Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

From Hilltop to Sand Dune

I’m a 45-year-old Jesuit, but I have felt like a freshman so far this year. I’m at Georgetown – but with a lot more sand and a lot less humidity! I’m living in a new place, making new friends, learning the unwritten rules of a new society, missing home from time to time, feeling lucky (most days) and more than a little nervous (also most days), wondering just exactly what it is that I have gotten myself into.

In one sense the answer to that is simple: I’ve gotten myself into the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. But, in another sense, the answer is far from simple: I’ve gotten myself into the deep and swift current at the heart of Georgetown’s living tradition. That current has carried me and my colleagues to a place that is at once foreign and familiar.

It has also carried us into a miracle.

The foreign aspects of my freshman year in Qatar are easy to spot. There’s the gnawing uneasiness that comes with one’s first shot at living abroad and the disconcerting realization that our Constitution doesn’t cover me here. There’s the fact that most of my students speak Arabic as their first language. There’s the metric system, which I never learned, the mystery of strange electrical voltages and constantly wondering if my DVDs will play here. “It depends,” seems to be the answer. On what, I’m still not clear.

There’s being reminded firsthand of the intrinsic evil of a telephone company monopoly, and the surprising but refreshing realization that comes with being exposed to a broad youth culture that is not obsessed with alcohol.

For the record, our fellow Hoyas in the SFS-Q Class of 2009 include 25 students: 12 Qataris (seven men, nine women) and a mix (seven men, six women) representing 11 nations – Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jordan, Syria, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and the United States. There are 22 Muslims, two Catholics and a Mormon. They range in age from 16 to 26.

My initial sense of the foreignness of Qatar came from the many warnings we had received about our students before arriving: male and female students won’t sit together in your classes (false) or mix in your lounge (false); female students won’t speak up in class (most definitely false!); all of your students will be reticent and defensive – or reticent but aggressive, depending on who you listened to – when it comes to discussing religion (false); they won’t be as smart or as engaged as the students you’re used to (dead wrong).

Still, there’s plenty here that is decidedly foreign. But there’s also much here that is reassuringly familiar and wonderfully Hoya.

It is already abundantly clear to me that SFS-Q is a place where young people are invited to grow up to become to the kind of people they were created to be, a place where teaching and learning are sacred, a place where cultures meet and faiths converse, a place where smart people are challenged to become smarter people and good people are challenged to become better people.

In fact, I have been stunned by how much the best of our beloved Hilltop and our fledgling community in Qatar have in common, and I thank God for that because it reminds me that both campuses are part of the same great experiment and manifestations of the same great dream.

Which brings me to the miracle. Every once in awhile, I take a step back and try to catch of glimpse of the bigger picture within which I am living and working, the larger context of SFS-Q. Such glimpses are breathtaking.

Think about it. It’s been less than five years since Sept. 11, and less than two years since the American invasion of Iraq. Political tensions between the Arab world and the West have seldom been higher. Relations between Islam and Christianity are strained in a way they have not been since the Middle Ages.

And in this very complicated moment, a Muslim state invites an American Catholic university to open its doors not far from the shores of the Arabian Gulf and provide students there the same education it offers in the capital of the United States. The university accepts, students show up, and in a flash Americans and Arabs, Christians and Muslims of many nationalities begin to build a community of learning and love in the heart of the Middle East. Breathtaking, I tell you. And quintessentially Georgetown.

It’s as if someone said, “Guess what, there’s an option for the world other than misunderstanding and tension and conflict. There’s another way, a better way.” My guess is that’s exactly what Someone had in mind in calling SFS-Q into being.

Fr. Ryan Maher, S.J., is assistant dean for academic affairs in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown’s campus in Doha, Qatar.

Donate to The Hoya

Your donation will support the student journalists of Georgetown University. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

More to Discover
Donate to The Hoya