Richard Friedman
Richard Friedman
Jewish Federation director, Journalist
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My new Saudi friend

A long delay on the tarmac opened the floodgates of unlikely cross-cultural dialogue between airplane seatmates

I was absolutely convinced the young woman was Hispanic. Her dark eyes were warm and friendly, her hair was fiery black and pulled back stylishly, her skin had a slight dark tint to it, and she spoke her nearly perfect English with what I was certain was a Hispanic accent.I rarely talk to people next to me on airplanes — I figure that’s their private time and they just don’t want to be disturbed. But there we were, stuck on the ground for an hour, impatiently waiting for our delayed plane to depart. Neither of us had a book to read and there was no Internet access, so we in effect became comrades in arms, us against the airline, waiting to take off.

This is not a good time in America, I suggested as I eased into the conversation. The presidential election has unleashed raw and rabid bigotry, with much of it directed toward Hispanics and Muslims, I noted. I could see this observation touched a chord with her as she nodded and that she wanted to talk. Thus our conversation began, and sure enough the old adage “don’t assume” kicked in.

“Where are you from?” I asked, assuming it was a Central or South American country. I could sense her pausing for a minute as she digested my question, almost as if she was reluctant to answer. But she did. “Saudi Arabia,” was her response. She looked at me as she said it, clearly waiting to see how I would react.

“Oh,” I said, trying to avoid appearing as caught off guard as I was, “Saudi Arabia.” The whole thing didn’t compute. Here was a young Muslim woman, in her Western clothes, starting to converse in a warm and open way with the man sitting right next to her; this was not what I would have expected from a citizen of one of the most conservative Muslim regimes on the planet.

She was open to all my questions: What is life like for young women in Saudi Arabia? (Highly restricted, she answered.) What was she doing in America? (A medical residency.) How did she become a doctor? (Her father encouraged her.) Can you, as a woman, drive in Saudi Arabia? (No, which though she misses Saudi Arabia, is part of the reason she enjoys being in America right now.) And the discussion went on and on.

Then it became my turn to flip the conversation. “Aren’t you going to ask me what I do?” I said, smiling. “Yes, please tell me,” she said. I then told her that I was Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, an organization that among other things is dedicated to ensuring Israel’s well-being and protecting and advancing Jewish interests. I detected a split second of silence as she pondered my answer and wondered if she was trying to figure out a way to end the conversation given Saudi Arabia’s well-known, public hostility to Israel.

Boy, was I wrong!

My answer unleashed a torrent of curiosity on her part akin to the inquisitiveness that she had engendered within me. I could tell she was fascinated by my depiction of the strength of our small Birmingham Jewish community, how well organized we are, and, especially, how effective we are at advocating and raising funds for Israel. She was especially intrigued by our current dialogue initiative with local Muslim leaders. She appeared genuinely perplexed when I told her that one of the issues facing Muslims in the US is the perception that they don’t speak out against terror and I could see a “how absurd, of course we condemn terror” look on her face.

I told her that I have been to Israel in excess of 50 times and that it is an amazing country. Yes, there are issues that need to be resolved between Israel and its neighbors, but overall it is remarkable what this tiny country has achieved — in areas such as medicine, research, technology and agriculture. She nodded her head in what appeared to be agreement.

In fact, I even sensed a quiet admiration for Israel in her but it was nothing explicit. She only mentioned that she has a good Israeli friend, knows at least one Saudi who has visited Israel and that she loves Israeli food. She did tell me that among her favorite restaurants in the US is an Israeli restaurant — the food is great and the Israelis who work there also speak Arabic with her.

Between being delayed on the runway for take off and the length of the flight, we had nearly three hours to talk — and, almost as if by prior agreement, no subject was off limits. She laughed when I told her that originally I thought she was Hispanic; she said people frequently make that mistake.

As we neared our destination, I gave her my business card and told her to contact me if she ever came to Birmingham for any reason, which is a possibility. I told her that I would love for her to meet some of the young professionals in our Jewish community. She talked about how the world is getting “smaller and smaller” and we all have to recognize that.

This young Saudi woman also said she had a sense that we would cross paths again one day. I predicted for her when that would be — when she led the first Saudi-Israeli doctors exchange program — and I promised I would go to Israel to help welcome her! She smiled warmly at that dream of Israeli-Saudi medical cooperation one day.

With that we landed and both of us remarked how much we enjoyed talking to each other. And then as we walked down the concourse she turned to me with a smile and said, “It sure was nice meeting you. I really hope we meet again.”

About the Author
Richard Friedman is Executive Director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation in Alabama. He also is a well-known Alabama journalist.
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