Educating Texas ‘Aggies’ about Yemen [Archives:2007/1044/Culture]

April 23 2007

“In the future, a day will come when you're going to see me on your living room TV as a minister or a politician. Hopefully, you'll remember me and say, 'I know that guy! He once spoke to us about his country,'” Mohammed Al-Seraji told attendees at the City Council Hall during the second Arab Culture Week in College Station, Texas this past February.

Organized by Texas A&M University, Arab Culture Week aimed to create a platform for the College Station community to get to know its Arab neighbors, as well as understand Arab culture and heritage. The week was sponsored by the International Programs Office and Arab students at Texas A&M.

The only Yemeni at the university, Al-Seraji was assigned in the steering committee, which consisted of several Arab students, to organize and draw up a plan for the event.

In addition to Al-Seraji, there are more than 100 students from 14 Arab countries, including Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Palestine (i.e., the occupied territories), Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. Another 200 students from the university's branch campus in Qatar participated in the creation of the country display activity.

Representing Yemen, Al-Seraji set up a booth about his homeland, which, thanks to his dedication and the help of friends, looked very professional. He was a living display of a traditional Yemeni, wearing the traditional Sana'ani dress of a thobe and jambiyya, which attracted much attention as many attendees asked him questions about why Yemenis wear it.

Commenting on this, he said, “I had to explain my costume many times, not only to Americans, but also to my fellow Arab students attending the same university. Many staff, students and friends wanted to take a photo with me as a souvenir.”

The Arab Culture Week event presented a good opportunity to create a platform for students on the Texas A&M campus and in the community to gain an understanding of Arab culture through public lectures, cultural displays, a teacher's workshop and a student panel discussion as Arab students had the chance to represent their cultures and educate others about Arab heritage. The event promoted a friendly atmosphere between Arab students on campus and their fellow 'Aggies' (i.e., Texas A&M students), as well as between Arab students living off campus and their neighbors.

Egyptian computer science graduate student Salah Aly commented on the event, “Regarding the cultural displays, some tables attracted people to stop. I personally liked the Yemen and Saudi cultural displays because their tables were well organized and the items they displayed were really informative and reflected their traditions. It was an opportunity to learn more about Yemen, as well as a chance to learn about what type of clothing people wear there. I liked the cultural displays, especially the computer animation and presentations.”

He continued, “It's nice if Arab students can focus on new infrastructure, modern cities and lifestyles in the Gulf region because this will encourage students both on campus and in the community to visit those remarkable overseas places and even attend some classes there. I think this event has started to grow and it'll be one of the most interesting events for Arab students at Texas A&M. However, its success is based on participation by Arab students throughout the week's activities.”

The Yemeni booth included photographs, antiques, books and brochures, videos and traditional Oud music from Yemen. Al-Seraji also gave a presentation about Yemen at the College Station City Council meeting and to its mayor, Ron Silvia.

“Now, the mayor is a good friend of mine. He was in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia 10 years ago and said he loved working there and he definitely would like to visit the area in the future. I showed him my five-story house and gave him – and all the council members – an open invitation to visit Yemen anytime,” Al-Seraji said in a display of Yemeni hospitality.

Saudi Student Association President Eid Al-Mutairi commented on the Yemeni student's participation, saying, “I'm very pleased at how I've been inspired by [Al-Seraji's] participation in representing Yemen. As a representative of Yemen, [Al-Seraji] is a successful young man able to work hard at his studies while simultaneously devoting some of his time to representing his nation and its culture.

“[Al-Seraji's] participation doesn't end there; rather, due to his talents and pleasant character, he's been elected the Saudi Student Association's culture officer. I'm proud that he's one of those to work with as a management team in the Saudi Student Association in the Bryan-College Station area. I've witnessed his enthusiasm and his eagerness to contribute and participate in many activities,” Al-Mutairi concluded.

For the student panel discussion, 120 American and Arab students were selected and invited to attend a panel discussion and luncheon at the university's Student Center. The discussion focused on history, religion, language, political systems, education and women in the Arab world. It was a very educational time and rich in information. Even though it was scheduled for only an hour, many students stayed and kept asking the panelists questions about their interests.

The International Programs Office at Texas A&M works with student groups each year to present cultural programs to raise awareness about a particular country, region or continent to audiences both on campus and within the community. This year was Texas A&M's second celebration of Arab Culture Week, which is designed to bring events and activities that will be entertaining and informative.

Both students and a number of faculty members from Arab countries wanted to help Texas A&M students, staff and faculty, as well as the local community, to better understand their culture and values. The planners hoped to dispel stereotypes, build positive relationships and let the community know that Arab students are there to learn and build a better future for themselves, their home countries and ultimately, the world.

Al-Seraji made a presentation about Yemen to community leaders at the College Station City Council's bi-weekly meeting. Kim Fox, program coordinator for the university's Office of International Outreach, hoped that Al-Seraji will share as many good memories of Texas A&M University when he returns home as he has brought to the citizens in his temporary 'home' in College Station.

Presenting Yemen gave those who didn't know about this country a chance to become aware about Yemeni culture and history. Construction management major Jeremy Copeland explained this when he said, “Before hearing [Al-Seraji] speak at the conference, I had no clue there was a country named Yemen, but now I know it's a beautiful country with no desert, great structures and that it's the home of ancient civilizations like the Kingdom of Sheba.”

He continued, “[Al-Seraji] was very enthusiastic about his country and impressed the city council with his raw politician abilities. If all Yemenis are like him, I would definitely love to visit one day! Yemen sounds like a great place to live.”

In addition to presentations by locals, the weeklong event's steering committee invited guest speakers: Qatari Ambassador Nasser Bin Hamad M. Al-Khalifa, Dr. Philip A. Salem, a physician, researcher and educator who gave a presentation about Arabs in America, and Dr. Rola Al-Husseini, who participated in an academic symposium.

For Al-Seraji, his meeting with Ambassador Al-Khalifa was filled with interesting conversation and was a great learning experience in a friendly atmosphere. “When I told him I'm from Yemen, he responded, 'I've visited Sana'a twice and I want to visit again.' He told me he had talked to Yemeni Ambassador Abdulwahab Al-Hajri in Washington D.C. that morning and that they're good friends,” Al-Seraji noted.