A college educator's
By JOHN K. HARTMAN
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
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
I am a professor of journalism at
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
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
journalism and give seminars on journalism to KSU students and journalists
from the Al-Jazirah newspaper, a daily Arabic publication based in
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
On April 24, we boarded an Air France jet in
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
sign beckons to us. A porter with cart grabs our bags and we are off to the
hotel, driven by a King
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.
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.
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
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
to meet with professors in the education college. Kay teaches education
courses for both Bowling Green
University and the
of Toledo. Once inside the
all-female enclave, the professors and students are free to remove their
On April 30, I am taken to the office of the rector of
Dr. Abdullah Al-Othman. He is the equivalent to the president of an American
Young, energetic, in his 40s, and on the job for about
a year, the rector is intent upon turning King
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
by 2020 and the equivalent of Harvard by 2040.
"Our initials will also stand for
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.
despite its vast oil reserves, is very interested in solar power. I hope
Toledo's solar panel companies and
can do business some day.
We talked about research projects of common interest,
particularly those regarding youth and young adults (my current newspaper
He expressed concern about the way
citizens perceive his country and suggested research projects in that realm.
He asked my views on the
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
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
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
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
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
I finally had to ask my waiter in the hotel where he
was from. Bangladesh.
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
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
John K. Hartman, a Bowling Green
resident, is a journalism professor at Central