My father tells the story that he was once among a group of journalists who visited Ronald Reagan in the White House for an interview. At a certain point during the interview, the president of the United States fell asleep. I don’t know if the story’s true or not, but it served as a comfortable standard as I waited to meet the King of Jordan. So long as he didn’t fall asleep, it would be OK. Still, I was thinking, I’m supposed to call him Your Majesty, and what if I say Your Highness by mistake or, worse, Your Excellency? But really, what was he going to do, give me a long cold stare and say, Dude, don’t you mean YOUR MAJESTY???!
Eventually I was called upstairs to meet His Majesty, who walked in with a kind smile and apologized for being a few minutes late. He’d been working out. Excellent. Not only did that mean he wasn’t going to fall asleep, it also gave me a natural lead-in to what was perhaps my hardest-hitting question, which, given the general nature of the subject, an age-old and I think intractable conflict, I was going to save for last. You wrestled for Deerfield, didn’t you? I asked. “Yes,” he said, “and I understand you went to Choate. We beat Choate.”
Choate and Deerfield are two New England prep schools that have enjoyed a rivalry for over a century now. If you think the subject seems like a pretty parochial opening for my first interview with a world leader, you’re just like my father. His Majesty got my point. King Abdullah is a progressive and liberal world leader who was educated in the States. His personality and views, as he explains, were shaped by the West: “By limiting foreign students, you’re losing supporters.”
A recent study shows that enrollment of Middle Easrern students in universities is down 10 percent from last year. Much of the fall-off has to do with visa requirements, now strictly adhered to because of Sept. 11, and the frustration of Arab students who now have to wait months to get one. For a student not knowing how much of the school term he might miss waiting for a visa, it’s a big deal. Hopefully, those are bureaucratic issues that can and will be ironed out. A more intractable issue is that some of the decreased enrollment is due to stories in the Arab press that the United States isn’t safe for Arabs. The sources of these perceptions are not always Arab.
One young Egyptian journalist told me how he’d thought about coming to the States to study but felt that now it wasn’t safe. Wrong, I said. Who told you that? A well-known Stanford professor, not an Arab, in Middle East studies had discouraged him from coming since it was a bad time for Arabs in the United States. Well, maybe it’s not a good time in Palo Alto, Calif., and the rest of the academy for certain ideas about the Middle East, but it’s a bad time for Arabs only insofar as they’re not coming.
Of course, not all Arab students will get something out of their experience in the States. Many will be going to do the Arab equivalent of hanging with their frat bros. Sheikha Lubna al-Qasimi—a member of the ruling family of Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates; a graduate of Chico State in California; and now the CEO of a highly regarded Dubai-based Internet company, Tejari—explained to me recently: “Arab students often just hang out together and take nothing from the States except what they get in classes. They deprive not only themselves, but also Americans, of the opportunity to learn about Arab culture.” Sheikha Lubna, however, lived with an American family, studied ballet and modern dance as well as computer science, and now speaks English with a righteous California twang. She’s often invited to speak at the Council of Foreign Relations in Manhattan. “To change our image in the U.S., we can’t wait for it to change by itself. We have to go and speak about it.”
As for King Abdullah, everybody loves him because he wants to make things better and they can see it. A young Jordanian I met named Ahmed especially likes seeing pictures of the king’s disguises. You see, the young king has taken a page out of the Western manual of leadership: He often walks anonymously among his people—cloaked like Henry V before the battle of Agincourt. His Majesty wrapped himself up like a Bedouin when he went into a hospital to make sure people were getting good treatment; he put on glasses and dressed like a tourist when he visited the souk to make sure foreigners weren’t being ripped off. Our leaders should do the same, especially seeing how the purchase in question is American values.