Ramadan and taxi talk: Study abroad experience creates culture champion

Kerby Gilstrap, 20, is an Arabic major from Bowling Green. Gilstrap spent two months studying Arabic in Morocco.

Eleanor Tolbert

When Kerby Gilstrap came to WKU, she knew it would lead her to new and exciting places. What she didn’t know was one of those places would be Morocco.

Gilstrap, a Bowling Green sophomore, is a double major in international affairs and Arabic who studied abroad for two months last summer in Rabat, Morocco. This was her first time leaving the United States, and although she felt prepared, she couldn’t expect everything that would happen.

“The first day was difficult,” Gilstrap said. “My very first flight was delayed, which pushed everything back seven hours. I was stressed and hadn’t slept, but I was so relieved when I met my host mom.”

Gilstrap said she expected to feel stranger than she did in a new country. There were times when she felt like an outsider, but mostly she felt comfortable with her host family. She said she believes this is because of the emphasis Moroccans put on open and intentional relationships.

“I expected to feel more lost and unable to ask difficult questions,” Gilstrap said. “One thing about Moroccans in particular is their willingness to share their culture with anyone.”

Trying to understand the traditions within Islamic culture was very important to Gilstrap. She said she always tried to have in-depth conversations with her host siblings and ask questions about prayer and hijabs, a veil worn traditionally by women who practice Islam. She practiced her Arabic during taxi rides, which she took every day on her way to school.

Though her relationship with her host family was at first a little troublesome due to difficulties she experienced in expressing her needs with strangers, things started changing when she got closer to her host sister, Ansam. Gilstrap said Ansam often spent time with her and made sure she was comfortable at home and within Moroccan culture.

Her host mom, Zohor, could speak four languages, but English wasn’t one of them. This made communicating with her difficult but interesting, Gilstrap said. By using body language and the Arabic she was learning, Gilstrap found a way to talk with Zohor. Despite the barrier, her host mom was still her go-to person.

“One big lesson I learned was that you don’t have to be a master at a language to connect with someone,” Gilstrap said.

One of her favorite memories from the trip was getting to witness and even participate in the Muslim holiday Ramadan, which consists of fasting from sunrise to sunset. Once the sun sets, it’s traditional for families to celebrate with a big feast.

At first, Gilstrap just watched as her host family celebrated, but she eventually decided to join. She recalled her first day fasting, which she decided to not discuss with any of her host family until nighttime. She said everyone was so pleased and proud to find out she participated that they let her take the first bite of that night’s meal.

“I’m not particularly religious, but being surrounded by people who are intensely spiritual enhanced my spirituality in a way,” Gilstrap said. “I admire the founding principles of Islam like being kind and showing generosity to everyone you meet.”

Lhousseine Guerwane, an Arabic instructor who has taught Gilstrap, said he has seen how her experience abroad has increased not only her language proficiency but also her passion. He said she never stops asking questions and comes to his office frequently to practice Arabic and talk about her experience in Morocco, which is Guerwane’s home country.

“She doesn’t study to get an A,” Guerwane said. “She studies for her own benefit.”

Coming back from Morocco, Gilstrap tested out of Arabic 201 and 202 courses and became the president of the Arabic club. Guerwane said she has become much more confident in her language abilities since returning.

Gilstrap said she wants to do everything she can to be a champion for Morocco and the Middle East now that she is back in the U.S. She wants to combat stereotypes and spread awareness about the kindness and openness of Moroccan culture, as she said studying abroad gifted her a newfound love of seeing places and meeting people who are different from her.

“I am hoping to study abroad again this summer, but I haven’t decided where yet,” Gilstrap said. “Regardless, I will definitely make a trip to Morocco, because that place means the world to me.”

Features reporter Eleanor Tolbert can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on social media at @ellietolbert.