When friends heard that I was traveling to Saudi Arabia alone, they all had a litany of questions, one of which was, “Do you even know anyone there?” I’m Jewish, so it was an extra-fair question. Saudi Arabia in the past would’ve prohibited me from entering solely because my passport was previously stamped in Israel.
To the surprise of many, I do have friends in Saudi Arabia. Several of them, and here’s how we met. I frequent several coffee shops in Denver. Not only am I a lover of exceptional coffee and dig the vibe of a good coffee shop, they’re also where I do much of my writing.
If you didn’t already know, coffee is a big deal in the Middle East. So naturally, no matter where you go, you’re bound to see people from the Middle East in coffee shops even in American cities. I particularly love Arabic coffee, which blends cardamom into the ground beans.
I’ve always loved languages and make sure I at least know greetings in dozens of them. Korean. Amharic. French. Kinyarwanda. And yes, Arabic. One day, I saw a few Middle Eastern men enjoying each other at one of my favorite spots and decided to greet them.
“Marhaba!” I said to them. One of them perked up. “Marhaba!” he responded with a smile. That’s just Arabic for hello. They invited me to sit down, and we began a conversation. Not about politics. Not about disputes. Just about ourselves. About our mutual love for coffee. Culture. For several, I was the first Jew they ever spent time with. And for me, they were to be my first Saudi friends.
My new friends were from three different cities in Saudi Arabia and were in Denver to attend graduate school.
We exchanged numbers and decided we’d meet again.
Two years later, after countless dinners, visits to my home, introducing some of them to my kids, watching sports together, laughing, debating and discussing almost every topic imaginable; and exchanging cultural and religious ideas; I had developed deep meaningful friendships with these three Saudi men. They had become part of my family.
Attending their graduations in Denver was bittersweet. I was celebrating the accomplishments of these amazing men, but at the same time saying goodbye as they returned to Riyadh.
But one of my friend’s parting words gave me consolation: “I can’t wait for you to visit me.”
Visit Saudi Arabia? Me? A proud Jewish man?
Six months later, that invitation became a reality. I applied for my visa and in March 2022, I was in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
I wrote separately about my visit to Saudi Arabia, but I experienced the most profound lesson to learn when we befriend and truly get to know someone different than ourselves on a deep level: All preconceived, media-induced ideas of how others are supposed to be are undone. Instead of someone else telling us, consciously or through sly imaging and messaging, how some other person is supposed to or not supposed to be, we get to learn on our own.
My friends and the numerous other Saudis I met on my trip weren’t terrorists. They weren’t violent. They weren’t close-minded. They weren’t backwards.
And lo and behold, as a Jew, it turns out I don’t have horns, I didn’t grow up rich, I don’t attend control the world meetings, I’m not cheap. You know the list.
My Saudi friends are instead warm, caring, loving, intelligent, ambitious, humorous, giving and generous. My kind of peeps.
My Saudi friends and I don’t all agree on everything. Who among us does? But when we end racial and ethnic distancing by including in our inner circles people of different backgrounds, we expand our happiness and grow as people. Just as we’ve been unconsciously taught so many negative things about various groups, we can just as easily consciously unwind those false teachings through relationships.
It won’t solve every problem of systemic racism, but we can apply this same paradigm to begin to unwind our deep racial biases here in the U.S.
And it all just starts with a friendly cup of Joe. Go say hello to someone new today and make a friend who isn’t your mirror image.
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