When you read this post, I will most probably be at Bahrain International Airport waiting for my flight to Washington D.C. through Frankfurt. It is the first time for me to visit the United States as well as being my first trip to a non-Arab country. The two-week trip is a part of a long-running exchange program called the International Visitor Leadership Program. It is sponsored by the State Department and a number of prestigious NGO’s, and it has been running since the early 1970’s.
Last year, there was this American professor who was visiting Saudi Arabia to learn more about the country and its people. The professor has been reading my blog for a while and he wanted to meet me to talk about blogging and youth culture in the Kingdom. We met in a hotel lobby in Riyadh and talked for a few hours. Present at that meeting was an official from the US Embassy who was coordinating the professor’s trip.
In the middle of an answer to a question I mentioned that I’ve never been to the States or Europe. The American official was a bit surprised that my English was very good despite the fact that I’ve never been to the US or the UK. Later, she said they have this exchange program at the embassy and asked me if I would be interested in such thing. I said “yes,” although I thought she was just being nice, and shortly I forgot about the whole thing.
Few months later she contacted me saying that I was nominated for the program and they will need some information about me. Even at that point, I did not take this thing seriously. I was saying: there will be a lot of people nominated who are much better than me and they will certainly be chosen over me.
It wasn’t until the beginning of this summer when the embassy contacted me saying I was selected for the program so they should start arranging for my participation in the program. They have taken care of almost everything: I just had to sign the papers and show up for the visa interview.
However, visiting the US Embassy in Riyadh for the interview was not a very pleasant experience. One day in August, at 6:40 AM, I was standing in a quickly growing line outside the embassy building. Around 7:20, they started allowing people to enter.
I was somehow lucky because when I showed the security officer my papers he took me ahead of others. I went through the highly-guarded gates, took a number and waited for my turn. The process was relatively slow and the atmosphere inside the embassy was cold and dry.
Before going in, I thought the interview would go something like this: you come into a room and sit on a chair facing two or three people who would ask you some questions, chat with you a little bit and then you leave. Needless to say, that was not the case.
After waiting for about two-and-a-half hours, it was finally my turn for the interview. I went to the the interview window (yes, not a room, just a glass window) not knowing what to expect, and there was this blond lady who asked first me to put my fingers on a device to take my fingerprints.
She started questioning me in a rather accusing tone about my intention of the visit and who nominated me for the program. She asked me why I was nominated for which I did not have a good answer and it was a question she better ask to those who nominated me.
The way of questioning made me nervous and it felt to me more of an interrogation than an interview. After a long pause and some staring at me, she said my papers were incomplete and there was a missing form that I had to provide. I told her it was her colleagues at the embassy who prepared all the paperwork for me and all I had to do was to sign them. She said my application could not be processed until I provide the missing form. She gave me my passport and said someone from there would contact me later.
Few days later someone from the embassy called and said the missing form was still in Washington; as soon as it arrived they sent it to me. I signed the form and fedex’d it with my passport. After two weeks I had my passport back with a short visit visa.
Now that I got the visa, I have to admit that I expected the process to be smoother than how it was. I mean: the program is sponsored by the State Department and they were responsible for arranging the whole thing. In general, the experience was relatively good, but that’s maybe because I was expecting it to be worse, except for the interview part which really sucked.
I am looking forward to this program, and I want to make the most out of this trip. I will be joined by three other Saudis, two ladies and one gentelman, who were also selected for the program, but I have yet to meet them. I will be first at Washington DC and will spend some time at NYC later in the month, so if you would like to meet up just drop me a line and we’ll see if we can pull something off. Hope that I will be able to update the blog with more words and pictures while I’m there so stay tuned.