Living the Dream – An Interview with Jane Stoops Smith
We, at Jeddah Blog, believe that beyond stereotypes and preconceived notions about people and places lies gold. For those who know how to dig for it. We are happy to showcase individuals who didn’t spend their stay in the Kingdom complaining about all that was wrong with the place, and who instead, interacted with the place in a positive and meaningful way. NaimaRashid tracks down Jane Smith, who fits our bill perfectly. We thank Jane for her time and for all the information she shared.
Few dare to dream, and even fewer make their dreams come true. Jane Stoops Smith, an 8 year-old girl from the sleepy little town of Yakima, Washington, saw a picture of the pyramids of Giza, and vowed to herself that she would see as much of the world as possible. Like someone possessed, she started writing to embassies of different countries for information and brochures. The fat packets from random embassies would be mailed to her, and away from the vigilant eyes of her mother, she would pore over them in wonder and amazement. She did that for ten years. At 18 years, right after high school, she joined the US army, and with her husband, Victor (also in the army), together they lived their great big travel dream. To date, they have been to thirty countries, and to some, more than once. ‘I have fulfilled my dream to an extent that even surprises me sometimes’, she says.
One of the countries on this list was Saudi Arabia, where Jane lived for eight years with her ‘extremely supportive and cooperative husband of 37 years’ Victor, and their dog MacLeod. I stumbled across her website by accident the other day, and was pleasantly surprised by its positivity, and its spirit of tolerance, joy and discovery. Indeed, to every million expatriates who complain through their entire stay in the Kingdom about not being able to drive and having to wear an abbaya, there is one like Jane, who spend their sojourn going out, exploring, reaching out to people, believing that there is something of worth everywhere, and by no miracle, finding it too.
Her pictures on the website show her happily exploring areas that most wouldn’t know exist, let alone venture out and explore. The website is unique because it touches upon things not mentioned on most other sites and blogs about Saudi Arabia. It offers a fresh and energetic perspective on the region, for example it talks about the structure of Muslim names, Arabian camels, Arabic proverbs, some interesting archive pictures of the region, a photo gallery with pictures of cultural festivals and different cities. My favourite section was the one called ‘Sight-seeing in Saudi Arabia’, which offers rare insights into the region. There are pictures of ancient rock grafitti, iris fields, and fossil hunts. I saw a desert rose for the first time in my life. I bet many of you haven’t seen your first one yet.
Jane’s Saudi Arabia chapter might be closed in reality, but it lingers on in her memory. Visiting it again anytime soon seems well nigh impossible, but she’s happy to retain and revise her lessons and memories from the time. “In 2011 and 2012 I plan to enlarge the web site by perhaps 50% and it will take at least a year to complete these changes. There are subjects I would like to add and rewrite a few of the current pages. As always I will be including more pictures. I think the first new addition will be a little history about Bedouins with interesting photos from the United States Library. Bedouins are again, a very misunderstood chapter of this region. Bedouin women are so strong, they have such force and such a role in the working of things it’s incredible. Not many people know that.
Already, the website draws people from all over the world, although mostly from the United States. Since February 2004, the website has had over 2 million visitors. Each day, there are a thousand or more Americans that visit the website, the number dropping for summers, which is traditionally a slow time for things there.
“My web site has an interesting story behind it because it was not my initial intention to create a web site about Saudi Arabia. I promised myself when I returned to the United States I would learn to become a web designer. While I was taking classes I needed a broad subject to base my lessons on. Since I had recently returned to the United States I casually decided to use Saudi Arabia as a base for my learning web site design, without predicting that it would take on such life. The web site just grew and grew and my instructors and other students enjoyed what I was doing. So, it sort of evolved on its own. I scouted for the domain name toursaudiarabia and to my pleasant surprise, it was available. My lessons became TourSaudiArabia.com in early 2004. Most people start with a small web site but my destiny was to create a large site from the beginning. It has been an interesting and difficult adventure but one I enjoy. Working on my web site brings back the many fond memories I have from my time spent in Saudi Arabia. ”
What was your impression about Saudi Arabia before visiting it?
It was shrouded in mystery. The reason I travel and love travelling is to dispel, sharpen, or fine tune any stereotypes. We don’t hold preconceived notions about any place or any people. After a lifetime of travelling together and discovering things of joy and wonder in almost every nook of the earth, my husband and I have learnt to make our own judgments based on our personal observation and experiences. That is something that travel teaches you.
Do you feel those stereotypes are due to an unjust representation of Saudi Arabia in the western media?
I think perfect representation is a myth. There is some degree of prejudice in the representation of all countries everywhere. Saudi Arabia is no more and no less unjustly represented than other countries. It’s unavoidable. It is up to every one of us to rectify that individually. America is also stereotyped in its representation. People think that women here have always been very emancipated, but it isn’t true at all. As late as 1978, when I joined the Us army, there was a separate Women’s Army Core for female recruits. It wasn’t until one year later that congress decided that women could work together with men.
So, what was your first impression of Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia is unique because the socio-cultural change brought on by the discovery of oil was not gradual, by degrees, like it is mostly everywhere, but almost overnight. It is therefore an interesting mix of the old and the new. I believe the people of Saudi Arabia are still trying to find the right mixture of their traditional Islamic culture and ideas from other cultures they would like to incorporate into their own lives.
How did you spend your time here? Were you working?
I rarely worked outside from home while in Saudi Arabia, but I supported a lot of community events, and all of them were very rewarding.
A lot of people here see the abbaya as restricting. Was that a favourite complaint of yours as well?
Ah, usually the first question I am asked when someone finds out I lived in Saudi Arabia is about the abbaya. Wearing the abbaya never bothered me because I never had to worry if I was dressed appropriately for any situation. I could put on something extremely comfortable, nice shoes, jewelry and a pretty abbaya and go into the fanciest restaurant in town. My husband had to wear a suit and tie. Which one of us was more comfortable? The fact that I wore a US Army uniform for so many years may have something to do with how comfortable I was wearing just another uniform, the abbaya. I also like the ambiguity wearing the abbaya gave me. Having worked with men in close quarters all my life, I can tell you that the abbaya commands respect. For once, I felt people were only looking at my face while talking, and it was a relief.
Plus, unlike most people who insist that abbayas are drab, and wear only those that prove the point, I find the abbaya regal and beautiful. I had different ones for different occasions. It’s as ugly and as beautiful as you’re willing to make it.
Another popular complaint is not being able to drive? Did that bother you too?
I have driven across the United States more than once. I had driven to my heart’s content before coming here, it didn’t bother me in the least. Plus, with the kind of traffic here, even if someone paid me a billion dollars, I wouldn’t get behind the wheel.
What religion were you born into? And was it difficult for you to settle into an Islamic state?
I was born a Christian, but I subscribe to the ideas of faith in all big religions of the world. I feel their essence is the same, and they all believe in the same God. I have a very strong belief in God, and am equally comfortable reading the Bible or the Koran. When you truly understand the spirit of religions through self-study and research, and not by indoctrination, you see that there are more bridges than fences. It was quite an interesting experience for us to spend eight years in an Islamic state. We respect the culture and traditions of this place with all our heart, and it was a learning and enriching experience living in its midst.
Were you ever invited to embrace Islam? Did you find it offensive?
Yes, I was. But I didn’t find it offensive at all. After all, whoever was proposing it was acting out of an interest in my spiritual well-being. It’s impossible to be upset with anyone who has your best interest at heart, no matter what his manner may be.
Sorry, but this will have to end with the extremely clichéd question. What did you like about Saudi Arabia, and what didn’t you like about it?
I arrived for the first time in Saudi Arabia in the middle of the night. We were picked up from the airport and taken to what would become our new home. We were exhausted and went to sleep immediately upon arrival. The next morning I woke up and stepped outside to see what Saudi Arabia had to offer. To my amazement I was welcomed by the most beautiful clear blue sky I had ever seen and the temperature near the end of November was perfect. The night sky was just as clear as the day and the stars sparkled brighter than in I had ever seen. I am, by nature, a person of the night and living on a compound I was able to enjoy many late night strolls that would be impossible in the vast majority of cities around the world. I always felt so at peace with myself and the world during those quite strolls.
My husband and I lived for 3 years in Germany and then 5 years in northern New York. For 8 straight years we lived in places that had very cold and long winters. I was never fond of cold weather and after those years I hated even the thought of snow. The weather in Saudi Arabia, the majority of the time, was great. There were, of course, a few weeks of almost unbearable heat but I would rather be too hot than too cold.
The many trips we took into the desert of Saudi Arabia have become some of my fondest memories. Almost each year we lived in Saudi Arabia we would travel to experience the Iris Fields of Tumair in all their spring glory. The experience of waiting for those perfect little flowers to open because of the bright rays of the sun was always fun. The people we met in the iris fields would always become fast friends and everyone had a wonderful time. Beautiful nature and great people, who could ask for anything more during a lazy Thursday afternoon.
And, what did you dislike?
There is one thing I hated from the very beginning of my time spent in Saudi Arabia to the moment I left Saudi Arabia for the last time; the horrible traffic with the equally horrible drivers. Each time I left the compound with my husband there was always a time in traffic where I thought our lives or the lives of others were in danger. I have experienced traffic in many countries and no country even comes close to being as bad as Saudi Arabia when it comes to their drivers not following rational rules of the road.
Another problem I experienced often in Saudi Arabia was the way Saudi Arabian men and women do not like to stand in a queue. They will just pretend the line does not exist and go to the front. I have to admit that I became pretty good at the look I was given before someone would attempt to step in front of me and I would simply move myself preventing them from getting ahead of me.
One thing I experienced many times always made me sad. On our trips to the desert we would always pack a lunch to be enjoyed at some lovely and welcoming spot in the desert. More often than not, our first, second and even our third attempt to find a place to relax and enjoy our food and nature was spoiled by litter.
Jane is presently in Newport News and is learning web designing and photography. She is battling with several health problems which more or less fall under dysautonomia, a rare disease not many people know about. ‘I cannot travel any more now because I’m chronically ill. But till the age of 45, I travelled with so much zest and such relentless energy that I have no regrets at this point. I lived my dream full on, it’s almost as if I knew I had until the age of 45 to travel.” Learning and positivity remain constants in the changing locales of Jane’s life. “I might be middle-aged, but I don’t wish to stop learning. If you stop learning and responding to new stimuli, you cease living life to its fullest. And I don’t want to do that.”