, and unbelievable views.  The day we spent at the green mountain was my favorite of the entire trip.”

Neil said he’s relishing his current course with Nizar Al-Seoudi, a new assistant professor of Arabic from Jordan.

He also plans to apply for a Fulbright scholarship in Oman. “I’d like to return to the south.  The south is where our [past Arabic language] assistant, Ali [Baoqbah], comes from. It’s a different region culturally.” 

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