YDS students tour Saudi Arabia: A personal reflection

Editor’s Note: In the interest of dialogue between Christianity, the West and Islam, a Yale delegation was invited by key Arab leaders to visit Saudi Arabia for a cultural tour of the kingdom.   Twelve Yale Divinity students took part in the Oct. 8-16 tour, accompanied by Lamin Sanneh, the D. Willis James Professor of Missions &World Christianity and director of the World Christianity Initiative at Yale, and Omer Bajwa, Yale’s coordinator of Muslim life.

By Eric Tipler ’12  M.Div.

“What’s that building over there?” I asked Omer.

Omer turned his head to look.  From our seats in the baggage claim area of the Riyadh airport, we could see outside to a road full of taxis and hotel shuttles, mostly late-model American cars.  Opposite the road sat a massive, low-slung building with a round dome at its center.  A tall, thin tower rose from its far end and a row of wide steps led up to its entrance, creating an air of both monumentality and grace.

Saudi Group“That?” said Omer.  “That’s the mosque.”

Ah, I thought, mentally comparing this airport mosque to the tiny interfaith prayer room at the San Francisco airport.  Not in Kansas anymore, are we?

Omer, our entire fourteen-member team, and I were in fact embarking on the most peculiar of journeys.  We had just touched down in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, an Islamic country that does not allow foreign tourists.  Only businesspeople and Muslim pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are granted entry visas.  Yet we were there as representatives of a Christian divinity school.  Our leader was Dr. Lamin Sanneh, distinguished professor at YDS and a world-renowned authority on Muslim-Christian dialogue.  Professor Sanneh had been invited by Saudi Prince Turki bin-Faisal to visit the kingdom for a week, and 12 lucky students had been chosen to accompany him.  I was one of the twelve.  Omer Bajwa, Yale’s coordinator of Muslim life, had also joined the team as our cultural ambassador, bringing our ranks to 14.

As we began our drive from the airport into the city, our cars plunged quickly into desert: nothing but sand, as far as the eye could see.  We soon passed by two unfinished cities that were literally rising out of the desert, all scaffolding and cranes and freshly poured concrete.  Large signs announced that both cities were actually future universities, one for women and the other, presumably, for men.  Riyadh, I would soon learn, is a city on the build, its skyline punctuated by both construction cranes and minarets.

Walk without rhythmHaving read some Saudi history beforehand, I came on this trip expecting to see a country playing out a tension between religion and secular power.  Saudi Arabia, I had learned, has its roots in an alliance between a powerful desert sheikh – the founder of the House of Saud – and an Islamic fundamentalist whose sect would become known as Wahabbism.  This strange alliance between royal power and radical Islam, I imagined, would be played out in real time through the people and places we encountered on our visit.

As we got closer to the city, tall skyscrapers began to emerge out of the desert.  Our hotel, it turned out, was at the center of town, and as we neared it we passed colorful signs advertising familiar Western brands.  Some of those signs—McDonalds, Coca-Cola—advertised the same products found in nearly every corner of the globe.  Others, like Applebees and Tony Roma’s, evoked memories of my childhood in the rural South—not what I expected to find in the Arabian desert.  Another surprise came at 4:00 am the next morning, when my roommate and I were awakened by the long, low chant of the Muslim call to prayer, broadcast from loudspeakers atop the nearby mosque.

Over the course of the week we met professors from two Saudi universities and toured many Saudi cultural sites: the recently excavated ruins of a 15th century desert city, the royal public library, a posh racetrack where kings and princes from around the world bring their Arabian stallions.  Each day we were treated to the best of Saudi hospitality: bitter Arabic coffee, freshly squeezed juices, and long, lavish, conversation-filled meals.  Our Saudi hosts took great pains to tell us how much they loved and admired America, and how untrue our negative stereotypes about Islam and Arabs were.

As the week unfolded, my expectations of a tension between religion and secular power began to seem naive.  While I heard from both liberal and conservative Saudis on a variety of issues, the conversation was never about modernity vs. Islam.  Both modernization and Islam seemed to be a foregone conclusion.  Instead, it seemed that I was listening in on a debate about how a Saudi Arabia that was both highly modern and fully Islamic would continue to develop.

At the same time, it was impossible to forget that our entire trip was taking place in a bubble. There are definitely fundamentalist, anti-Western Islamic clerics in the kingdom.  We did not meet them.  Questions of women’s rights were pervasive.  Like all females in Saudi Arabia, the five women in our group were obliged to wear both the abaya – a long, flowing black robe – and a head covering whenever they were in public.  While they were treated quite graciously by most of our Saudi hosts, none of us was ever officially introduced to a Saudi woman.  Every Saudi we met was male.

Sanneh, Bajwa, hostMy few glimpses outside of the bubble provoked more questions than answers.  While shopping for souvenirs one afternoon in a traditional market—frankincense and myrrh, which seemed appropriate for a Christian in Arabia—I heard the call to prayer.  The shopkeeper asked me if I was finished, which surprised me.  Most souvenir sellers I’ve met will try to keep you there and spending as long as possible.

“Is better if you leave,” the shopkeeper told me.  “Mutawwa coming.” Mutawwa, as every Saudi knows, are the religious police who enforce Shari’a law.

“Mutawwa coming, mutawwa coming,” said another shopkeeper hurrying by.  I looked back to my shopkeeper and saw anxiety – was it fear? – in the man’s eyes.  I paid for my trinkets and quickly left.

On our last day in the Kingdom, our hosts took us out for an afternoon in the desert.  We watched a cluster of Saudi men ride ATV’s across the dunes, which immediately brought to mind my two little brothers riding their ATV’s across the hills of my father’s farm.  As evening approached, we found a small, clay mosque where Omer could say his evening prayers.  While Omer prayed, the rest of us found a local farmer who allowed us to ride his camel.  Then we watched as the sun fell over the Arabian desert.  As if on cue, a caravan of five camels passed along the ridge of a far-off dune, silhouetted before the darkening sky.  Strains of “Silent night, holy night,” flickered through my mind’s ear.

Arabia isn’t my holy land, for sure, but on that final evening our trip felt a bit like a pilgrimage.  Islam is not Christianity, and Saudi Arabia is radically different from the United States.  It is also, however, a country of people who, like many of us, are struggling to live out their faith in a modern, changing world.  Christianity, like Islam, has its roots in the desert culture symbolized by those camels on the ridge.  The humane kindness of our hosts—and the fact that we, a Christian delegation, were there—left me hopeful that, in the long term, our similarities will outweigh our differences and that peace will prevail over a Clash of Civilizations.  Our future, I think, depends on it.

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