Q+A with Michelle Zayed, Intellectual World Traveler + Cultural Analyst

We were introduced to Michelle a few months back by one of our former muses, Kristel Harlacher, and were immediately enamored with her story. This girl always figures out a way to not only have fun, but to step outside of her comfort zone, immerse herself in the unfamiliar, and consciously learn about both her surroundings and herself. It is this self-awareness and lust for adventure that led Michelle to quit her job and move to Jordan, with the goal of learning Arabic and figuring out what she wanted from her life, in both the present and future.

Inspired by the adventures of her older sister, Michelle’s younger sister Stephanie has also adopted this jet-setting, risk-taking style of living, and together they document their travels and observations on their blog, Journal and Wander.

As former Muse Kristel puts it, “It’s so hard to describe Michelle but it is easy to be constantly amazed by who she is and what she does. Don’t let her petite size fool you; she is full of charisma, loves an adventure, stands by her convictions, and truly encompasses what it means to be an exceptional friend and young woman. And just when you think you might have her figured out, she makes you laugh hysterically by referring to her book of American idioms!”

Without further ado, let’s get into it. Everyone, meet Michelle Zayed!

The Basics

  • Age: 25
  • Location: Bogotá, Colombia
  • Education: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Field of Interest: This is the hardest to answer because I love everything, but I’d say I’m most interested in culture, human rights, and communications.
  • What’s Your Favorite Thing About Yourself? This may sound conceited, but I really love my sense of humor.

Questions + Answers

Last year, you spent a year living in the Middle East photographing and documenting your experiences there on your blog, Journal and Wander. Naturally, you confronted some very serious issues during your time there. We particularly liked your post about the resistance graffiti separating the Israeli and Palestinian border. Did you find the culture and society in the Middle East to be as restrictive, serious, and cold as it is generally portrayed in the American media?

It has actually been a little over a year since I got back from the Middle East. In that time, I’ve been able to reflect on my trip there, what my impressions are after being away from it all, what I learned, what I liked and what I didn’t like.

Like you said, I encountered many difficult things, especially traveling through Palestine and Israel, where I saw that not even a third of what really happens is portrayed in the media. It was particularly difficult for me since both my grandfathers had to leave their land after the creation of the state of Israel as refugees.

During my stay there, I learned that every Middle Eastern country is completely unique and each one has its own level of restrictions. For example, Beirut is completely cosmopolitan and absolutely obsessed with fashion and beauty.

Then there are places like Jordan where I’d say about 80% of women wear the hijab mostly by choice or else to follow the standards by which society is holding them accountable. Nonetheless, absolutely everyone is expected to get a professional degree. I found that it is something that families strive for and that they really encourage their children to get an education, even if the standard of education is not the best.

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One of the things that really shocked me in a good way and that I had not seen in any other place I’d traveled to is a strong sense of family and solidarity. It upsets me to see that in general, Arab countries have such indifferent foreign policies towards other Arab countries. For example, most of them do not take in refugees from these places and even if they do they often mistreat them.

This angers me so much because on a smaller level, you see families helping each other all the time. I often saw people pooling food in their neighborhood to help a family in need. A big amount of the population constantly donates to their churches and mosques in the form of food, clothes and money. And in general you do not see extreme poverty like you do in places such as Colombia and I believe a big part of that is that they all help each other. Plus, even as a visitor, they’ll stuff you with food at any house that you visit.

As far as what I did for fun during my days there, I went on a lot of college-led excursions, I went to bars and clubs and to house parties. There are also a lot of races and bike rides organized in Amman in which I also participated.

In conclusion, yes the Middle East is more restrictive that the USA, but it is not unliveable. If you go with an open mind and a willingness to accept that some things are just part of the religion and the culture, then you can have an absolutely great time and learn a lot.

You and your sister are a traveling dynamic duo! What do your parents think about your traveling experiences?

Although we’ve both traveled extensively on our own, we have actually never traveled together just the two of us, which is a promise we have yet to fulfill!

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As far as what our parents think about the places we’ve gone to… they have one rule: if you’re going to do something dangerous tell us about it after you’ve done it. But in general I think they trust us to make smart decisions and to always take extra precautions when we’re traveling.

Most importantly though, they encourage us to travel always even when it is to seemingly random places like Jordan or Kenya. I think they believe we will learn while touring around and they always know we wouldn’t go if we weren’t completely dead-set on it.

When you’re traveling, what kind of music do you like to listen to? What kind of books do you like to read?

When I travel I usually listen to country music; I am a sucker for the stories that the songs tell. Even when I am in places like Barcelona I still think it is the perfect travel music genre. I also like to find songs that are famous in the places I am visiting, so in Jordan I had some Arabic songs that I really liked even though I didn’t understand a thing. As for books, I really like novels, usually ones that involve other cultures like The Kite Runner.

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When you arrive in a new city, what is the first thing that you do?

I don’t really have a set routine, it totally depends on the trip! I love reading up on the places I am going to, so if I am in control of my itinerary I usually make a plan of all the things I want to do and all the places I want to visit, which always includes trying the local cuisines, that is an absolute must. So I’d say the first thing I usually do after settling in at the hotel is probably just jumping right into it and walking around to start checking things off on my list!

However, if I stay at a hostel I’ll probably go to the meet-up activities they offer first, because I love meeting new people and then sharing my plan with them and doing touristy things together. This is usually my plan when I travel alone.

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How did you create a social life for yourself in Jordan? What kind of things did you do for fun?

Although as I mentioned earlier that the Middle East does have more restrictions, there was definitely not a shortage of fun during my time there. I went on a lot of college-led excursions and like any young person, I went to bars and clubs and to house parties. I specifically remember this extravagant house party I went to with a friend right on the Bay when I visited Beirut. We were the only people at the party who were not Lebanese, and it was amazing! There were also a lot of races and bike rides organized in Amman in which I also participated.

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When you initially embarked on your journey to the Middle East, what was your ultimate goal for the trip? Did it live up to your expectations?

When I decided to take this trip, now that I look back on it I think I had both an objective and an excuse. My excuse was that I wanted to learn Arabic, because coming from an Arab family I thought it was a shame that I only knew the bad words.

But now that the trip is over, I think I went to Jordan because I needed to find myself. During my senior year and the year after graduating I was absolutely lost and it was something that was starting to take a toll on me to the point that I was beginning to get anxiety attacks when I thought about my future. I knew journalism was something I didn’t like and never wanted to do professionally ever, ever, ever! Yet I couldn’t see anything else I could do. I came out of a break up that was crushing and I felt like nothing was going according to plan. I can be a bit neurotic and my plans included me being nothing short of famous and a Nobel Prize winner with the perfect family, ha!

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So, when the opportunity to go to Jordan arose, I almost didn’t take it. Mainly because it didn’t fit into the plan, it felt like me jumping around again and just not the “conventional” thing to do. After a lot of crying, sleepless nights and fights because I was being unbearable, I decided to just go. And it is the single best decision I have made in my life so far.

Yes, it exceeded all of my expectations. It gave me the time to think, to explore, to define who I really am and to start doing things I actually liked. A friend told me that you tend to discover yourself when everything around you is different, and being in a place like the Middle East where you are the exception to the norm, you really begin to see what makes you you.

My trip to Jordan made me be my own muse, made me appreciate my qualities, my defects and directed me into who I really wanted to be. Yes, I may not be the next president or a Nobel Prize winner but I am happy with what I am doing now, with who I am and I know that wherever I go next, it’ll be because I wanted to.

As far as my Arabic goes, I am still working on it and not getting very far! Haha.

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Who Inspires You?

My sister. Her name is Stephanie Zayed and is a senior at UNC. She is just an amazing human, filled with compassion, tenacity and a strong temper, which I think makes her even more awesome. She is also a world traveller, but I think one of the activities she does that inspire me the most is she helps immigrants learn English in Carrboro, NC through an organization called LINK, in which she acts as Co-President.

My roommate in Jordan is also incredibly inspiring. Her name is Odette Yidi and she is the most passionate person I know.

Also Chelsey Dulaney, who is a WSJ reporter. She is incredibly disciplined, such a hard worker, super intelligent and just an all-around amazing person.

+ Know any other amazing people who are pushing their boundaries and exploring new cultures? Inspired by Michelle? Share your responses below!
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