The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.

In Memory of the lives of 15 Makkah Schoolgirls, lost when their school burnt down on Monday, 11th March, 2002. The Religious Police would not allow them to leave the building, nor allow the Firemen to enter.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Student Exchange 

I had at one time written to say that we don't have exchange visits of Saudi students to the USA. One reader wrote to correct me very gently (although, for an Arab male, being corrected, and by a woman at that, is still a "loss of face". ;-)) and wrote an account of one such visit that she had been involved in. I've reprinted her letter here, with minor editing for brevity. It's a wonderfully observant account of what happens when our two cultures meet.

Mr. A,

I found your blog yesterday, and haven’t been able to put it down. It’s a very good read. In one of your posts you mentioned that it’s too bad that teens are not allowed to be exchange students. It’s a very small point, and you don’t loose face. :-)

In June 2004 I was one of the host parents to a group of Saudi teen exchange students. A Saudi institution was the Arab sponsor. The US Department of State and an international exchange program were the American sponsors. 15 students were placed in groups in three US cities, with host families. The host family selection and activities were handled by volunteers at the local level.

You can play spot the female with this group. Our group had three young women and two young men. Well, OK, one of the boys was no longer a teen, and technically didn’t qualify for the trip, but hey, he was ½ royal. The parents of only one female student prevented her from going, as they had gathered at the airport. The one and only Saudi orientation occurred there. The families had known for a week that the female chaperone had asked her boss for two weeks off, and did not receive it. It was not until the orientation that the male chaperone announced that he had not gotten his visa from the US, and would not be accompanying the students. It seems he had not submitted the visa request soon enough, and he had a rather common Saudi name. A name similar to one of the 9/11 high jackers.

The following is long and rambling, but sets the stage, and Mrs. A may get a laugh or two.

Host families: middle class, white collar job families, in rural, suburbia and inner city locations. All were taking a social risk in this very conservative area, to host a Saudi student. I was in charge of finding host families and coordinating the two weeks in this location. I had many negative replies to hosting a KSA student. What WOULD the neighbors think? I had no preference for race or religion of the host families, just an open mind, and a caring home. None of the host families had domestic servants. Two weeks before the students were to arrive; the Saudi organizers changed the date of the arrival and departure. I lost three host families due to previously scheduled obligations. This caused a hosting crisis, and the program was almost cancelled in our area.

Student one: afore mentioned ½ royal. During the trip from the airport to the home city, announced that he could not share a bedroom with anyone else, nor a bathroom. He had packed two extremely large suitcases. So large that he could not possibly have shared a room with anyone besides his luggage. The host family quickly made plans to have their daughter live at Grandma’s house for the two weeks, so the host brother would not be sharing a room with the guest. He learned to share a bathroom. I wonder if he had to spit out the toothpaste between gritted teeth. If they were gritted, perhaps he should have brushed better. During the ride home he had a white knuckle grip on the dashboard. I don’t think he was used to a female driver (me).

Student two: 15 year old (yo) boy, very nice young man, smitten for Student three. He stayed with a family that had lived in Riyadh for ten years. Host brother and student learned much from each other. 15 yo host brother hosted begrudgingly due to his memories of life in a Riyadh compound, but softened up by the end of the stay. This student was the only one who had not been in the US before. The program goal was to bring over students that had not been here before. Saudi parents that had not traveled to the US before were very reluctant to allow their teen children to come over.

Student three: 15 yo young woman that removed the abaya and heavy clothing soon after boarding the plane. She just happened to be hosted with the inner city family. She fit right in with the Hispanic crowd in that neighborhood. She wore clothing more appropriate to a hot sunny climate, which I would not have let my own kids wear in my more rural and conservative area. None of the pictures from our students or area could be published in Saudi, as this student appeared in all of them, minus conservative clothing. This student did help her host mother with domestic chores.

Student four: 18 yo young woman, wore conservative clothes, but not a head scarf. She was very pleasant, and had a good stay with her family. She was definitely from a more affluent family, and by the grace of Allah, had been placed with the most affluent of the host families. She absorbed much of the experience, and participated well in the activities. Why do I feel it is necessary to report on what the girls wore, but not the boys? Have I fallen into a cultural trap?

Student five: 17 yo young woman, highly gifted academically, deeply religious, and the only female to wear conservative clothes and head scarf while here. She stayed with my family. She would like to become an Architect, but her father will not allow her to attend a university outside of KSA. She is biding her time studying business, until her father deems her old enough to study abroad, or until KSA has a program for females to study Architecture. My husband spent time with the family last time he was in KSA. I sent books on Architecture for her. They had to go in clandestinely, as they included design reasoning for different types of public buildings including churches.

The exchange program was set up with several goals in mind. Perhaps I took them too literally. Feedback suggests that our group accomplished more in the way of cultural questioning and comparison. There were to be group discussions on differences in morals and ethics, volunteer opportunities, and get-togethers with local politicians. Here’s a sampling of the activities:

We attended an evening baseball game with fireworks. The boys thought this was fine. The girls had not been to a sporting event before. We did have to ask why. Student three asked for and received an autograph from one of the players. The autograph was not placed on a baseball.

Visit to a service at the local Jewish reformed temple. There was a bar mitzvah that evening. This was one of the most productive and open sessions. The host congregation and Rabbi were very welcoming. The Rabbi took the time to show the students around the Temple, and explain the symbolism and ceremony. This was the day when two Americans were killed in the ME. We were just trying to find a place to hang low, and look inconspicuous.

Visit to an inner city Southern Baptist Revival church. The Reverend Jasmine wore a sequined silver dress with flaming purple (not the color of the season) cape. Half way through the sermon, she had the congregation ‘Come On Down’, to give the visitors a hug. A jovial line of 200+ people came to hug the students. This action put the students on the spot. To pull back and avoid the hug would have been extremely insulting to the hosts. To hug someone gently, of the opposite sex was taboo for Muslims. The sermon contained many political messages that may have been lost on the students, but angered one host parent who disagreed with them.

Friday visits to mosques in two cities. The students did not realize that the churches and mosques are not State financed and State constructed in the US. They thought we had taken them to poor masjids for a reason. We explained that the congregations had to pay for the buildings and maintenance. A small congregation would not have an elaborate building. One was in an old inner city house. The basement room for the women had peeling paint and a carpet that was not too fresh. We were traveling to several activities in another city, and student four had forgotten to pack a head covering that day. She looked through the pile of available extra head coverings, and cringed at the thought of the other students seeing her. The head coverings were not high style, but basic and homemade. It was truly a struggle for her. They did manage to leave a few $20’s in the collection box. The political messages delivered by the Imam were lost on the host families, but understood by the students. I thought the Imam was talking about the US government, but the student informed me he was talking about Shiite leaders.

Volunteer opportunity One. We sorted food shipments for the food pantry for three hours. Students one and three had a tough time with this, as it was physical labor. Then they saw the women that had greeted them at the mosque the day before. The women were coming in for food. Student five and I managed to unload a medium box truck while student one took a smoke break. The food pantry was very grateful for the help provided by the group.

Volunteer opportunity two: spread bark mulch under the play structure at the local county park. Student three insisted on wearing white pants for this, much to the dismay of her host mother. They were each given a pitch fork, and told that the handle WOULD fit their hands. When they realized that we were not kidding, and they would not sit down for lunch until finished, they proceeded to help and got the job done. What was the moral of this story? When you offer volunteer services, you may not be working in a way that you want to give. But the most valuable service is to work where you are requested.

Visit to a private gun range by students two and five. We have photos of the young woman firing an M-60. I’m sure that her father was very pleased with those pictures. They also got a chance to tackle sporting clays.

Visit to the State Capitol. We had a caravan of four vehicles to carry the students and host families. After looking for parking on the street, we had to park in a garage 1 1/2 blocks away. Student one was puzzled about how we were going to get to the capitol building, and asked if we were going to take a cab. I responded that he was going to have to use his own two feet. Our State Representative led the tour explaining the significance of the artwork, architecture, and State government. The students asked why there were seating balconies above the area where the representatives work and vote. “So that the public can see and hear how decisions are made.”

The morals and ethics class was hosted by senior engineers at my husband’s office. The students roundly denounced alcohol, amid some grumblings by host families. The intense anti-gay sentiments caused most of the Americans to sit drop jawed, knowing that there was a gay engineer in the room. The discussion about work ethics was lost on one student. He won’t have to use that information. The students had no qualms about shaking hands with someone of the opposite sex. It is a business meeting after all, and they had cultural orientation stating this would be normal. They then tried shaking hands with members of the very conservative Islamic mosque, and were silently, but soundly reprimanded. This situation was quite the cultural dilemma for them.

In the end, my student did return home and volunteer for those less fortunate, for 6 months. I give her a lot of credit for that. She is not the type to sit at home completing domestic duties. I’m a little worried about her finding an educated husband, who will respect her keen intellect and individualism. Her mother teaches, although she is off on maternity leave right now. Student one calls his host family occasionally; once from Paris, once from Dubai, once from the local coffee hangout, mostly around 2 AM our time.

What did the host families learn? A teen from Saudi is not so different from a US teen. They are pushing the boundaries of cultural and parental control. The Saudi girls wear the same things in KSA that they wore here, just with an abaya over it. Not all of the propaganda that our government feeds us about KSA is true. Americans plan far in advance for reasons as varied as technology and the price of airfare. Saudis still enjoy spontaneity.

I believe strongly in student exchange programs. They help to foster peace between nations. It is very hard to hate an entire nation when you have spent time with one of its individuals. A citizen does not always share the views of his government, and the two must be seen separately. I have poked a little fun at some of the teens in this description. It is done with both respect and a parental smile. The students had their share of poking fun at the hosts, but made sure it was done in Arabic.

Thanks for the continuing sagas on your blog site, Maa Salaama


Perhaps I should have warned you to put down your coffee cup before reading. I very nearly got a cardamon-flavored keyboard.

I love the bit about Student one wanting a cab to travel 1 1/2 blocks. Back home, of course, his driver would take him to the front door of wherever he was going, possibly quadruple-parking and holding up all the traffic; to be summoned later by cellphone for a pickup at the same spot. OK, I know KSA temperatures can get up to the 130's in the shade, but our ancestors used to be out herding animals in that, and it never killed them.

And on what part of her anatomy did Student three get her autograph?

Many thanks for that, Mary, that was great!

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