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Volume 30, Number 3May/June 1979

In This Issue

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The Students and the States

"I had heard that America was a paradise, all green and covered with flowers."

"I thought everybody was rich and had cars six meters long."

"I heard Americans used technology for everything and so I saw them in their kitchens just pushing buttons to get their dinner."

"I expected America to be all big cities with high buildings and streets filled with cars."

Such images, it seems, are common to the young Arab students now pouring into American colleges and universities and seeing the United States for the first time. They quickly learn, of course, that their impressions are false - and sometimes that comes as a surprise.

Khadija Harery discovered in Syracuse that American flowers bloom only in season, and that the ground was usually covered with snow - pretty, but not a paradise.

Mohammed-Amin Gashgari, now writing his dissertation on polymer engineering at Stanford University, found that a good many Americans can't afford big cars, that students on his Palo Alto campus own more bicycles than automobiles and that some even take the bus.

In Chicago, Abdullah Zaid, a candidate for his doctorate in history, discovered that he could get coffee, Coke and candy by pushing buttons, but not meals.

And Adnan Khodary studying public administration at the University of Southern California, discovered that the country had slums as well as skyscrapers - but also that America's scenic grandeur is incomparable. An ardent traveler, like many Saudis, he has explored inner cities, high-rise apartments and the glories of the Grand Canyon.

Adnan is not unusual. Many Arab students are tireless travelers and the Saudi students in particular are always ready to hop on planes to Hawaii or Florida or to pack themselves and a few friends into a car and drive off to see Disneyland or Niagara Falls. Most can rattle off the names of the states they have driven through and one at least traveled by train from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco "just to see the country."

Outside the classroom, some students also ski, swim, play tennis or ride. Unlike Americans, however, they do not regard sports as a serious enterprise. Though some of the large universities have Saudi students on their soccer teams, or even unofficial all-Saudi teams, sports are loosely organized and purely for fun.

Like all students, Arab students in the States also spend a lot of time listening to music - but not, they add, the high-volume hard rock so popular with their American brethren. Although many like American pop and country music - and some understand and enjoy Western classical music - few like what they call "crazy music." Instead they play tapes of Arab music, brought with them or mailed to them by their friends. They much prefer the calmer statements of the 'ud and rebaba or, during Ramadan, the recorded voice of a muqri chanting the Koran.

Each student, of course, responds differently to the challenge and strangeness of life in the United States. Some hug their traditional ways, spending most of the time outside the classrooms with their families or with Arab friends at home, while others adapt easily to life in dormitories or shared graduate housing and claim to have had, while in the United States, more American friends than Arab.

But even students who have little contact with American students usually develop ties to at least one American family, often one they meet through a foreign students' club or similar organization. And invariably, they say, they find themselves at ease. In the family atmosphere of a traditional American Thanksgiving or Christmas, or on holiday visits to American families in their summer homes, they find at least a semblance of what nearly all Arab students miss most: the closeness and warmth of their families.

To Arabs, family ties are stronger and more important than time, money or work. Students in the States, therefore, frequently run up enormous telephone bills talking to their families halfway around the world. At three dollars a minute, they talk to everyone at home at the time they ring, maybe once a week or once a month.

For that reason they are puzzled by the offhand attitudes of American students who "only send a postcard when somebody in the family is sick," and are openly shocked by American youths who criticize their parents and seem to leave home either casually or eagerly.

It is not, however, the only shock. By and large Arab students like America and Americans. They like America's openness, its great variety - of landscapes, cities, people, food and music - and its efficiency: public service systems that work and universities that offer a wide selection of courses and provide well-equipped libraries and laboratories. They also remark on the number of people who take evident pride in their work, and on the speed with which things get done. But adjustment, nevertheless, is difficult.

This is especially true for Saudi students, according to one Saudi Arab graduate student's dissertation on cross-cultural education. Saudi students, he wrote, "come from a traditional society with a restricted culture to study in a modern, highly technological society with nearly unrestricted cultural diversity."

That observation is certainly true. But what does it mean? It means laying aside their national dress, the flowing white thobe and ghutra, and substituting western clothes. It means facing a wide range of unknown dishes at every meal - and learning to identify forbidden pork in its various disguises. It means learning to eat hamburgers, pizza and artichokes with their fingers but lamb and rice with a knife and fork It means awakening to church bells on their new day of rest instead of rising to the call of the muezzin to prayer. It means coping, for the first time, with standards of dress and behavior that would be utterly unacceptable at home-and with the realization that few in the States are shocked at them.

It is not an easy adjustment, says Saleh al-Hathloul, an MIT doctoral candidate in architecture, art and environmental studies. "When you first come, you see the cultural differences, but you are not sure how you are supposed to react Our culture has taught us dearly what is right and what is wrong, but here we are bewildered by a lot of new ideas and new ways of doing things. Often we must decide instantly - with only an occasional cue - how to behave."

"When I first came, I stayed with a family. About two days after my arrival, a young woman from next door came in to show off a new dress. I passed her in the hall and instinctively turned my head to look away. That was insulting to her. Today I would say, 'What a nice dress.'

"Feeling your way, you learn how society operates, but it takes longer to find out that there is not just one right way to behave. I really began to change when I moved from engineering - where one plus one is two - into architectural design, where there are so many variables, so many points of view, so many ways to handle a problem. Now I see that there is not just a Saudi way and an American way and I have learned to appreciate all kinds of opinions even if I don't agree with them."

Arab students in the States are also confused by apparent gaps and dichotomies in American thinking. Television, for example, which offers some Arab students their first view of American values - both in the Arab world, where American programs are widely shown, and in the U.S. - seems to consider violence as entertainment. Yet Americans constantly warn the new students about unsafe streets. This, to many Arabs - and especially to those from Saudi Arabia, where street-crime is rare - is difficult to comprehend.

Some students are also dismayed by television's wildly inaccurate or outdated portrayals of the Arab world: the exclusive emphasis on dunes, tents, camels and belly dancers. "Because of TV," one student said, "Americans are sophisticated but not really knowledgeable."

Arabs are disturbed too by light-hearted questions such as: "Do you live in a tent? Do you ride camels?" Even Arabs who understand American humor - and know that no insult is intended - find such comments difficult to dismiss and would agree with anthropologist Saad Sowayan of Berkeley, who found many Americans "not really unkind, but insensitive."

Arab students are also troubled by the differences in personal relationships. Although they enjoy the ease of casual American friendliness, they find that most Americans are "too busy" for real friendship. Neighbors who merely nod a perfunctory "good morning" and go their own way, or acquaintances who never respond to a casual invitation, but need a definite date and time, puzzle the inexperienced Arab student.

With a background of extended family, clan and community, he is accustomed to close interlocking relationships which take precedence over immediate individual concerns. To him, therefore, Americans seem always to be in a rush, "even on weekends," their lives ruled by a clock which determines where they should be from moment to moment. Few Saudis' lives, for example, have been tightly scheduled - with this time exclusively for work, that for play and that for family obligations - so they tend to live more flexibly.

Student social life is often difficult too. "At first I didn't know how to refuse a drink," said one Saudi student. "I was torn between the tenets of my religion and my desire to participate in American life - so I used to pretend I had an allergy to alcohol that kept me from drinking. Then I learned to say, 'I'm a Muslim and I don't drink' and I found that Americans respect this more than they respect allergies."

American life, nevertheless, does intrude. University schedules, the pressure of academic studies and the distractions of college life mean that it is difficult for devout Muslims to practise Islam to the letter: praying five times a day, or fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. Some students, consequently, do not meet all their obligations.

On the other hand, some students report that their experience in America has strengthened their attachment to Islam. "At home I prayed because someone reminded me to do it," one said. "Now it is my responsibility and I pray because I want to thank God for what I have. You do not always have your family with you, or your friends, but you do have God with you all the time."

For some Arab male students in the United States, the most difficult adjustment is sharing their everyday world with women. Arab students from the conservative countries, for example, are accustomed to family participation in arrangements for marriage; thus they find the easy permissive friendships between young men and women difficult to accept.

Student responses to this vary. Some conservative students - often the most religious, and active in the Muslim Students Association - say that they have never initiated a conversation with a female student, even though they work beside and with women in the classroom or the laboratory. Others have broken the hearts of, and had their own hearts broken by young American women. The majority, however, have taken a reasonable and cautious course. While they are friendly, and occasionally do date, they prefer socializing in groups, men and women together but with the sexes often apart in the same room. Marriages, therefore, are rare.

Some Arab students, of course, do marry in the States, but Saudi students almost invariably marry a Saudi girl in Saudi Arabia, often because they are lonely, but also because they want to share their American experience. As one graduate student said, "I had become different during my years here and I wanted a wife who would understand me. And I thought it would be good for both of us to start life away from our families and get to know one another." Another, who has written home to his family and asked them to consider a wife for him, said, 'Just as America has opened my eyes to many things, I want to bring back a wife and open her eyes and say: 'Look at all this.'"

America, then, surprises, upsets, delights, challenges and - to some extent - changes Arab students. Most, nonetheless, remain Arab to the core. Virtually no Saudi students, for example, elect to remain in the United States when their degree is won. Instead they return to Saudi Arabia - proud of it, confident of its cultural values and ready to work for its future.

Rehab Massoud, an undergraduate at USC, is a good example. He believes he is there to find out how America works and how its citizens think and act. He has, therefore, visited a variety of churches and temples, attended weddings and funerals and "asked a lot of questions about religious belief." He emerged, he said, "satisfied with my own."

Saudi Arabs, Massoud went on, want to take the good things from America and avoid the mistakes. "We will take the technology the scientific things, but not the customs or the culture. To put it in another way, I want to be able to put myself in other people's shoes, but I am not going to lose my own."

Doctorates For The Distaff

Not all the Arab students on American college campuses are men. Women are also studying in the United States, many on government scholarships. Some, in fact, are reaching for - and earning - their doctorates. And, again, students from Saudi Arabia are in the forefront.

Because government schools for girls were not established in Saudi Arabia until 1960, many Western observers overlook the fact that some Saudi women have been studying abroad for years. Usually they went to Egypt and Lebanon, but as early as 1955 some Saudi women began to attend college in the United States and others have been unobtrusively earning degrees in a variety of disciplines since.

Soraya Ahmed Obeid, for example, received a government scholarship in 1961 for study at Mills College and later went to Wayne State to earn a doctorate in English literature. Fatin Amin Shaker received a doctorate in sociology from Purdue and returned to the kingdom, where she became the first woman to talk on radio and write about women's affairs. Ibtisam al-Bassam earned her doctorate in education at Michigan State and is now dean of the Girl's College in Riyadh. Soraya al-Torki, a Ph.D. from Berkeley, is the only Saudi woman to have taught in an American university: in the anthropology department at Northwestern in 1976-77.

Naila al-Sowayel is another example. The daughter of a former Saudi Arab ambassador to the United States, Naila is simultaneously working part-time as Washington correspondent for the Saudi Press Agency and writing her doctoral dissertation on Saudi Arabia's role in international organizations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. She is also a firm believer in the potential of Saudi girls. "Women," says Naila, "are Saudi Arabia's greatest untapped natural resource"

Until the Saudi government started paying tuition for wives who attend college while their husbands are on scholarships, married women had to pay for university courses themselves.

One example is Khadija Harery a lively, articulate blonde from Mecca who married after high school and came to America with her husband. "I was determined to get an academic degree," she says, "and the only way was to learn the language." She taught herself English by watching television with a dictionary in her hand. "I would not see other Arab women those first months; as soon as I knew enough English words I went to the YWCA, where I found foreign women who would talk to me."

Later, when she was admitted to Ohio State to study accounting, her husband, majoring in chemistry there, said he would go without food if necessary to stretch their living allowance to cover her tuition. But he didn't have to; at the end of a year, the government granted her a scholarship which has since financed her master's degree in public administration from Syracuse University.

Because of tradition in Saudi Arabia, many government jobs - those in which women would work side by side with men - are closed to Khadija. But Khadija, undeterred, plans to teach if she can at the women's college at King Abdulaziz University. "I just want to give something back to my country," she says.

Another example is I'tadel al-Harithy, who is working for a master's in international development from the American University in Washington D.C. "I'm fascinated by the new economic order which is looking at the problems of poor nations and trying to help them. This is what interests me, and although I know it will be difficult to find a job in this exact field, I can probably teach international studies. And perhaps one day..." I'tadel has good reason to hope; her sister, who received her undergraduate education at Portland State in the 1960's, is today one of three adminstrators of the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, directing the out-patient clinic.

Then there is Nasmah Mukharech, who is studying civil engineering at Boston University while her brother, Kemal, is taking his degree at MIT. Nasmah chose engineering because of her strength in math and science. "I wanted a major which would make me use my intelligence and my capabilities. Maybe I'm being unrealistic, but..." she shrugs. "I want people to know I have a head on my shoulders," she says, "but I also want to remain feminine."

Since femininity to all women usually involves the demands of domesticity, some of the women students have had difficulties. Nearly all Saudi women, for instance, live with their husbands or with other members of their families, and one, who had been sharing an apartment with her brother and a nephew, found that instead of studying, she could not break the habit of looking after their needs. To get on with her studies, therefore, she moved into a campus dormitory for women.

In some cases, the men of the family simply pitch in and help with household tasks. During one interview, Abbas Bafakih, who is writing his dissertation on Arabic literature at the University of Utah, brewed tea, poured it and talked while giving his nine-month-old daughter Alhan her bottle because his wife was attending class. "I never thought I'd be doing this!" he laughed, as he put the nipple back into the baby's mouth.

Considering that most Saudi men are not in the habit of sharing the housework or tending babies, Abbas' adjustment has been easy and graceful. But he is not unique. One Saudi claims he is now doing half the cooking forh is fellow students - his wife and his sister - as one part of the adjustment to student life in America.

Perhaps the best indication of the future is that many men are now well aware of women's capabilities. The King Faisal Scholarship, awarded for the first time this year by Saudia, the national airline, went to a woman: Soad Lary, a young teacher who has taught English in Jiddah schools. She was chosen from among nine finalists - seven men and two women - by an all-male board on the basis of an interview and an essay she wrote on the importance of children's education, in particular the education of girls. Soad is getting a master's in elementary education at the University of Tulsa while her husband is studying auto mechanics at Oklahoma State.

In short, the Saudi women on U.S. campuses are proving their value, astonishing their American professors and displaying a determination to succeed at what they set out to do. Yet they also recoil from women's liberation as they see it in America. To the contrary, they value the culture and the traditions from which they come.

One girl, for example, is working on a dissertation on an American campus, but strongly supports arranged marriages. "I think they are more successful," she says. And Naila al-Sowayel, despite her 10 years in America working and studying with men, still says that she is skeptical about dating. "The strong tradition of family and tribe never leaves us," she says, "and going off alone with someone is something we don't think about."

What they do think about, says Naelah Mousli, is helping their country. Now studying for an M.A. in petroleum engineering in Tulsa, Naelah feels that Saudi girls simply want to help. "Our country needs its men and its women," she says. "There is a need for creativity and hard work and we just want to be part of it."

“Our culture has taught us clearly what is right and what is wrong, but here we are bewildered by a lot of new ideas and ways of doing things. Often we must decide instantly—with only an occasional cue—how to behave.

When I first came, I stayed with a family. About two days after my arrival, a young woman from next door came in to show off a new dress. I passed her in the hall and instinctively turned my head to look away. That was insulting to her. Today I would say, 'What a nice dress!”

Saleh al-Hathloul

Candidate for Ph.D. in Architecture, Art and Environmental Studies, MIT

“In America you feel part of the university. If you have a problem the profs have an open door. You're exposed to a variety of subjects, sociology, culture, attitudes. Not just one specialty. You can choose courses outside your required major. You hear different viewpoints.

Americans are friendly, but it can be very lonely there at first. You learn to be self-reliant. Gradually you learn to feel at ease, converse with anybody. Every day in my present work I'm in touch with U.S. businessmen. They feel relaxed with me. Easy. Informal.”      

Abdul Mohsen Moushegah

Businessman, al-Khobar

B.A., Whittier College, 1969

“In the U.S. studies are flexible. You can choose electives to suit your interests. They're not really isolated from your major. One day you'll benefit. You learn research methods. You learn how to deal with people, learn to listen, how to cope with problems.

Accounting you can study anywhere. But exposure to others, a way of life! You learn how to look for something better, get ideas and make them come true.”

Sami Khalifa Algosaibi

Businessman, Riyadh 

B.A., USC, 1971;M.A., USC, 1974

“What I like about America is that although people are respected for their knowledge or position they can still be approached as persons, on an equal level. And you may be wrong, but you are always entitled to argue your position. For example, in class you have an open exchange with your professor, and don't just write down what he says unquestioningly.”

Khalid al-Qahtani

Businessman, Dammam B.A., Seattle University, 1975

This article appeared on pages 26-32 of the May/June 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1979 images.