Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Catching Up With My Posts

I just had the most amazing New Year's Eve! Tomorrow I'll try and post on the rest of December 30th and on the 31st. I'll also probably make a separate post on tonight. Tomorrow night we leave for Jeddah! Stay tuned everyone.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Challenging Stereotypes About Saudi Women: A Visit to the King Saud University Female Campus

Unfortunately the visit to the Prince Talal Charity Foundation was removed from our itinerary yesterday but we were still able to visit King Saud University and the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center.

At 8:30 in the morning we left our hotel for King Saud University, the largest and oldest university in Saudi Arabia. The girls were dropped off at the all-female campus that was just built 4 months ago while the boys visited the main male campus. When we entered the main lobby we were immediately greeted by five or six students from a group called the Student Partnership Program (SPP). All of them were not wearing hijabs and abayas because it was an all-female campus and therefore unnecessary. About half way through the visit they laughed at us for keeping our hijabs on and encouraged us to take them off. They did really appreciate us respecting their culture, though. All of them were incredibly friendly and welcoming but I was taken aback at first because I didn't know the traditional Saudi greeting, two kisses on the cheek. I'm still not sure exactly what is the appropriate greeting because everyone we met did something slightly different. Hopefully by the end of our ten day trip I'll know what to do in each situation!

The main entrance of the campus.

Some general impressions of the look of the campus:
-All of the buildings are incredibly new looking and have very high ceilings and large entrance halls. 
-A lot of the campus actually seemed empty and unused as not everyone had moved in yet from the old female campuses (the SPP girls said it was their first semester using the new facilities).
-All of the offices and rooms we walked into were lavishly decorated and incredibly nice. 

Straight ahead leads to the main Campus Library. On the sides of this giant hallway
there are a grocery store, the student center, a campus cafeteria, coffee place, bookstore etc. 
The SPP students took us to a reception meeting with the Dean of Female Student Affairs and the PR Manager along with some other administrative members. They were very keen to make a good impression, constantly saying that they hoped that our visit would clear up some of the misconceptions about Saudi women. Everyone also said that they were very open to any questions we may have about the University or about Saudi society in general. After the meeting we visited the Vice Rectorate for Scientific Research and representatives who dealt with encouraging innovation and research, and with nanotechnology. Then we were taken to the new Auditorium and the Central Library of the campus. Finally we were jumped from room to room of student clubs including the translator's club, french club, reading club, photography club, and something that seemed like the Saudi historical appreciation club. At each room we were given Arabic coffee, a gift bag, and some candies or small pieces of food. Everyone was very friendly and enthusiastic to meet us and it was unfortunate that we only had time to spend a few minutes in each room.  The last thing we did was have a dialogue session with the SPP. Everyone was so sad to leave each other after such a sort visit with some amazing discussions (descriptions below) but I hope that we can keep in touch with who we've met in the future and foster some more exchanges!

The most interesting part of the visit were the conversations we had about American misconceptions of Saudi women against how Saudi women actually see themselves. There was definitely a theme of sentiment for evolution not revolution and reform not revolt when it came to women's rights. They also mentioned multiple times that the problems in Saudi Arabia for women or otherwise are world problems that are not just present in their country but everywhere. Everyone said that they wanted to see progress for women but that "change that comes fast, fades fast". A lot of people said that it was Saudi women's duty to participate in society and help advance the country in partnership with men. Most said that Saudi women have made strides in improving their situations and that more and more of them are taking on and succeeding in leadership roles (like the SCC). One girl  was careful to say that she didn't want to brag, but pointed out that the statistics say women are beating men in tertiary education enrollment and are out-acheiving them in academics as well.

All of the girls were very supportive of King Abdullah and optimistic for the monarchy's treatment of women in the future. One young student said that "there is a higher power working for us, King Abdullah". They made it very clear that driving, despite the American media's fixation, is not the thing that they are most concerned with. Despite the media's focus on abayas and driving, the rules in Saudi are more flexible for women than we may think. However, they have more pressing needs and concerns like fully integrating into the work force and taking on more leadership positions.

Me with a member of the SPP who is a fellow economics major. 
Even knowing about the inaccurate representations of Saudi women in the media, I was incredibly impressed and somewhat surprised to see how confident, intelligent, outgoing, and talkative the students we met actually were. At one point someone mentioned the American conception that Muslim women need saving, and one girl joked to the president of the SCC that people needed saving from her talkativeness.  It would be interesting to see if the girls acted the same way in front of their family members, but everyone I met challenged all of the American stereotypes about Muslim and Arab women.

Of course what we heard has to be taken with a grain of salt but if all girls in Saudi Arabia are like the ones we met, there is real hope for the country in the future. The media fixates on Muslim women's abayas, hijabs, burqas or lack thereof and not enough attention is paid to who they are and what they do. It's important to remember that not all Saudi women fit into the veiled and victimized stereotype that is perpetuated by the American media. I'm so blessed to have been able to speak to to Saudi women face-to-face and hear their own voices and opinions. I'm excited to return home with some legitimacy to be able to continue and challenge peoples misconceptions about Muslim and Arab women. It's amazing that I've only been in Saudi for a few days and I've already had such a life-changing, enlightening experience.

Later today I'll try to post about our visit to the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center. I thought that our trip to King Saud University was so wonderful though that it deserved its own post.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Driving into Riyadh - A Desert Oasis

Once the plane started flying over Saudi Arabia, from my window all I could see were smatterings of development and roads criss-crossing the desert landscape. Unfortunately, I couldn't take a picture because I was in the middle seat but I did get the chance to see the tip of the Sinai Peninsula along the way! 

When we arrived at the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, all we could see were miles and miles of dusty, rocky, and barren terrain. It seemed like the airport was very far away from the city and for awhile there was nothing to see but the green trees lining the highway which starkly opposed the dusty, brown landscape. Suddenly, the city appeared in the distance along with a profusion of construction projects on either side of the road. We were then surrounded by a lot of traffic leading into the city. The cars ranged from incredibly expensive-looking sports vehicles to beat up and disheveled buses and vans. Of course all the drivers were males, but I saw men wearing everything from traditional Khaliji clothing to things like graphic t-shirts and jeans. I also saw what looked like foreign Muslim pilgrims wearing the all-white Ihram garments (I'll have a post on traditional Saudi clothing and Hajj clothing later!). A lot of the cars had blacked out windows for what I assume is women's privacy in the back seats. 

You can sort of see what looks like Al-Faisaliyah Center in the distance. 

Eventually the empty landscape filled up with more and more construction until we were surrounded by residential and commercial districts that sprawled up out of the desert. There was no part of the city that I could see without some sort of construction. Even what seemed like the center of Riyadh, the most developed part of the city with several skyscrapers, was still being built up. We drove past Al-Faisaliyah Center and Kingdom Centre which are two of the most impressive structures in the city. The buildings of Riyadh are a beautiful mix of modern and traditional Islamic architecture. There are also many shopping centers that line the highway, even more than in certain parts of America believe it or not (It seems like shopping is a major Saudi pastime).

I posted a second time for today because I realized that I didn't discuss Riyadh's urban landscape in my previous post. I hope you get a sense of what the city looks like from this post and I'm sure that I'll have better descriptions and photos in the next two days! 

My First Day in Saudi Arabia

I can't believe that it's time for my first blog post from Saudi Arabia! Honestly, nothing felt real until I got off the plane and through customs. 

In my abaya and hijab after a long flight!
My flight left from Dulles International Airport at around 6:30pm after a short delay. Overall, I think the flight took around 11 hours or so with our landing in the capital city of Riyadh at the King Khalid International Airport at around 3pm (Saudi time). There is an 8 hour time difference between D.C. and Riyadh and needless to say I was quite tired after the flight.

Some observations I made on the plane: 
-Before the flight took off there was a saying from the Prophet Muhammad on travel. Unfortunately I can't remember where it was from.
-We each received sleep masks, socks (weird right?) and toothbrushes with toothpaste.
-There was a touch screen TV in front of everyones seats with old and new Arabic films, American films, Foreign films along with some Islamic television programs.
-There was a lot of tea and coffee served.
-This is for Rebecca Miller as requested. There was no announcement on the flight for when we had to put on our abayas and hijabs (If you don't know what those are do a quick google search), we just put them on a half an hour before landing. For those of you who don't know, by law women in Saudi Arabia have to wear the abaya in public. 

After landing and getting through customs we all packed into a van with our suitcases (literally there was no trunk in the van so our giant suitcases were stuffed in between our seats). The drive felt very long because there was a lot traffic in the city and several of us felt carsick after the stop and go motions of the van. It was a great experience to go through the center of Riyadh though and I got to see some of the city's famous buildings like the Kingdom Centre. It's ridiculous how excited I felt being able to read a lot of the signs and advertisements that where in Arabic along the highway. Some of the sign names in English were quite funny, like the shoe store Athlete's Foot (the name doesn't really make you want to buy their shoes too much). 

Kingdom Centre, which is the second tallest
skyscraper in Saudi Arabia. 

When we finally arrived at the hotel, we were happy to see that InterContinental is a fabulous, beautifully designed establishment. We each have our own singles that are suite-style. As gifts from the Ministry of Higher Education the girls received hijab pins and the boys received cufflinks. The representatives from the Ministry said that everything was paid for, our meals, the food in our hotel rooms, and even room service if we so wished. At 7pm we all ate together at the hotel's restaurant that was a buffet. This was no ordinary buffet though, it had tabbouleh, fattoush, hummus, kibbeh and more top-quality Arabic food. We were even served some Saudi non-alcoholic champagne, which was delicious. All of us left dinner for our hotel rooms feeling comfortably satisfied. 

My hotel room.
Overall my first day, well more like half-day, was pretty fabulous in Saudi Arabia! Tomorrow we visit King Saud University, the Prince Talal Charity Foundation and the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center. Stay tuned for more blog posts and pictures!

Friday, December 27, 2013

Orientation In D.C.

Today was quite a long day. My flight left Logan Airport in Boston at 6:16am meaning that I had to wake up at 3:30am in the morning (yikes!). Luckily I arrived at Reagan International Airport on time at 8am and navigated the metro all the way to the National Council's headquarters for my orientation session. The session started at 11am so I meandered around D.C. for a half an hour or so until I found a little coffee place. I have to say that I enjoyed the best cup of hot chocolate that I've ever had in my life at Caribou Coffee. 

The orientation session began with introductions of the nine other students going on the trip to Saudi Arabia with me.  The fellows come from all across the country (Texas, California, Michigan, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland) but I noticed that most people studied international affairs or political science with a focus on the Middle East or Arabic. It was great to meet other people who have similar interests in the Middle East and a passion for studying the region, Arabic and Islam. Everyone seemed very friendly and thoughtful! 

After introductions we ate lunch and had a discussion on some of the pre-trip assigned readings that had basic background information on the country. Finally from 2:30pm to 5:30pm we met with four different groups or speakers who had special connections to or familiarity with Saudi Arabia. First we had a presentation by some representatives from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in D.C. After that some representatives from Saudi Aramco came to talk to us about some interesting things that the company is doing with clean energy and various social projects. Then we spoke with a board member on the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, Randa Fahmy-Hudome, who worked under the Bush Administration as the Associate Deputy Secretary of Energy. She had traveled to Saudi Arabia multiple times before and had some great advice on traveling to the country and some interesting insights from her experiences in the Middle East. Finally we spoke to Colonel Abbas Dahouk, a Middle East Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Army who recently became the Defense Attaché to Saudi Arabia. He had some really interesting things to say about his time in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War and the mid-2000s with the Riyadh compound bombings. He also outlined the strategic military and diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. 

The orientation ended at 6pm with everyone feeling quite exhausted and hungry. After the session was over I grabbed some dinner with several fellows and headed over to my hotel. 

Tomorrow my flight leaves for Saudi Arabia at 6pm and I couldn't be more excited! It almost seems like a dream that I'll be there tomorrow. 

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Saudi Arabia Exchange Fellowship

This post is for those of you who don't know why I'm going to Saudi Arabia, or didn't quit understand it when I explained it to you. In early October I found out that I was invited to participate in the Saudi Arabia Exchange Fellowship. The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCUSAR) sponsors the fellowship for Model Arab League alumni (I participated in Model Arab League last Fall 2012) in collaboration with the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission to the U.S. and the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Higher Education. Ten students from across the country are selected for the fellowship which lasts for a year. The fellowship includes an all-expense-paid study visit to Saudi Arabia from December 28th to January 8th. After the trip participants spend their fellowship year carrying out events and programs to share their experiences in Saudi Arabia with their respective communities. 

The statement of purpose for the program has a more eloquent description: 

While thousands of Saudi Arabian students visit and study in the United States each year, very few American students have a reciprocal opportunity. As a result, the average Saudi Arabian citizen knows a great deal about American culture, economics, government, etc. while Americans remain uninformed of the nuances, intricacies, and even basic details of a country of such strategic importance and interest to the United States, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabia Fellowship was formed to help remedy this shortcoming and enhance knowledge and understanding of Saudi Arabia among America’s future leaders and general public."

For my family and friends, I hope that you can keep up with my trip from this blog! This was the best way I could think of for reaching as many of you as possible. I apologize in advance for the number of  inexcusable spelling and grammar errors that will inevitably follow. I'm not actually aware of how much free time I'll have on the trip for blogging let alone proofreading (a task that I already find most unpleasant). I can only hope that you ignore my graceless writing and actually learn something about Saudi Arabia from this silly, self-important blog.