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Bridging the cultural gap

American students visit Saudi Arabia to understand its cultural anthropology

Last updated: Wednesday, December 19, 2012 1:50 PM
Students from Bates College paid a visit to an antique shop on their month-long educational trip to Saudi Arabia in May. — Photo by Leena Nasser

Casey Andersen and Devin Tatro


In May 2012, a group of 16 students from Bates College in the US went on a month-long educational trip to Saudi Arabia.

We traveled to Saudi Arabia seeking to learn about Saudi culture, society and people through the lens of cultural anthropology.

We were very fortunate for this opportunity to take part in what turned out to be an incredibly rewarding experience in the Kingdom.

Prior to the trip, we received foreboding comments from some people who tried to discourage us from going to the Kingdom. “You’ll have to cover up and wear the headscarf!” some friends admonished Devin Tatro, a student when she revealed her travel plans.

Tatro realized from their worried looks and hasty judgments, misinformed prejudices and negative stereotypes about the Saudi culture.

“People even warned me about the heat of the desert as if I would recoil in shock, change my mind, and thank them for saving me from certain danger,” she said.

These criticisms and misgivings heightened in each of us the desire to adventure in this poorly understood country.

We dreamt of towering sand dunes, camels and palm trees, but we also wanted to learn about other, more important, aspects of the Saudi society: the medical, legal, economic and political systems.

Encouraged not only by our friends’ misinformed comments, but also by what we heard in the news, we became eager to experience first-hand life in Saudi Arabia and then form our own opinions.

We wanted to experience the country in an entirely new light — one free from negative stereotypes, where we could delve deeper and learn what would be impossible to learn from books and the media.

We hoped that this knowledge would enlighten us and transform our understanding of the people and culture.

A few weeks later, upon arrival in the Kingdom, the women in our group were handed our silky, black abayas.

We cooed over the flowing cloth and elegant designs, lining up for a picture with broad, nervous smiles.

The long flight to Dammam removed us from our comfort zone, our homes across North America, Europe and Asia.

In this new place, we struggled to make sense of the world around us. We made efforts to immerse ourselves in engaging conversations with everyone we met; we interacted with women who are part of the continuous effort to improve the lives of Saudi women; we met artists who used art to share perspectives about their culture, their hopes and their dreams.

One woman spoke to us about her spiritual journey and her own views on defining Islam. The comedians of “La Yekthar” shared with us their desire to promote social change.

Their sense of humor has attracted many people to their shows, which offers constructive criticism of the Saudi society.

Their popularity and ability to connect to all types of people through humor has provided people with a uniting platform, where different people can laugh, connect and share issues presented in the series.

One definitive experience in learning to open our minds occurred at a mosque. After praying together, the men sat with the Imam, while the women had an intriguing question and answer session with the Imam’s daughter.

The young woman challenged our notions about the ‘Niqab’ (face cover) which were forged by unfamiliarity, exposing us to an important new perspective.

We expressed our concern that wearing a niqab would make a woman feel self-conscious of her body.

The Imam’s daughter graciously explained how she did not feel self-conscious at all when wearing a ‘Niqab’ — that she actually respected and loved her body, and like any other young women, when out with her female friends, she enjoyed getting dressed up.

She concluded with a wonderful comment: “If I didn’t cover and wear my ‘Niqab’ that’s when I would feel self-conscious.”

While we were visiting a souq in Riyadh, three elderly women sitting on a sidewalk called us over to join them for coffee.

Welcomed by their smiles, we sat down with them and began exchanging stories. They opened up to us, telling us their life stories and explaining to us how their lives have been shaped through different eras of Saudi Arabia. 

The unparalleled generosity of the many Saudis who eagerly invited us into their homes, offices and schools, shared delicious meals with us, and were quick to engage in inspiring dialogue about their country, opened our minds and shaped our perceptions of Saudi Arabia and its people.

We made new friends with whom we spent hours laughing, and we also had serious discussions with people of all ages and backgrounds about our shared hopes for a better world.

We were inspired by Saudis, young and old, who were empowered by their desire for knowledge and growth to strive to create a better world.


These people were committed to turning dreams into reality. We found ourselves immersed in this atmosphere that was uniquely Saudi: an inspiring force for mobilizing hope.

We were astounded by Saudis’ pride in their country, their desire for change, and their ability to bring it about.

We were moved by many entrepreneurs who incorporated their personal philosophies into their work, such as fashion designer Rania Moulla, architect Sami Angawi and comedians of La Yekthar, as well as by non-governmental organizations, including Friends of Jeddah Parks, Think-N-Link Corporation and Muwatana.

Their ability to serve as a powerful force for positive social change demonstrated to us that it will be possible for them to transform Saudi Arabia into the country they want it to be.

Being enveloped in this atmosphere that embraces mobilizing hopes and dreams of its people for a better world has had a contagious effect on us.

Our experiences in Saudi Arabia have motivated us to think more seriously about the world around us and our roles in this world.

We hope that by writing articles, meeting with international and Muslim student groups, and giving presentations to diverse audiences, we can transform powerful experiences like the Bates2Saudi course into lessons with the power to encourage the broader population to also embrace this ideal of mobilizing hope.

We hope that more students will want to engage in cross-cultural experiences so that their minds will be opened to new ideas and ways of thinking, mobilizing their hopes and dreams for a better world.

Moreover, we hope that we can all move toward greater mutual understanding and respect, not only between Americans and Saudis, Christians and Muslims, but between people of all countries and all faiths.

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