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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

May 25, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

Building Bridges and Bonds

IIE Trustee S.A. Ibrahim to Receive “Building Bridges and Bonds” Award

Mr. S.A. Ibrahim, CEO of Radian and IIE Trustee, will receive the “Building Bridges and Bonds” Award from S.A. IbrahimThe Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI) in Washington, DC on Wednesday, June 1st. The award is bestowed upon a business leader who has demonstrated a stead-fast commitment to fostering cross-cultural and interreligious dialogue and harmony by building bridges, breaking barriers and creating environments of tolerance, education, understanding and empathy.

Mr. Ibrahim and his family support education and promote international and interfaith understanding through the Ibrahim Family Foundation. Major initiatives include the Ibrahim Fellowship at the Wharton School of The University of Pennsylvania, the Ibrahim Family Theater at the International House of Philadelphia, the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project in the Middle East (sponsored by the Ibrahim Family Foundation and administered by the Institute of International Education) and programs run by the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel.

The ICCI was established in January 1991, and is one of Israel’s most respected intercultural organizations. It is comprised of more than 60 Christian, Muslim, and Jewish institutions, including Jewish-Arab coexistence organizations, museums, universities, and others.

Invited speakers include:

Congressman Keith Ellison, 5th District of Minnesota

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President – Union of Reform Judaism

Rev. Dr. Katharine Henderson, President – Auburn Theological Seminary

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, National Director – Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances – Islamic Society of North America

May 24, 2011 / Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project

The 2011 Ibrahim Project is Gearing Up!

“Straight from the Source” is a new forum bringing you the thoughts and experiences of students participating on the 2011 Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project as it happens. Our goal is to provide you with an apolitical, non-partisan forum displaying the raw impact of this program, demonstrated through live feedback from the students – straight from the source.

The Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project in the Middle East is sponsored by the Ibrahim Family Foundation and administered by the Institute of International Education (IIE).