October 1, 2005
So, the funny thing is I thought I was going to a remote location…. Dar Al-Hekma in Jeddah. Not exactly the French foreign legion, but at least off the main stream. Wrong.
So, last week classes were cancelled so we could hear Karen Hughes. Karen Hughes, I said. Oh no. Not her… I promised to be nice. Really, I did.
So, at the appointed hour, I accompanied by typography class into the Auditorium. We were all wearing abayas and tarha (the scarves) because there were men present. One guy, a Saudi, dressed in typical garb, (robe and red&white checked scarf) was armed with a machine gun. There were Secret Service people, the press corps and bunch of aids, the aforementioned Hughes and a wonderful undersecretary originally from Egypt. After the usual welcomes, she talks. There were some microphone problems. That surprised me since the army of test 1, test 2 etc had them all going.
At any rate, after talking about her appointment as special diplomat, she said really she was a MOM. Oh no, I thought. So, with our without soccer ball, she started talking about how Americans honored faith, family, and freedom. That we have freedom of religion in America (in Saudi Arabia one can only opening practice Islam….), and women are free and speech is free. She talked about the need for everyone to get along, to understand each other and her job was to spread democracy around the world. Some students behind me groaned. So, did I. The local perception on this is much different than the speaker, as many of you already know. Then she talked about the freedom to drive and that Saudi women needed to be able to drive and then talked about a bird with one wing can’t fly so the Saudi society would be much better off if they allowed participation of women in everything. She then asked if we had the internet…. At least she didn’t ask if we knew what it was…
So, question time. The students were not hand selected to ask questions. Nothing much at Dar Al Hekma is staged; it comes straight from the heart. Sometimes that can seem very schmaltzy. Anyway, one student asked her how she planned on improving America’s image in the Muslim world. Karen Hughes said that Americans knew that only a small percentage of muslims were terrorists and that a muslim lady sat next to her in her Presbyterian church pew after 9/11 and that both Christians and jews accompanied muslim shoppers to stores after 9/11 so they would be protected from the few Americans who might mean them harm. . . Next question.
A student asked if the US was more right wing and if the press was less free. She said no – the press was quite free and that the country wasn’t right wing. There were red states and blue states (this to a Saudi audience….) and that the election was quite close. (Tell Bush that – he thinks he has a huge mandate.
Another student gave her two suggestions. She looked visibly stunned. Another woman who is faculty got up and said Muslim women on the whole are quite happy. She again said howmuch happier people could be if they knew true freedom.
There was often loud applause for student questions and no applause for her answers. One of the suggestions was to have an exchange of educators to enhance middle-eastern studies. Her response was that – yes, many students should come to the US to study the west. After talking about that for a while, she suddenly said – oh, and some of our students could go the Saudi Arabia. (duh)
So, after the event, she, her staff and the American ambassador to Saudi Arabia went to a cafeteria on the first floor of the college. I was allowed to enter this mass of men and women. Some students were holding their own, suggesting a blog chat so she could learn more about muslim or middle-eastern women. She truly looked shell-shocked.
I cornered the US Ambassador (I said I would be nice, I didn’t say I would keep quiet…), introduced myself as new faculty and told him how intelligent, eager and enthusiastic our students are. He said he knew. I told him she should spend more time than one hour. I have learned so much in one month. He nodded again and said that Americans just don’t get it.
I also thought, before I got here, that “having to wear a black abaya” was a symbol of servitude. It isn’t. It is a required dress code according to Islam here, but also bear in mind that most of the men wear a white robe and the red&white checked scarf or white scarf with the headband. The men cover themselves also. None of these dress codes has anything to do with perceived intelligence.
Women don’t drive, but many families hire drivers, and others take cabs or have other drivers they can call. I am new to this, but it does work and though putzy, I would rather have a safe driver or the compound bus than drive in Jeddah. This sounds like an excuse, but it is the truth. The women move around the city freely. Women can go shopping alone in the malls without a problem (in Jeddah). Riyadh is probably more severe. Saudis don’t like to go to Riyadh because it is so conservative – so even in Saudi Arabia traditions vary by area.
Anyway, Karen Hughes left. Hum. I wonder if it is worth mentioning this in Saudi 7. Before I could even think of an answer, a copy of the New York Times article started circulating on the DAH e-mail circuit. I started getting e-mails from friends in Northern Minnesota saying they had read that article and one in the Duluth News Tribune and was I there? Yea, I was.
All of this has put Dar Al-Hekma on the map because this event, with men and women in the same room was a first for the Kingdom. That sounds like “prejudice”…. But here the separation is like the separate but equal thing that was theoretical in the states and obviously there is room for improvement here, but the Saudi system will change (and it is – daily) within its own guidelines.
On the way out of the auditorium my students asked if I voted for Bush. No, says I. Yea! Said they. Karen Hughes talked down the the crowd and every person on the receiving end knew. As American faculty I was embarrassed (again) at the arrogance and ignorance Karen Hughes displayed. I hope she got some of the message from the students.
Of course they want more independence; it will come.
So much for thinking I had dropped off the end of the earth….
OH – saw my first camel a couple days ago in the back of a pickup truck along with a steer. It was laying down and not very happy.
Have another gecko in the house. It is living in the downstairs can. I now have a cup to try to catch it and take it outside. Wildlife. How exciting.