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Saudi Students at UCI Share Culture, Dispel Stereotypes

A member of UC Irvine's Saudi Society dresses up in the club's famous "Jamal the Camel" costume and greeted students at the club's Valentine's Day event last Thursday.
A member of UC Irvine’s Saudi Society dressed up in the club’s famous “Jamal the Camel” costume and greeted students at the club’s Valentine’s Day event last Thursday.

While Valentine’s Day is not a holiday celebrated in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Society at UCI interacted with over 100 students at its booth setup on Ring Road last Thursday, featuring Valentine’s Day cards in Arabic calligraphy, Arabic tea and Arabic dates (the dried fruit, not the social interaction).

Students from Saudi Arabia and the surrounding Gulf countries have been studying in the United States with scholarships from their governments since the early 2000s, however, the Saudi Society at UCI was formally organized in 2013 with the purpose of helping Saudi students transition to their life abroad through various workshops and social events.

This year, the UCI Saudi Society President Tyma Hezam is especially committed to correcting misconceptions about Saudi Arabia and about sharing Saudi culture with the UCI student body.

“My goal in this club is to break the stereotypes about Saudis because there is a huge group of undergraduate Saudi students who are open-minded, educated and want to learn more and have a good experience in the States,” said Hezam. “There is a really bad reputation of Saudis being stuck-up, rude and not going to classes. In fact, even participants at the booth were surprised to learn that we are very normal, outgoing people.”

Other stereotypes were jokingly embraced. One of the members wore the Saudi Society’s famous “Jamal the Camel” costume — which makes it appear like the member is on camelback — and eagerly greeted students who passed by the booth.   

“Someone even said to us why don’t you get an oil barrel, too, and I said we’ll think about it next time,” joked Hezam. “We’re not that, but if it makes you laugh, then why not? Saudis are really friendly and funny people.”

According to Hezam, students from Saudi Arabia face difficulty transitioning from a community-based culture to the individual-based American society. Not having the constant support from their community while studying abroad, this club is especially important for students to maintain a sense of filial connection.

“Over here it’s super professional and everyone is on their own path, while in Saudi Arabia it’s very much a community because everyone relies on each other, everyone knows each other’s families, and there is a sense that, even if I’m not your friend, I will help you,” said Hezam, who added that for many Saudi students at UCI, even AJ Satori, the owner of the recently-closed Kochee Kabob restaurant at UTC, was akin to their uncle.

Political and cultural misconceptions of Saudi Arabia further hinder Saudi students to adjust to American society. At the booth, Hezam had to constantly remind students that this club is solely a cultural club, but many students continued to probe with questions relating to terrorism and the status of women in Saudi Arabia. Hezam expressed frustration that even search results of “Saudi Arabia” on the internet consist mainly of images of violence and criticism of the Saudi government.

Saudi Students passed out Valentine's Day cards at the booth as well. The cards, handwritten in Arabic calligraphy, read "I love you."
Saudi Students passed out Valentine’s Day cards at the booth as well. The cards, handwritten in Arabic calligraphy, read “I love you.”

Moreover, not only does the Western media misrepresent the vast majority of Saudi people, but many Arab and Muslim countries seek to dissociate themselves from Saudi Arabia politically as well.

Hezam explains that focusing on only the controversial political issues takes away from the richness of Saudi culture, art, calligraphy and music.

“In every culture and religion there are extremists. Obviously I’m not and I don’t know anyone who is affiliated with the extremists, or anyone who agrees with what they’re doing,” said Hezam. “But there are so many other aspects of Saudi community and culture that need to be recognized.”

Hezam addresses some of these concerns while celebrating Saudi culture through social media. She runs the Instagram account @notyourtypicalSaudi which has garnered over 21,000 followers. This platform not only lets followers engage in meaningful dialogue about controversial issues, but also allows them to be proud of their rich heritage and identity.

“There are some things that don’t make sense, but women of this generation are beginning to address that,” she said. “At the same time, I had many opportunities in Saudi Arabia. I was involved in various research clubs, my high school experience was amazing and I am currently studying cognitive science on a full scholarship.”

The club currently has 30 members and is planning to host more booths and social events with the campus community.

“I hope that Saudi students will have a conversation with UCI, like the the many other minority groups on campus,” said Hezam.