American visitors to Saudi Arabia come with their baggage of perceptions and on day one get their first cultural shock - especially those who come for the first time. Thanks to the media and the educational system, our image as backward, savage fundamentalists persists. Misperceptions lead to perception, and if they are repeated long enough they become reality. Once in the news, always in the news, and it’s difficult to remove the stigma once it sticks.
Some reporters and researchers write their reports during the long flight to Saudi Arabia, and come here to fill in the gaps. They look around every corner for political tension, religious extremists, battered women and street wars. Now and then they actually find what they are looking for and jump on it. That would be fine if at the same time they reported the other side of the story, which represents the norm more than the spicy stuff.
Just imagine if, after a visit to America, I write only about drugs, crimes and racial discrimination. While those problems exist in America as in any other society, they are not what America is all about. It is the same here.
We have our share of social ills such as fundamentalism, extremism, the marginalization of minorities, consumerism, drug abuse and the abuse of women and foreigners. But we also have bright spots. Look around and you will see inspired and inspiring people, young and old, men and women, liberal and conservative, Sunni and Shiite.
Such was the case recently with a visiting group of American intellectuals. We met in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry last week. Our group, the International Relations Committee, is made up of concerned citizens volunteering to build bridges of communication and understanding with the rest of the civilized world. The chairman of the committee, Amr Khashoggi, is an intellectual businessman, educated in American universities, like most of us, father to two bright kids who have just graduated and returned home to serve their country. They were all present at the meeting and at another gathering with Karen Hughes, U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.
Committee members come from different business, academic and government backgrounds. They include economist Dr. Nahed Taher, businessman Engineer Omar Khalifaty, journalist Ms. Maha Akeel, merchant Dr. Ghazi Binzagr, psychotherapist Assia Khashoggi, and political scientist, Ms. Ranya Bajsair.
Guests and hosts talked in a spirit of openness and friendship. Some were emotional, apologetic or frank. However, all expressed their sorrow, anger, disappointment, confusion, misunderstanding and criticism in a civilized way. At the end, we all felt like hugging each other. It was a great group therapy.
Alta Schwartz, director of Outreach program at the Georgia Middle East Studies Consortium, touched my heart. She expressed her dilemma as a Jew trying to reach out to us. She told me about a recent visit to Gaza and her shock and dismay at the Israeli abuse of Palestinians. How could she dissociate herself from Israeli policies and actions? She wants to rescue her religion from the extremists who have hijacked Judaism in Israel and America. She spoke of that tense moment when she tells an Arab that she is a Jew, and how she has gotten used to the frank discussions that follow and the friendships that result.
I told her of my experience in America when my best friend suddenly told me that he was a Jew as well as a Communist! I had that double-shock moment but it passed quickly. It really didn’t matter what his religion was as long as he treated me well. As it turned out, we ended up helping each other on school projects and learned a great deal about one another’s perspectives. After reviewing my dissertation about U.S. media bias toward Israel, he thanked me for moderating his views about Middle East history. I thanked him for standing up for me. He, and other colleagues, advocated changing class schedules to accommodate my Ramadan fasting hours.
Similar tense moments became easier, like when I found out that the wonderful doctor and nurse who took care of my newborn daughter were Jews. Alta liked my calling her a cousin. I explained to the rest that Jews and Arabs are Semite cousins. An American pointed out that we are all cousins. What stands between us can easily be torn down. The biased media, ignorant intellectuals, inconsiderate politicians, and geographic, cultural and political barriers can be overcome with a simple smile, hello and a handshake.
As soon as we talk and visit each other’s homes and meet with family members, we will discover how strikingly similar we all are. We all wake up every day worrying about school grades and job security, family well-being and neighborhood safety.
We go through our days striving for a better life, and a brighter future. And when we sleep, we have nightmares about losing the ones we care about, and confronting those we don’t. We dream about an environment of peace, love and prosperity.
If we just understand these basic facts about each other, it is the perfect win-win. Only the merchants of hate, war and misery will lose out in this victory of bridge-building for the sake of all humanity.