Being Muslim in Spain
story by Bushra Malik
Why did you decide to study abroad?
I've always had a passion for adventure, exploration, learning new things, and having new experiences. Especially after hearing about the amazing things my peers had to say about studying abroad, and given the fact that the last time I had been out of the country was 10 years ago, I realized I would have to make a strong effort to study abroad before graduating from Berkeley. With that said, timing was also a significant factor in my decision to study abroad. I knew that if I didn't take this opportunity while I was in undergrad, I might not be able to travel once I returned home to my family responsibilities and started working. I also knew that studying abroad would be the perfect opportunity for personal growth and improvement, which is especially important as a college graduate looking for a job and aiming for professional school.
Tell us about the program you went on
I participated in UC Berkeley's program called "Muslims in the West: From Islamic Spain and Construction of Otherness to 9/11" in Granada, Spain. This program was led by two UC Berkeley professors in the department of Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies, and explored the history and politics of Muslim prejudice dating back to Islamic Spain. As invaluable as the skills and knowledge I've learned in undergrad has been, I do not believe I would have left UC Berkeley as a well-rounded, critically thinking adult had I not learned the content of this program. Our professors explained phenomena like colonialism and racism in the most critical and profound ways, and demonstrated how Ferdinand and Isabella's very conquest of Granada (and the subsequent Spanish Inquisition) provided the blueprint for the colonization and subjugation of the rest of the world. Heavy but powerful stuff, I know.
Academics aside, my program accommodated the students in Hostel Atenas, which was less than a 5 minute walk from our (jaw-droppingly beautiful) classroom at the Euro-Arab Foundation for Higher Studies and within sight of the Alhambra, Granada's top historical site and attraction. We went on excursions every Saturday, which included places like the Alhambra and Cordoba, which were definitely the highlights of my study abroad experience.
How did you pay for your study abroad experience?
I was fortunate enough to qualify for financial aid from UC Berkeley, which cut a large portion of costs, and receive a summer scholarship from the Diversity Network. To avoid taking out a loan, I also made sure to save up funds through work months ahead of time and borrowed from a family member to buy my flight before receiving any scholarships or financial aid.
What is one thing you wish you would have known about studying abroad before you left?
I wish I had known to find more meaning in the mundane--to take random pictures of my roommates and I in our hostel, to document random quotes and funny comments/events in class, to take more care about being present in the moment instead of worrying about the next trip. You'll undoubtedly remember the big trips you made and the sights you saw through sheer memories or photos, but you might not be able to remember the name of that amazing cafe you went to, or how your room looked like, or how you and your friends interacted when studying together. I'd advise students to take time to find meaning in the mundane, document whatever makes you laugh or awes you in class, and document the seemingly uneventful, everyday experiences-- at the end of the day, that's what you'll realize you miss the most.
Did you experience any discrimination abroad because of your race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or a physical disability? If so, what did you learn from the experience?
Though I was fortunate enough to not be physically harmed or deeply upset while abroad, I definitely faced discrimination. I wear a headscarf (hijab), and I am unmistakably and unashamedly Muslim. But since we are living in a time where xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia is especially rampant domestically and internationally, I directly and indirectly faced discrimination while abroad. For example, after receiving a heavy package at my hostel--a hotplate I ordered online to cook small meals to eat before sunrise in the fasting month of Ramadan--the hostel manager at the front desk jokingly and insensitively asked me if there was a bomb in the box.
Though challenging, these experiences taught me to give people the benefit of the doubt. When in a new country, there's a lot of room for miscommunication and misinterpretation, especially when a language barrier exists. Recognizing and understanding this is important when interacting in a new environment and new culture. What I may perceive as rude or polite may vary significantly between what other people perceive those same things, especially when they come from a different country or culture. Whenever I was faced with blatant discrimination, I learned it was best to distance myself from the situation if possible, and then take steps to address the situation afterwards if safe to do so. Engaging in a calm, friendly dialogue with others who may misunderstand you due to your race, religion, sexual orientation, or the like is also something I learned to really help combat stereotypes.
How has studying abroad benefited you, personally and academically?
I can definitely say I've come back from studying abroad as a better person and better student. Having interacted in a new country with different infrastructure and customs, I believe I've returned from my travels as a more well-rounded and experienced person. Studying abroad helped me become a more positive, grateful, critically-thinking, and self-aware adult. Academically, my study abroad courses have helped transform the way I think about racism, discrimination, colonialism, and more. It provided me with different perspectives and invaluable knowledge that I can use to apply to my daily life experiences as well as in graduate or professional school.
What was the most memorable moment of studying abroad?
My most memorable moment of studying abroad was stepping inside in the Great Mosque of Cordoba for the first time. I had grown up learning all about this mosque and its legacy in 7th grade and in Art History class in high school, and I always had the classic image of the red and white arches (what my sister and I called candy-cane stripes) in my memory. Just standing in line outside the mosque was exhilarating for me, but nothing compares to the butterflies and the feeling of pure awe I felt when I first beheld the beautiful candy cane arches in person. I was on cloud nine nearly the entire time while in the mosque. The only down side of this experience was my inability to simply lift my hands or bow my head in prayer due to the strict rules against any other form of prayer inside the mosque-turned-cathedral. The mosque is owned by the Catholic church but unfortunately they have not opened the space to be one of convivencia, a term used to describe the historical cooperation and coexistence of Catholics, Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Southern Spain under Islamic rule. This was a dark reminder of the Islamophobia and prejudice that continues to exist in our world.
How was the entertainment and nightlife?
Afternoon naps (siestas) are a part of the culture in Spain, so practically everything comes alive at night! What I loved in particular were the flamenco shows, which Granada and Southern Spain in general are known for. I was lucky enough to go to a few local shows tucked away in the neighborhood of Albaycin, with amazing dancing, live music, and views of the Alhambra fortress.
In what way do you feel your experience abroad has prepared you for your future career? (Think both tangible things like language acquisition and intangible like learning to work with people who are very different from you)
My experience abroad has helped me practice and develop invaluable skills. Navigating in a completely new country with different infrastructure, customs and language helped me become even better of a critical thinker and problem solver. It also helped me better think on my feet, improvise, and adapt to different people and new environments. As an aspiring lawyer and a recent graduate looking for internship experiences, these are all skills that will better prepare me for not only my career, but also daily experiences and interactions.
Would you recommend the program you went on, if so why??
Though my program could have been better organized, I would highly recommend my program to other students because of the course’s content. It was extremely thought provoking and provided a critical view on material that others often take for granted. After 4 years of college, none of the material I learned in my other classes was as critical of the education system itself and the politics of knowledge and language. Leaving this course I felt much more liberated and well rounded as a student, minority, and young adult trying to combat inequality and injustice. Content aside, Granada itself is rich with history and beauty, and it was amazing to be able to get a good feel of the city since it wasn’t so large.
What advice do you have for students thinking about study abroad?
I would advise any students thinking about studying abroad to try their best to make it work. Studying abroad especially as an undergraduate is an opportunity of a lifetime that you can’t get back once you miss. It’s also an experience that though seems costly, is an amazing and underrated investment in your academic, personal, and professional future. If you can make it work, you will benefit immensely from this life-changing experience.
Any additional comments or thoughts that you have about your study abroad experience
As a first-generation college student with a lot of responsibilities, studying abroad was the last thing on my mind. After hearing so much from my peers about their unforgettable experiences and realizing how much financial help and scholarships were out there, though, I made a conscious decision to try to make it work. As a 23 year old with far less commitments than I could expect to have 5 years down the road, I was convinced that if I didn’t study abroad as an undergraduate, I may never get the chance to do easily go abroad again—and that was my main motivation. Everyone’s circumstances are different and it’s important to respect that. If you can make it work though, do everything in your power to make it happen!