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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Day 2: Learning the True Application of Insha Allah

We have learned that this visit wasn't as meticulously planned as we had expected.  Though I already have gotten used to the fact that most Saudis operate on a scale of time much different than my own, this fluidity in our itinerary surprises even me.  I suspect that, upon careful reflection, most Saudis would say that insha allah, or "God willing," is their favorite phrase.  It is used anytime a plan has been made, recognizing that any event is up to God and therefore subject to change.  In America, generally, if we say something is going to happen, we make it happen, but on this trip, plans can be made or broken without issue.  This is just one minor way we have to change our attitudes to fit the culture of our host country.

We are now well settled into our rooms and are definitely appreciating the expenses paid by the Saudi government.  Our rooms are great, with lots of room and mirrors for precise hijab-checking.  At noon, we met and ate together.  I should take a picture of the expansive spread we have available for lunch each day.  My plate was covered, yet I still got to finish with some baklava, walnut pastry thingies, and a new dessert called Om Ali, a soupy, warm mix of what I think was shaved coconut.

From the 4th floor, we have a good view of downtown Riyadh.

The triangular building with the sphere on top is Al Faisaliyah Center

The back of the Ritz Carlton Complex
Now, we will visit a nearby mall attached to the Kingdom Center and have a traditional Saudi dinner.  I fear that this could involve eating sticky rice with my fingers.  Maybe I can persuade the waiter to slip me a fork when no one's looking.  Until then!

Me on the second floor of our hotel--Saudis have the best taste in light fixtures. 


Friday, December 28, 2012

Day 1: Introductions and Travel


 As I sit with swollen feat in seat 32H on my way to Doha, I’m still having a hard time grasping my good luck in being selected for this trip.  Although restrictions are in some ways loosening, it is incredibly difficult to obtain a visa to Saudi Arabia.  In addition to being able to enter the country, the group of students on this visit, 10 in all, receive free airfare, private hotel accommodations, food, visits with some important and diverse people within the kingdom, as I’m increasingly experiencing, tons of free swag.  I’m incredibly grateful for my professor’s recommendation into the program and my acceptance by NCUSAR.

The group travelling with me is diverse and well-informed.  To qualify for this visit, one must have been in some way active with the Model Arab League and be a US citizen.  Model Arab League is organized by NCUSAR and is really similar to Model UN in form and organization; you can look it up at ncusar.org/modelarableague/.  We are all studying some variety of social science, but the trip is dominated by Political Science/International Relations majors.  Often, at Model UN and Model Arab League conferences, I feel disadvantaged by not attending a school with more advanced classes like international law or specialized regional or international organization-focused courses, but on this trip, we are all very diverse and I think that our unique situations have made us each the most knowledgeable in one area or another.  We’re each an expert on something.  I have also done my research on Saudi Arabia to prepare for the discussions we’ll be having.  I've focused my studies on the Middle East since high school and, at least, harbor few of the characteristically American stereotypes about the region and people.  Still, I know our trip is going to be an eye-opening experience for each of us. 

I earlier watched a beautiful sunset over what I think was Turkey—a green land of snaking, skinny rivers.  I’m sad to report that I missed seeing the Tigris River, as I had to take a rare opportunity of the passenger to my left waking up so I could leave and stretch my legs.
Yesterday, my parents dropped me off in DC to avoid my paying a hefty parking rate and to say goodbye.  My mom walked up with me with the outward motivation of helping me with my bags, but really she just thought she was going to make a 30-second assessment of the people that would be providing for me for the next 10 days.  Later, I was informed of how cute it was that my mom escorted me to the council office.

We had some brief introductions, but there was a Facebook group for the trip I didn't know about, and everyone was already acquainted but me.  We met with the NCUSAR employees that would be leading the trip and it was time for our first meeting.  We got to hear from Mr. Joshua Yaphe, who works within the State Department in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) as the Arabian Peninsula analyst, making him particularly knowledgeable on Saudi Arabia.  He spoke extensively on SA with no notes.  He referenced rulers, agreements, and terrorist attacks that I’d never heard of without hesitation.  Although the discussion wasn't completely over my head, some students were more aware of those things and therefor more involved in the discussion.  I would like to do some research and write up brief reports on the discussions with speakers like Mr. Yaphe.  I take extensive notes during speakers and may be able to write something worthwhile. 

Our next presenter was a DC ARAMCO employee, Abdulaziz Al-Shalfan.  ARAMCO is the Saudi national oil and natural gas company, with the largest oil reserves and production capacities in the world.  ARAMCO stands for Arabian American Oil Company as it initially was formed by a concession for the American oil companies Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) and Texas Oil Company (now Texaco) to drill on Saudi soil.  Mr. Al- Shalfan placed much emphasis on ARAMCO’s dedication to research and charitable giving, highlighting 3 structures entirely funded by the company in the kingdom: a university, a cultural center, and a research center.  During our visit in SA, we will most likely visit ARAMCO in the kingdom, after which I will write a more extensive report on this oil giant.  In addition to his presentation about his company, the young Saudi man discussed his homeland, showing pictures of various cities and explaining characteristics of each region of Saudi Arabia.  The oil fields are in Saudi Arabia’s biggest region, The Eastern Province, but the monies made by oil in the Eastern Province are spread throughout the kingdom, making it filled with beautiful architecture, well-kept gardens, and pristine beaches.  He told us that the thing he missed most about home was his family.

Next, we traveled to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in the US where we watched a really cool video meant to acquaint us with some of the things we’ll be experiencing and culture shock we might feel while in the Kingdom.  The video gave me some good questions I can ask to the people we meet with, and the employees were extremely inviting to questions. 
Once we arrive in Riyadh, we will be greeted by an official from the embassy and shuffled through customs.  Then, we will be taken to our hotel to prepare for our first meetings to start at around noon tomorrow.  I’ll use this time to build up some gumption about practicing my Arabic.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Saudi Arabia Tomorrow


My bags are packed, and I am officially ready to fly to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia tomorrow.  My parents are driving me to the NCUSAR offices in the morning.  The group will sit for an orientation, travel to the Saudi Cultural Mission in Arlington, VA, then head to the airport by nighttime.  I have yet to see an itinerary for this trip, which has made my planning a bit less fun.  All I can do is make sure my room is ready for a crazed day of packing for Dubai the day I return to the US.  An update on where we'll be travelling in the kingdom will come soon!
I've settled for a few business outfits, a few casual outfits, about 5 hijab options, and, impressively, only 2 pairs of heels, one pair of sneakers, and one pair of flats

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Some Slighted Readings

The NCUSAR has provided me with a huge reading list for the trip to Saudi Arabia.  I have not exactly completed the list, but I believe my efforts were noble, given the dryness of a few of these pieces.  The purpose of the readings was to better prepare us new to the kingdom for enlightened conversations with the various people we're going to be meeting with.  I don't really see myself recalling this information during a discussion, but I'm keeping it with me to reflect on during and after the trip.

In addition to the NCUSAR literature, I've made a few selections of my own.  I read, for my Middle Eastern History class, Inside the Kingdom by Robert Lacey, which ranges in content from the royal family of Al-Saud to the Saudi 9-11 hijackers.  I intend to bring it to glance over again on the plane.  I really enjoyed the book when I read it before, but at the time I really had no fascination with Saudi Arabia and little of the information was retained.  
I've also been reading a few books on my Kindle by Jean Sasson.  Sasson is an American woman who moved from Alabama to Saudi Arabia in the 70s.  She began a career of writing true stories about women she met in the Middle East. Even her autobiography, American Chick in Saudi Arabia, was largely comprised of stories about a few women she met in her earlier days in SA that left significant impressions on her.  She wrote stories about women forced into marriage as young girls, spending difficult lives under the rule of men.  The veiling of women and older girls seems to be a topic she keeps coming back to.  Her stories range from a woman forced by her husband to keep having children even though the couple was related and could only produce disabled or stillborn babies to a Bedouin woman in a souk who embraced her life and culture, relishing talk of her veil, the men in her life, and her country.  Although Sasson's autobiography touches on some heavy subjects, it doesn't seem to come close to the gripping and terrifying aspects to her better known Princess Sultana trilogy, which I haven't finished but will comment on later.  Sasson's autobiography was engaging and informative, but Princess Sultana cuts the breath out of my lungs when the author describes horrors inflicted on Sultana and the women she loved.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Preparatory Shopping

I have done it and finally made the purchase that has been looming over my head since first hearing that I had won the NCUSAR trip to Saudi Arabia.  I have purchased an abaya.

For those who may not know, an abaya is the long dress worn over what I'll just call regular clothes by Muslim women while in places men other than their husbands and immediate family members will be.  They are long-sleeved and cover everything from neck to feet.  They might be one piece to be pulled over the head, zip down the back, or button in the front.  In Saudi Arabia, abayas are almost always black.  They are worn with a hijab, a piece of fabric that covers the hair.

I searched online for places in the Maryland/DC area that sell Islamic clothing.  One was listed in Alexandria, VA, but seemed to have moved, for my directions led me to a pungent and sharply lit Thai massage parlor, and they certainly didn't know where I could get an abaya.

Having learned my lesson, I called a store I found located in Greenbelt, MD.  Lucking, I got an answer and spoke to a man with perfect English who directed me to Beltway Plaza Mall; this store also had moved from the address listed online.

The man knew I was the one who called before I even spoke, although it had been hours since our telephone conversation.  He helped his less befuddled customers first and directed me to the abayas.  Each one I chose for myself was too short.  I told him that I didn't want to cause a problem amongst the Saudi men by showing too much sexy foot skin, which he thought was maybe a little too funny.  We chose a huge abaya that dragged the floor and had these ridiculous long tapered sleeves, like the iconic gowns of Mortitia Adams.  I think I'll be able to flip and tuck the sleeves in a way to offset this drastic effect.

                                ABAYA AND HIJAB                      CRAZY SLEEVES!

I also chose a grey Amira hijab (the kind that's just a tapered tube, like a giant icing bag, that requires little skill to put on) and a little black hijab pin.  The abaya was $50, the Amira, $12, and the pin, 50 cents.  I'm sure I could have haggled the price, but I had spent a lot of his time asking questions about how to wear certain items, levels of hijab formality, and most importantly shoes.  My abaya will require a low heel, or I'm going to trip, show my forbidden legs, and get deported by the religious police my first day.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

My Background

Before I begin posting about the trips themselves, it may be useful to explain my experience and interests (students read: "qualifications.")  I have had a deep interest in the Middle East region since high school.  The history and politics are fascinating, accompanied by a beautiful religion and culture refreshingly unlike my own.  I saw my potential in political science mostly through Model UN in high school.  My first step toward pursuing what became fervent goals of working in diplomacy within the Middle East was enrolling in Arabic classes at Anne Arundel County Community College my senior year of high school.  My tuition was halved by a program called "Jump Start," an opportunity I highly recommend to any AACPS high school-ers.  My classes were great.  They were challenging and fun, and learning Arabic became my way to differentiate myself from the rest of my graduating class.

In my junior year of high school, I competed in Junior Miss.  Junior Miss is a scholarship program that seems a lot like a pageant in form, but includes academics and gives no preference to beauty as traditional pageants do.  Girls who compete in Junior Miss find a number of doors opened for them, as I did in the form of a full tuition, room, and board scholarship from Troy University in Alabama.  Although, at the time, I would have much preferred a more prestigious mid-Atlantic school, I now see what a blessing attending Troy is, primarily in allowing me to travel while working on my undergraduate studies.  Troy doesn't offer Arabic, but I took all the political science and history classes that contributed to my understanding of the Middle East.  Over the summer of 2012, I attended the University of Maryland through the Summer Intensive Arabic Program.  The program was challenging and rewarding, and it recharged by Arabic to allow me to continue studying in Dubai.

Over the past few years, I've applied to a multitude of internships and study abroad scholarships to no avail. It was very discouraging; I thought my Troy education had seriously disadvantaged me against students from other schools better known for political science.  My break came from the National Council on US-Arab Relations (NCUSAR).  NCUSAR sends students who have been successful in the Model Arab League on an all-expense-paid trip to Saudi Arabia.  My professor nominated me, but I thought my chances of winning were slim; I was very happily mistaken.  Shortly after, I received an email that I was selected as a 2013 Clinton Scholar at American University in Dubai.  The scholarship covers tuition and room costs, and it is for  this I feel that now Bill and I would get along grandly.

If there is any interest in what, I think, specifically won me those scholarships, I'd be happy to share to anyone applying.  I hope that my next post on preparing for Saudi Arabia might be a bit less dry.  But until then, I'll be catching up on some friends from home and my Arabic.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Marhaba--Welcome

On December 27, I will be flying to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to begin a 10-day tour of the kingdom, led and organized by the National Council on US-Arab Relations (NCUSAR).  Two days after I return to DC, I will fly to Dubai, UAE to complete a semester at American University of Dubai.

This blog will be my primary method of cataloging my experiences in the Middle East.  I have no gift for creative writing, but working on this blog appeals to me as a challenge to write more frequently, a resource for future study abroad students, a means to bridge the gap between Americans and the Arab world created by misunderstanding, and a foundation for my own future writing projects.  My goal is to write about the things that can only be seen by an observer on the ground in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.  I'll include details that would be withheld from travel guides.  I will also give some advise for travelers or researchers likely to follow me to the Middle East, explaining the many lessons I'm sure to learn the hard way.  My intention is to blog through essays and photos regularly, likely uploading most posts after the weekend (which is Friday and Saturday in most Muslim countries).  Most of my school assignments will be "due by Sunday," so why not include my blog in this scheduling?

I am completely inexperienced in blogging and would appreciate any feedback you may offer.  I anticipate having four types of readers (or, more realistically, temporary surveyors) :
1.) Friends and family interested in what trouble I'm getting into in a foreign country (and because this is easier than teaching my grandmothers how to Skype),
2.) Study abroad students from Troy University who are maybe discouraged by a lack of precedent in travelling to certain places by Troy students or could use some encouragement and advise for the planning stages of their trips,
3.) Students interested in either NCUSAR programs or studying at AUD,
4.) The general wanderers of the internet, drawn in hopefully by pretty pictures or intelligent prose, not embarrassing drabness or immaturity in my writing.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, but follow me in order to experience these two amazing opportunities with me.


About Your Author

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Troy, AL, United States
I am a Political Science student at Troy University in southeastern Alabama. I have been given fantastic opportunities to travel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other brief trips, to study and glimpse other cultures. I believe there is much to be learned about other people while studying, and I want to share my experiences with you.