NOTE: when I changed the template for the blog, somehow this post (and I suspect others) were rendered into all-caps. Working on figuring out what went wrong - but until then, my apologies for the poor aesthetics!
As I was packing out from DC, I came across a scrap of paper that I hadn't seen in a year or more. (I'm not really clear how it made through a few moves safely.) Last spring, I took part in the Jeddah consulate's culture fair in Taif doing the consular section brief, because at the time Jeddah didn't have anyone in the consular section who could answer student and tourist visa questions. I did our standard visa presentation and question-and-answer session every few hours for the fairgoers, and in the downtime I talked one-on-one with students or attended other info sessions.
A bit of an introduction - Taif is a beautiful town, set in the mountains above Mecca (as close as I'll ever get, sadly) with a relatively cool climate and a flourishing agriculture economy. Some of the best fresh fruits I've ever had came off a roadside stand there (and I'm still trying not to think about the practice of using 'black water' for irrigation). Taif is the traditional place where the Riyadh elite escape during the summer, and there are even branches of the major government ministries there so work can continue while everyone escapes the heat of the Nejd.
Taif is also a common starting point for Saudis going on Hajj; many of the men on my flight from Riyadh to Taif were in their special Hajj clothing, two white towels folded a certain way, and I saw many people checking in and out of the hotel in the same gear. (Abbreviated version - pilgrims are supposed to wear this clothing 'on their way' to Mecca. Varying interpretations and piety indicate whether that should be from the point of origin, wherever that may be in the world, or just from the edge of the sacred zone around Mecca that also serves as the boundary beyond which non-Muslims cannot pass.)
We held our fair in one of the big hotels in town, and like any other public event in Saudi, we had to have gender segregation in our main presentation rooms. We had two seating areas set up, with a long screen between them (reminding me for all the world of an Orthodox Jewish wedding reception). In the front of the room, we had two separate screens for showing video or powerpoints, and while speaking, we had to wander back and forth from one section to the other, or have a person watching each side for hands during Q&As. This is not something that normal public speaking training teaches you how to handle!
An ESL teacher from the State Department's English Language Program did a fascinating presentation to a group of Saudi teachers of English. One of the goals of this office is to offer tips on how to make language training more interactive and fun for students. Much instruction in Saudi Arabia is still done in old-fashioned, rote memorization drills, and it's hard to learn a language that way. The Saudi instructors knew this, so they were excited to hear about methods that might increase their students' learning and comprehension.
The ESL teacher did a number of activities with the group of teachers to emphasize that creativity in the classroom encourages language learning. One of the exercises involved someone from one side of the room starting a sentence, "If I were a ____..." while someone from the other side answered, "...then I would ____." Lots of potential for creativity here, of course, and the fact that there was a physical barrier between the authors of the sentence halves added to the fun. Normally, in events like this, the two halves of the room are kept completely separate, with no interaction whatsoever between them - if a question is asked on one side, the speaker repeats it so that everyone can hear it (or acknowledge it). So this was a challenge for these teachers, some of whom had never even been to the US or Europe before, to interact with the other side of the barrier. I was sitting in the back observing during this session, and I have to say that these sentences were some of the most thought-provoking, heart-breaking things I've ever heard.
Man: "If I were a woman..."
Woman: "...then I would travel the world!"
Man: "If I were a child..."
Woman: "...then I would kill my husband!"
All this in a place where a woman can't leave the country without her male guardian's permission, and where there is no minimum age to marry.