Off to America

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.

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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.

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24 thoughts on “Off to America

  1. Congratulations and good luck! I am headed east as you are heading west, but I hope your journeys go well. I look forward to hearing your observations and ruminations along the way.
    Salaam.

  2. Really interesting to hear about this program never knew it actually existed …

    I have an impression that america is not the most Saudi friendly country in the world any more for lost of reasons and I feel the majority would agree with me. Never the less it should be a really good experience and waiting to Hear about it.

    One line draw most of my attention in this post “there will be a lot of people nominated who are much better than me and they will certainly be chosen over me.”

    Dude … I don’t wanna insult anyone .. but you know the standard of civilization is some parts of the world …

    There is a book I really recommend reading if u r keen it’s called “The Magic of thinking Big” for David Schwartz … It’s a business oriented book .. but the meaning applies to most aspects of life …

    anyways Enjoy ur trip and waiting to hear about it.

  3. Just wanted to let you know that all the US Embassies I’ve been in are similar to what you have described, including the bulletproof-glass interview through the window–even Americans can only do their business through the same window, so it’s not only foreigners who are treated that way.

    I hope you have a good experience in America. I’d love to meet up with you if I were there, but I’m living in the Middle East!

    By the way, unless things have changed, I don’t think there are a lot of cybercafes in America. But you can get online (for free) in most public libraries, although the time is limited to 1/2 hour if others are waiting. Good luck.

    Eileen
    Dedicated Elementary Teacher Overseas

  4. How come your English is so good then? I was astonished when you said you’d not been outside of the Arab world before. I’d always assumed you’d been educated in the UK or the US :)

  5. Ahmed –

    Welcome to America. I hope that you have two delightful, stimulating, and educational weeks in DC and NYC. Never forget though, there is much more to America than that.

    As for that apparatchik at the Embassy, your description is all too familiar, and as Eileen says above, rest assured, Americans are often treated in the same manner by their own Embassy. My two children were born in Riyadh… when there was only a Consulate. We had to go through a similar routine to obtain their passports, including bringing them to the Consulate at the age of one week. And we felt that the dominant operational factor was not nationality, but gender. The Lebanese woman working there was abusive towards my wife, the Lebanese man to myself, and both were “sweet as pie” to the opposite sex. SO… depending who was on duty, the other one of us would go to the bullet proof window, and be courteously treated. Now I’m not saying that is reason enough for you to get married yet :-)….

    AbuTaza

  6. > ur [mine & a huge no.s of other ppl’s] going thru bahrain airport is very ironic bcuz the Govt. invested thousands building the new KFIA in Dammam and it is being avoided by major airlines bcuz of the hassles of all the imigration, custom and the very much harrassment by the offices here… :(

    > why do ppl think that being to the bloody west makes u speak better english?

    > the accusing tone was there 11 yrs ago… surprising then but understandable now…
    > the USConsul here is no differnet. atleast the US Marines are not visiable here
    > n whats up with the Ford car? [PS that my fav :)]

  7. watch out, there are war criminals everywhere there, especially in D.C. I hope you won’t get killed or arrested for being a moslem!

  8. > why do ppl think that being to the bloody west >makes u speak better english?

    Because people who have spent time in a country with native speakers will typically speak the language better than those who have not. It’s nothing to do with ‘the West’ – the same would apply to, say, an English person learning Arabic, for example.

  9. Welcome to America. My guess is that the embassy was hoping to find friendly Saudis for its exchange program. A young Saudi blogger who is not a radical and has a long lifetime of blogging ahead of him is probably an attractive candidate for an embassy looking to improve relations.

    While you’re here, you might pick up the phone book in your hotel room, where ever you are in America, and check how many mosques there are here. Ask yourself how many churches are in your town back in Saudi Arabia. Then ask why the difference.

  10. Tabuk knight: “watch out, there are war criminals everywhere there, especially in D.C. I hope you won’t get killed or arrested for being a moslem!”

    We don’t kill people for their religion here in America. Only Muslims do that. We’re superior to such intolerant barbarism.

  11. Tantor, who is killing people and occupying their countries? only those who do that represent “intolerant barbarism.” They follow the foot steps of their natzi , fascist and other christian ancestors
    Please, do not defend war criminals!

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