This Is Me: A world apart, a world the same
Jameel Abdlkader closed his notes at the end of his English class at California State University, Long Beach, and walked out until his professor stopped him. He asked if Abdlkader had time to grab a cup of coffee, and he agreed. As they made their way to Starbucks around the corner, his professor turned and said, “Jameel, I’m going to tell you something, but I don’t want you to freak.”
Abdlkader looked at his professor with concerned eyes and said, “What is it? Tell me.”
“My idea of Islam, if you’re Muslim, I automatically think you’re a terrorist,” his professor said. “I want you to help me free this idea, I have so many questions.”
Abdlkader, 32, recalls this moment titling his head back with a laugh, his red Hollister shirt peeking out from a gray sweater. He and his wife, Rabaah Jaafari, 26, left their home in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for California two years ago. They first studied English, and now are pursuing degrees in biomedical sciences at Quinnipiac University.
Abdlkader is one of nearly 23,000 Saudi Arabian students studying in America, according to a 2011 report by the International Institute of Education. That is a 44 percent increase from the 2009/2010 school year, when roughly 16,000 students came.
These numbers have increased annually since King Abdullah took the Saudi Arabian throne in 2005, which coincided with President George W. Bush’s agreement to open U.S. doors to Arab students again after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. Abdullah created an international scholarship program with his own money that has sent about 130,000 students abroad in 2012.
Abdlkader received the scholarship after arriving in America. His wife applied first online and went through an interviewing process to ensure she was serious about her studies before she was approved. Because Abdlkader and Jaafari were already married at the time, only he had to fill out the application before being approved.
In Saudi Arabian culture, women are always accompanied by a man when traveling outside their country. If they aren’t married, their father or brother goes.
“Because she’s already accepted, I go with her,” Abdlkader said. “Once I arrived they gave me my own scholarship for school, life expenses and, with no obligation, no strings attached.”
Despite the religious and cultural differences among Muslims and Americans, Abdlkader said many aspects of life are the same. His professor didn’t understand the rituals of Saudi life many students maintain while studying in the U.S., none of which are connected to extremists, but tied to customs that have long been part of Islamic culture.
Abdlkader grew up in Jeddah, a city on the west coast of Saudi Arabia about an hour from Mecca. He describes it as extremely diverse. People from all over the world visit because of its proximity to Mecca. People live there as long as they can, Abdlkader said, because living far from family is one of the last choices a Saudi would want to make.
This is because family is the most important thing in life, which is embedded in the teachings of the Quran, the book Muslims believe is the verbatim word of God, Abdlkader said.
“In Islam, your mother and your father are most important in your life,” Abdlkader said. “Even more than your wife, because they gave you life. They spend life just to make sure you’re OK. For that, you have to be loyal and don’t disobey. You must keep in touch, call them, check they are ok, be there when they need you.”
Abdlkader grins when thinking about his role in his family, in which he’s the eldest of three sisters and two brothers.
“I’m the eldest, and it’s completely different from being the youngest, the baby,” he said. “I think it is like this in most cultures. The first baby of the family is their experiment child, because they don’t know how to raise a child. They think ‘OK, if we keep them away from everything, that would be best.’”
Abdlkader said his two younger brothers, 19 and 20, have been raised less strict than he was, and uses his first car as an example. He tried to make his father buy him a new car, but instead had to drive a used pickup from another family member. His brother recently got a new Honda. Even after driving the pickup for a while, Abdlkader’s father still told him to buy his own car, he said laughing.
Abdlkader went to work without finishing his last year of high school. He said he had family struggles and became frustrated with school. It wasn’t until he wanted a promotion while working for Ikea that he went back to earn a diploma.
In Saudi Arabia, people can make enough money to cover basic expenses with a high school diploma. However, it wouldn’t be enough to save for the future or buy a house, Abdlkader said.
He wanted to attend school outside of Saudi Arabia and had been saving money and giving it to his mother. She was also saving for him through the Arab practice of ‘Jammeha,’ in which friends collect money over a period of time and give it away each month to the friend who needs it most. But if he wanted to study far way, his mother, who he describes as more of a friend, and his grandmother, whose advice Abdlkader uses in all of life’s circumstances, said he must get married first.
Abdlkader said the idea of marriage at age 17 was really exciting: having a companion and friend who would always take care of one another. He also thought of his father
“I see my father, how he’s responsible; he goes to work whether he’s sick or not,” Abdlkader said. “That made me feel like responsibility is such a good thing.”
Abdlkader decided he was ready to get married and met Jaafari when he was 22. His parents, who knew Jaafari because she is Abdlkader’s sister’s friend, discussed the potential relationship to make sure Abdlkader was a good fit for Jaafari before arranging for them to meet.
Abdlkader and Jaafari spent two years getting to know each other before getting married. In Saudi Arabia, the husband pays money to his bride – whatever amount she requests. Abdlkader said it is usually between $10,000 and $20,000 and the wife can do whatever she wants with it. The husband’s family also pays for the wedding, and a man is expected to pay for all expenses in the future.
Traditions and customs are changing, however. Abdlkader said the new generation, his generation, is fighting with the old generation about ethics and values. Each goes deeper into religion to prove the other wrong.
Abdlkader uses his parents as an example.
“My father and mother, if they have problems to discuss, my father leads everything,” Abdlkader said. “There is a lack of equality between father and mother. Rabaah and I, our life is completely different. We are a different generation. In the new, we can share our thoughts, share our ideas.”
But Abdlkader said his father has changed with age. As he grows older, he’s also thinking younger. “He hangs out with my brothers, and I say, ‘Father, you didn’t raise me like that.’ But people change.”
Abdlkader and Jaafari also share their expenses, as well as a bank account, in order to save money and have a better life. Though Saudi Arabia is a rich country, the standard of living has decreased since the wars in Iraq in 1990 and 2003, Abdlkader said.
“Best part I see in Jameel is his loving way and respect for his wife,” said Shamshad Sheikh, the Muslim chaplain for Quinnipiac. “It’s so beautiful to see that. It shows very clearly the Islamic way of life where it says man and woman are equal. It changes the stereotype image of Muslim men. When I see Jameel and his wife together, I see the beauty of Islamic way of life in this couple, and I admire them.”
Abdlkader also credits the shift in perspectives to Saudi Arabia’s exposure to the outside world, but sees some negative effects of the changing Arab world. Embedded in Islam is a neighbor’s responsibility to one another. Abdlkader said within the last five years, he’s seen anger and selfishness, very unlike the past.
“Twenty years ago, if you needed help, you’d get more than you can imagine,” Abdlkader said. “In the U.S., same thing. Older people remember a stronger sense of community.”
Abdlkader said it’s a rule in Islam, that as a Muslim, people’s color, nationality or religion doesn’t matter. You must treat neighbors well.
This generous nature and the changing perspectives in Saudi Arabia is seen in King Abdullah’s international scholarship program. Abdlkader said the king wants people to gain a different perspective and bring that back to Saudi Arabia.
Here in the U.S., Abdlkader said he balances Islam and American values with ease. Sheikh said she sees Abdlkader every Friday for prayer and congregation.
“I always hear positive things from him,” Sheikh said. “He’s a good young man, I pray, may God bless him with success and prosperity. I see strong religious foundation in him; he is deeply faithful and committed to his beliefs and principles.”
Abdlkader said there have only been a few incidences where he felt he was being stereotyped.
“It doesn’t matter, it’s okay,” Abdlkader said. “I understand and am patient. People are always careful with what they don’t know. Afraid of unknown, you know?”