I think I have been asked, “What was it like in Saudi Arabia?” about 45 times since I returned on October 16, and about five friends have asked why I haven’t blogged about it yet, so I’ll try to capture a few impressions in this first blog about KSA and then post more as I have time.
What was it like?
In case you’re just tuning in, this trip differed from other types of student trips in that our professor of Christian-Muslim dialogue, Dr. Lamin Sanneh, who knows Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud, was invited through diplomatic channels to visit Saudi Arabia, and he asked if he could bring a group of Divinity and Law students. So we were invited by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (the official name of the country, and the one they prefer) through the auspices of the King Faisal Center for Islamic Studies and research in Riyadh.This is unusual because the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not typically invite Christian groups to visit. The Kingdom is one of the most conservative Islamic states, and the open practice of Christianity is illegal in the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia protects Mecca and Medina, the heart of Islam, and much of their culture reflects that.
We had no itinerary or schedule for the trip, so we did not know what to expect. What I hoped, and what I think my fellow students hoped, is that we would have enriching encounters. I hoped to convey my own openness to and appreciation for Islam while feeling happy with and blessed by my own Christian faith and tradition.
When we arrived early in the morning on Sunday, officials from the King Faisal Center asked us what we what we wanted to do, and we rattled off a list of suggestions: historic sites, museums, a mosque, the first coeducational university in Saudi Arabia, and so on. We also requested the chance to have an exchange of ideas with other students and scholars. As a result, each day, the Center tried to arrange visits to these types of places.
One thing I learned early in the trip is that Riyadh is very new. The Kingdom itself was established in 1932, and Riyadh really started building up as a major capital city in the 1970’s. Most office buildings, universities, and dwellings are quite new, and we saw several construction sites along the newish-looking freeways and major thruways. One of our hosts told us, “There are not that many historic sites here.”
So I was delighted when we were taken to ruins of an old palace from about 500 years ago. Al Diy Ariah (not sure about the spelling here) is considered to be the palace of the 1st Saudi kingdom (Wahabi), and archeologists are turning it into a historical/tourism site. It was more like a small community than one palace, and it was built along a wadi that presumably provided shade and water. We were able to get a short tour from the head archeologist himself, who explained a few of the key discoveries of the site so far. We also saw Al-Masmak, a 19th-century fortress that was overtaken in 1902 by Ibn Saud, the first Saudi king of the Third Saudi Kingdom (that is, the current kingdom) during his consolidation of Saudi Arabia.
Other than these two sites, we saw many brand new places: the Faisaliyah office tower with corporate offices, a mall, trendy restaurants, etc; a fancy date emporium where one could sample and buy dates stuffed with all sorts of concoctions; two malls, which looked just like any other major urban mall except that the shoppers are in Saudi dress, and our women were reminded to wear abayas and keep our heads covered because the muttawas (morality police) were out. We also saw a high-end horse racing track, another fancy office building with a high observation deck (Kingdom Tower), an international soccer stadium … all fairly new.
But I didn’t go to Saudi Arabia to see malls and tall buildings; I went to talk to the Saudis who had been so gracious to invite us to their country and to convey my respect for them and my hope for future dialogue between Christians and Muslims. We did have some opportunities for both group discussions and one-on-one discussions with Prince Turki, Saudi officials, and scholars, and they were illuminating.
In many discussions, I was asked about political situations and American culture. How do Americans feel about the Israelis and Palestinians? (I did my best to represent the spectrum of American opinions.) How are Muslims treated in the United States? Does Yale have an Islamic studies program? (Not exactly.) Are you studying Arabic? Why aren’t you studying Arabic? Are you coming to Cairo to study? Why don’t you come to Cairo to study? (Ummmmm…. Let me get back to you on that one.) A majority of the Saudi officials and scholars we met earned their bachelor’s or doctorate degrees in the United States, so they are well-versed in English and American customs.
At first, I was surprised at all the political questions. I kept wondering, Do they know I’m a Divinity student? I study the Bible and theology, for God’s sake! Ask me about the Trinity, prophecy, our common Abrahamic roots! Tell me about Hadith! Then I remembered that to Saudis, state and religion are intimately connected, not treated separately as they are in the U.S. Saudis are sometimes circumspect and indirect, but most of the time, they wanted frank discussions. They were very direct in the topics they chose to bring up, at least with me, and they also seemed very anxious to hear my thoughts on a variety of matters.
But more poignantly, three scholars wanted to impress upon me their deep sadness about terrorist attacks upon the United States and their regret that some terrorists were of Saudi origin. “We do not agree with what has been done,” I was told several times. “It is very regrettable.” And I kept repeating, both in our discussion with Prince Turki and with scholars and diplomats, that I hoped to foster peace through interfaith dialogue. I hope a little of that happened.
And today, on All Saints Day, after hearing the news of the attack upon the Syrian Catholic Church in Iraq, I pray fervently for this dialogue to continue and to bear fruit. I pray for Christians and Muslims of good will to work for peace. My Savior says it can happen when we love our enemies (Luke 6:27), bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us. And so, I pray for all the dead, both Catholic and Muslim, who died yesterday, and I pray for the Christian and Muslim families who grieve. May God grant rest and mercy to the departed and peace to those of us, all of us, who remain. Insha’Allah.