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July 11, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

The Holy Land

As we were walking off of the plane in Ben Gurion Airport, it hit me: I was in Israel!  I was in disbelief for about 30 minutes as we waited for security.  My entire life I knew nothing of Israel but that it had no right to take away land from the Palestinians.  And while I dubbed myself a liberal and intellectual, as I learned more about the conflict and immersed myself in Jewish thought, I felt uncomfortable walking in the airport.  Was I a hypocrite for being in this country?  Was I just dreaming when I thought that I can forget my past and come to terms with the present?  Was I really as tolerant as I hoped I was? These were all questions I had to face, answer and challenge.

As we drove into Jerusalem and walked around, I realized that I could literally feel the history of the city.  Known as the founding city of Abrahamic faiths, Jerusalem is sight not to be missed.  Perhaps my own bias and beliefs were clouding my judgment, but I felt at peace as I prayed right next to my Christian and Jewish friends in the Wailing Wall and heard the call to prayer from masjid Al-Aqsa synchronize with the church bells ringing.  As the sun set on our evening walk, I realized why this city is so contested.  This was no ordinary city; this was a piece of heaven.

Unfortunately, this ambiance of religious tolerance is quickly clouded by the stifling politics of the region.  As I finished my prayer in Masjid Al-Aqsa, a group of Palestinian moms from Nablus approached me asking me what I was doing there.  I told them that I was visiting for a day and then got in a conversation with them about their life in the West Bank.  Apparently, they have been trying to visit Jerusalem for five years now, and just yesterday were they given permission.  They talked to me about how they feel restricted, humiliated and ashamed.  They told me that people like me forgot about them, that the rest of the world no longer cares.  What struck me the most were the two daughters that escorted me around the mosque.  The girls told me that the Israelis were trying to demolish the mosque by building tunnels underneath; they then walked me to a few holes in the ground that apparently led to the graving site next to the Wailing Wall.  I told them not to make blank accusations and to look for solutions not just sweeping generalizations.  At the end of the day, it hurt me to know just how far to the right this movement had gone, and no one sees an end in sight.

As I was walking out of the mosque I began to talk with one of the waqf members about praying in Mecca the previous week and how overwhelming that experience had been.  I felt humbled by the stories I was telling and privileged for having such a life changing experience.  To have prayed in two of the holiest Muslim sites rejuvenated my soul and spirit.

As the trip continued and I met my share of right-wing settlers in the West Bank, progressive Israelis, members of the Palestinian waqf and discontent Israeli-Arabs, I started to see shreds of a silver lining.  Aside from the people that were wrapped up in this ideological fantasy, there were great deals of people making changes happen.  And I began to realize that two things needed to happen if peace can ever be achieved: progressive Palestinians need to find a means through which they can more effectively join efforts with other Palestinians and Israelis  and Israeli Arabs needed to be integrated into the society and used as a bridge into normalizing relations with the Arab world and hopefully a future Palestinian state.  While both of these things are lofty and perhaps too idealistic, I am sure of their importance and have already started talking with Dalia (a major educational leader in Israel for Arabs living in the state) to move forward with the Arab-made curriculum she began developing.

-Aya Saed

June 26, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

Toward a Shared and Prosperous Future…

I have never thought of myself as religious. But as we approached the Western Wall, I think I felt a bit of what I have heard religion feels like: faith. I felt faith that everything would work out in the end, even in this troubled region. As I walked forward with the other girls in our group, the gravity of what we were doing struck me. I was approaching the Kotel with a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim. And what’s more, they were all being open and respectful! Now, these were girls who I had spent every waking moment with for the past week; already I loved and felt close with them. Their religion is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of them and reflect on how much I enjoyed their company. But Aya is definitely a Muslim, Erin a Christian, Briana and I Jews. We come from different faiths and different backgrounds. This has been made exceedingly clear to me now that I am back home in Cleveland, surrounded by my Jewish community and reminded of the loyalties that they hold and that, as I Jew, I am expected to hold as well. Being back home has reinforced how groundbreaking and important our trip to the Middle East was. Traveling with kids from many religions, stopping in both Saudi Arabia and Israel, and visiting holy sites from each of the three major Abrahamic faiths together as friends is something that very few people have the chance to do.

Our first night in Jerusalem was peaceful but heavy. Everything is so geographically close here. In this tiny city, so many traditions overlap and contradict one another. As we stared over the Western Wall, listening to church bells in the distance, the Muslim call to prayer struck up, echoing through the fading light from the multiple minarets around us. It was a powerful moment that really made me hope for a solution that includes Jerusalem as a bi-national or independently governed religious district, preserving the ability of all those who wish to pray there to do so with freedom and security.

The next day, we toured the Old City, including the Dome of the Rock and the Temple Mount. It was a gorgeous day. Interestingly, as Dr. David pointed out, we were standing on what is probably the world’s most contentious piece of land and yet all we could hear were birds chirping. Our guide Ophir countered, however, that just last Friday there were riots here. When Erin asked if it was all right to sit on a large raised stone platform in the middle of the courtyard, Ophir advised against it, as it was an outdoor mosque where people prayed. Minutes later, one of the Israeli soldiers standing near our group sat down on the mosque, and I couldn’t help but bristle a bit. I know that most likely, the soldier had no idea what he was doing, and that he meant no harm. But it felt disrespectful to me.

After the Old City, the group visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to the Holocaust. I was again reminded of how much I love our group when, afterwards, we struck up a conversation in the lobby of the museum, about Arabs in the Israeli army and whether or not Zionism supports settlements. Our group was never afraid to get down and dirty with the issues we were learning about, no matter the time or place. Our dialogue continued that afternoon with Rabbi Kronish and some of his Israeli and Palestinian students at his organization, The Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel. As we ate dinner with them and got into a heated conversation about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I was reminded of something that we heard at the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue in Riyadh. A bit cynically, we heard that, ‘dialogue between youth will not solve the problems, politicians who get in power will solve them.’ But Erin’s response to his statement also came to mind. She said that we, the youth, ARE the world’s future politicians, and thus dialogue is invaluable. After that night at the Kronish’s, as difficult as it was to remain calm at points, I could not agree more.

Bethlehem and Efrat were on the agenda for the next day – two extraordinarily contested areas. We had no trouble at the checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank; although we heard differently from one of the Palestinian guys we had met, who complained that his thirty-minute trip to meet with us had taken upwards of two and a half hours due to security. In Bethlehem, we met with the Arab Educational Institute. Our host was a passionate Dutch man who had married a Palestinian woman and now worked with children in the West Bank. I am glad I got to visit the Church of the Nativity and was astounded at how many different Christian sects were sharing the space. I am also glad I got to see the wall at Rachel’s tomb. Called a “security fence” by some and a “separation barrier” by others, it is unsightly and felt very oppressive.

What we heard form Palestinians in the West Bank was a narrative that was to be strongly contradicted during a strategic tour of Jerusalem led by a well-known Israeli professor. As an example, both sides relayed the same story of Israeli soldiers coming through the wall’s gate in the middle of the night, snatching up some Palestinians, and leaving again. The interesting part was that while Palestinians told the story as a woeful lament to how rarely Israelis interact with them save for security missions, and of how oppressed the Palestinian people are, the Israeli professor told the same story as a proud example of how tight and effective Israeli security is. I thought back to our meeting with at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC at the very beginning of our trip. One of the things I heard during that meeting was that the Palestinians have to mature before the peace process continues. The Palestinian narrative, however, said basically the opposite: it was the Israelis who have to grow up. In a sense, both sides are very right, and I am left very confused. Good thing King Shwarma, the greatest food in all of Jerusalem, was around to pick our spirits up.

The next day was our last full day of programming. In the morning we visited Masada and learned that many considered the Zealots, the group of Jews who used the mountain’s natural fortress to fend off the Roman army years ago, to be terrorists. Dr. David reminded us that every religion has its extremists. After a quick dip in the Dead Sea, we bus-napped our way to Tel Aviv for a visit to the Interdisciplinary Center Herzilya, a university that boasts classes in English and students from all over the world. We met with Dr. Dalia Fadila who I can safely say inspired us all with the story of her struggle to lead a board of ten men as the president of Al-Qasemi Academy, an Arab college in Israel. Dr. Fadila spoke of the need for Israeli-Arabs to develop their own tradition within modernity and Israel. By strengthening their community, she argued, Israeli-Arabs could better contribute to Israeli society and could form bridges between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including a potential Palestinian state. Next we heard from Dr. Issac Berzin, an Israeli scientist who did business with his Palestinian business partner in both Israel and Jordan. “If you want to leave peace to the politicians,” he said, “good luck to all of us.”

Both Dr. Fadila and Dr. Berzin emphasized the importance of going further than just dialogue. In Dr. Fadila’s opinion, the current dialogue efforts are not working because people just eat together, share and talk about their values, and then leave with the same stereotypes they held upon entering. A more effective strategy, Dr. Berzin echoed, was to work towards building something together, separate from religion or politics. The bio-algae product he is marketing brings together Arabs and Israelis and is a prime example of this. While dialogue is important, interacting through the lens of business or science can often produce more constructive connections.

This trip was not always easy, which is part of what touched me at the Kotel. My struggle has come primarily upon returning to the States, trying to explain my feelings about the Middle East to my family. But other members of the group struggled daily in Israel. I could see how difficult it was for Aya to stomach some of the things she heard while we were in the Holy Land. But she listened respectfully, and she did so with an open mind and heart. I had never imagined that I would go to Saudi Arabia, she had never imagined that she would visit Israel. Seeing her be so open even through tough conversations really moved me, as did the fact that she joined me in praying at the Kotel.

One of the major concerns we encountered from both Israeli and Palestinian youth we met was their worry that engaging with another’s narrative, be it religious or political, means betraying your own. In my opinion, This cannot be further from the truth. If peace is to be achieved, each side must work hard to recognize that other valid viewpoints do exist, even if one does not agree with them. I think that the positive attitudes toward inter-cultural exploration and action I experienced on the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project are integral to achieving peace in the region. I can only hope that, with the help of our small impact plans and the work of leaders in the region, these attitudes continue to flourish and grow.

-Hannah Elson

June 21, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

The Promised Land

Visiting Jerusalem for the first time was a mind-boggling experience. It is likely the most sought-after piece of real estate on the planet. It was difficult to fathom how close the holy sites of the three Abrahamic faiths are to each other, and how Jerusalem is so steeped in history. Sometimes I wonder if Jerusalem is too important for its own good, as the Israelis and Palestinians continue to insist that it is their capital city. Yet despite the constant tension, it was terrific to see Jews, Muslims, and Christians worshipping in such a peaceful manner. I learned that Israeli security is insistent on Jews not bringing their religious materials near the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as to avoid inciting violence, which demonstrates a certain level of respect and understanding.

Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish gave a talk on the Peace Process and then introduced us to Palestinian and Israeli university students. It was comforting to see people with vastly different views speaking openly and courteously. During dinner at the Kronish household we debated about the Knesset, the role of violence in the Palestinian resistance, and many other topics. Everyone spoke freely and my heart rate spiked a couple of times but I left with a better understanding of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At a time of political stalemate, where Netanyahu is defying President Obama and the Palestinians are turning in frustration to the United Nations, diplomacy is happening on the streets of Jerusalem between regular citizens. No matter what biases one may have, it is clear that both Israeli and Palestinian presences in Jerusalem are necessary in a two-state solution.

Touring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre confused me further, because within the Christian community in Jerusalem there are so many sects. With Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox Christians, and Copts competing amongst others for space, this place of worship epitomizes both the beauty of Jerusalem and the struggle that takes place daily insides its walls. The rings of settlements that surround Jerusalem make me skeptical about the future of this wondrous city. I hope that Jews, Christians, and Muslims can realize that Jerusalem is too sacred to be cut up over ideological feuds, and the historical center can be preserved for generations to come.

-Bayly Winder

June 20, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

Dubai: The Jewel of the Desert

Like Burj Al-Khalifa, Dubai stands above all others in its glamour, business vision and marvel.  It houses the biggest mall in the world, a population that is over 80% foreign and a burgeoning business hub.  But all in all, there were two things that struck me the most about Dubai: its business strategy and immigration.

As Bernard West, the CEO of Tadrees explained, Dubai is more of a gateway to business in the Middle East.  Not a lot of business is invented or created in this city.  Rather, it houses large corporations that wish to expand their hold over the region.  And with its tax-free business zones, business can do just that.  We saw this first hand when we visited the media center, where media giants such as CNBC, BBC, Google and CNN are housed.  There, we could see how important it is for these companies to have such a strong networking infrastructure and learned more about how Arab radio and TV functions.  Interestingly, like any other business zone, media city has a set of guidelines on what can be covered in media.  Their policy on nudity, coverage of Islam and politics prohibited Sex and the City from being filmed in Dubai and raises questions on how the business operation fits in Western media.

As we were going up the Burj Al-Khalifa and saw pictures of the workers that made this marvel a reality, it dawned on me.  These men, most of whom are Indian or Southeast Asian, put their sweat and tears into this project.  And ultimately play no role in the politics of the country and can never hope to be a citizen of the country.  As a first generation American, I understand and appreciate the importance of integrating a population to feel as though they are part of the society.  Some of the foreign executives in Dubai Media City explained that the Emirates is a hotspot for foreigners but does not assimilate its immigrants into the society.  Even those born and raised in this country are foreigners.

-Aya Saed

June 15, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

Behind the Glitz and Glamour

Dubai was glitzy, that was my first impression. Tall buildings with pretty lobbies and huge malls with expensive stores abound everywhere you turn your head. But there is more to the city than the glamour: the rich history and culture of the United Arab Emirates. This is the facet of Dubai that I wish I got to understand and see more of. The population of this principal Emirate is 90% expatriate, and we did not get to meet many natives. Most of the people we ran into were foreigners who had come to the UAE to work in ithe thriving business hub. It makes Dubai an extremely diverse, colorful Emirate, with foreign languages and foods everywhere on the streets. Unlike Saudi Arabia or Libya, Dubai seems to have better used its oil money to bolster the economy and invest for the impending day when their oil will run out. It is hard to say whether oil money is helpful or hurtful for a nation. Sometimes, as Professor David reminded us, having large quantities of money practically thrown at you can lead to materialism and laziness. Dubai seems to have done better for itself than many of its rich neighbors, however, and Professor David gave the Emirate credit for trying to re-invent itself as a sustainable, booming economy.

One native who we did have the fortune of meeting was Nasif, our guide at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Upon arriving at the museum, we walked through an old village and had a glimpse of what the UAE was like before oil was discovered. The walking tour was interesting and informative, but it was the second part that really stuck with me. Nasif, a middle-aged man with a kindly face and a great sense of humor, led us into an old mosque (the first one I had ever visited!) and began explaining a bit about Islam. Hearing how, why, and when Muslims pray from such an accessible source, in a mosque nonetheless, was quite special to me. Then we had a question and answer session where Nasif told us that he believed women should wear abayas because we are superstars and should be protected. The cultural center was a great, friendly experience overall, and I hope Nasif comes to lecture someday at Johns Hopkins.

So we saw the old, but of course in Dubai you also have to see the new. The Emirate loves its superlatives and boasts the tallest building as well as the largest mall in the world. Towering over the skyline like a steel icicle, the Burj Khalifa was as jaw-dropping as we thought it would be. Our ears hurt on the elevator ride up the 124 floors, but seeing Dubai from so high up was worth it. There was also a “Gold ATM” which gave you a piece of gold if you fed the machine enough money. After the Burj we walked around the mall for a bit. It was interesting seeing the variety of people who passed us. Some woman were fully covered, while others were wearing less clothing than a normal Westerner would. The mall offered its guests an ice rink, a full-sized movie theatre, a video arcade and a theme park. It made the Mall of America look like a Walgreens. After the mall we went outside to watch Dubai’s famous water show. The water jets shot up and around to the beat of a blood-pumping theme song that made my ears hurt again. Bayly and Rafee started talking to a Syrian man and his son that were watching the show next to us, while, as usually happens, Aya and I turned to the man’s wife and struck up on our own. They were ex-pats, and came to the mall every weekend to walk around with their adorable daughter Leia who blew us kisses.

While Dubai’s tourist attractions were awesome, the next day was great in a more professional regard. We visited Dubai Media City, learned about its operations, and were even encouraged to apply for internships. The huge conglomerate encourages foreign business investment in the Emirates by offering tax incentives and consulting services to their clients. We also saw a CNBC studio, and a radio station which broadcasted an impressive number of shows in different languages.

After Media City we had what was the probably the coolest dinner of my entire life. Lara Setrakian (an expert on Iran and an ABC/Bloomberg reporter in the Middle East), her producer (who covered the State Department beat in D.C. as well), and a leader of the newly formed Libyan Transitional National Council (which is working to transition Libya to a better state after Qaddafi leaves, hopefully), all graciously spent their night with us at a delicious restaurant. The food was great but the conversation was better: they were such inspiring, interesting people. Lara talked about journalism, encouraging us all to explore the field, and discussed what it was like being a reporter in the region during the “Arab Spring.” I was honored that they gave us their time and were so humble and open with us.

We said our goodbyes, exchanged business cards and then headed back to the hotel. Eric, Briana and I decided to walk back along the edge of the creek. It was fun to see all the stacks of random goods set to be loaded onto the dilapidated cargo boats tethered to the docks. Sweaty and tired in the heavy air, every man we saw by the creek was lounging on his boat or on the grass in front of it. Dubai is an interesting city. It is wealthy and prosperous, but one wonders just how fortunate the dock-workers and ex-pats who come looking for work are.

-Hannah Elson

June 13, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

Cultural Intelligence and Umrah in Mecca

It was March 1999 when I landed in the Dulles International Airport and vividly remember being puzzled by the American culture as a young child—having lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia all of my life.  Since then, I went through various phases of conservatism and liberalism but eventually realized the importance of engaging in discussions with diverse people.

Fast forward to June 2011 and I was experiencing the same culture shock—but in reverse.  I was overwhelmed by the women covered in all black, puzzled by the role of religion in the region and taken aback by the “intolerance” the western media likes to constantly portray.  But as I was talking to the great granddaughter of Abdul-Wahab (the pious man that started the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia after partnering up with the founder Abdulaziz) I realized that this is as much a conservative country as the U.S.; where if you see a women completely covered in an abaya many would give you looks and where racial profiling and discrimination happen on a daily basis.  That many in the society were moderate and liberal.  And while I’m not sure I see merit in this marriage of religion and government (one Saudi we encountered explained that these religious police were funded by the king, as he had no power or legitimacy without them), I have come to understand and appreciate that this society prides itself as a moral society.  This was where Islam was founded, and as such, people feel it is important to have such conservative social standards.  Now many Saudis argue that the manner with which it is being implemented is restricting the country and the society from growth.  And that is something the society is dealing with, as we realized when we visited the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue in Riyadh.  But ultimately, as I began to shed my western lens of analysis I realized that I actually felt safer in Saudi Arabia than in the middle of D.C. and that I felt more pious and more in touch with a higher being.  This society is far from being perfect, but getting to witness it first-hand made me realize that the Saudi Arabian culture is construed and misunderstood by Americans.

Moreover, this trip to the Kingdom will always have a special place in my heart as I got to make umrah in Mecca.  Despite the fact that I got no sleep for about two days and had to walk a few miles at 1am, I have to say it has been the most rewarding and uplifting experience.  Being in this holy city and seeing the intricate architecture of the city, the diversity of people and the beauty of families praying together and worshiping God together made me cry.  It truly took me by surprise.  As soon as I walked outside with Rafee and Shukur, and was prohibited from going to the barbershop with them (as it is a custom to cut your hair after completing umrah) because I was a girl, I had a shock back to reality.  The ka’ba might be the only place in the world where Islam is untouched; its purity and glory will forever be with me.  And I am humbled by this opportunity.  I later realized that His Royal Highness Prince Sultan made this trip possible, as getting a visa to go to Mecca is very difficult, and to HRH I am especially grateful.

As I was leaving Mecca and passing by the luxurious hotels surrounding the ka’ba and poverty deep inside the city that I can see through the alleyways, I realized that there was a lot to be done.  Yes, some of these building are beautiful (like the huge clock tower that overshadows the grand mosque itself) but it makes the class difference between people even more distinct.  I began wondering how this holy city can be restructured in a way that makes it possible for there to be more equality among worshipers and better care for the homeless sleeping in the corners of this religious monument.  Perhaps on the next trip. . .

As we were departing the country, I began to realize that my life is a testimony for the possibility of the most conservative individuals embracing the idea of commonality even with people they disagree with, and to learn from those they never thought they could understand.

-Aya Saed

June 9, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

The Kingdom – Part 2

After a day of the standard Ministry itinerary in Jeddah–a visit to the breathtaking King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)–the group was a bit tired of following the road most traveled. With a bit of finagling, we convinced Saad, one of our guides form the Ministry, to show us more of the city than the extravagant university it had to offer. In our gender-separated cars, we drove around old Jeddah. The neighborhood was an amalgam of dilapidated buildings and litter-strewn alley ways, with pockets of the ancient, pure beauty of a time past peaking through around each corner. Saad informed us that many Muslims who had come to Saudi Arabia for the hajj decided to remain in this part of the city, drawn to the quiet holiness of the cobblestone streets.

A brief ride through the old city was followed by a trip to the Red Sea. We approached the rocky shore to put our toes in the warm water. Professor David skipped stones into the sea while Bayly followed his usual protocol and struck up a conversation with a Saudi local. The breeze emanating from the water was a nice repose from the usual thick heat I felt walking through the city in my abaya.

We soon departed the Red Sea and Jeddah altogether. We returned to the Al Faisaliah Hotel to find our friends from the King Abdul Aziz Center for National Dialogue waiting for us. They took us to the mall for traditional Arab food, plates upon plates of taboulleh, stuffed grape leaves, hummus, and shwarma. The meal was a delicious end to an exciting day, but what made it all the more rewarding was the conversation we had with the students.

In Saudi fashion the boys gravitated to their own gender, as did the girls. Hannah and I spoke to the two female students who were there, both interested in discussing American values and Saudi values. One female student, Najla, was getting her MBA from UNC-Chapel Hill while her friend Hawra, who had lived in the US for most of her life, was just finishing up work in Saudi Arabia and hoping to continue her studies. Both girls were impressive in their own right, and the ease with which they communicated in English was yet another testament to their acumen.

The debate over restrictions on women driving (which the two girls agreed was an arcane and unfair law) turned into a discussion on the abaya, a far more contentious issue. For Najla, the abaya is a symbol of her religious values and Saudi culture. Studying in the United States, she feels lonely in its absence, and often wears it as a comfort, a reminder of home. She does not feel constrained by her modesty and informed us that if her husband were to ask her to further cover herself, she would consent wholeheartedly, not because she felt objectified, but because she respected his desires. Hawri, on the other hand, could not feel more differently. She sees the burka as a way of men controlling women and looks forward to a time when women can openly discuss the issue and choose to wear what they feel is appropriate for themselves.

It was difficult for me to listen to Najla’s words and not feel a hint of sorrow. I can’t help thinking (admitting the biases that the Western world has instilled in me) that a woman as remarkable as her is suppressed by the society she calls home. But, Hawri proved to me that Najla’s stance is not the only one that exists in Saudi Arabia. At the very least, I am happy knowing that these issues are now being raised and debated. I foresee changes that might occur as more and more women become educated and are exposed to other countries that allow their women to wear what they choose. Like Hawri, I have hopes for the future of Saudi women and the country as a whole. Inshallah.

-Briana Last

June 8, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

The Kingdom

We are nearing the end of our first full day in Saudi Arabia. I knew going into this that the experience would be eye-opening, but I think that so far it has been different than anyone had expected. The reality of the trip fully set in as I pulled my abaya on over my clothes on the plane. When we arrived at the airport, we walked off the plane not knowing who would be meeting us, where they would be taking us, and what we would be doing for the next few days. The customs lines were worryingly long and slow moving, many people were sitting down on the floor they had been waiting so long. When we alerted someone that we were guests of the Ministry of Higher Education, however, we were shuffled to the front of the line and got through customs relatively quickly by a man who spent more time texting on his cell phone than he did looking at us. The men had to give fingerprints and have a picture taken; the women didn’t.

The special treatment we received in customs did not end there: the guide who met us promptly informed the group that the Ministry had made reservations for us at the Al Faisaliah Hotel, one of the nicest in the kingdom, and that the Ministry would be taking care of all costs. He also informed us that the group would be making a quick trip to Jeddah, which was very exciting. Driving through Riyadh to the hotel was surreal…there was sand everywhere!  When we got to the hotel, we were greeted by an entourage of friendly staff who offered us coffee, dates, and mango smoothies. Everyone seemed so excited to see us, I got the sense that they do not receive foreign visitors there often. The rest of the evening was spent oogling over all the amenities the hotel offered us, paid for by our hosts, the Ministry.

The next day was wonderful. First the men and women split up to visit the respective campuses of King Saud University. We met the dean of the arts school, who brought five of her colleagues to field our questions. They were all very open and comfortable with us, and spoke about how they believed that the “Golden Age” of Saudi women was upon them, with new opportunities springing up in many places. We saw the university’s Disability Services center, which offers more help for deaf, blind, and physically and learning disabled students than I think Johns Hopkins does. The women all wear western clothing, but put their abayas and headscarves back on before leaving the campus gates.

Speaking of abayas, we love wearing them. They are very comfortable. It feels almost like a uniform, you fit in and feel at ease when walking around. The headscarves are a different issue; none of us know how to wrap them and they are constantly slipping off. We talked a lot about the gender issue throughout the day. Even at our hotel, which is extremely Westernized, we have seen men and women turn away or wait for another elevator when the current one is occupied by someone of the opposite sex.

After our visit to the school and a short trip to the King Faisal Islamic Studies and Research Center, we had a short break during which we visited the top floor of our hotel, which offered a 360 view of the entire city. Unfortunately, I think it may be the closest we will get to Riyadh’s residential areas…our movements seem fairly tightly controlled by the Ministry. Rafee’s uncle graciously offered to take us all to his home and downtown Riyadh tonight, to show us where the kids our age hang out, but our Ministry guide informed us that it was “not permitted.” I am disappointed that we won’t be walking around, but I am also just grateful to be here at all. As Professor David reminded us, the Saudi’s have no need for tourism money, and neither tourism nor student visas exist. This was made clear during our travels today. There was no one else up on the roof of the hotel, even though it was probably the best view of the city. There were also no other visitors at the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center, a huge museum which would have most likely been packed in the United States. Although we wondered if the Ministry’s restriction was an attempt to shield us from Saudi society, and perhaps vice versa, the American foreign service officer who visited with us at the hotel that night explained that it was instead probably a liability issue. Because we are here as the Ministry’s guests, they are responsible for us and anything that might happen to us outside of the hotel would be on their shoulders. Anyway, I am just thankful to be here, as limited a view as it is. It is not a bad place to be cooped up in, after all. I believe I’ll go summon my butler to draw a bath for me. You think I’m kidding!

-Hannah Elson

June 6, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

Public Diplomacy in Action

Having just reached cruising altitude, we are finally on our last leg of the journey to Saudi Arabia. Everyone landed in Germany exhausted with stories to tell about their flight as we hung out in the “leisure zone” of the airport. Despite how tired we all were, there was a definitive air of excitement amongst us. Before we took off, Aya candidly leaned over to me and said “I am excited, but I am also pretty scared.” I hadn’t really processed what exactly we are getting ourselves into. After all of the preparation we have done, for the first time in my life, I am going to be the one that is really really different from everyone else. Blonde hair, fair skin, and blue eyes don’t exactly help with blending in with the crowd. It was interesting to me that Aya had the same fear about being different, despite having grown up in Saudi Arabia. Although the Saudi Embassy tried its hardest to tell us that our two societies shared many common interests and values, life in Saudi Arabia is nothing like our lives as Americans. It doesn’t matter who is Christian, Muslim, or Jewish; we are all going into this experience as outsiders.

My hope is that we can use our differences to try to relay some cross-cultural understanding. I don’t want to leave Saudi Arabia just having learned about the Saudis, I want them to learn about us too. I am interested in asking questions and learning about their lives but at the same time, I really hope they want to know about ours as well. Hopefully in the end, despite all of our differences, we can find some kind of commonality between our two groups, as we are all members of the same generation and the future of relations between our two countries.

-Erin Reilly