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.