Meet Middle East Studies Major: Maribelle Boutros

Maribelle BoutrosMaribelle Boutros has a knack for language. 

Learning Arabic and Spanish is central in her studies at UCSB. Boutros — a fourth-year Global Studies and Middle East Studies double major — is an Arabic tutor at CLAS, a translation studies minor, and plans to either teach English abroad or work as a translator.

“I love my language. I love hearing people speak it. I love people trying to communicate in someone else’s language. That’s why I learned Arabic, that’s why I learned Spanish. I want to learn as many languages as I can because I think you can connect to people on a different level when it is like their native language,” Boutros said. 

“I love to travel. So if I can be in different countries, learn a different language every couple of years, I’m taking that.”

A native of Lebanon, Boutros immigrated to the U.S. when she was five. She has spoken Lebanese colloquial Arabic her entire life, but didn’t know how to read or write  until coming to UCSB, where she has studied under Professor Magda Campo and Professor Dwight Reynolds.  

“I knew the language, but I can’t say I’m bilingual because I don’t know how to read it. Even listening to news, I couldn’t even understand it and I had to ask my family, ‘What are they saying? Someone translate this Arabic to a different Arabic for me,’ she explained. 

For Boutros, learning Arabic was not just about gaining a greater proficiency, but connecting herself to Lebanon. She has traveled back a handful of times, but in the United States, it is the language — and the community who speak it together — that connects her back to her home country. 

“I think we all kind of have similar stories of why we are in the United States,” Boutros said. “A lot of it was to seek refuge, whether it was from the war, the civil war really damaged our economy in Lebanon and the politicians are corrupt.”

“Everyone is just looking for better educational and job opportunities, just a better life for their families.”

Boutros has connected with her Lebanese roots at UCSB through the Lebanese Club, previously serving as the vice president. 

“It’s a great place to make new friends, people who share your culture and traditions and language. Even if you’re not Lebanese. We have people who aren’t and they just come and they join us, and get to learn about the culture,” Boutros said. 

A large part of that culture is the diaspora. Boutros said that Lebanon is one of the largest diasporas in the world, with more Lebanese people living outside Lebanon than in Lebanon. To Boutros, southern California has become a tight-knit community for her.

Boutros also connects to her culture through faith. She is a Lebanese Maronite Christian, but she says many people in the U.S. automatically assume she is Muslim because she is from the Middle East. 

“I’ve worked a lot of jobs and they either assume I’m Jewish or Muslim and they’re like, ‘Oh, you can’t have pork.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I eat pork, I love my bacon! I’m actually Christian, there are Christians in the Middle East. There’s Coptics in Egypt. There’s the Maronites in Lebanon. There’s the Chaldeans in Assyria.”

She said that even in her own family, there’s discrepancy over the intersection between their Christian and Middle Eastern identities, something she’s had to grapple with on her own terms. 

“I remember when I told my dad that we’re Arab, and he said ‘No, I don’t like that term.’ But I told him that technically we are, because the definition of an Arab is someone who is of a country from the Arab region and identifies with the culture. But he said that the reason we don’t call ourselves that is because the second we say that people assume that we’re Muslim, so we’re misidentified, misconstrued.”

For Boutros, studying Arabic was a way to connect with her own identity. As an Honors student in a comparative literature course, she translated the poem “The story of Lebanon” by George Khabbaz from Arabic to English.

“I remember the first time I was trying to translate it, I was listening to it on YouTube with my friend and I was just pausing and trying to translate to her. And at the same time I was like, ‘This is a horrible translation. You are not getting the power of this.’”

“In that poem, there’s so much symbolism in there that I didn’t even understand. So I had to ask my dad and then my dad would tell me more about the history of Lebanon, the culture of Lebanon, things that I didn’t even know until I had to ask,” Boutros said. 

Over her time at UCSB, Boutros’s Arabic and Middle East Studies have deepened her understanding of her own identity as a part of the Lebanese global diaspora. 

“Everyone has this hope of return, but not many do go back because it’s just difficult. I mean right now we have the refugee crisis, the trash crisis, the corruption that’s happening. It’s not stable. I love going there to visit my family and to just be there for vacation, but to actually live there, I don’t think I can fit in anymore.” 

“Back in high school, I would always tell people I’m 100% Lebanese, because both my parents are from there, and I’d be so proud of it. And I’d go to Lebanon and they would call me the American one. So in Lebanon I’m American, but in America I’m Lebanese. I kind of had this identity crisis, like who am I? Now I tell people I’m Lebanese American. I cannot say I’m one or the other, because I have the Lebanese culture in me, it’s who I am. But I have lived in California for almost 17 years, so that’s also who I am.”

By Katherine Swartz (CMES Media & News Intern)

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