In A Far and Distant Land–CE Exclusive from Saudi Arabia

Editor’s Note: Many of us are rightly concerned about the dangers of radical Islam.  The Church constantly reminds us, though, to be open to the possibility of dialogue wherever it exists.  One of our favorite columnists at Catholic Exchange, Harold G. Koenig, MD, finds himself in dialogue with Islam on a medical assignment in Saudi Arabia. 

Harold G. Koenig, MD

Harold G. Koenig, MD

Two weeks ago, I boarded Saudi Arabian Airlines in Washington DC headed for Jeddah located on the Red Sea.  In August of last year, I learned that I was one of 100 scientists worldwide chosen to serve on the faculty as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor at King Abdulaziz University, one of the top three universities in Saudi Arabia with nearly 2,000 medical students.  This position requires that I spend three weeks per year in Jeddah doing research with faculty and teaching medical and nursing students at the university.  This is my first time traveling here (and my first time in a Muslim country).

When I got to my departure gate in Washington, I realized I was about to enter into a new world.  Many people, including the flight attendants, were dressed in clothing I had never seen before — the women with black dresses covering everything except their hands, wrists and faces, and the men with long white gowns and head coverings.  At this time, my impression of the Middle East and Islam was like that of many Westerners, and it was not a positive one.  This impression was largely based on discussion within evangelical Christian groups that tended to demonize Muslims and from the popular media that characterized the Middle East as a place of roadside bombs that killed American soldiers, the birthplace of terrorists who bomb ships and fly airplanes into the World Trade Center (indeed, Osama Bin Laden graduated from the university where I was headed), rioting people participating in the Arab Spring, endless fighting and suicide bombing, kidnappings and beheadings, and most of all, hatred for Americans (and Christians in particular) viewed as invaders, burners of the Qur’an, and backers of Israel.  Therefore, it was with considerable trepidation that I sat down in my first class seat (at least I was flying in style) that would transport me to within an hour’s drive of what for Muslims is the holiest place in the world, Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed and Islam.

I became even more nervous when a man dressed in traditional Arab garb boarded the plane and sat next to me, and began chanting quietly (but definitely out loud) bending over and holding a small book in his hand.  When the pilot signaled that the plane was ready to take off, I capitalized on a brief break in the man’s chanting to introduce myself and ask him about what he was doing.  He told me that he was Muslim and that he was reciting from the Qur’an.  He also happened to be a physician (cardiologist) who was headed back home to Jeddah where he worked in a local hospital.  As our conversation progressed, he seemed eager to tell me about his religious faith, and I was a receptive and eager listener — desperate to make friends with someone in this new and strange place where I was headed.  He was actually a delightful person, polite and friendly and full of information about Islam.  It was very clear that he was serious about his religion, and I wanted to learn everything I could about that.

When we got to Jeddah, I got off the plane and self-propelled my wheelchair into the airport terminal and what seemed to be a different planet.  Men and women were dressed like the flight attendants on the plane.  I had only seen in the movies (Laurance of Arabia, Arabian Nights, etc.).  Had I made a mistake in coming here?  I began to definitely think so when I learned that the airline had lost my luggage.  They were apologetic, but were clear that it would be some time before they could track down my bags.  Until then, I realized that I would have to wear what I had slept in during the 14-hour flight on the plane.  I was surprised, though, by how helpful people seemed to be, offering to push me to different places in the airport as needed, even pushing me ahead of others in line at the money exchange booth, and then out to the curb to catch a cab.  This helpfulness continued at the motel when I arrived, where staff seemed eager to assist (although being a 5-star hotel probably also had something to do with it).

Pages: 1 2 3 4

Harold G. Koenig, MD


Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc., completed his undergraduate education at Stanford University, his medical school training at the University of California at San Francisco, and his geriatric medicine, psychiatry, and biostatistics training at Duke University Medical Center. He is board certified in general psychiatry, geriatric psychiatry and geriatric medicine, and is on the faculty at Duke as Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Associate Professor of Medicine, and is on the faculty at King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor. He is also a registered nurse. Dr. Koenig is Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, and is considered by biomedical scientists as one of the world's top experts on religion and health.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • Tscotom

    A very positive outlook indeed !  As in ecumenical dialogue, this being inter-religious, one has to talk about what they share in common.   This is often called ‘the dialogue of life.’   In Islam, there are many, but having said that, there are also very many stark differences and these ought not be set aside.  The Islamic mindset is by definition very different from the Western mind.  If both cannot be ‘superior’ to each other, then maybe dialogue is possible.  But be wise & careful, offending Islamic sensitivities is quite easy for the western man.  Learning all that is their Islamic culture, history and tradition is key.  Also, an important hint,  when they share their religion w/ you, reciprocating in kind is not usually recommended, remember all it takes is one negative comment from any Saudi and any ‘infidel’ foreigner can summarily be deported from the Kingdom w/o any hearing or trial.  Saudi Arabia does not rely one iota on (western) tourism revenue.  And also, watch out for the mutawwa, or ‘religious police’ who work for the gov’t’s Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.   Best of luck.


  • chaco

    Thanks for the hope. [I also find hope in the fact that the foremost prophesy about world peace; Fatima, is the name of Mohamed’s daughter.]  The greatest enemy to my hope is the seemingly irreconcilable disagreement about religious freedom. For me, the unavoidable Truth is; One cannot be forced into freindship / Love. A “Real” experience of the Divine has to be an act of the FREE Will. I am incapable of any compromise on this view.  I ‘ve yet to see anyone prove otherwise. That’s why I hold America’s protection of this right to be indispensible. It is also an immutable Truth that we must begin with commonalities in order to develop the bonding necessary for civil discussion of differences.

  • Jon Woods

    Dr. Koenig doesn’t mention that churches, crosses, and all Christian religious practices are illegal in Saudi Arabia. 

  • Uninformed dhimmis have been falling into this trap for centuries.

  • American Expat in Saudi

    Nicely said, doctor. When we push beyond our fears of what kind of people we will find in Arabia, we will end up meeting a largely warm, gentle and spiritual people. I have found there is much I can learn from them. I hope your experience continues to be a positive and that your article will help others take a deep breath and reconsider their preconceptions. To be sure, there are tiny minorities in Arabia that espouse extremist views, but the vast majority of Saudis, we would gladly welcome as trusted friends and neighbors.

  • Mike Qpmz

    Dr Koenig is fortunate to be a privileged visitor in an elite university environment.  His experience is not in the slightest typical of the Christian experience in SA.

    Had he had a Bible in his luggage, it would certainly have been confiscated by Customs officers if they noticed it.

    Millions of Filipino, Indian and other Christians in SA do not share his privilege, perhaps Dr Koenig should also talk to some of them in the university hospital and his hotel and inquire of their experience.

  • Harold Koenig

    I’m flying home tonight, and my opinion has not changed.  In fact, I’m even more convinced that Saudi’s are a kind and gracious people, who are deeply religious and worship the same God we do (although do so much more fervently).

  • Pargontwin

    I have one item of overwhelming curiosity about Islam.  All things considered, it’s really a trivial one, but it really nags at me.  Have you learned why it is that Muslim womenn only wear black?  It seems a singularly inapprorpate color to have to wear  in that climate.  I found myself nearly passing out from the heat simply by unwisely wearing a black t-shirt on a summer day.

  • PaulN

    Dr. Koenig writes “Many people, including the flight attendants, were dressed in clothing I had never seen before — the women with black dresses covering everything except their hands, wrists and faces, and the men with long white gowns and head coverings.”

    I ask how it is possible that a Professor at a major university (Duke) could be so ignoramus. I hope the reader will not conclude from this that all Professor in the United Sates are so unaware of other cultures.

    BTW, Dr. Koenig is wrong when implying that the Saudi woman and the flight attendants dress similarly. That would be a safety hazard. The flight attendants dress conservatively but they are not at all dressed like “regular” Saudi women. They look like “regular” Western women except for a scarf covering their hair and forehead.