Student finds comfort among differences in Saudi Arabia

By julianne cahill

Sentinel reporter

MIFFLINTOWN – Madalyn Goss, of Mifflintown, is serious when she talks about ending poverty and hunger worldwide.

Now a junior at Bloomsburg University, Goss is studying political science with an ultimate goal of reaching out to the developing nations of the world. Through her studies, she recently had the opportunity to travel to Saudi Arabia with a group of 10 other students from across the United States.

Goss said her interest in political science began in high school, and she knew she wanted to pursue a career in the field during college. But her original desire to reach impoverished areas in Africa evolved – somewhat unexpectedly – into a focus on the Middle East.

Goss said she received a brochure in the mail about learning opportunities at Bloomsburg University. Among a list of foreign languages offered at the school, her eyes settled on Arabic.

“This is interesting,” she recalled thinking at the time. “Who takes Arabic?”

Goss signed up for the class where she learned of the Model Arab League, which emulates the inner workings of the Arab League. According to the MAL website, the program helps students learn about Middle Eastern politics and foreign affairs.

Through MAL, Goss was nominated to participate in an expense-paid study abroad trip to Saudi Arabia. She said she welcomed the opportunity with open arms and was more excited than nervous to board her first international flight.

Goss and the students with whom she traveled visited the country as guests of the government.

“You can’t just go to Saudi Arabia for fun,” she explained.

Generations of tradition and customs still influence the region, and travel is difficult, “almost impossible” for individuals who are not Muslim, Goss said.

There also are social differences. Goss said women in Saudi Arabia are treated similar to the way minors are treated in the United States. Women must be claimed at the airport by a man and he is responsible for her during most daily activities.

Gender separation is prevalent in some areas of the country. Goss said universities have separate campuses for women and men. She also ate in a restaurant that separated single men from women and families.

Despite the cultural difference, Goss said her role as a woman in Saudi Arabia was a positive experience.

“I felt really comfortable,” she said about her travels.

Goss said the people in Saudi Arabia were accommodating and very welcoming to guests. Even though she dressed in traditional garb, Goss said natives easily recognized the group of American students and approached them as they walked by.

In talks with other women in Saudia Arabia, Goss said she found that some traditions were respected by both genders and some were challenged by women.

For example, women in the region dress modestly. Long sleeves and dresses cover most of a woman’s body, and a hijab, or veil, is worn to cover the head and chest in public. Goss said women weren’t uncomfortable with wearing hijabs. In fact, they like them. Goss compared a Saudi Arabian woman’s hijab to a cross worn by a Christian. In the U.S., people may perceive the modest dress in Saudi Arabia as a sign of women’s oppression, but Goss said that is not the case.

In other situations, however, women college students expressed dissatisfaction with their role in Saudi Arabian society. Goss said leadership positions are traditionally held by men, but women want to be able to run for and hold political offices.

There was only one time Goss felt limited by being a woman in Saudi Arabia. While visiting the city of Jeddah, her group ate at a popular restaurant called Al Baik. The restaurant separated single men from women and families. Goss said there were four cashiers taking orders and serving the men, but only one cashier serving women. The slow-moving line and inequality in Al Baik was one time when Goss recalled being frustrated by the situation.

The food selection in Saudi Arabia was similar to the U.S., she said. There was American food, like chicken and pasta. Fast food, like Burger King and McDonald’s, was popular, too. Goss said some areas offered “very fresh” seafood that still had a slight salt water taste. Lamb and goat also were popular dishes. Goss tried both but said they were too “gamey” for her liking.

There is no alcohol in the region, she said, so juices are popular among Saudi Arabians. Goss said a vendor offered fresh strawberry juice to the group of American students at one of the markets they visited.

Despite some cultural variations, Goss said the people of Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are not all that different. Malls are very popular in the Middle East, and watching YouTube videos is a common pastime. Building construction is very similar, and personal transportation is more prevalent than public transportation, she said.

Goss studied and traveled within the country for a total of 10 days, visiting three cities: Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam. As part of the opportunity, Goss agreed to promote education and understanding of the Middle East through public presentations and written media upon her return to the U.S.

“People don’t understand what’s happening, what’s going on,” she said. “It really gets under my skin when people say negative things about the Middle East, believing whatever is said on the news.”

Goss said people often lump the Middle East together into one region, but she learned through her travels that each country is significantly different from the others.

“Lumping one region under one conflict isn’t fair to other countries,” she said. “I’m not concerned … not once did I feel unsafe.”

Goss said she will continue her education through an internship this summer in Washington, D.C. She also has added Middle Eastern studies as a minor under her political science major at Bloomsburg.

After her graduation from college, Goss said she hopes to obtain a job in international development and work with a country in the Middle East or Africa.

“As long as I’m doing something that’s helping someone,” she said, explaining that her personal goal for her career is to “make some sort of difference.”

Goss will serve as chairperson in November for the regional Council on Palestinian Affairs at the MAL conference. She has also been named head delegate for the national conference, set to be held this month.

“I really had a lot of fun,” she said about her trip to the Middle East. “I learned a lot.”

Goss said the goal of the trip was to come back to the U.S. and spread understanding. On a more personal level, the trip was an opportunity to see first-hand what is happening in other areas of the world.