Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Coffee and Dates

Academia: Some days my job is hard. Y'all have heard a lot about those days in the past few months. And then some days, it's really, really wonderful. September 23 was the National Day of Saudi Arabia, a day to celebrate the founding of the modern nation in 1932, and my university's Saudi student association held an open celebration/cultural fair in our student union last Friday, September 30. Since nearly 50% of my department's student body is Saudi, my boss figured it would mean a lot for a group of administrators to go over and check it out together. So off we went - our director, assistant director, admissions coordinator, recruiter, and me, the student life coordinator.

Hospitality is a core cultural value in Saudi Arabia, so when we got there, we were immediately offered Arabic coffee and eight frillion different kinds of dates. There were guys stationed at the entrance to the fair whose entire job was to say hello and pour coffee. After we finished our coffee, we could read posters about the history and culture of Saudi Arabia. We could have our names written in Arabic. We could sign a map of Saudi Arabia. And we also got to participate in my two favorite activities: trying on traditional clothes and getting a henna tattoo.

Trying on the clothes was a trip. Like any lover of fashion, the chance to try on new clothes is always exciting for me, but I was there early in the day and none of the Saudi women were out of class yet. So I had a bunch of dudes trying to get me dressed. The end result looked pretty good, but I couldn't shake the feeling that these guys really had no clue what they were doing. Here's how it turned out:

Seriously, I had a whole team of stylists for this.
Not bad, right? Except that I went back later in the day and found out from one of my female students that the thing I'm wearing on my head is not supposed to go on my head. She looked at me like I was nuts when I suggested it. So the lesson here is that guys are equally oblivious to women's fashion in all cultures.

After the clothes, I saw that my boss had gotten a henna tattoo. I got really psyched and dragged a friend over to the henna station so we could get them too. Saudi women use henna as a semi-permanent accessory for special occasions, especially weddings. I'd never gotten a henna tattoo before, but I think mine is gorgeous. It should last another week or so before it completely fades:

I wish my hand could look like this all the time.
Trying on clothes and getting decorated with henna was fun, but what left me feeling really fantastic at the end of the fair was how excited my students were to share their culture with me. Honestly, they were thrilled. Everyone wanted to get a picture with me in the clothes. Everyone offered me more dates and coffee. Everyone complimented me on the henna. I felt a bit like a celebrity, but these students made everyone feel that way. I felt so welcome that I visited the fair twice on Friday. It was truly one of the best days ever at my job.

Saudi Arabia often gets a bad rap internationally, for the status of women there, for its ties to terrorists. Those are issues that can't and shouldn't be ignored. But my experience with Saudis is that they are warm, outgoing, and eager to both learn about new cultures and teach others about their own. And I think the fact that these people exist is also something we can't and shouldn't ignore.

Sartorial: I didn't realize I'd be walking across campus twice in the heat (still!) when I got dressed on Friday, but I unintentionally chose well for the occasion: cotton dress, sneakers, and a ponytail. My Chucks are a bit out of place in the picture with the traditional Saudi clothes, but I think the fact that I'm draped in gold embroidery distracts from that. And hey, people gotta wear comfortable shoes no matter what country they're in, right?

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