From one Desert
to Another

NCU On the Road: Dr. Frederick’s Journey from Phoenix, Arizona, to Dubai and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

NCU supports professional development among its team members and is inherently interested in contributing to the scholarly community. Consistent with our Mission, we also strive for a global reach. Dr. Barb D’Elia (director of assessment, School of Psychology) and Dr. Heather Frederick submitted two papers to the 10th Annual Learning and Technology conference (CLOUDSCAPING THE GLOBAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENT), sponsored by Effat University in Saudi Arabia. This article details Dr. Frederick’s travels from Arizona to Dubai (where Dr. D’Elia currently resides) and on to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to attend the conference.

Day 1 - Dallas, Texas

Mildly obsessed with visiting the Middle East since consuming “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” I’m excited by the thought of what I will see, smell and taste. The wardrobe—an Abaya and hijab—will also be something I’ve never experienced. I’m most excited about sharing a cup of tea with my colleague and co-presenter Barb, having worked with her remotely for nearly a decade.

Day 2 – Dubai, United Arab Emirates

For the first time in my life, I feel like a minority. It started at the airport during check-in when asked for my final destination. Answering, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” she asked me for my visa.

“Who is this guy? There are posters of him everywhere in Dubai.”

“It’s meeting me in Dubai,” I explained. She gently noted, “Yes, I understand your problem, but you are a US citizen. You cannot travel without a visa.” I don’t know why she added US citizen – unless you are a Saudi, you need a visa to enter the Kingdom–but it felt odd, like it was a status I had to accept.

Thankfully, I had more than 72 hours in Dubai, which allowed the human to trick the computer into thinking that was my final destination. The 14.5-hour plane ride was uneventful. Among the 550 plus movies I could watch, I picked “Argo;” not sure that was the best choice.

In Dubai International Airport, I pass two prayer rooms before a bathroom and hear every language but English. America feels very far away. It’s a relief to see Barb and head off to the hotel. The contrast of the natural desert dotted with palm trees and the over-the-top structures I saw from the cab was breathtaking. Hard to believe that the Dubai I am viewing from the window is relatively new. Barb aptly refers to it as an “add water and shake” city.

At the hotel, we enjoy a two-hour cup of tea while I get a crash course in Middle Eastern culture, religion, veiled women and their power. Refreshed, we hit the local shops for bargains that simply can’t be found at the Dubai Mall – which offers shopping and skiing.

Day 3 – Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Thanks to technology, I’ve been gone two days and have seen my daughters three times.

I modeled my Abaya for them while they pondered the idea of a woman deciding who gets to see her shape. We were interrupted by the call to prayer that is broadcast through public loud speakers. It gave me goose bumps. I can’t help but wonder why the freedom to pray any time so often leads to non-action. Hearing a deep, lyrical, chanting voice five times a day reminding me to stop and commune with something higher would be nice.

Dr. Frederick and Dr. D’Elia enjoy dinner in Dubai.

Today, our first stop is the Saudi Arabian Consulate. The flag waving outside the American Embassy nearby gives me comfort. On arrival, I wrap my hair in a scarf and turn over my cell phone and camera as requested. Although I am clothed in an American-made casual dress that reaches my ankles, I feel somewhat naked. A man in a white robe and red/white checkered headpiece (that makes me think of Italian food) and sandals helps us. Barb’s visa is there, but my paperwork is messed up and they sent my visa to Jordan.

He says to come back Sunday. Our flight leaves Sunday evening. As if I wasn’t already a bit anxious…

Next, we head off to the University for a meeting about potential international partnerships. Arriving early, we drop in on a woman Barb met at a conference last month. Dressed in her Abaya with her hair hidden behind a scarf, she exudes power—and speaks perfect English.

All the female students around campus are dressed in black Abayas and scarves, while the males wear white robes and a headpiece. I’m struck by the realization that each woman looks different, but the men all look the same (so much for idea of abayas = invisible). It is amazing what you can do with black fabric in terms of textures, patterns and cut; and the colors and patterns on the head scarves. I would take a walk through the University cafeteria over a New York fashion show any day.

Learning how to drape a scarf.

That night, I met Barb’s family for a traditional 7-course Middle Eastern meal. The Iranian restaurant owner, who joined us for dessert, loves Tucson and visits every January. I complimented her on the chickpea dessert cookies and left with about seven pounds of them. I have never experienced hospitality like this.

Day 4 – Dubai, United Arab Emirates

It turns out the “Gulf” (I know it as Persian, but here it is referred to as the Arabian) is the Mid-East Hawaii. We had day passes to an exclusive all-woman’s club. I wanted to take photos, but cameras were forbidden (I did sneak one of my toes and the sand on my iPhone). The infinity pools, singing birds, palm fronds tossing in the wind, the ocean crashing on the white sand with women freely exposed–it was sensory overload.

Later, on a bus tour, I saw the world’s tallest building, visited a palm-tree shaped man-made island and saw more palaces than one can imagine. Most are hidden behind walls, a physical manifestation of the cultural value of privacy (covering) that is the opposite of what you see in the States. I can see how this fact plays a key role in the politics of the Middle East. Things that make you go hmmmmm.

Day 5 – Dubai

I donned my Abaya and head covering to tour a masjid. The college-aged tour guide explains that the word mosque originates from the French word for mosquito. Muslims answering the call to prayer resembled mosquitos swarming to the French. Masjid is preferred.

They talk about traditional dress. The rope that holds a man’s wrapped headpiece has multiple uses, including leashing a camel. Abaya’s are traditionally black. There are lots of theories about why black—from it being the cheapest fabric, to poems that glorified black clothing, to helping women blend in to the background—no one knows for sure. The facemask (something I never see during my travels) is like a wedding ring. Married women wear it to avoid the hassle of being bothered by unmarried men.

I felt beautiful and feminine in my Abaya. It’s long, flowing and flutters at the hem. The women on the tour stressed the dress as a choice. While I am intrigued by its practicality, I am guessing for many Muslim women it is an act of pride and reverence—not unlike wearing a cross or crucifix.

We were given the opportunity to ask any questions we wanted. I asked, “If you could tell someone who knows little or nothing about Islam one thing, what would it be?” The answer, “We are more alike than different and please don’t listen to the media.”(It made me think of Dustin Hoffman in “Wag the Dog.”)

Day 6 – Jeddah, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Will the Saudi Consulate release my visa? On the way, everyone we pass stops us to ask if we are Muslim. Our light hair is covered in our Abayas and hijabs, but our light eyes and facial features kind of, um, stand out.

Inside, we explain the visa situation. We have all the paperwork, but there’s a typo by my name. The coordinators of the conference do all they can to correct the situation and after much waiting we are told the visa is approved, and we just have to get it typed. That office is three blocks away. It is hot and my Abaya is synthetic, plus like a novice, I wore jeans and a long sleeve t-shirt underneath, what was I thinking? Once there, the typist tells us he can type out Barb’s, but not mine.

At last, Dr. Frederick, gets her Visa to travel to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Time is running out. On the walk back to the consulate, I email the University. By the time we arrive, more calls have been made. My visa is, seemingly magically approved. I run through the humidity back to the typing office. Our departure time is dangerously close. With visa finally in hand, we rush back to the hotel for our bags and head to the airport. When we arrive at the gate for our flight, I am blinded by a sea of white. Male pilgrims in white sheets are everywhere. Stitching or belts is forbidden when journeying to Mecca so they just stand there, holding their sheets closed. I’m staring at them and they are staring at me. It makes me uncomfortable and I don’t like it.

Getting out of the Jeddah airport after landing in the KSA is nerve wracking; few things are translated in English. I see what looks like an information booth and ask for help. I explain that my colleague and I are here for a professional conference hosted by Effat University. He points us to the short line.

The drop in my adrenaline (coursing through my veins since morning) lasts about three minutes. The guy at that counter won’t take our passports and speaks no English. He points us to the right. We turn the corner to find ourselves on other side of the long lines, cutting in front of at least 300 people. The gentleman processing visas doesn’t look happy and everyone’s staring, but now I am getting used to it. It takes 15 minutes to process Barb and another 30 for me – digital finger and thumb prints, photos, and questions we don’t understand.

We eventually locate the Effat shuttle and arrive at the hotel 45 minutes later. When I open the door to my room, I find myself really breathing for the first time all day.

Google chatting with the kids, I am just so glad to see their faces. I’m finally here and all I want to do is leave.

Day 7 – Jeddah, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

My Abaya is wrinkled, but it doesn’t smell. All day yesterday I struggled with my head scarf and I can’t handle that distraction today. Thank goodness for Google and YouTube; I quickly find a video that helps me wrap my hijab correctly (which actually wasn’t so quick).

The van ride to Effat University provides me with my first and only daylight glimpse of the Old City. I check out the drivers and it’s true – no women! Jeddah resembles downtown LA or Phoenix, but the formerly shiny storefronts are dull and dusty. The driver says the wind/sandstorms kick up a lot of junk.

We enter the University through the “Woman’s Entrance.” The Keynote speaker, from the World Bank, is great. The world population is growing, but it’s happening in countries with limited resources. He shows images of a world map with countries expanded or reduced in size based on the topic. Here is what the world looks like considering Internet use; here is what the world looks like considering poverty, etc. Interestingly, in the KSA, 46% of the population is under the age of 30.

The conference is a wonderful mix of academics and other professionals from all over the world (here in the KSA!). We exchange ideas like business cards and share the excitement of how technology is changing how students learn and faculty teach. The highlight of the short two days was when Barb’s paper won “Best Paper of the Conference” - what an honor.

I see evidence of change everywhere. Young girls all have iPhones and tablets and can text, email and call in absence of a chaperone. I also saw a male professor walking across campus with students. This wasn’t allowed even a year ago. Yes, the conference room is divided by a partition (with the men on one side and the women on the other) and some women cover all but their eyes with their hijabs around men, but you also see women shaking men’s hands, and male and female faculty mixing at lunch.

Day 8 – Jeddah, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Phoenix, Arizona

The airport is suffocating. I spend the last of my Saudi money on an iced tea at a Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. I long for the security of the plane and to hear just one word of English. Onboard, I’m relieved to be sitting next to a young Asian girl, not a man who’s been wrapped in a sheet for days.

In the air, I take some time to reflect. Barb gave an incredible talk yesterday and our workshop got attendees excited about assessment. I was, again, impressed by the caliber of the participants. All smart, articulate, multi-lingual women dressed in black hijabs.

One of the young student volunteers had asked if it was my first visit to Saudi Arabia. I asked her if she had been to the States. She had lived in Kansas during 2nd grade and Pennsylvania during 8th grade and would love to go back. She wants to be an electrical engineer and heard about a program in Utah working on some sort of electrical car.

What’s stopping her - her dad? He says “not without an escort.” I suggested she get married and bring her husband. She laughed. She’s engaged, but not looking forward to marriage. It’s not about oppression or lack of love for her betrothed. She said it was too much responsibility. Sounds like something I would overhear in a Starbucks in Scottsdale, Ariz.

After a short layover in Dubai, I spend the flight to Dallas trying to get back on Arizona time—writing in my journal and watching movies instead of sleeping. I cry when I miss my plane to Phoenix. I desperately need to hold my daughters. When we finally touch down, I notice the Desert of the Sun isn’t that different from the one I left 8,000 miles away - just sans camels and homogenous clothing.

Day 9 - Home in Phoenix

Relaxing at the dinner following the conference at Effat University.

The next four days are a blur thanks to jetlag and a sinus infection/flu monstrosity. I remember the signs I saw in the KSA about the Swine Flu. Yuck. Whatever it was took four different drugs and about 200 hours of sleep to knock it out of my system. But, all told, it was worth it.

I still miss the food and interesting faces. When my longing for the tea becomes too much, I turn my desire to planning a return trip to Dubai… this time with the kids.