By Loring M. Danforth, author of Crossing the Kingdom: Portraits of Saudi ArabiaIn 2012, Prof. Danforth and 16 students from Bates College spent nearly a month traveling through Saudi Arabia. Here is a glimpse into their travels–and into the Saudi Arabian culture.  

From your travels, what misconception do you most wish to dispel regarding Saudi Arabia? 

IMG_0297I confronted one of these misconceptions a few months after my return to the United States from Saudi Arabia. A FedEx driver delivered a big package to my door. As he handed it to me, he noticed it was from Saudi Arabia and said, “It must be oil.” “No,” I replied with a smile, “it’s art.” I was expecting a gift from a Saudi artist I had met during my trip.

As an anthropologist, I knew that the usual images Americans have of Saudis – rich oil executives, oppressed women, conservative Muslims, violent terrorists – were grossly oversimplified negative stereotypes that are deeply dehumanizing and destructive. I knew this. But nothing could have prepared me for the unique, concrete, and intense individuality and humanity of the Saudis I met – a young Saudi lesbian who was eager to learn about the lives of gay women in the United States;  a high school student who moved his teacher to tears with a mournful Saudi folk song; a Saudi medical student who described wearing a full length black abaya as restricting, suffocating, fashionable and comforting, as well as showing respect for her community and preserving her culture. If Saudi voices like these can be more widely heard, then the Orientalist stereotypes that dominate the media will lose some of their power.

Was there any aspect that surprised you when researching and writing this book?

For most of my career I have worked in Greece. I had no specialized background in Islam or the Arab world before traveling to Saudi Arabia. I had naively assumed that the more religious Saudis were, the more conservative they would be and that the more secular they were, the more liberal they would be. I learned that the situation was far more complex than I had thought.

In Jeddah, I met Dr. Sami Angawi a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad, a
prominent Sufi leader of the Hijaz, a public intellectual, and a highly respected architect, who has dedicated his life to the preservation of traditional Hijazi architecture and material culture. His face was framed by a thinning gray beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and a traditional gold-and-white Hijazi turban. Dr. Angawi offered some thoughts on freedom, humanity, Islam, and Allah.

IMG_0305“The Bill of Rights, the Ten Commandments, and the Quran are our points of reference. They are the tools we use to create balance and order in society. Unity in diversity is an example of balance. Islam is the most flexible religion I’ve ever experienced. Islam is the religion of freedom. Allah is the God of everyone, even people who don’t believe in Him. We are trying to share love with you now—Muslims and Christians, Saudis and Americans. We’re not angels. Angels do good naturally; we humans have to struggle. God made us so that we come back to Him through love.”

One of the most religious Saudis I had met was also one of the most liberal. It was as if I had met a Muslim Quaker or a Muslim Unitarian Universalist. I clearly had a lot to learn.

If you were to go back to Saudi Arabia, are there particular areas that you’d like to visit, experience, or re-experience? Why?

After Danforth-CrossingTheKingdomvisiting several art galleries in Saudi Arabia, I became very interested in the work of some of the leading Saudi artists who are pushing the envelope of what constitutes acceptable forms of expression in Saudi society. These artists are offering provocative critiques of conservative Islam, the role of women in Saudi society, and the impact of modernization on traditional Saudi culture. I would very much like to return to Saudi Arabia to learn more about the world of contemporary Saudi art. This would involve visiting several new art galleries, attending exhibits and workshops, and interviewing Saudi artists. Their work is characterized by a delightful combination of humor and playfulness, on the one hand, and incisive and bitter social commentary, on the other.

Ahmed Mater, for example, photographs iron filings standing erect in concentric rings around a black cube-shaped magnet to evoke the spiritual power that attracts pilgrims to the Kaba in the Holy Mosque in Mecca. In another work Mater presents an eerie blue x-ray of a man holding a pistol to his head that morphs in stages into a gasoline pump whose nozzle is lodged at its side. To an interpretive anthropologist interested in analyzing symbols, works like these offer wonderful opportunities to explore the richness of Saudi culture.

Loring M. Danforth is Professor of Anthropology at Bates College. He is the author of The Death Rituals of Rural Greece, Firewalking and Religious Healing, The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World, and Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory.