College is awesome because you get to meet incredible people with inspiring stories. Aviselle Diaz, a 20 year old Cuban American student is one of the gems I have had the chance to meet during my college experience. Currently majoring in Regional and Comparative Studies in Georgetown University, she has dedicated her life to study the Middle East. Her adventure first started in King’s Academy, Mazaba (Jordan) where she spent her high-school years studying the Arabic language and familiarizing herself with Arab Culture. Through the process of getting to understand Middle-Eastern Culture, she has created an Instagram account called Latina en Arabia, an initiative to create intercultural understanding between the Hispanic-American and the Arab Community.
I have gotten to know her through her study abroad experience that she pursued in Qatar. The questions that follow are the detailed tale of her incredible journey!
So first question, tell me about your Latina en Arabia initiative: why did you create it? What inspired to to create it? What is it about?
So, kind of having lived in the Middle East for a while, I’ve always wanted to bridge the gap between the Hispanic and the Arab world. I saw there were a lot of initiatives, a lot of things going on to sort of bridge that between the English speaking world and the Arab world, but there weren’t many for the Hispanic community. And going back home, you know, I could see the kind of stories that were on the news… So really, Latina en Arabia is a way to show my Hispanic community that we’re not so different from Arabs after all. And really exposing the unique connections that the Arab World and the Hispanic community actually have.
That is really interesting! Tell me, how did you come up with this idea, how did you start?
Um, it was kind of interesting because it was over the summer and…(this summer?) this summer (Okay). And I just remember somehow, I was sitting in my room before I went to sleep, and for some reason these two words came to mind, and I was like “oh latina, arabia” and I was just like oh these two words rhymed together and I realized like, wait, I am a “Latina en Arabia”. I didn’t initially think of it as an Instagram but I just thought, if there could be something that was named like this it would be a nice to way to kind of show people the different side that you never get to see of the Middle East; not the politics, not the, you know, conflicts etc, just the people for what they really are, in a fun, nice way. And I thought what better way to do that than to just showing what I’m doing in the region because, honestly, I think the most effective way of shaping and changing people’s minds about some places is simply showing them.
This sounds really cool! Speaking of being a Latina en Arabia, how did you become one?
When I was in Middle School, I remember we were taking a Spanish class (I’m from Miami) and in public school we have bilingual classes. So I was taking a class in Spanish, and we were discussing Andalucia in Spain, and the influence that Arab culture has on the region and on Hispanic language and culture in general. And, it was the first time I had really thought of a connection being made.Then, I kind of became more interested in knowing more about the Arabic language. And as I continued my education I remember, we were taking a world history class, and in that class I noticed we had completely skipped over any mention of Islamic and Arabic civilizations, and I was very surprised, and I didn’t understand why, so I took it upon myself to read that chapter. And then I thought: “how are we not reading this?!”, you know, this is so important, look at all of these contributions that Arabs have made to society in general and we completely overlook this, and we just focus on negative portrayals on tv! From then on, I wanted to educate myself about the Arab culture and the Arab language. I became passionate about it, I knew that I wanted to learn the Arabic language. And so one day, I was just researching online, and I came across this school called King’s Academy. I read the vision and the mission of King Abdullah, who was the founder of this school, and I just thought, this is exactly where I need to be. A place where I can live and learn with Arabs and learn the language and the culture but also be surrounded by students from all across the globe. And so there I began my interest to apply to King’s Academy, and hamdellah (thank god) I was accepted, but there was still a financial aspect of it that we had to consider. And so, for over a year, I wrote to over 100 companies worldwide asking them to somehow sponsor me and help me achieve my dream. Unfortunately, with only a few weeks left before classes started in Jordan, the few that answered said no, and you know, I was very frustrated I didn’t know what to do. And in that moment, I just thought, “if I was stranded on a deserted island and no other options, what would I do? I’d throw a bottle into the ocean”. And so that’s what I did. I went across Miami, to different restaurants, and collected over a hundred glass bottles, decorated each one with different designs and mosaics, because Mazaba, the city where the school was located, was the city of mosaics. And I put a letter inside each one asking whoever found it, if they could somehow help me, that would be very appreciated. And even if they couldn’t, to always keep that bottle as a reminder to never let go of their hopes and dreams. And one day, someone found a bottle, and they went to a local newspaper and told them about this story. The newspaper contacted me and published an article about what I had done, and miraculously to be honest, that same day when that article was published, I got all the help I needed to go to King’s academy. And I was able to stay there for three years and graduate from there. I had the most life changes experiences ever and meet wonderful people and learn about this beautiful language. It’s really how became a Latina en Arabia.
“if I was stranded on a deserted island and no other options, what would I do? I’d throw a bottle into the ocean”.
Omg this is amazing! You should seriously be a movie! Alright, all jokes aside, could you tell me a little bit more about the similarities between Hispanic and Arab Culture?
So I think the most basic connection would be language, there are almost 4000 words in Spanish that come from Arabic. So, in that sense definitely there is a connection and its in words that we use every single day, that I think that we just don’t realize that we have this longer history. Also in terms of culture, I feel like, having gone to Jordan, I felt very much at home in Arab culture. It really reminded me of my own: the focus on the family unit and the hospitality and the importance of family and community and making sure that everyone is okay, like never leaving anyone behind. Going to Jordan, there were some differences but honestly I felt very comfortable and very much at home and it was a great surprise. I really do feel like Jordan and the Arab world in general is like a second home for me.
That’s really cute. Okay, next question What’s your favorite aspect of Arab culture and what’s your least favorite ?
That’s a tough one. I think in terms of my favorite thing, it’s definitely the very welcoming aspect of Arab culture. And the hospitality, because I think that what’s so unique is, you know, you speak to someone that you barely even know and you make that connection and they tell you “yes come over my home, I’ll make you some food, come I want to show you my culture.” And you know they are not extending that invitation just to be polite, they really mean it. And people will go out of their way to making you feel welcome and make you feel at home and that’s one of the nicest things about Arab culture and it’s so refreshing and unfortunately it’s something that a lot of people don’t know.
I think the least favorite thing would be that as much as I love the Arabic language it’s definitely difficult and in terms of grammar there are so many different rules and exceptions etc, but I guess that’s what makes it more rewarding is that once you’re able to master certain aspects of the language “you’re like oh my goodness I can’t believe I did this and now I have this whole new understanding of the language and therefore by extension the culture”.
I’m curious to know, what was the reaction of your family members when they knew that you were going to the Middle East?
I remember sitting my parents down and telling them that I wanted to go to this boarding school in Jordan. They were concerned not so much because of the nature of the region but more because i’m an only child and I’ve never been away from home. But having left Cuba to the US, and their parents having made so many sacrifices to ensure that they could get a proper education and they could do what they wanted and move forward with their lives, it wasn’t easy but they understood that it wasn’t on a whim. I really wanted to do this and this was something that I was passionate about and they both said if you have this chance and this opportunity we’re not going to stop you. And so even if it was difficult for them, and me as well, at the end of the day both of my parents and my family in general was very glad that I have had that opportunity.
Do you think that some of your family members and friends had initial misconceptions of Arab culture?
I think that some people did to be honest. It wasn’t about culture specifically but perhaps more of safety concerns and things like that and to be honest i don’t blame them because, um, (The media!) the media, yes. They have never learned about the region in school so it wasnt so much the stereotypes against Arabs themselves at least speaking in terms of my family, it was more of trying to understand where it was that i was going to, but by the end of it honestly, they felt like I was safer here in Jordan than I was in America.
How do you think coming to the Middle East shaped you as a person?
It allowed me to critically think and have a more open mind, and just try to really understand where people came from. Coming here is the first time my when my views have been really challenged, because in the US, livingamongst like minded people leads to your views mightnot being challenged as much. And so, it was the first time that things i thought i knew to be correct where challenged and that was refreshing! It really really allowed me to see the world in different light. and try to understand where people are coming from and how their unique experiences might shape their outlook. I think one of my friends in Jordan put it nicely ‘you can never hate someone if you know their story”, sort of to say, you can never just say someone is just good or bad, we are all made upof so many individual pieces that make us unique. In terms of personality, I think that because I was exposed to so many different people it just kind of created a larger cultural competency in the sense of just understanding how to navigate different cultural backgrounds and trying to be respectful of that but also just it allowed me to be more outgoing because I felt that I was able to reach a point where I could feel comfortable in a varietyof scenarios.
If you ever had any advice for someone that wants to go though exactly what you went through, what would it be?
I think the advice I would give is don’t cut yourself short, don’t doubt yourself, always take any opportunity even if you think you aren’t fully ready, that fear is just going to hold you back. Try new things, don’t let fear stop you from exploring, don’t stop questioning thingsthat you think are correct. Another this is. always try to find opportunities to leave your comfort zone. When you feel too comfortable, try to get out and learn and experience something that will challenge you because that’s how you are going to grow.
Last question: you are leaving Qatar soon…
Uhum, so sad..
..And you are about to embark into a new adventure in Jerusalem, how do you feel about that?
I feel excited because I’ve never been to Jerusalem before.
In Doha, I have a few friends who have come to study there, so I had more of an idea but I don’t really know anyone there, so it’s going to be a completely new experience so i’m excited and it will definitely push me out of my comfort zone!
You’re definitely practicing what you’re preaching!
Yep, exactly, I think that’s good because I’m testing my limits you know? I’m testing my comfort levels, this is definitely going to be a good experience.
Do you have any last thing to say to the readers?
Just really- as cliche as it may sound- don’t stop believing in your dreams and whatever goal you have. Honestly, people think that the younger you are the less likely you are to achieve something. If there is anything that i have learned is the younger you are, you actually have a lot more opportunities in the sense that you don’t feel limited, you are not constantly bogged down by responsibilities, you have room to create and to grow, and so i think that that’s where great dreams and ideas develop. So even if you are in middle school, in high school, it’s never too early to start. Just whatever you are passionate about, go towards that. Learn as much as possible, educating yourself about the world is the most important thing. That’s how you will grow.
Thank you Aviselle for your wonderful story!
If you want to hear more from the Aviselle’s amazing adventure, go ahead and follow her on Instagram @latina_en_arabia!
Thank you for reading!
Till’ next time!