Jordanian Majali is
fulfilling his dreams

 

(The following article by Sidney Cruze appears in the Winter 2005 edition of the Magazine of Elon.)

Laith Majali left his native Amman, Jordan, and arrived at Elon University in August 2001, eager to meet new people and pursue his dream of a career in the film industry. Two weeks later, Majali and his classmates watched in horror as terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In the hours after the attacks, when shaken students gathered to discuss what had happened, Majali spoke up. "He said he got his perception of the U.S. from the media, the same place we got our perception of the Middle East," recalls Rex Waters, assistant dean of students. "He told us we needed to look deeper, to get to know one another. All this from a freshman!"

Majali recalls riding a roller coaster of emotions that day. "I was sad for the loss and nervous because I didn't know what lay ahead of me," he says. "At the same time, I felt a sense of commitment and responsibility to let people know more about my religion and culture." For Majali, Sept. 11, 2001, was the day he stepped into the role he continues to play at Elon today - ambassador for the Arab world.

It is a role he takes seriously. "When people see Arab terrorists, if they know me, I hope they'll think, 'I know all Arabs are not like this because I know Laith,'" says Majali, who is one of 67 international students at Elon this academic year. "Some of my Jordanian friends who are also studying in the states were scared, but I never was. The Elon community embraced me completely. I was surprised and glad."

'I feel blessed'
With his olive complexion, bushy eyebrows and stocky build, Majali stands out in a crowd of Elon students. But it is his respect for cultural differences, his enthusiasm for learning and his love of film that will leave a lasting impression on the university when he graduates May 21 as Elon's first King Hussein Scholar. The scholarship, which brings Jordanian citizens to study at Elon, was established in 2000 after a visit by Her Majesty Queen Noor, the wife of the late King Hussein of Jordan.

A communications major with a passion for broadcasting, Majali has spent three and a half years impressing faculty, staff and students with his creative videos and entertaining them with his sense of humor. He came to Elon with two goals: to learn how to create and direct films and to distinguish himself. He wasted no time accomplishing both goals.

In 2002, one year after arriving at Elon, his four-minute video, "The Jordan Experience," received three awards, including a Telly Award, for outstanding quality in production. His video, which was judged by industry professionals from across the country, combined colorful scenes of Jordan's rural and urban life with images that showcase the country's natural and architectural treasures, set to the lyrical music of Jordanian composer Tarek Al-Nasser.

The award confirmed what Elon faculty and staff knew already, that Majali is an exceptional film editor. "I've never seen someone with Laith's creativity who also has such a mastery of technical skills," says Linda Lashendock, coordinator of Elon's television services, who spent 20 years as a news producer at CNN.

Majali learns best by doing and has thrived with Elon's emphasis on experiential education. "I came to America hoping to experience as much as possible," he says. "Elon has given me so many opportunities - internships, travel and friends everywhere. I feel blessed."

Learning on the road
Majali spent his summers off from university courses traveling and he considers the summer of 2004 to be the most exciting of his Elon career. He did a month-long internship at Intralink Film and Graphic Design in Los Angeles, where he created graphics, researched ad concepts and edited movie previews.

He also returned to Jordan to film the 24th annual Arab Children's Congress, a cultural exchange program founded by Queen Noor in 1980 for children from Arab and European countries. Last summer, she invited Majali to create a documentary as part of the 25th anniversary of the event, which he decided to make the subject of his senior seminar project.

During filming, he landed exclusive interviews with Queen Noor and actress Angelina Jolie, who attended the conference as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations. He concedes he was a bit starstruck by Jolie. "She's even more beautiful in person, and she was very supportive of the kids," Majali recalls. "To see that from her was impressive."

On campus, Majali is video crew coordinator for Elon Student TV, or ESTV. He has supervised more than 300 video crews since he arrived on campus and works on all major Elon video productions.

Last fall, he helped fellow students produce a documentary on AIDS in Namibia as part of Elon's Project Pericles civic engagement program. His next project is to film a documentary on the late Isabella Cannon '24, former mayor of Raleigh, N.C., and one of Elon's most generous donors. Elon's Leadership Fellows program, international education center and international studies pavilion are named in her honor. Majali is a Leadership Fellow and has taken full advantage of the program to hone his skills.

"Laith likes to explore the way video fits together, and he's eager to share what he's learned with other students," says Ray Johnson, assistant professor of communications. "He's good at making video look like film, which is a sophisticated technique. By doing this he's been able to change and improve the look of Elon TV."

Jay McMerty, senior video producer, marvels at Majali's ability to create high-quality videos while excelling academically and serving as a student leader. Majali can often be found late at night in the editing studio, perfecting his craft. McMerty, who teaches video editing workshops, finds Majali's enthusiasm motivating. "He shows me what students can do when they're excited about their projects, and he inspires me to find new ways to get them excited," he says.

Majali's influence extends well beyond the classroom. He belongs to several campus organizations, including the club soccer team and the Intercultural Relations Club, and participates in Elon's Model United Nations program. He keeps his friends amused with his uncanny impressions of Jordan's late King Hussein and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Majali perfected these impressions while performing with a professional theater group in Jordan. "He's hilarious," says senior Brittany Brackett, a friend from Charlotte, N.C. "He can bring a smile to anyone's face. He walks in a room and you notice his confidence."

Brackett and other students also appreciate the unique cultural perspective Majali brings to campus. Like Majali, Brackett is a Leadership Fellow and the two have challenged each other to learn from their differences. "We don't tell each other what we should believe," she says. "We're always asking questions, saying 'I'm fascinated, tell me more!'"

Senior Zachary Lauritzen says Majali's perspective is invaluable at Elon. "It's especially important that he's from the Middle East because it's an area of the world we hear so many bad things about," he says. "Laith is just a regular guy who likes to laugh and play soccer like the rest of us."

Succeeding on his own
Majali likes the diversity America offers, but he misses his parents and two younger sisters back in Amman. His father, Mansour Majali, is a businessman and his mother, May, works in one of four family-owned bookstores. Still, he knows that being away from them has helped him mature.

"Here I've had to depend on myself," says Majali. "It has given me a sense of what it means to work hard to get somewhere."

The Majali family is well known in the Middle East. When former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak visited Elon two years ago, Majali introduced himself during a question-and-answer session. Realizing he knew Majali's uncles, Barak smiled and told the crowded auditorium, "It's a great thing to have a Majali here at Elon."

Majali lives by the motto "who dares, wins." After graduation, he plans to go to Hollywood to test his skills in movies. He's interested in film editing, film advertising and making movies, especially comedies. Whichever path he chooses, he wants to establish a name for himself before returning to Jordan to share his expertise.

He plans to work with Jordan's fledgling Royal Film Commission, which comes as no surprise to his professors. "The Jordanian film industry is primitive, but Laith has a vision," says Johnson. "I can see him going home, sharing what he's learned and heading up a production company. I'll enjoy watching him achieve his next success."

 

 

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