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5 Tips for Arab Students to Avoid Culture Shock

posted on: Apr 3, 2015


As natives of a country in the Middle East and North Africa looking to study abroad within the Arab region, students may expect to live in an environment they consider an extension of home. Countries within the region share many similarities, but the adjustment to a new culture can be bumpy, overwhelming and confusing. It may result in homesickness and even slight culture shock – an utterly normal reaction to this move.

Students on their first cross-cultural experience need to be mentally and physically prepared to function within the cultural idiosyncrasies of a different country in the region.

Besides learning about their new home’s history, geography, traditions, beliefs, politics, arts, ethnicities and lifestyles, new students will find these five tips useful to ease their transition.

[Find out how to make the most of studying abroad in the Arab region.]

1. Be aware of local beliefs and be sensitive to different religions: “Islam is a strong cultural piece tying the MENA region together. We have a wide range of Muslim students and they share a lot of similarities no matter the sects,” says Steve Wilson, a psychologist at Texas A&M University at Qatar.

It is important to be sensitive to the subtleties of the different branches of Islam. They affect local lifestyles differently and make some cultures more conservative than others. Besides the predominant Islam, students may find regional branches of Christianity and Judaism.

Glorianna Pionati, a counselor and psychology professor at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, says “it is important for both religious and secular students to learn about each other and to understand that they can live side by side.”

2. Learn the local dialect: Expect to be confronted with questioning looks when you speak your dialect of Arabic or to pause in perplexity at a local expression. Dialects in the region are so different that a Syrian may have difficulty understanding an Algerian.

American University in Cairo

“I had a good grasp of Egyptian dialect before I came to Cairo,” says Kenza Yousfi, a Moroccan student majoring in gender studies at Egypt’s American University in Cairo. “It has helped me immensely. Not speaking Egyptian Arabic is a disadvantage when shopping; prices double automatically.”

For those who are not well-versed​ in the different dialects of the region, engaging in everyday conversations with the locals can be helpful.

“When I hung out with locals, I started understanding the dialect better. I still mess up sometimes when I speak it, but I manage to be understood,” says Alla Senan, a Saudi student majoring in international studies at Al Akhawayn University.

3. Dress appropriately for the culture and the weather: Arab cosmopolitan and capital cities, particularly those along the Mediterranean, are more relaxed about Western clothing, and do not tend to mandate an Islamic dress code. The more inland or further south, the more conservative countries tend to become, though the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan are also more relaxed.

“Doha is fairly conservative, as is the state-funded university, but you can find more liberal pockets,” says Wilson. “We have students from Lebanon and Jordan, for instance, who dress in Western clothing. Qataris somewhere between the more conservative Saudi Arabia and the more liberal UAE.”

As a general rule of thumb, whether you are a man or a woman, dress modestly, covering shoulders, knees and as much skin as possible. Loose-fitting clothes come in handy at high temperatures, too. International student advisers and some university websites provide tips on what to bring or budget for to cope with the weather and to fit in within the culture.

[See how Arab universities are offering opportunities to women.]

4. Ignore catcalls: A Thomson Reuters Foundation poll from 2013 and a World Bank report ​from 2009 show that sexual harassment is a reality for women in the MENA region, and exists to varying degrees in many countries. Do not talk back to harassers, as that may aggravate the situation and can even be dangerous.

“Harassment in Cairo extends from verbal to physical. My advice is to dress modestly and walk fast,” says Yousfi.

5. Make new friends: “For Arab students coming to study in Doha or in the region, it is more of a homesickness than a culture shock,” says Wilson, from Texas A&M University at Qatar.

Homesickness is common. It can manifest itself in loneliness and nostalgia, and can happen at arrival, months afterwards or during holidays.

To avoid isolation and create a support system, “making friends is essential to your well-being as an international student,” says Yassine Habibi, a Moroccan logistics alumnus from the University of Wollongong in Dubai.

[Learn how to get comfortable at a coed Arab university campus.]

Despite these challenges, students will find that the cross-cultural experience of studying abroad has many benefits. The uniqueness and richness of the host culture abound with new learning moments.

“Studying abroad made me discover a new side of life, explore my inner self and unleash my potential. It has been three years now that I am overseas. I am more comfortable today than I was when I landed in Dubai,” says Habibi.

See the complete rankings of the Best Arab Region Universities.