The Yale Daily News has recently published several editorials (“Singing the praises of dictators,” 1/30; “Sympathy for the devil,” 2/6) in reference to a recent visit to Saudi Arabia by nine Yale students from Yale’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. Several of us feel that the authors of these editorials, and perhaps many of the Yale Daily News readers, have been misinformed about the trip and about our individual experiences and feelings about the Saudi kingdom. We decided that it was time for those of us who actually went to weigh in and attempt to guide the conversation away from conjecture and personal attacks and toward a more constructive dialogue on Saudi culture and politics.
The trip was organized by a visiting professor at the department and one of his former students (a Saudi prince), with the intention of fostering dialogue between citizens of the two countries. In addition to the nine from Yale, there were four graduate students from schools including the Kennedy School at Harvard, Tufts University and Emerson College; the rest were professionals in a variety of fields such as law, communications and business, to name a few. Our group was diverse: out of 20 or so visitors, the majority were women, and the group included Jews, homosexuals, Americans, two Africans, an Italian and a Jordanian.
The visit consisted of a mixture of discussion and leisure activities, with the former constituting the bulk of the trip. We had the very unique opportunity to meet a range of Saudis and converse with them in both formal and informal settings. Lengthy discussions took place with high-ranking government officials such as one of the King’s sons and one of his brothers, as well as the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom. We also had the opportunity to visit schools and talk with students; we met with businessmen and women in several different communities, different members of the royal family, a family of date farmers, and several members of the print and electronic media. And of course, we had conversations with people in markets, mosques, stores and restaurants as we traveled across the country from Jeddah to Riyadh to Dammam. The global health students from Yale in particular are a well-traveled, culturally savvy group, two-thirds of whom have lived in the developing world at some point as adults. For several of us, this was not our first visit to the Middle East. We all brought informed individual concerns about human rights, cultural practices, and politics to our discussions, and we asked the tough questions.
As we look back on our trip, we think it is important to convey a few general impressions of the people we met, while acknowledging the limitations of our perspective. We are acutely aware of the unique circumstances under which we visited this country, and the limited view we had. None of us claim to fully understand Saudi Arabia, let alone endorse the Saudi way of life or system of governance. It would be foolish to claim a thorough understanding of any culture or society after only a two-week visit. Nevertheless, we believe that we came away from the trip with a better understanding of how those Saudis we met see the world, and more specifically, their positions on such topics as Sept. 11, the impending war with Iraq, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and Saudi-American relations — positions that are as varied among Saudis as they are among Americans. We were encouraged to ask any and all questions during each of our discussions, some of which became heated and emotional. In virtually all cases, dialogue was open and constructive, whether the topic was politics, religion or human rights. We also learned a great deal about Islam, witnessed a society where religion is omnipresent, and enjoyed traditional Bedouin hospitality.
Those are some of our general impressions. However, each of us came away with individual impressions and opinions about our experiences, and people must be careful not to lump us together as if we have a single vision of Saudi Arabia. Based on some of the commentary that has run in the Yale Daily News there is some concern about our powers of discernment and the ease with which we have been “brainwashed.” It is very difficult to convince people, particularly those possessing an opposing viewpoint, that you have not been brainwashed.
Every day people are confronted with information that may be true, false, or somewhere in between. As well-educated, thoughtful individuals, we all are endowed with the ability to sift through the information we are given and arrive at what we feel is a reasonable conclusion, or alternatively, decide that we have insufficient information and seek more. Often, people given similar information arrive at very different conclusions. No one has a monopoly on the truth, and at best, one hopes to have some version of it.
The purpose of this trip was to promote understanding of different perspectives on issues that affect both Americans and Saudis. And we believe that to the extent that it is possible in two weeks, this was accomplished. This does not mean that we agree with everything they said or vice versa; but rather, we took a few small steps toward mutual understanding. The practice of refusing dialogue with countries whose cultural and political practices are not in line with ours only perpetuates the status quo and furthers U.S. isolationist tendencies, which we feel is regrettable.
We feel very fortunate to have had such a rare opportunity to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and catch a glimpse from the inside of a country with some wonderful attributes and some significant shortcomings. We are more than happy to discuss our trip, our opinions, and the perspectives of our Saudi hosts in more detail should anyone desire to hear more.
Peter Navario is a student in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health.