A Brooklyn student at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., has made the study of Arabic and the building of bridges between the Western and Arabic worlds one of his main goals in life.
To this end, he has visited both Egypt, which is on the itinerary of many American tourists, and Saudi Arabia, which usually is not.
Robert Diggs, a young African-American who grew up in Clinton Hill, traces his interest in the Middle East to his childhood. His grandmother made him wear a kufi, a sort of round knit cap worn throughout Africa, when he was a child, as a form of identification with Africa.
The kufi is also worn in many Muslim countries, and many Muslims and Arabic speakers would approach him and speak to him in Arabic.
More recently, he told the Eagle, "I decided to take Arabic because during my senior year in high school, I was selected to go on a trip to Saudi Arabia."
Although many Americans think of Saudi Arabia as a generally repressive society, Diggs says the truth is more complicated. "I found that it is oppressive in terms of women, but I wasn't forced to follow any norms. The only thing is that, out of respect, I was asked to wear long pants [not shorts]."
People's attitude toward the United States, Diggs says, is that they didn't like American foreign policy, especially toward Iraq, but they had no animosity on a personal basis. He adds that he heard no criticism of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, however.
Another stereotype about the Arabian peninsula is that people are fabulously wealthy due to all that oil. However, says Diggs, that isn't so. "The people we were staying with were wealthy, but we did community service work at an orphanage in the poorer part of the country. Going there was like going from the Upper East Side to the worst parts of East New York."
More recently, he went to Egypt with a group from Franklin and Marshall. Egypt, he said, is a very different society. Saudi Arabia doesn't pretend to have a democracy — people respect the monarchy, he said. In Egypt, he said, "they pretend they have a democracy," but contends that Hosni Mubarak is really an authoritarian leader.
In Egypt, he added, he was sometimes approached by local people and asked whether he was a Nubian, or a dark-skinned person from the south of Egypt. Egypt, he says, has an interesting color spectrum, from the northern area near Alexandria where "you have a lot of lighter-skinned people dating back to Greek times" to Cairo, where "you get a kind of coffee complexion" to the south.
Egypt, of course, is also one of two or three Arab countries that recognizes Israel. While people's opinion about Israel "runs the gamut, like it does in the states," Diggs said that most people support the idea of a two-state solution based on Israel giving back the territories to the Palestinians. While he says some may wish that Israel weren't there in the first place, most people think, "It's there — let's work with it."
Asked about his goals, he says, it's important for youth from one society to see youth from the other, and to have that understanding work its way up to adults. "I'd like to just talk to people ... [and] most of the people just like to talk. They have no problem with Americans."