Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Leaving the Compound

Jeddah Women Have Style

Now, we are no longer living in the confined, idealistic world of the Saudi Aramco compound. We are traveling as foreigners through Saudi Arabia, getting a more authentic experience of the country and the culture.

Driving Through Jeddah

Many of us in the group feel we have finally cracked the shell of this Arabian nation. A visit to Effat College was invigorating and insightful as both Americans and Saudis held a frank discussion on misconceptions held by both countries. This college was the brainchild of Queen Effat, wife of King Al Faisal who back in the 50's had the vision to one day have higher education opportunities available for women. Over the years the school went from being an elementary school to a college.

Imagine the surprise to walk into this college and be greeted by many women of different races and nationalities, including a blonde woman who graduated from Yale. It seems like when you leave the United States, you meet so many other Americans who have chosen to live different lives, different than those on the mainland. Who is to say this is a lesser choice?

After going through the obligatory question and answer period, there was a breakthrough when we asked how Saudi Arabia would modernize and still keep its customs and traditions. Maha Al-Juffali Ghandour, Director of the Help Center (a special education program) responded clearly: "There is no contradictioin between being Muslim and being open-minded." However, the women on the panel pointed out that there is a big difference between Islamic law and Saudi law. Islamic law has existed for 1400 years and has been interpreted in different ways by different countries. It is the Saudis who have passed laws such as the wearing of the abayas, but in other Muslim countries such as Lebanon, women DO NOT wear abayas.

Nevertheless, the younger women, who have known no other way of life than to wear abayas in public and being forbidden to drive, defended their country's customs: "There is an advantage and disadvantage to everything in life. Hot weather makes us uncomfortable, but we don’t have to focus on physical appearance or men gawking at us on the street. We can focus on inner development, not appearance. "

When the issue of driving came up, we heard similar responses such as "we don't care if we are not allowed to drive. That is what we have a driver for." In fact, one expat American woman boldly said "I dread the day the government will allow me to drive because then I will be forced to make trips to the market, fight with traffic and congestion, etc." Robert from New York asked what the choices would be for Saudi women of lesser resources, and it was acknowledged that they did not have the luxury of the driver, but public transportation was available for them. Our discussion today broke new ground for increased dialogue between our cultures. The tour of the school got cancelled because neither side wanted to stop talking. Many business cards were exchanged and there is a strong desire to continue the communication with each other.

Being greeted at the IMC

Our next visit was to the International Medical Center, a private hospital in Jeddah. It is a new hospital with a beutiful building that incorprates all facets of Islamic art and beliefs into its practice. In fact, the architecture includes structures that resemble a fancy writing instrument as a reminder that "everything is written" and we must all answer to a higher authority: God. There are beautiful scriptures from the koran written on windows and in installations that remind the patients that they are not alone. There is a mosque on the first floor of the hospital, and sure enough, at noon, the call to prayer sounded. Many people made their way down to the mosque and began praying.

Mosque at IMC

This medical center has collaborated closely with America and has many Americans on their Board of Directors. It continues to amaze me just how much of a connection, an alliance, we have with this country. Americans have been engaged in business relationships (and private relationships too, with all the expats here!) for almost 100 years. Almost everyone we speak to knows English and speaks it well. In fact, at this hospital there were not just Americans, but British, Phillipine, Indian and Malaysian doctors and nurses.

Lunch at Byblos was so gooood...but I was still full from all the feasting from yesterday! This restaurant is Lebanes and we had a fantastic discussion with Noha Makarem, Principal os Global International School. She kept us so engaged with her views of Saudi culture as a Lebanese immigrant.

Even though we only have a two hour break before we visit Anqawi House and go shopping, I cannot help but blog and share with others what a positive learning experience this coninues to be. Every teacher should experience something like this on a regular basis throughout their careers. There are not enough words to express the appreciation we feel to our benefactors that made this learning experience possible.

Congratulatioins to Liz Jacobo who correctly stated that the price of oil currently hovers around $100. Five points to her new period 4 group. You can also earn points for posting comments and questions to the Blog, but hurry, because I only have 6 days left in this country!

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