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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


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