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To walk a mile in another person’s shoes before passing
judgment – this is true American wisdom. Well, I’ve just walked a
mile – actually, about 7,000 miles – in somebody else’s shoes. They were the
shoes of an entire nation, and they belonged to Saudi Arabia.
I’ve just returned from a whirlwind trip through that country. Frankly, as a Jew, as a
liberated woman and as a fully Westernized, secular American, I expected the
But I didn’t get the worst. Instead, I got an education.
The first thing that struck me about Riyadh and Jeddah, the two largest
Saudi cities was how “American” they were. I expected to see something off
the set of the movie Casablanca, with a fez-wearing Sidney Greenstreet
swatting flies in a low, whitewashed building and an overhead fan turning
lazily on the ceiling. Instead, I found myself among gleaming glass and
steel skyscrapers that boasted retail stores that would be the envy of Rodeo
Drive – or Main St.: Saks Fifth Avenue, Victoria’s Secret, Safeway
Groceries, Chucky Cheese, McDonalds and banks, brokerages and other
businesses whose names are household words in the West. To complete the picture, the modern white highways gleamed in the sun – and were as jammed with traffic as the Beltway at rush hour.
Then my education began: It’s not
1973 anymore. Today, the Saudi and American economies are so intertwined
that an oil embargo of any real significance or length is unthinkable.
The second thing I learned was something I actually had to remember, that we
Americans are an impatient people. While we move at point-and-click speed – not everybody else does. For example, it was only 50 years ago – still within
living memory – that the Saudis lived as they had for thousands of years: A
nomadic, Bedouin tent culture where electricity, running water, telephones
and decent medical care were not accessible. Given the difficulty I have in
persuading Republicans to change their minds on some things, I must
understand that change occurs at different rates for different societies.
And this leads me to the third and maybe most important part of my
education. As a feminist, one of the first things I look at when I travel
anywhere – and I’ve been through, at last count, 45 countries – is the condition
of women. The really weird thing for me was the sight of Saudi women,
dressed from head to toe in black, and the men decked out in white with red
headscarves and long white tunic-dresses, walking around against a backdrop
of fast food joints, modern skyscrapers and automobiles everywhere. I felt
perfectly comfortable – and then a light bulb went off.
Of course, I felt comfortable. I hadn’t come out of a nomadic society, hadn’t seen my whole world turned upside down – everything from religion, relationships between men
and women, parents and children, people and their government, schools, where
I ate, what I ate, even when I ate – to accommodate modern business
What the light from my personal bulb illuminated was the answer to a simple
question: What is a Saudi?
There are things I associate particularly with
America – baseball, hotdogs, July 4, rights and responsibilities. Well, in
Saudi Arabia, they also have things – head coverings for men and women, fixed
public prayer five times a day, prohibitions against alcohol and pork – which
help define for them what a Saudi is. And in a world which is moving faster
for them than their fathers would ever have dreamed, hanging on to the
symbols of “Saudi-ness” is central to the social stability of the country,
There are parts of that “Saudi-ness” – starting with public executions for
a variety of offenses – which I abhor. But here too, I received an education. I
always assumed that everybody in Saudi Arabia supported capital punishment,
as if it were somehow like a scene from the movie “Gladiator” where the crowds
laugh as they turn thumbs down on some unlucky sap in the dust. However,
what I found was that many Saudis, just like many Americans, oppose capital
punishment, believe that it’s cruel and want to find a way to abolish it. In
short, there are people of conscience everywhere.
Here was another shocker (to me, anyway): most Saudis are not screaming,
box-cutter wielding, Soldiers of Saladin, getting ready to resist the next
Crusade. In fact, most Saudis like the United States, and they like
Americans. In fact, a majority of professional Saudis were educated in the
United States. They have American friends, speak warmly of Disneyland and
watch many of the same TV shows, via satellite. That’s the good news.
We may disagree on some things – the State of Israel, for example. But here
too, an education awaits. The Saudis are frustrated with what they see
as the American inability to get Israel to stop building settlements and
provoking the Palestinians; however, the Saudis proposed what is now the
only peace plan that anybody anywhere is talking about.
Give peace a chance. And maybe Saudi Arabia, too.