Friday, January 10, 2014

The Last Two Days in Jeddah

I just returned home from Saudi two nights ago! I apologize in advance for the lateness of these upcoming blogs, but needless to say the last few days of my trip were quite busy.

During my last post I discussed the tour of historic Jeddah by Mr. Sami Nawaz on January 4th. The group stayed in Jeddah for another two days before departing for the Eastern Province.

In the morning of January 5th the boys got to go to the private beach we visited the day before, the Silver Sands Beach. The girls stayed at the hotel and caught up on some much needed rest and relaxation. For lunch the group had a meeting with an editor from the Saudi Gazette Newspaper, a highly popular private English-language newspaper in the Kingdom. The newspaper is mostly read by expats and other educated Saudis who know English. Many of us had been reading the newspaper and other Saudi news sources in anticipation of the meeting (we could get the newspaper for free at the hotel and during our flights).

Several of the articles seemed very biased and unprofessionally written, with a focus on topics that didn't seem worth reporting. The editor did acknowledge the lack of professionalism and ethics in Saudi Arabian journalism during our meeting. Many people working in the field receive little to no education or training before entering the profession. Journalism is a field very much in its infancy in the Kingdom, with few full-time reporters in Arabic or English language newspapers. This is slowly improving though, as journalism is now a field being developed in the universities and is slowly but surely opening up to women.

When we asked the editor about censorship and crossing redlines in Saudi news media, she said that lines do exist but that the newspaper always tries to work around them. She found the redlines frustrating and restricting but said that she was only stopped twice in her career from publishing articles. Candidly she told us that to find out what's really happening in Saudi Arabia, you have to read between the lines in the newspapers. She hoped that in the future there would be more political analysis and a focus on human rights issues in Saudi media outlets. There is hope, as during the last ten years newspapers have begun to report on issues ranging from child abuse and women's issues to corruption and infrastructure problems.  As Saudi society slowly opens up and previously taboo topics become fair game, journalism in the country will continue to grow and develop.

After the visit with the journalist, the group had the opportunity to visit the residence of  famed local architect Dr. Sami Angawi. It is probably the most beautiful home I have ever seen, or ever will see. I was so amazed by the architecture and decor that I didn't listen closely enough to the tour we received, but I remember hearing that the home was designed in the traditional Hijazi style with pieces from all over the world. None of the pictures I took accurately capture how amazingly beautiful the house really is. 

"Hijazi is the local region here, which is an ancient name for this region. And
Hijaz has always been the reflecting point. It's the melting pot of the Muslim world. So you can see something in Hijaz, which is from India, and you see something from Morocco, and
something from Turkey, and something from Yemen. Everything is a reflection of the idea of the unity and the diversity. My statement here is that to live in a time now, you don't have to forget your traditions. So it's the balance between the constant and the variable. And that's how it's always been in Islamic tradition; Islamic architecture." 
-From PBS NewsHour 2002

The house was so warm and inviting, and talking to Dr. Sami Angawi was a fascinating experience. Apparently Jimmy Carter has visited the house multiple times before to discuss Islam and promote understanding and peace around the world with Dr. Angawi. 

The next day, January 6th, the group had two visits. The first was to the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST), which was about an hour outside of Jeddah. As we drove up to the site of the campus, there was nothing but the campus security checkpoints surrounded by desert. KAUST was built only five or so years ago on a site in Thuwal alongside the Red Sea. There was really nothing there until the campus was built, and it now constitutes a city within itself with everything students and professors need to live and work within the university (residential areas, gyms, grocery stores, restaurants etc.) . I can only assume that there is so much security to get onto the campus because of the fact that KAUST is the first mixed-gender university in Saudi Arabia. We saw women without veils and abayas freely mixing with male colleagues. 

Our group walking around the site of the main campus.
Inside one of KAUST's main buildings.
The view of the Red Sea from the library. 
I was disappointed that we weren't able to stay on the campus for a longer period of time but we did get a tour of some of the libraries and research facilities. It's incredibly impressive how many resources have gone into making KAUST a world-class research university that attracts students from around the globe. As someone whose focus is away from the scientific or technological fields, I was blown away by the university's laboratories, resources, and facilities. All of the buildings were brand new, beautiful, and designed to be environmentally friendly. 

On the way back to Jeddah from KAUST, our bus driver stopped alongside the highway so that we could see some of the camels. One of them actually  walked over to our group and stood still for about a half an hour or so while we took pictures of it. 

Me with the friendliest camel! 

After our brief interlude with the camels, the group headed over to the Nafisa Shams Arts & Letter Academy back in Jeddah. The academy provides training and job opportunities for women creating prayer rugs, jewelry, fashion designs and photography. It was wonderful to see a group trying to harness Saudi women's creativity, talent, and initiative. Everyone in my group was really impressed by their showroom, which displayed the Saudi women's creative works. 

The showroom for the Nafisa Shams Arts & Letter Academy.

That night, the group took a flight from the King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah to Al-Dammam in the Eastern Province (first class again of course). We were all exhausted when we arrived at our hotel, Le Meridien, in Al Khobar. 

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