THE Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a different world, but not so different from the United States of America as one might think.
I got an e-mail in November inviting me to apply for a visiting professorship at King Saud University.
I had no idea why the university was interested in me, but later learned that it was my two books about the national newspaper, USA Today.
I am a professor of journalism at Central Michigan University and a longtime resident of Bowling Green.
Thus began the odyssey that ultimately resulted in my wife Kay and me spending April 25 to May 5 in Saudi Arabia.
It is a hallmark of modern life that nearly all communication leading up to our visit was done by e-mail between me and my host, Professor Ali Alkarni.
I was asked to give a major address on trends in U.S. journalism and give seminars on journalism to KSU students and journalists from the Al-Jazirah newspaper, a daily Arabic publication based in Riyadh and the sponsor of my visiting professorship.
(By the way, the newspaper is not affiliated with the controversial Al-Jazeera satellite television channel.)
My official title was "Al-Jazirah Newspaper Chair for International Journalism." It looked very nice on the banner behind me when I gave my speech on trends. How can you not like people who put your name on a banner?
On April 24, we boarded an Air France jet in Detroit and headed east to the Middle East. Eight hours to Paris. Six hours to Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
The plane lands in Riyadh and I am plenty nervous. To meet local customs, Kay has to cover up every inch of her body except her face with clothes. We are guided to the short line and get through customs easily. A man holding up a "King Saud University" sign beckons to us. A porter with cart grabs our bags and we are off to the hotel, driven by a King Saud University employee in a GMC van. The driver is not wearing a seatbelt so neither do we.
Heavy security surrounds the hotel and officers look under the van's hood, presumably for a bomb. The automated barricade is lowered and we check into the hotel.
Kay begins to feel repressed by the strict rules governing women in Saudi society. Women must be covered from head to toe in public and dress conservatively in the hotel. She cannot visit the exercise room, bowl, or swim in the pool. Men can. The hotel sends an exercise bike to the room and supplies her with an abaya, the shoulders-to-ankles black garment that Saudi women must wear in public. Saudi women must cover their faces in public, except for their eyes. Kay must wear a black scarf but can expose her face.
Alcohol is banned from Saudi society but smoking is welcome, even in hotel lobbies and restaurants.
The King Saud University campus, for men only, is massive. It is all in sandstone and gives off a golden hue.
All Saudi men wear a white robe and a headdress. Most headdresses include a white and red scarf. Dormitories are adjacent to the campus, not part of it like most U.S. universities.
I am given an office in a building that is not nearly as fancy inside as its exterior. The office has Internet access. Now I can make up for my busted Blackberry and find out what has been going on in the world while I was out of touch.
I give my speech on "Trends in American Journalism." Do I seem smarter than I am because there is a banner with my name on it directly behind me?
The next day I conduct my first seminar on basic news writing. Male students attend in person and female students at Girls University a few miles away participate by closed-circuit television. As long as the men and women can't see each other, we are complying with the conventions of Saudi society.
Kay visits Girls University to meet with professors in the education college. Kay teaches education courses for both Bowling Green State University and the University of Toledo. Once inside the all-female enclave, the professors and students are free to remove their outside coverings.
On April 30, I am taken to the office of the rector of King Saud University, Dr. Abdullah Al-Othman. He is the equivalent to the president of an American university.
Young, energetic, in his 40s, and on the job for about a year, the rector is intent upon turning King Saud University into a world-class institution and increasing its graduate programs to make up 40 percent of the student body.
He said KSU intends to be the equivalent of Ohio State University by 2020 and the equivalent of Harvard by 2040.
"Our initials will also stand for Knowledge Society University," he said in perfect English.
We exchanged gifts and he had an additional one for me to take to CMU President Mike Rao.
"Your president will hear from us before you return to the States," he said.
I gave him a letter of greetings from Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner. Toledo is becoming the solar panel capital of America. Saudi Arabia, despite its vast oil reserves, is very interested in solar power. I hope Toledo's solar panel companies and Saudi Arabia can do business some day.
We talked about research projects of common interest, particularly those regarding youth and young adults (my current newspaper research theme).
He expressed concern about the way U.S. citizens perceive his country and suggested research projects in that realm.
He asked my views on the U.S. presidential race. I said I favored Barack Obama. I said I thought Senator Obama had a more magnanimous view of the rest of the world than the incumbent. I added that he appears to inspire the younger generation in much the same way as John F. Kennedy affected my generation. I said Kennedy inspired me to want to go into public service and to want to make the world a better place.
"I see my visit here as fulfilling Kennedy's vision," I said, getting misty eyed.
That night I went to the headquarters of the award-winning Al-Jazirah newspaper, my benefactor, to meet with chief editor Khalid Almalik. While soft-spoken, he struck me as a fierce competitor and a strong leader of the newspaper.
I later learned that he has an international reputation as a top-flight editor. He reminded me of a U.S. newspaper editor whose reporters would go all-out to get the story. Mr. Almalik gave me two books he has written about the king. I gave him my two books about USA Today. Not sure it was a fair trade.
Saudi newspapers are printed on glossy newsprint, more like magazines in the United States. I was told it was to keep magazines from starting.
In wealthy Saudi Arabia, business news is surpassing sports news in reader interest, I was told. Being driven back to the hotel through mile after of mile of bustling business districts, I learned that primetime shopping in the kingdom is the evening. Every evening. The bright lights of commerce made for a glitzy scene.
On May 1, I conducted a seminar on the effects of the Internet on the newspaper business at Al-Jazirah headquarters. The audience in the seminar room was all men.
Next door, the women journalists - who do their jobs from home - participated by closed- circuit television.
Later that day I was interviewed by KSA Channel 2 television at the hotel. I was asked again what I thought of Saudi society. Again, I said it was understandable based on the country's culture and traditions just like the United States' society is understandable based on its culture and traditions. I emphasized that I was in the country to teach Saudi journalists about how we do journalism in the United States, not on some diplomatic mission.
The reporter said he had interviewed Neil Bush, the President's brother, and diplomat Joseph Wilson for the same show earlier that year.
After several days of clear, sunny, hot days, a dusty haze begins to cover Riyadh. It stayed that way for the rest of our visit.
We go shopping at the mall in the center of the city. It is family day. Most stores have women-only shopping areas, but Saudi women must be covered from head to toe everywhere. Starbucks has a family-only area where Saudi women can remove their veils in order to eat.
At times I felt like I was simultaneously watching a movie and playing a small part in one.
Several times I was asked why the U.S. news media permitted the Bush Administration to take the country into the Iraq War. I explained that the media worry about public opinion because they can lose large chunks of audience and financial viability by going against prevailing views. President Bush was extremely popular after 9/11 and the media were afraid to oppose him, I said. Now that his popularity has fallen to record lows and the Iraq war drags on, the media can't run enough negative stories about him, I noted.
I finally had to ask my waiter in the hotel where he was from. Bangladesh. Saudi Arabia has a population of 27 million, with 22 million citizens and another 5 million who are workers, from low-paid construction workers, servants, and waiters from places like Bangladesh, to highly paid executives and college professors from the United States. There is no naturalization process to become a Saudi citizen. You are either born in or not. Quite different from the United States.
We visit the National Museum. It traces the history of the kingdom and notes straight out that their god, Allah, created it all. It traces the life of the prophet Mohammed and always says, "Peace and blessings upon him," when his name is mentioned. The Saudi's bible is called the Qur'an. They make all decisions based on what the holy book tells them.
They are deeply religious. How can you criticize a people who pray five times a day? Prayer times are published in the daily newspaper.
The museum describes the emergence of Saudi Arabia in 1932, as the union of several tribes under a king. Descendants still govern. Oil was discovered in 1938, and the first big discovery was made in 1953.
Some Saudis are not crazy about us. In one restroom I saw the "USA" scratched out on a hand drier.
Yet Kay and I could not have been treated better. Our hosts, journalism professor Ali Alkarni and mass communication department chairman Ibrahim Al Beayeyz, saw to all our needs. We learned that the Saudi people we met care about the same things we do - their families, their children, their professions, their religion, and their society.
We Americans have much more in common with the Saudis than we have differences.
On departure day May 5, I regretted the end of this unique experience, yet I was anxious to get home. I have been invited to return in the fall.
As I concluded to my last class over there, this is "to be continued."
John K. Hartman, a Bowling Green resident, is a journalism professor at Central Michigan University.
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