From Arabic Student to Anthropologist: Fulbright Full Circle

By Gwyneth Talley, 2015-2016, Morocco

Gwyneth Talley, 2015-2016, Morocco (third from left), at the opening of a festival in Zagora, Morocco with Amal Ahmri and her tbourida troupe.

My Fulbright journey began with one distinct moment: My first Arabic class in 2009 where Tunisian Fulbrighter Beligh Ben Taleb, a Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA), taught me my Alif–Baa–Taas (or my Arabic ABCs) at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. It was Beligh’s first trip to the United States, first Ramadan in a non-Muslim country, and first American teaching experience. He would set a high bar for all the other Fulbright FLTAs to follow at the University.

I remember the class vividly, full of heritage speakers, curious students who wanted to work in government, and a few looking for a challenging language. Beligh took teaching Arabic in stride and encouraged us to participate in cultural activities by cooking traditional Arab meals, helping us translate songs, and dressing us up in Tunisian clothes. Aside from learning how to introduce ourselves, the most memorable phrase I remember Beligh teaching me was: “I ride horses.”

In the summer of 2010, I took my first trip to Morocco to study Arabic and French. I stayed with a horse training family, which would lead me to my graduate research in anthropology. While learning Modern Standard Arabic, my host family immersed me in Moroccan dialect and culture–specifically their horse culture. I also met the incoming Fulbright FLTA assigned to the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Othmane Zakaria. He was born and raised in the city of Meknes where I was staying for the summer. We shared tidbits about our cultures, and I warned him to buy his winter coat in the States because Nebraska winters were not like winters in Morocco.

Hassan El Garas (far left), Beligh Ben Taleb (left), Gwyneth Talley (center) and Othmane Zakaria (far right) meet in Rabat in 2012.

I returned to Morocco again in 2012 to continue my Arabic study, and the cycle continued. This time, Beligh was visiting Morocco and we met with Othmane and Hassan, another Moroccan Fulbright FLTA who taught Arabic at Missouri State University. Everyone talked about their futures: Beligh was continuing his graduate studies in Nebraska, Othmane and Hassan were both going to become English teachers. I felt like an imposter with my brief two to three month stints in Morocco. I dreamt of applying for my own Fulbright to go to Morocco for a year and conduct research.

Fast forward three years and three application attempts; in April 2015, I was notified that I had received a Fulbright award to conduct my graduate research in anthropology on women in Morocco’s traditional equestrian display. My experience learning Arabic and spending time in Morocco was coming full circle. My Moroccan Arabic phrases went from saying, “I ride horses,” to asking; “Do you ride horses?” “When is the next festival?” “How did you learn to ride?” I then used my Arabic while volunteering at the American Fondouk in Fes, an equine charity hospital, learning phrases like “Does your donkey have a cough?” “How long has your horse been limping?” I fumbled with some phrases and accents and pushed myself to exhaustion trying to understand the nuances of my research in Arabic, but that is what a Fulbright experience is: a challenge, a reward, and the people that lead you to and through these events.

Today, I am A.B.D. (that’s academic lingo for “all but dissertation”) in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California–Los Angeles. My Fulbright award jumpstarted my dissertation fieldwork, and this fall I am returning to Morocco to finish my fieldwork and write my dissertation. In between teaching at the university and studying, I love spending my time as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador spreading the “Fulbright gospel” to my students or anyone who will listen. My Fulbright experience also gave me an incredible network of friends internationally and throughout the United States. In fact, during my Alumni Ambassador training in Washington, DC, I had a mini-reunion with four people I lived and worked with in Morocco. At our training, I connected with dozens of incredible and inspiring Fulbrighters who are also Alumni Ambassadors. My network and friendships keep growing thanks to Fulbright. I left that training with future trips planned to Azerbaijan, South Africa, and Russia with my fellow Fulbrighters serving as my tour guides. Fulbright became the great uniter across the world for me, and I feel so lucky to be a part of it.

Have questions for Gwyneth about her Fulbright experiences in the Morocco and as a Fulbright Alumni Ambassador? You can reach her at [email protected].

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