Thoughts on America

Upon my return from the United States, and even during my trip, this was one of the most frequently asked questions: What surprised you the most about America? My answer was always: nothing. Sorry to disappoint you guys, but there was no major surprising findings for me during the two weeks I spent there.

I’m not a big fan of Thomas Friedman, but probably he was actually onto something when he said the world is flat. Thanks to satellite television and the internet, we have been exposed to the American culture and lifestyle for a long time. Of course, many Americans say mainstream media misrepresent them: the boy doesn’t always marry the girl, and the likes of John McClane usually die. But I think that consumers of media around the world have come to learn not to take everything offered to them as facts.

As soon as I arrived to Washington DC I received a copy of the program schedule and was taken aback by the number of meetings. In general, the meetings were good and thought stimulating, but I honestly was not used to this kind of intensive 8-to-4 days of consecutive meetings. And with this kind of schedule, we had little time left to do other things such as discovering different parts of the city and going for sightseeing. Nevertheless, we visited some parts of the Smithsonian, had some fun in the Black Family Reunion, and I had dinner with Jordanian blogger Natasha Twal Tynes as well as some American friends who used to work in Saudi Arabia.

My favoutie discussion out of all the meetings in DC was about federalism and government system in the States. The individual is the most important element of this system and individualism as a value is highly regarded and protected. This may sound contrary to the conventional wisdom in this part of the world where conformity is the norm and any leaning to being different is frowned upon, but I think the goal of any system should be to find a delicate sustained balance between the interests of the individual and the interests of the whole. The maintenance of this balance is the responsibility of the different branches of government which should be independent and transparent.

Also of interest to me is how the system was designed to minimize the interference of the government in citizens’ lives. This might also be a little bizarre to people in our country where the government is very large to a degree that it has become hard to make it functional anymore.

After five days in Washington DC, we flew to Montana. It was a long trip and we had to change planes at Chicago, but after arriving to Bozeman we realized it was going to be very different. Montana is considered a rural state with a small population, and none of the people we met in DC knew much about it. The pace of life there is painfully slow and boring, and due to the fact that the population is dominantly white (~ 97%) we were stared at wherever we went. The reason why it was picked is the presence of six Indian reservations there. We met a native American scholar in the state university to talk more about that, and the conclusion is that there is more to do on both sides: the Indians and the government.

Montana was boring, except for the day we spent at Yellowstone National Park. I always wanted to go to a place like that, where nature remains unaffected by the pollution and fakery of modern life. One day is absolutely not enough to see much of the wonders of that place, but I’m extremely glad we had the opportunity to make it.

So five days were kind of a kill for a state like Montana, but we managed and we were ready to fly again. This time, the trip was longer and we had to stop at Salt Lake City and Atlanta before landing at Montgomery, Alabama. I was really looking forward to go there because this is the place where the civil rights movement was started and took shape. Standing in the podium where Martin Luther King gave his famous speeches and seeing the place where Rosa Parks was arrested were just indescribable.

I was forewarned by an American friend before going to the south that I might be faced by many people who still strongly support the Bush administration and blindly repeat whatever Fox News is feeding them. “They like Fox because it makes it so simply to them: ‘here’s the good guys and here’s the bad guys’,” he told me. Well, that didn’t happen. I guess the reason why that didn’t happen is because we had only two days there and most of the people we met were highly educated intellectuals, not regular guys on the streets. But ironically, one of these people that my friend told me about was actually traveling with us as an interpreter. He is an Egyptian immigrant who came to the US more than 20 years ago and now has the citizenship and is married to an American. I can’t recall a single political discussion where he took a stance different from the official PoV of the Bush administration.

As I said earlier, Alabama wasn’t so much fun, but it was certainly inspirational. The stories of murder and torture we’ve heard were horrific, but how the African-American community overcome all the tragedies to gain their full rights overshadowed the horror. I truly believe that we in Saudi Arabia have much to learn from this experience: the non-violent approach, the resilience, and the impressive sense of community. We desperately need to understand these values and make them a part of our thinking if we want to reform our country.

Finally, it was time to go to the place we wanted to see the most: the World’s Capital, the Big Apple, New York, Baby! Unfortunately, we had very short time in NYC. Just a little over 40 hours in a city where most residents say it took them years before seeing it all. We’ve been to Central Park, Ground Zero, China Town, and few other places. I was also lucky to meet some good friends over there such as Mona Eltahawy and fellow blogger-on-hiatus Aya. I apologize to all the people who wanted to meet me and I couldn’t make it happen due to time limitations.

“So, after what you have seen in America, do you like it?” This is the other question I was often asked while I was there as well as after returning home. But this question does not usually come up until people learn that the program was sponsored by the Department of State. Why would they spend this kind of money if it wasn’t to make people like them, right? However, this is not the case. As fellow blogger John Burgess, who is a former US diplomat said, the goal of this program is not to make people like the United States, but rather to give them a better understanding of life and culture in America.

After fourteen days, twelve planes, seven airports, six cities, and four states, I’m back home trying to enjoy the remaining days of the holy month of Ramadhan, and also trying to catch up with the classes that I missed. Got questions? Feel free to ask in the comments, but I can’t promise to answer everything, because in case you didn’t notice, I’m no genius.

23 thoughts on “Thoughts on America

  1. “… and the likes of John McCaine usually die.” ?? I guess I missed something here. What is there in “the real world” that suggests Senator McCain’s mortality is an issue? This is a puzzling comment that begs for some manner of explanation. Share your thoughts, opinions and insights with us, please. In the interest of full disclosure, let me note that I am a pretty vociferous McCain supporter.

  2. AHMED,

  3. Kind of funny reading about your trip to the states. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, just that, it strikes me as sounding so much like my first time visiting some new place that I’ve heard and even read a lot about. You can educate yourself about it, but that first time you can’t help but see it in somewhat black-and-white terms. As’ad Abu Khalil’s recent musings on his trip to Turkey for example. Smart man, inherently permanently cynical, yet there he was, even him heavily idealizing the place. It’s just the nature of how we learn I suppose. The smart people (of whom I defintitely count you among) of course go on to deepen their understanding of the place and see the many shades of gray.

    You already have a few of them, if there’s any from what you mentioned I would highlight though it’s that the whole notion of individualism in America, while true on one level, is and always has been in one form or another overshadowed by the controlling hand of oligarchs (sound almost Russian doesn’t it?). Go back even to the founding fathers and you’ll see the system was designed specifically to exclude large segments of the population who were considered riff-raff. Then in the period of heavy industrialization political machines and vote-rigging could have made even a Tunisian dictator proud. And finally today we have the power of media empires, pollsters (independent and not so independent), “think tanks”, lobbyists, the military-industrial complex, and endless back-room executive office and k-street backslapping corruption deals. Is America still more individualistic and does it provide more individual freedoms than many countries? Yes, I think that is pretty self-evident, but it comes with plenty of pitfalls and there are lots of quiet, powerful hands who effectively manipulate the system, be it wealthy political donors, media moguls, powerful union bosses (more in the past than the present), local political machines, government contractors, lobbyists of all stripes, etc. Political apathy springs as much from these problems as anything.

    Oh, and we don’t all fill our days with 8 to 4 non-stop meetings – except on Wall Street where they do from 8am to 4am!

  4. Ahmed,
    Nice overview.

    Some of those who travel, bring home the best flowers they find there. Some do not.

    Some admire the beauty they see there, some see only what’s ugly.

    Beware that you need to see the beauty before you can choose the good flwoers to bring.


  5. Non-Arab Arab,
    I agree with you, the U.S. after 9/11 is run by military generals who are eager for more and more power and will destroy the world in order to stay in power. It’s the responsibility of American people to say no to such war criminals along with their supporters.

  6. Hey Ahmad,

    Glad you had a trip to the States. When I went for my university back in 1996, I was exposed to a completely different world..where people didn’t know anything about Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, and I genuinely found the people to so friendly and welcoming. It was a really fun stay for me in Texas! I also enjoyed California a lot, so maybe you should visit California next time you are there!

  7. Ahmed,
    first, welcome home; I want to ask you if you have taught them there about the great Saudi Arabia, and what kind of picture they had about KSA?

  8. Welcome Back Ahmed! I have thoroughly enjoyed all your postings related to travel to the USA. As an American I was surprised to hear of some of the cities and places you visited, such as Bozeman, Montana and agree that the program overdid your stay there! I am happy that you had the opportunity to participate in such a program and now back home in time for Eid! Like Tabuk Knight had asked, I am also curious to hear what were the thoughts and views of the Americans you met about KSA? For example I know when some of my Saudi family members visited the USA some of the people whom they met (Americans) had no clue where Riyadh was!
    All the best — American_Bedu

  9. Glad you enjoyed your trip to the U.S. Oddly, though I live in Tampa, FL, my husband and I were on a trip that started in Bozeman and included time in Yellowstone at the same time that you were there. Bozeman is a place where people do a lot of outdoor activities for fun – hiking, kayaking, climbing, etc. so if you couldn’t do those things it is not surprising that it would seem boring. It is, however a good example of many thousands of small towns all across the U.S.
    I am a surprised and disappointed at the comment you say an American friend made “warning” you that people in the South strongly ‘support the Bush administration and blindly repeat whatever Fox News is feeding them. “They like Fox because it makes it so simply to them: ‘here’s the good guys and here’s the bad guys’,” he told me. ‘ This statement is so utterly ignorant and condescending and also typical of a person who has not spent a lot of time getting to know people beyond his/her perceived stereotypes. Yes, there are people who support some of what Pres. Bush believes in and has done in his administration in the U.S. and they live all around the country. I happen to be one of them. And yes, I do occasionally watch FoxNews. I also watch CNN, read the internet (including this blog) and do a lot of my own research. I agree with some things the Bush administration has done, and not others. But I am not a person who you need to be “warned” about. I’m not hostile, I’m not dangerous and if you disagree with me, I’m not going to attack you. I’d be happy to listen to what you have to say and put forth my own thoughts as well. But the attitude of your friend is a very, very ignorant one. Just because someone disagrees with him/her or, God forbid, watches FoxNews, then they must be people who are such simpletons that they need everything force fed them in black and white? Please. I’ve lived all over this country from San Diego to a small town in North Carolina to New Jersey to Florida and Washington, D.C., and I am continually amazed at how little even I know and understand about this huge country and its enormously varied people. To make a blanket statement such as your friend did only reflects poorly on him/her.
    Anyway, I am glad you enjoyed the trip and find your observations on our system of government interesting.
    All the best!

  10. Ahmed Got questions? Feel free to ask in the comments,

    Did your concept about the U.S. change in any way to that you held before the trip?

  11. Salam Ahmed,

    What a wonderful recap of your visit. Truly you have a gifting for writing and an innate way of getting your expressed thoughts across, mashallah.

    As a whole, I believe it would behoove us to see our nation, even if just a mere glimpse, as you’ve seen it to remind us of how wonderful a place we live. It’s very easy to get stuck in our day-to-day routine and become cynical of things, so seeing our blessings through someone else’s viewpoint is humbling.

    Moreover, with the continued advancement of technology as well as the availability for more people to connect across the globe, it’s tremendously exciting to learn of our countries through the humanistic aspect rather than governmental statistics. There’s just something so incredibly bonding and personal when it’s demonstrated through humans.

    Thank you again for sharing your adventure. I’ve just recently stumbled upon your blog, which I know is no accident, and I’m looking forward to learning more about you and your life in Saudi Arabia.

  12. I have to agree with DKron. Maybe it’s because I’m only a few miles farther south than she, but she’s right in criticizing your friend’s ‘advice’.

    I take comments like that friend’s as an example of the fact that even some Americans are not very well acquainted with their own country.

    Many criticize Americans for their lack of ‘internationalism’ or their knowledge about the world around them. As you might have gathered from this trip, the sheer geographic extent of the US explains most of this. It even applies to Americans. There are still a few states I’ve yet to visit.

  13. I enjoyed reading this summary of your trip, especially your reactions to things. Thanks for this post.

    Best regards,
    Eileen in the Middle East

  14. Ahmed,

    That was an interesting post and I marvel at Saudis who seem to have picked up colloquial American English without ever leaving Saudi Arabia. I’m glad you got to see America. You don’t seem to be a radical so perhaps you were able to see things for yourself and come to your own independent conclusions.

    However, I have some comments. You can’t know America from TV. There is nothing on TV that resembles in any way my life or the lives of my friends and family. Learning about America through TV is like viewing something through a funhouse mirror. It’s wildly distorted and exaggerated to entertain.

    A normal American life is fairly boring. I see a lot of violent crime and murder on TV and the news but I’ve never seen any myself nor known anyone who was murdered. One of my extended family took his family to Japan on a lengthy assignment. He raised his children in Japan until they were teenagers. His kids were afraid to return home because Japanese TV had painted America as a violent sink of crime. That’s as crazy as saying you don’t want to put on your shoes because you’re afraid they’ll attack you. The point is that foreign TV paints a distorted image of America for various reasons, all of them bad.

    You were in meetings all day because the program was run by the government, whose bureaucrats think that meetings are the end all and be all of everything. If that same program was run by business interests, you’d get an orientation and be set free on your own with tasks to accomplish.

    Individual liberty is the single most important virtue in America. That is the real reason why America creates wealth and ideas more efficiently than other countries. You have to be free to pursue ideas, create products, offer new services, most of which will fail. If you rely on the government, nothing will ever get done. That’s why countries organized from the bottom up are more successful than those organized from the top down. Utopian societies especially have a high propensity to fail catastrophically.

    I don’t doubt that you attracted stares in Wyoming, though I doubt it was due to your race. There are plenty of brown Hispanics everywhere in America. From your pretzel picture, your dress and body language is different from the usual Hispanics. They probably couldn’t place you. I might also note that when I was walking my blond girlfriend around Manila, she got plenty of stares and rude behavior.

    Five days in Montana is like five minutes in New York, excitement-wise. I wonder if they took you there because it was cheaper to find hotels.

    Your friend who warned you about Bush supporters and Fox News was giving you an awfully partisan view. You’re also mistaken to accept the liberal view that they are some kind of super-geniuses. America is divided fairly equally between liberal and conservative. There is no IQ difference between them. The only real difference is that conservative ideas work and liberal ones only look good on paper.

    There are more liberal professors in universities because they discriminate against hiring conservatives, so much so that some liberal arts faculties are 95% liberals. Generally, conservative intellectuals go into business and make money.

    The reason why Fox News is so popular is that most of the media here is liberal and skews its stories to the left. A conservative voice provides a much-needed counterpoint to that. Liberals like your friend don’t like that because they are not committed to free speech, a bedrock American value. They want a monopoly on the public forum.

    You might also consider that many people agree with Bush because we elected him. Bush doesn’t dictate our opinion. We dictate his. That’s why you will run into so many Americans who share the views of the Bush administration. There are plenty of us who support him, who put him in office with our votes.

  15. Tentor,
    it’s good to hear from you again. This time i see you got a positive way of thinking, i like that!
    I do not like Bush because he did the same thigs Saddam did and were considered as war crimes like envading other countries and killing civilians in the name of protecting his country!
    I also do not like Fox news because it is anti moslem and anti arab. They publicly supported the killing of Palestenian civilians by the Israeli war criminals, and they also showed their redneck way of viewing things when they applaused the kicking of an arab passenger out of an american airplane because he had arabic writing on his T-shirt, and when the same thing happened to four moslem clerks because the prayed in the airport.
    come on, only hate-crimials support these two hate preachers!

  16. Hmmmmm, seems some ppl are behind the times . . . not everyone in the South is a right wing bible-thumping conservative and not everyone thinks “the shrub” walks on water. Please note that not everyone voted for him either . . . even many of us that live in Texas !! we might be lonely “liberals” here but we still have a right to be here and to vote the way we feel!!!

    Although there is a good joke about how a Texan went to Oklahoma and lowered the I.Q. of both states. Or maybe that is a Texan went to D.C.???

  17. Ahamed what are your thoughts on the UK. I am afraid we have no John McClane`s Rosa Parks or Martin Luther Kings but we do have some very tolerant people who take the attitude that we accept many nationalities to our country without all the razzamataz of the USA. Furthermore the BBC and ITV news programmes are not full off the lies as broadcast by Fox news

  18. Ahmed,

    I agree that a collective effort from the youth of both Americans and Arabs to understand each other and work together is a conscientious necessity for our future. Mind the Bush Administration, mind the US foreign policy. I think what is constructive is to pay attention to the youth. Again and again our biggest problem is education. We have setbacks in the region, of course, due to lack of freedom of speech and other reasons. But we, as conscientous citizens can do the least. Be positive and enlighten at least one person about what it means to be “balanced” and in actuality: “human”.

    I recommend you all to read “Children of Jihad” by Jared Cohen.

    Here is his interview with Stephen Colbert:

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