5 AM Conversations: Religious and Cultural Contexts

It’s five in the morning. The six of us have been crammed in a conference room for the past 20 hours studying for finals. All it took was one question, ...

It’s five in the morning. The six of us have been crammed in a conference room for the past 20 hours studying for finals. All it took was one question, and that was it — the apocalypse. Water bottles flew in the air, white boards were pulled out, emails were sent to professors while maps, numbers and historical facts underwent a comprehensive analysis.
Nearly a semester later, we still have not reached an agreement on the events of the Serbian-Bosnian conflict. These conversations have been a recurring event in our social circle at NYU Abu Dhabi, pushing us to trace where our opinions came from and how our values affect such positions. In this process of retrospection, each of us have decided to explore our values, what they are based on, how they have changed at NYUAD and the implications of these changes when we return to our countries.

On Indeterminate Origins: Daniah

I grew up being identified as a Christian Arab in a predominantly Muslim country, where Christians played a big role in its socio-economic and cultural makeup. I found it hard to pin down the set of values I was suppose to have and practice. I never found my self in the religions I was suppose to adhere to; nevertheless, both religions played a significant role in my upbringing. My morals were not religiously constructed per se, but Islam and Christianity were part of my culture, and therefore automatically part of my values.
When people at NYUAD asked about my views, I could not explain why I was following certain practices or what those meant. Culture is such a fluid concept; you cannot pinpoint its base structure. I could not refer to any specific book to answer my questions; I had to refer to societal and cultural norms that have been agreed upon by people back in my country, and that are very ambiguous and versatile as a result.
In Jordan, society frowns upon interfaith marriages, but ironically, the reasons for this today are not due strictly to differences in religion. Nevertheless, I would not be expected to follow such a convention outside of Jordan. Culture, familial structures and laws are what determines the acceptance of certain practices that would be viewed differently in other contexts. The ambiguity in the origins of my values has made me more determined to challenge them, even if that meant falsifying much of what defined me.
If my values are derived from something so indeterminate, how can they be as fixed as they are supposed to be? In this process of questioning, experiences and conversations with my friend group here have led to a general frustration and confusion about my identity. If I am in a different context than my own culture, do my values change? Are values interlinked with geography? Am I a different person in Jordan than I am abroad?
More importantly, should I be a different person?

On Self-Acceptance: Anastasija

I cannot say that coming to NYUAD and being away from home has changed me or that it launched me into an epiphany. At university, I am as much myself as I am back home. I did not come here with the intention of reinventing myself or starting over, and I find this notion to be completely normal.
One of the greatest advantages this place has is its standards for propriety or acceptable behavior, which are much looser and more accepting of different cultural customs, values and norms. While this is truly an amazing asset, it has changed the way I see this environment as well as the people I grew up with.
Growing up, I did not have a strong idea of propriety – not because I was not doing the right things, but because I never received a strict definition of the norm. My parents never imposed any beliefs or religion on my sister and me, nor did they link morality to religion. We were simply left to try different things, including religion — or a lack thereof — and schools of thought. We decided for ourselves whom and what we were compatible with.
Having a chance to reflect now, I consider myself lucky to have grown up in an environment where my independence was not only allowed, but also very much encouraged. In an environment as diverse and open-minded as NYUAD, I finally have the time to reflect on the self I have created through past experiences. The diversity at NYUAD helped me appreciate the person that I set out to be and the person that I am. Being away from home and my usual surroundings highlighted the values and principles I came here with instead of changing them. A community as accepting and as welcoming as the one I found here has helped me build upon the person I was when I first entered NYUAD, and has taught me how to be comfortable with whatever I choose.

On Returning: Hadeel

In the environment where I grew up, everyone is given one set of values and beliefs from the moment they are born. However, I did not want to limit myself to a single view. I wanted to open my eyes and see things through different perspectives.
It was one simple question — “What is your take on religion?" — that drove me to explore what I believe and the rules I have followed all of my life. I have realized that there are many aspects of my home culture that I cannot fully grasp or be convinced of.
The real issues for me arise when I go back home. The more liberal notions that I have developed before and during my time at NYUAD are locked away in the back of my mind as soon as I set foot back home. In my country, people are not interested in changing their principles. Thus, I find myself reverting back to that mindset, and judging those who try to be different simply because those around me judge them as well. I am unable to express myself except in the way I am obligated to. I find myself lost in my own home, unable to be the person I want to be and becoming the kind of person I despise.
Yet the change is almost automatic. I alter my behavior in order to fit in, leaving a raging conflict within myself that remains unsolved. I find myself unable to apply my beliefs back home. It is the fear of being shunned from society that plagues me and forces me to conform. The unfortunate outcome is that the farther I go from home, the more I feel that I can be the person I want to be.
It may be more difficult to come to terms with myself, but this is the life I am comfortable with. Conforming to the cultural norms of the society around me allows me to challenge and question myself time and again, and express my personality and beliefs in front of others in a different way than I am used to. I came to terms with the fact that my values are intertwined with my location, and I consider that conflict part of being human.

Being a part of humanity means having the freedom to adapt and reshape your lifestyle in your own way. It means experiencing life, learning, communicating and influencing those in your own community. So have these conversations, let yourself change and be changed. Challenge your notions or reaffirm them, question your own beliefs and let yourself see the world with the eyes of the people around you. Have ordinary and extraordinary experiences. In the end, it is all about living the life you want, and building yourself up into the person you want to be within your own perceptions of religion, culture or anything else important to you.
Anastasija Stojchevska, Daniah Kheetan and Hadeel Marzouq are contributing writers. Email them at 
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