I Left America to Teach in Saudi Arabia After 9/11

“Are you crazy?”

I heard this from my friends and family in 2005 when I told them I had signed a contract to teach English at a university in Saudi Arabia.

Their alarm was understandable: Saudi Arabia was the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the nineteen 9/11 al-Qaeda terrorists.

The Kingdom was demonized after 9/11 and portrayed in Western newspapers and books as a diabolical cauldron of Muslim extremism and Islamic fanaticism.

Who would dare go and work there after such a cataclysmic global event?

I was not infected by the post-9/11 poisonous hysteria about Saudi Arabia, Muslims, and Islam. As a historian, I am trained to spot propaganda, challenge myths and stereotypes, and understand how narratives are constructed for political or ideological purposes.

Saudi Arabia American professor
Newsweek illustration. Joseph Richard Preville (pictured inset right with Saudi Arabia’s HRH Prince Turki Al-Faisal) was an American professor in Saudi Arabia after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Newsweek Illustration/Getty/Joseph Richard Preville

I carried my specialized training with me; it would prove useful as I examined how the Kingdom responded to the international blame game after 9/11. I was also curious how it created and maintained its pristine image as a utopia of pure and pious Islam, governed by a benevolent royal family.

What was behind this tidy facade? I aimed to find out.

I landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on December 19, 2005. It was my first time leaving the USA (except for a few short trips to Canada). The minute I stepped off the plane, I was entering not just a foreign country, but a foreign planet.

Everything was unrecognizable to me. It was exhilarating, and the thrill lasted during my dozen years working in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East (2005-2017).

I was in the right place at the right time to become a writer in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Gazette (a prominent English newspaper) published dozens of my book reviews and articles, including an interview with HRH Prince Turki Al-Faisal.

I mastered the tricky art of self-censorship when I touched on sensitive cultural and religious subjects. However, I was encouraged and permitted to interview prominent Jewish writers and scholars, who were invisible in Saudi media.

I interviewed eminent British historian Sir Martin Gilbert (1936-2015) about his 2010 book, In Ishmael’s House: A History of Jews in Muslim Lands.

Gilbert dedicated his impressive book to the hope that Jews and Muslims would pursue “mutual tolerance, respect, and partnership that marked many periods in their history.” I was honored to help deliver Gilbert’s important message of peace, reconciliation, and coexistence between Abrahamic cousins to a Saudi audience.

Saudi Arabia was eager to hire Americans and other foreigners to teach in their colleges and universities after 9/11. It was a way for them to expose students to new ideas and teaching methods and a strategy to reform their insular educational system, which was under intense scrutiny after 9/11.

I was warmly welcomed and treated like an exotic minor celebrity. Most of my students had never met an American and were only familiar with the colorful and exaggerated characters they watched on American TV or in movies.

My students were dedicated experts on the fringe aspects of American culture, especially music. It was hilarious to hear their witty and perceptive deconstruction of my culture.

They were also not timid to share their strong criticism of how Muslims were wrongly portrayed in American and Western media. I felt their pain of being lumped together with terrorists and criminals. It was unfair and it inspired me to write many articles on Islamophobia, published in the Middle East and the USA.

Joseph Richard Preville Taibah University Saudi Arabia
Joseph Richard Preville pictured in 2006 with students at Taibah University in Saudi Arabia.

Joseph Richard Preville

As a professor at four of the Kingdom’s top universities, I encouraged my students to become independent and critical thinkers, knowing full well that Saudi Arabia places a higher importance on conformity and insists on blind obedience to royal and religious authorities.

However, Islamic civilization was powerfully shaped by iconoclastic thinkers, daring mavericks, and bold leaders who challenged the status quo. And, Islam has spread everywhere because it is adaptable and flexible, not rigid, and frozen in time.

I nudged my students to dig deep and find a way to create their unique paths by synthesizing contrasting ideas and opposing models from all civilizations.

I often reminded them of the words of the great Arab Muslim polymath, al-Kindi (c. 801-873 C.E.): “We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by foreign generations and foreign peoples. For him who seeks the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself.”

Working and traveling throughout the Middle East and North Africa was my great privilege. My “crazy” adventure started in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2005 and ended in Jerusalem, Israel in 2017.

Jeddah and Jerusalem are the bookends in the story of my adventure. I am in awe of those two venerable old cities when I think about their significance in global history.

Millions of people have traversed their streets over millennia. Each of them had a story or an adventure, perhaps like my own. I look back in gratitude to the people I met in all the cities and many countries on my journey, and I carry the memories of them in my heart.

They inspired me to become a concerned global citizen with a moral duty to repair the world and to build a just, harmonious, and sustainable planet as a member of the human family.

Joseph Richard Preville is a writer, book critic, and interviewer from Detroit, Michigan. He was a professor and writer in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Sultanate of Oman, and Afghanistan) from 2005-2017. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, San Francisco Chronicle, The Jerusalem Post, Saudi Gazette, Muscat Daily, Tikkun, and many others.

All views expressed are the author’s own.

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