Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Last October Tigerhawk posted a comment by a Saudi blogger that is very encouraging. A young Saudi man who dreams of a future that has nothing to do with radical Islam.

Looking forward to the future, I wonder: do we dare to dream? I, for one, do. I dare. And I don't have only one dream; I have many dreams actually: I want to live to see the day when this country becomes a real democracy with a fully elected parliament; when freedom of expression is guaranteed to all, and no one is afraid to speak his mind no more; when women have their full rights and stand on equal foot with men. This was to name a few. Call me a dreamer. Maybe I am. I know one thing for sure, however: change is coming. This country is changing, not as quickly as I wish maybe, but it is changing nevertheless. Probably I'm just a young lad who can't wait for this to happen, but who can blame me? If it wasn't for the young to push change then who would?

My friend and I went to Java Cafe on King Abdul Aziz Rd., and on the other side of the road, we could see the building of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. He was amazed by how big and stylish this coffeehouse was. "Revolution is coming to Saudi Arabia," my friend said. I was startled by the word revolution. The increase and popularity of coffee shops means that people want to talk, he explained, and this is how the French Revolution was started, one cup of coffee at a time. It was getting late, so I dropped my friend at the hotel. Meanwhile, my head was turning between the ideas of revolution and my mentioned above dreams.

The other day I was re-reading that post and clicked on over to his blog and discovered that he is now traveling in the US as part of a State Department program. Unfortunately his experience at our embassy in Saudi Arabia was not pleasant. It is good that State is identifying people to be part of this kind of visiting program, but since they invited him to participate they should ensure that he should not have to deal with bureaucratic stupidity and some idiot FSO who needs lessons in customer service. Hopefully his experience in the US will be better.

It is the first time for me to visit the United States as well as being my first trip to a non-Arab country. The two-week trip is a part of a long-running exchange program called the International Visitor Leadership Program. It is sponsored by the State Department and a number of prestigious NGO’s...

Last year, there was this American professor who was visiting Saudi Arabia to learn more about the country and its people. The professor has been reading my blog for a while and he wanted to meet me to talk about blogging and youth culture in the Kingdom. We met in a hotel lobby in Riyadh and talked for a few hours. Present at that meeting was an official from the US Embassy who was coordinating the professor’s trip.

In the middle of an answer to a question I mentioned that I’ve never been to the States or Europe. The American official was a bit surprised that my English was very good despite the fact that I’ve never been to the US or the UK. Later, she said they have this exchange program at the embassy and asked me if I would be interested in such thing. I said “yes,” although I thought she was just being nice, and shortly I forgot about the whole thing.
Few months later she contacted me saying that I was nominated for the program and they will need some information about me. Even at that point, I did not take this thing seriously. I was saying: there will be a lot of people nominated who are much better than me and they will certainly be chosen over me.

It wasn’t until the beginning of this summer when the embassy contacted me saying I was selected for the program so they should start arranging for my participation in the program. They have taken care of almost everything: I just had to sign the papers and show up for the visa interview.

However, visiting the US Embassy in Riyadh for the interview was not a very pleasant experience. One day in August, at 6:40 AM, I was standing in a quickly growing line outside the embassy building. Around 7:20, they started allowing people to enter.

I was somehow lucky because when I showed the security officer my papers he took me ahead of others. I went through the highly-guarded gates, took a number and waited for my turn. The process was relatively slow and the atmosphere inside the embassy was cold and dry.

Before going in, I thought the interview would go something like this: you come into a room and sit on a chair facing two or three people who would ask you some questions, chat with you a little bit and then you leave. Needless to say, that was not the case.

After waiting for about two-and-a-half hours, it was finally my turn for the interview. I went to the the interview window (yes, not a room, just a glass window) not knowing what to expect, and there was this blond lady who asked first me to put my fingers on a device to take my fingerprints.

She started questioning me in a rather accusing tone about my intention of the visit and who nominated me for the program. She asked me why I was nominated for which I did not have a good answer and it was a question she better ask to those who nominated me.

The way of questioning made me nervous and it felt to me more of an interrogation than an interview. After a long pause and some staring at me, she said my papers were incomplete and there was a missing form that I had to provide. I told her it was her colleagues at the embassy who prepared all the paperwork for me and all I had to do was to sign them. She said my application could not be processed until I provide the missing form. She gave me my passport and said someone from there would contact me later.

Few days later someone from the embassy called and said the missing form was still in Washington; as soon as it arrived they sent it to me. I signed the form and fedex’d it with my passport. After two weeks I had my passport back with a short visit visa.

Now that I got the visa, I have to admit that I expected the process to be smoother than how it was. I mean: the program is sponsored by the State Department and they were responsible for arranging the whole thing. In general, the experience was relatively good, but that’s maybe because I was expecting it to be worse, except for the interview part which really sucked.

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