I had the opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia two weeks ago for a religious pilgrimage called “Umrah.” I’ve lived in America my whole life, and my only experiences going outside the country have been three trips to Pakistan to visit family and a few road-trips to Canada. Naturally, I didn’t know what to expect of this trip to Saudi Arabia, a land unfamiliar to me yet somehow very familiar.
As a Muslim American, I have spent countless Sundays at the Mosque learning Islamic history and reading the Quran. I’ve spent a majority of my life praying in the direction of the Holy Kaaba, the house of God, without ever having laid eyes on it. I have believed whole-heartedly in my faith: I’ve watched films, read literature, listened to hymns—all activities which have increased my general knowledge about Islam as well as my belief in it.
On the other hand, as a Biology and Political Science double-major at UConn, I have encountered people from every walk of life. I am blessed to know people of countless faiths, orientations, political affiliations and ethnicities. However, living in this country has also placed a skepticism of the unknown in me.
As Americans, we pride ourselves in our claim to be the land of opportunity, the land of the free. We learn to have a healthy cynicism of people that do things differently than us, whether that be systems of government other than capitalism or even national sports that are different than ours. Going into my week in Saudi Arabia, I tried to come up with reasonable expectations of what I would see, balanced with what I hoped to see.
Saudi Arabia seems to constantly be in the news for their behind-the-scenes oil deals and human rights violations. Until I reached Saudi Arabia, I didn’t actually comprehend how much my view of the country was shaped by reports written by Americans for large publications who had never set foot in the country.
I expected to have a large culture shock—I was leaving America, a land where anybody has the right to dress how they want, say what they want and do what they want—and entering a land where almost every aspect of life is controlled in some way. This way of life is unique to Saudi Arabia, so my experiences travelling to Pakistan could not prepare me.
What surprised me the most about my trip was how utterly wrong many of my preconceived notions about Saudi Arabia were. Words like “oppressive” and “backwards” were at the back of my mind, but that’s not what I saw or experienced.
The cities of Makkah and Medina are shockingly clean. There are workers constantly cleaning every aspect of the mosques. These workers represent a large percentage of Saudi Arabia’s poor. Their job is endless—people enter and exit the mosque 24 hours a day, as it is a place to come and do any kind of worship. This means that the workers are constantly mopping, picking up trash, organizing shoes or doing any work that has to be done.
I have never seen a group of people so determined, motivated and honored to be doing the work they do. Each person has a cheery disposition, and a warm glow that shows you just how privileged they feel to be doing their work. These men don’t earn a lot of money, but proudly wear their uniforms and do their work for nobody but themselves and God. Their sense of spirituality is infectious and makes you whole-heartedly believe that there is good in the world.
It’s not just the workers who surprised me but the everyday people’s treatment of them. I’m used to a society where we demonize our poor. We assume that people on welfare are cheating the system, we pride ourselves in working hard to get ahead in life. We feel our poor are lazy and unmotivated people.
In Saudi Arabia, donating to the poor is as common as saying hello. Every time we walked from our hotel to the Kaaba, there was a flood of 300 to 400 thousand people making their way to the mosque to pray. Workers on the streets would stop in their tracks and wait for the commotion to die down so they could continue to clean. This all may seem normal, but if you watch any one worker for an extended period of time, you would see ordinary people walking up to them, shaking their hand and giving them a few Riyals. Children, men and women alike go up to workers and donate to them without being conspicuous or looking down at them.
This happens five times a day: at every call to prayer and then, of course, when people are just normally walking on the streets. I’ve never seen donations given with such a sense of normalcy, with such a sense of obligation. People in Saudi Arabia know that these workers aren’t lazy, they’re in fact every bit as deserving of good fortune as themselves. Donating money to them is a way to show them that they are cared for, valued and respected. These are the impressions of Saudi Arabia that will stick with me forever.
Gulrukh Haroon is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.