People and Places
From the desert to jungle
Posted on April 20, 2012
Had a wonderful final evening in Saudi Arabia. The conference had gone well and Naif turned out to be a star. Not only did we have the best looking booth, but he was such an eloquent spokesperson for SNHU that he was asked to do a workshop while there, interviewed by the press, and met with Ministry officials. Good looking and stylishly dressed, he also seemed to attract gangs of giggling Saudi teenage girls to inquire about the university. Naif and other young Saudis like him represent the best hope for the future of the Kingdom. They respect their traditions and culture, but also dream about remaking the country as a modern, sophisticated place open to new ideas, transparent and well run, and prosperous for all.
They have a long way to go, but the King is putting his money where his mouth is. They are building their higher education infrastructure (just one Saudi university alone last year had more graduates than the whole country produced in 1970), sending tens of thousands of young people abroad, and trying to harness the demographic “youth bubble.” The lessons of the Arab Spring are not lost on those who rule and while cynics would argue that they are buying off the Kingdom’s young, I think they are working hard (and racing against time) to help young people build a vision for the future and give them the tools to realize that vision.
I spoke to one young Saudi who works in youth development programs and he was describing how young people are starting to volunteer and become more involved in their community. He also works to get organizations to bring young people into their thinking, to harness their imagination and creativity. A lot of it we take for granted, but this is a big deal for the Kingdom. In much of the Middle East, poor young people have no work, no prospect for work, and may not know anyone who has ever worked. Without work and income, there can be little prospect of marraige and children. In a honor culture such as this one, there is not a lot of dignity left and it is easy for the deeply marginalized to fall prey to fundamentalist teachings. There is an economic dimension to the psychology of the suicide bomber, I think. Frantz Fanon’s 1961 The Wretched of the Earth, written about Algeria at the time (look to Camus’ The Stranger and Richard Wright’s Native Son for literary treatments of Fanon’s core notions), offers an interpretation of violence perpetrated by the deeply marginalized as an existential assertion of “I’m here and I matter” that goes beyond the mere simplistic notion of the madman with an explosive vest strapped to his chest.
Turningback to a much happier subject, on our final evening, Naif brought me to meet his family at their “farm” just outside Riyadh.
Turns out his uncle Khaled, patriarch of the family, owns a massive construction company — 10,000 emplolyees with projects that include the American base in Qatar, projects in Iraq and Dubai, and massive projects in the Kingdom. The “farm” is a walle- in retreat, an oasis really, of pavilions, fountains, more greenary than I’ve seen in a week, and grass so green and deep that it felt like shag carpeting — in a desert.
The Al-Nabets are from an old, respected Bedouin tribe in the southeast and Khaled and Naif’s father both studied in the US. We have never had a more enthusiastic lover of all things American. He goes back as often as he can, adores the culture, and wants to send his kids to study with us. I loved this guy. We sat over our tea, trading stories, discussing politics and people and culture. Khaled so much has his feet in multiple cultures: wholly comfortable in America; thinking about a modern, liberalized Saudi Arabia (has high aspirations for his daughters), and also steeped and appreciative of his Bedouin tribe. He still goes back to the region for meetings of the elders, of which he is an important one, and can say things like “I can make a call and have 10 men willing to die with me tonight.” (without the least bit of affectation). Damn, by the end of the night I would have been the 11th.
Khaled argues that the future of the Kingdom demands an opening up of ideas, a willingness to be open-minded and explore and he believes that education is the key. We also talked about the need to bring Saudi women more fully into the workforce and mainstream of Saudi society. It is far, far more than driving and the veil.
We sat in this massive open area of pillows and Arabic carpets, sipping tea under the stars and then immersed ourselves in oud smoke — a Bedouin welcoming tradition that uses a rare wood(sells for about $5,000 for a one foot block). They roasted a lamb (killed that morning) on a spit for over four hours and we sat down to a feast. The lamb melted in the mouth (even as the head sort of disturbingly stared at me from the middle of the platter) and all the side dishes were amazing. Ended with sweets (covered in honeyed rose water) and Arabic coffee back out under the stars. It was a lovely way to end my visit to this fascinating part of the world.
For some reason, all flights in the Middle East depart in the middle of the night (why is that actually?), so I made my way to the airport for my midnight flight to Kuala Lumpur where I am giving a talk on innovation and higher education. On the 777 Saudi Airways flight I was quite literally the only westerner on board. There were a lot of Muslim pilgrims returning to Malaysia from Mecca, groups picnicing on the airport floor as we prepared to depart, Saudi tourists, and every kind of exotic national dress. My navy blue jacket and tie were so boring in contrast. Boarding looked like a cross between a sale at Filene’s basement (flashback reference) and a soccer riot. All Saudi flights begin with a recorded prayer as you taxi from the jetway — I can’t decide if that is comforting or disturbing. It was so good to simply be the one way out of place and I loved it.
Arrived here to a world so different than the dry desert of the Empty Quarter. Malaysia is hot, humid, and green. The steamy jungle quickly reclaims any area not pruned and managed and there is a remarkable lushness that abounds here. Order a fruit platter for breakfast and it gives ample testimony to the organic richness of the area: pineapples and papaya and mangos the way they are supposed to taste (juice running down your chin juicy and so sweet). But also mangosteens and jackfruit and dragonfruit. Haven’t tried durian yet — smells so much like cat poop that many Asian subways won’t let you eat one on their trains. The durian notwithstanding, there is a fertile richness to this land that stands in stark contrast to the arid austerity of the desert, where a patch of green grass is an object of wonder. Of course, development and urban sprawl are cutting into the ecosystem (some of the world’s oldest rain forests are here in Malaysia), as is true in so much of the world.
Tomorrow, 66 SNHU students graduate from our program here in Kuala Lumpur. Not exactly looking forward to sitting in my heavy robes. Maybe I’ll sneak in a durian and a knife, cutting it open and cutting things short if the heat becomes to much.