I thought I had seen and experienced it all during my last semester in the Middle East. But I was wrong. Toward the end of my stay in Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia unexpectedly opened its borders to tourists. An opportunity I did not want to pass up on.
Resource blogger Angelo Braam has returned to the Netherlands after his exchange in Jerusalem. He has shared his experiences from September and looks back on his exchange.
I thought I had seen and experienced it all during my last semester in the Middle East. But I was wrong. Toward the end of my stay in Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia unexpectedly opened its borders to tourists. An opportunity I did not want to pass up on. So, this is an appendix to my Jerusalem story: a travel log of two weeks Saudi, a country far less closed than it appears.
This Middle East semester focussed on many things, but my main reason for travelling here was to learn Arabic. Education in Jerusalem is outstanding, but small talk in the streets was superficial, and often switched to English. In Saudi Arabia, this was not the case, so it provided an excellent opportunity to put my six months of learning Arabic to the test.
Saudi is an enormous country, so short trips will get you nowhere. Ninety-five per cent of the country is desert and is characterised by vast emptiness. Emptiness waiting to be discovered. Rugged mountain ridges, herds of camels, and the occasional oil refinery in the middle of nowhere. Cities are easily spaced 400 kilometres apart, with nothing but sand in between. Each ride I hitch puts me in someone's car for 5 to 6 hours. No English is spoken outside of the urban areas, so I had no choice but to express myself as best I could in Arabic.
No sooner had I hopped in, or the curious Saudi's fired questions at me: What job are you doing here? Are you married? Is the situation in Israel really that bad? After half an hour of answering questions and building trust, it was my turn, and I used the opportunity to gain insight in issues such as the royal household, perspectives on the changing country and the position of women. People appeared surprisingly candid about these issues. What harm could come from me, an outsider?
Encounters like this provided a world of insight, the details of which I will share elsewhere soon. The common thread: the conventional idea that the ordinary people hate the regime and its laxness towards human rights, was not something I noticed. The country is changing, and its people are optimistic. Maybe the change is even a bit much, according to many. The conservative part of the population is still trying to adjust to the idea of public concerts and women driving cars.
For me, the fact that Saudi Arabia opened its doors was a perfect opportunity to get to know the country, which has been off-limits to foreigners for so long. The fact that I was able to express myself in my rudimentary Arabic, and, in doing so, learn so much more about this country, was very satisfying. Are you still looking for ideas for your minor? Learning a new language opens new opportunities. Certainly, a motivation for me to continue studying.