A Lebanese Saudi Lesson about Embracing Diversity
Meet my dear friend Hiba Shoujja currently lives in Saudi Arabia and embodies the beauty and strength that I see in true third culture people. She is strong not because of muscles and armors but because of her open and soft heart to the world of diversity. Today I wish to share a little bit of her story and how she sees the world.
When the civil war broke in Lebanon in 1975, her grandmother used her savings to send her only son, Ziad Shoujja, to Saudi Arabia. He was able to find a job and good living situation in Riyadh. He then wedded Rima through a marriage arranged between families in Beirut. The couple had their first child — Hiba Shoujja, followed by four more children. Hiba has two brothers and two sisters, who are spread apart between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Hiba, now age 31, lives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She is a chemistry and life science teacher for a Saudi private middle school that uses American curriculum. I’ve met Hiba’s parents and siblings who still live in Saudi. They are among the most welcoming, harmonious families I know. Oh, and Hiba’s mom makes the best homemade Kibbeh in the world!!!
Q: After you were born in Lebanon, your mother immediately joined your father and Riyadh became your childhood home. When did you first leave Saudi Arabia, and what was the experience like?
Hiba: Yes, I was raised in Saudi Arabia and all my siblings were born here as well. It was only when I turned 18, my parents decided to send me to Lebanon to experience my roots and get a college education. I lived with my grandmother and my aunt. Honestly, the first year was very difficult and I experienced so many cultural shocks. Compared to Lebanese society, the life in Saudi had been so plain and subconscious. Visiting Lebanon, for the first time I met Arab Christians, learned the terms ‘believer’ and ‘born-again’. I also learned about Shi’ite Muslims (I am Sunni Muslim) and that there were different Muslim beliefs and cultures. I had a very close friend who taught me all about Catholic beliefs and we could share philosophical conversations without fear of judgment. I was shocked that all these people with the same passports had such diverse values and beliefs and that these different values and beliefs then manifested in different ways. It was difficult to return to Saudi Arabia after that experience. I miss having access to open conversations and hearing perspectives. To survive life, we need to engage in the society, which means you have to accept all that are there.
Q: You’ve been a teacher for 5 years. What’s it like teaching in Saudi Arabia?
Hiba: I love to teach but being a teacher in Saudi Arabia is not easy. Cost of living in Saudi has increased so much — rent, school fees, all have raised to a point it’s hard to save money. A teacher makes about $800 a month at most and I’m beginning to learn that salary doesn’t take you anywhere. My school is one of the more reputable schools because it adopts American curriculum from Pearson Education. The number of students keep growing but classrooms size and number of teachers remain the same. Students are mostly Saudi nationals and come from wealthy families. The job can be very demanding.
Q: You studied Korean in South Korea. I am shocked to hear you speak Korean every time. How did you decide to travel to South Korea and learn Korean?
Hiba: [laughs]. It was fate. So many things could have gone wrong but stars aligned for me to go. It could’ve been French or Russian, but my fate was to learn Korean. I randomly came across a Korean drama dubbed in Arabic that was very cheesy and wasn’t even good and for some reason I continued to watch it online, where I first heard the sound of Korean phonetic and I was intrigued! I even surprised myself that I had a strong desire to travel to Korea, found Sogang University language program, my parents also surprisingly agreed to my trip since this was not just a touristic trip but with a study program.
Q: And how was your time in South Korea?
Hiba: I came out of my shell in South Korea, after a dormant life being back in Saudi Arabia. I gained back my self confidence in who I am, in being a woman, being independent. People I met in South Korea gave me a certain sense of connection and helped me to be free. I might have been just desperate to meet people, I even took huge risks by corresponding with people online in this totally foreign country, where I went to all by myself! I wasn’t brave, I just wasn’t thinking [laughs]. I learned that we, the Lebanese and Korean, were similar in so many ways. For example, our concept of family, of any relationship, some Islamic values that teach respect of elders, and polite manners. At the same time I think I had a great time because I went with an open mind and the determination that I am going to enjoy my trip. The Korean social pressure of career, marriage, and competition didn’t apply to me as a foreigner. Open mind was greeted with welcome mind
Q: On that note, I want to ask you what your reaction was to the news about President Trump banning entry of “Islamic terrorists” and “prioritizing Christians over Muslims”?
Hiba: I don’t have a strong reaction or opinion about this. How can I? There’s racism among Muslims and among Arabs, we are so fragile now. When we have our own racism to heal from, I can’t blame or point fingers at Trump for being a racist against us. It seems though Trump’s agenda is to achieve some sort of a white people’s dream, whatever that means for him.
Q: So, what’s next for you?
Hiba: Saudi Arabia’s going through its own changes and reforms right now. It started with the decline of oil prices and freezing of government spending, which impacted my father’s construction business. It’s to a point where my entire family may be forced to pack up and leave Saudi Arabia after 35 years of life here. My father wants to try to stay, if possible. If I move to Lebanon and who knows? Start a business? My brother-in-law and I have been dreaming about starting a “on-the-go” coffee shop or I am looking into starting an online fashion bag shop, import high quality, reasonably priced ladies hand bags from South Korea. I think they will be in demand in Lebanon. I want to try.”
Q: Is there anything you’d like to say to the Americans across the Atlantic Ocean?
Hiba: I have never been to America but I know that it’s the only place that’s celebrating civil rights, freedom for everyone to have the same opportunity to steady life to fulfill their dreams. I hope it continues to celebrate and not give up”
Q: You taught me the word Lebanese Salad, which is the way Lebanese people speak, always mixed with several languages such as Arabic, English and French. You taught me, “Hi, keefik, ça va?” How do you say “bye” in Lebanese Salad?
Hiba:”We say bye~~~ very casually [laughs]”
Her bright words ring in my mind
“I miss diversity and having access to open conversations [to hear] other perspectives. To survive life, we need to engage in the society, which means you have to accept all — [whoever] — are there.”
She is right, closing off to diversity, we cease to live. This reminds me we cannot take for granted that diversity is America’s identity and we should be proud of our multi-racial, religious, cultural relationships and communities. It’s in these interactions and exchanges with “others” when our minds expand and open up to see one another, maybe even connect, where space is created for freedom.
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