Nayef Alqahtani is an international student from Saudi Arabia enjoying his last term at Oregon State University. Although he grew up in Al Khobar, a gulf city with 165,000 residents, Nayef considers himself of Bedouin descent. His father, before having children, lived a nomadic lifestyle, herding camels and sheep in the desert. Without formal education, he eventually founded a company which works on safety and maintenance standards in oil production.
The Bedouin are historically the tribal groups native to North Africa and the Middle East — especially Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. To many Westerners they seem shrouded in mystery, only familiar through the recorded exploits of British explorers such as T.E. Lawrence, Wilfred Thesiger, or Gertrude Bell. However, the Bedouin are a very real, culturally rich, and diverse people.
Nayef explained that his tribe, the Alqahtanis, lived in Yemen a hundred years ago, but migrated to the area around Riyadh, SA, and eventually to the Eastern side of the country. He still has family around Riyadh.
The first time I met Nayef was in the Spring of 2018. He invited me to visit his residence in Albany—which he shares with a local couple, Rita and Dwayne. In traditional Bedouin fashion, he prepared Arabian coffee as we talked at length around a fire. Later in the evening, Faisel, a friend of Nayef’s from Kuwait, joined us. He was studying English at the time and of a differing Bedouin background. We later moved inside for a delicious dinner of seasoned rice and lamb, which we ate kneeling around shared plates.
The Saudi government provides scholarships for domestic students to pursue degrees abroad. According to government figures, as many as 200,000 students left on these fully funded trips annually in the years leading up to 2016, after which the program was cut back in the wake of falling oil prices. Nayef, now thirty-six, took advantage of this program and has spent the last six years studying in the U.S. For the first year and a half, he studied English intensively, then business management with a minor in environmental and occupational health.
After dinner, the three of us returned to our places outside, around the fire. The sun had almost set and white flower petals from nearby trees filled the air. Faisel read a poem from his phone which Nayef translated into English.
This practice of storytelling and reciting prose is fundamental to Bedouin society. So much so that in interviewing him, Nayef insisted that I share my own stories as he shared his.
“Sometimes I invite my friends here from Saudi [Arabia] to enjoy a fire and coffee and food,” Nayef said. After a while, he developed a rule: When they’re together, everyone, on arrival has to leave their phone in a box in order to be more present for the visit.
Nayef has experienced much culture shock in his travels. When he first arrived, he was in the habit of avoiding direct eye contact with women — a sign of respect in Saudi Arabia. He quickly learned that here, the opposite was expected. He also feels a form of culture shock every time he returns home to find his country, inevitably, further modernized.
Saudi Arabia is a rapidly urbanizing country and though many have abandoned nomadic desert lifestyle for city living — only 16% of the population lived outside cities in 2018 according to The World Bank — they haven’t necessarily left their culture behind. Despite growing up in the city, Nayef regularly spent time listening to elders’ stories, reciting poems, and going on desert outings with Bedouin and non-Bedouin alike, which we might approximate as camping. Sometimes those trips included traditional hunting practices. In Saudi Arabia, hunting with weapons is illegal, but the use of hunting dogs and birds of prey is not.
There’s a certain reputation that comes with mastering a falcon, Nayef explained. Other people think more highly of someone with a falcon on his arm. Holding out his arm, he demonstrated. The falcon perches atop one’s forearm and launches into flight towards a jerboa—a small hopping rodent—once in sight.
“The way the falcon jumps from your hand… it’s amazing,” he said.
I met Nayef again recently to follow up and see how life has changed closer to his expected graduation this fall. Most of Nayef’s international student friends have graduated or finished their English programs and returned home, so his open fire, coffee, and poetry evenings are no longer frequent. Yet Nayef is excited to be near the completion of his degree. He hopes to live in America a few more years, but doesn’t know what the future will hold and isn’t too concerned about that.
“I live for the moment,” he reiterated from our first encounter. “My first priority is my own self-improvement and helping my friends and family.”
Nayef told me that recently he read Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands and found it very interesting. He explained that the view of desert life portrayed by the 20th century English explorer isn’t a perspective most Saudis get anymore, particularly after oil was discovered in some formerly Bedouin-inhabited regions. But Nayef emphasizes that he can’t speak about Saudi Arabia as a whole, only from his own experience.
He maintains that, “People are the same,” underneath differences in language, skin tone, and cultural customs. His family here, Rita and Dwayne, remind him of family at home.
“Home is where my family is,” Nayef says. In Oregon, he feels homesick for his family in Saudi Arabia, and in Saudi Arabia, he feels homesick for family in Oregon. He visits Saudi Arabia twice a year, and also had the opportunity to pursue a three-month study abroad trip at Universidad de Murcia in Spain through the College of Business.
Nayef says he may come back to Oregon State for a master’s degree someday. In the meantime, he’ll continue learning avidly, travelling, and listening to flamenco music, which he acquired a taste for during his travels.
Leto Sapunar is a freelance journalist and graduate student in New York University’s Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program. He met Nayef Alqahtani in an environmental philosophy class in 2017 while pursuing his bachelor’s in physics at Oregon State University. He writes about science, society, and the intersection between the two.