J-Term Students Share Lessons from Nepal, Florence, to Zanzibar

Dominique Lear, NYUAD Class of 2017, shares her J-Term experience in Nepal.

With the spring 2014 semester in full swing, memories of studies just completed are fading fast. But before we close the book on J-Term 2014, three more NYU Abu Dhabi students share their experiences from this immersive educational month. From studying insurgencies in Nepal, exploring the rich history of Florence, to understanding heritage in Zanzibar, we take one more journey back to January with the students who were there. 

Conversations with Insurgencies in Nepal 

Guest Post: Dominique Lear, NYUAD Class of 2017

After a relaxing holiday back home in Mexico, I was looking forward to my very first January Term course at NYU Abu Dhabi. While most of my classmates were embarking on adventures in cosmopolitan capitals from Shanghai to New York for their three-week-long course, I was headed to Nepal with Understanding Insurgency and Counterinsurgency.

In truth, I wasn't entirely sure what the course entailed other than the brief sojourn to the Himalyas. On the first day of class, I sat at the back of the classroom next to the only other freshman in the course, hiding from the unfamiliar presence of the upperclassmen, and Associate Professor of Politics Michael Gilligan.

It was then that I found out that this course would give us the rare opportunity to interview key personnel from Nepal’s Civil War.

I spent a week with my nose dug deep into books about insurgent movements, counterinsurgency strategies, and the history of Nepal, specifically about the civil war. I learned a lot about Mao's Theory of Protracted War, which is an insurgency tactic used primarily in countries where a formal resistance movement would be difficult, and also how the insurgency leaders in Nepal applied it in the first six years of the 21st-Century. In class, we spent days brainstorming questions for our upcoming meetings in Nepal. Gradually full of knowledge and questions, we set off for Kathmandu.

During our five days in Nepal, we traversed the streets of Kathmandu, meeting ex-Prime Ministers, ex-insurgency leaders, army officials, party leaders, journalists and civilians who all participated in the conflict. We were rewarded with fascinating answers to the questions we had prepared, which was a relief because we were afraid of the resistance that political agendas would pose to our quest for knowledge.

We asked ex-Prime Minister and head of the insurgent movement, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, why there was a shift in their political stance into a more conservative agenda once the insurgents came into power. The Maoist leader, known as Prachanda (which means the fierce one), described the need for flexible insurgent goals in a country like Nepal in a time of continuous change as hard lined ideological pursuits would only result in failure.

It was eye opening to hear accounts from internally displaced people on what it was like to be a civilian during the conflict and how they were affected personally. We saw photo galleries depicting the war by founder and editor of Nepali Times Kunda Dixit, who talked to us about the role of the media during the war. Ex-military commanders guided us through what it was like to be in a guerrilla attack using army barracks on the mountains as a visual aid, and our books came alive as we saw how recruitment strategies or plans of attack were carried out in reality. Most importantly, we saw reconciliation, as men who had fought on opposite sides during the civil war sat with us for lunch to tell their stories.

It was an incredible learning experience for everybody in the class and we returned to Abu Dhabi hopeful for the future of Nepal and ever more inspired to make a difference. Now, seeing the halls of Sama filled with the life of a new semester, I secretly wished everyone would go back to their J-Term adventures, so I that can go back to mine.

Aysha Kamali, NYUAD Class of 2017, shares her J-Term experience in Florence.

Understanding Art in Florence

Guest Post: Aysha Kamali, NYUAD Class of 2017

People say that the best way to learn and appreciate a language is immersion. I think the same applies to understanding and appreciating great art.

To have a deeper understanding of how Botticelli painted the Birth of Venus, or Michelangelo sculpted David, there is no better way of appreciating these works than actually visiting Italy's former capital, Florence.

As part of NYU Abu Dhabi's J-Term course The Quill and The Chisel, I traveled to Florence with classmates to examine art and language, and explore the differences and similarities between the two.

Ecstatic to immerse ourselves in the rich art world that thrived throughout this city in the time of the Medici family, we focused on Michelangelo's life and work to investigate and attempt to unravel the bigger picture of why humans need art to survive, and the ineffable emotions art can ignite without speech.

Each day was spent in awe and wonder as we wandered through cobblestone alleys and piazzas admiring grand churches, cathedrals and the majestic Duomo. The climb to the top of the dome took 463 uneven steps and it was covered with Christian frescoes of historic figures. The vantage point was breathtaking; you could see how each road cut through the buildings, almost vein-like, flowing into the center, which is the cathedral itself.

The more museums we toured, the more we understood about the daily lives of the people during that time, whether they were traders, artists or part of the noble elite. It was as if we were given our own private viewing of what it was like to live centuries ago. The more art pieces we saw up close, the more stories of love, beauty, pain and death of Florentines we unfolded.

From the remains of the plague's bitter tombs to the cracked and worn fresco paintings, we caught glimpses of despair that people of Florence faced every day. It was a world where the simplest cold could kill, and where superstition was deemed logical. Michelangelo's sculptures are famous around the world, and have been documented in books, films and television. But seeing them in real life was unbelievable; the chiseled details in his exquisite sculptures were hauntingly magnificent. It was hard to comprehend that these works were created over 500 years ago by a man who did not possess electricity nor the internet, but just his hands, a few tools and an artistic mind.

Then the day finally arrived when we could to see David at the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze. It is the one piece we were all anxiously awaiting. From his furrowed brows to his perfectly shaped nose, the intricate details on his face and body made the marble sculpture appear life-like.

We visited an art workshop where we met a marbling artist to create art ourselves. Paper marbling is a style of painting that creates unique patterns that appear like smooth marble. The technique involved first painting on water, then placing paper over it to allow the paint to stick. The artist we met was a master of the marbling technique. Although he did not speak a word of English, he clearly demonstrated the evolution of his art and taught us to create the marbling art ourselves.

Besides making art, we eagerly made what could arguably be the most loved of Italian food — pizza — with one of the Florence Culinary Institute's head chef. With the freshest of local ingredients and vegetables, it was by far one of the best pizzas I have ever had.

By the end of our trip, we had not only learned about Michelangelo and the meaning of art, but also what art means to the people of Florence and how it can transform a space just by its presence. It is nice to know that the appreciation of art continues to grow as millions of visitors marvel at the accomplishments of these great artists like we did.

Cyril Cherian, NYUAD Class of 2015 shares his J-Term experience in Zanzibar.

Sharing Heritage in Zanzibar

Guest Post: Cyril Cherian, NYUAD Class of 2015

As an economics and finance student, the decision to choose the J-Term course Sharing Heritage on Arab Trade Routes was one of endless personal debate. Yet, as an undergraduate student at NYU Abu Dhabi, I believe we need to go in depth into particular disciplines as well as widen the breadth of our knowledge over these four years. While exploring a culture so different from my own made me a little uncomfortable, I heeded a common saying in Zanzibar: "hakuna matata!"

As East Africa's strategic trading location that brought together cultures from Arabia, Africa and India, Zanzibar has played an important role in global history. The heritage of this island deserves preservation, for it allows us to comprehend the present and the future, by exploring the past.

For a week in January we conducted field work research in Zanzibar to give us insights into the significance of heritage in our lives, and the creation of identity. The class was divided into four different groups to explore different aspects of heritage. My classmates and I focused on the House of Wonders, an icon of Zanzibar.

The House of Wonders is a museum that narrates the story of Zanzibar. It was first built as a memorial palace in 1883 by the Sultan of Zanzibar and named House of Wonders because it was the first building in East Africa to have electricity and an elevator. Designed by a Scottish engineer, the House of Wonders encompasses architecture from different cultures. While the interior of the building was based on Islamic architecture, the verandas are Indian influenced, with the pillars similar to those in Greek civilization. The building preaches the idea of cosmopolitanism with its clear portrayal of different cultures and traditions. While taking the tour through the museum, my classmates and I felt transported to the very beginning of its history. This thus inspired our documentary work to be narrated from the building's perspective.

Besides learning about Zanzibar's heritage, we also mingled with a community we would otherwise have no knowledge of. The rare and treasured experience to interact with the locals in Zanzibar also forced us to individually reflect on how we perceive our own heritage. The importance of heritage in Zanzibar varies between different age groups. In the case of House of Wonders, the older generation considered the building to be a vital part of their community. It was a place where they gathered around to listen to the radio, and hear the news. However, the current generation barely knew about the relevance of this building. Hence the chance to work with local students on our project also became an opportunity for them to learn about the importance of preserving their heritage. We had such a strong bond with these local students that we felt our final presentation in Abu Dhabi was lacking something unquantifiable —
 their presence.

Zanzibar has been an enlightening trip where each one of us has different stories to share. The privileges of being an NYUAD student continues to enthral me, and I know I am just getting started.