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A World Away from Home

By Melanie Moffett
In Center Block
Mar 24th, 2017
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Corey Cooper Talks to BayouLife about her travels and her life as an American in the Middle East

Article by KAY STOHART RECTOR

LOUISIANA NATIVE COREY COOPER is a long way from her hometown of Rayville. A single American woman, Cooper works and lives in Saudi Arabia, a Middle Eastern country where native women are prohibited from traveling independently or even dining out alone. Cooper works in a remote desert community approximately 100 miles outside of Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh, teaching Islamic young women, whose lives are vastly different from hers. Yet in some fundamental ways, they are the same.

Cooper’s students, females ranging in age from 19 to 25, are learning to speak English as the first step in a vocational training program designed to help them enter the workforce. Vocational training for women is a part of “Vision 2030,” a program of comprehensive reforms recently implemented by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, with a view toward improving and developing the country’s overall health, education, infrastructure and economic systems.

Although Cooper never intended to be an educator, it was always her dream to travel the world. Shortly after high school graduation, Cooper left Louisiana to attend New York University, where she studied Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies. While attending a career fair in college, she realized that there was a demand for bi-lingual candidates for travel-related jobs, particularly those with a command of Middle and Far Eastern languages. Cooper found learning Middle Eastern languages to be far less difficult than mastering Asian languages, so she honed in on Arabic and learned to speak that language fluently, hoping to one day land a job overseas.

Cooper spent her first few years after college working in Washington, DC, then later moved back to New York. She was living in New York City on September 11, 2001 when terrorists attacked and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center fell. Just weeks before, she had resigned her full time job to launch her own event planning business. In the aftermath of the attacks, Cooper found her plans suddenly derailed. “Of course, no one was hiring event planners in the weeks and months after September 11th,” she recalls. She left New York and headed to her mother’s home in Dallas, Texas to regroup.

Hesitant to return to New York and still wanting to live abroad, Cooper started looking into avenues that would help her make that goal a reality. Someone suggested that she explore programs that train and hire native-English speaking teachers for jobs in foreign countries. Following this advice, Cooper enrolled in and completed a four-week course and became certified to teach English as a second language. She submitted a number of applications, and in 2002, landed her first ESL teaching job in Algeria, a place she had never even visited. Cooper was the only American in her group of teachers, which included women from Australia and Great Britain. Cooper and her co-workers taught in a small private school catering to adults wanting to learn English as a second language. “It was a whole new experience for me, and a really great experience,” she says. Cooper remained in Algeria until her Visa expired, and then took a similar position in Istanbul, where ESL teaching jobs were plentiful. “At that time,” Cooper says, “it was also very easy for Americans to go in and out of Turkey.” When she was not working, she traveled as much as she could.

Cooper eventually returned to the United States and again worked in Washington, D.C. Soon, though, she began to long again for an adventurous life abroad. “I would always become restless in a traditional nine-to-five job,” Cooper recalls. While living and working in foreign venues does satisfy her need for adventure, adapting to day-to-day life in a foreign country can be extremely stressful. “There are definitely days when I want to take my passport and run for the airport,” Cooper admits. “But for me, the chaos of it actually works.”

Cooper explains that while Saudi presents itself, and is considered, a rich country, the infrastructure and health conditions are in many ways comparable to a Third World country. “Something is always going wrong here,” she says. “In that way, it makes me very appreciative of home.” When describing her daily life there, she says “Every day is the same, yet weirdly different.” Her work routine rarely varies. She lives with other teachers and school staff in the gated, all-female quarters leased by Interserve, the private company she works for. There are no surrounding parks or public recreational areas, no movie theaters and alcohol is forbidden.

And of course, the cultural differences are vast. Cooper lives in an area populated almost entirely by Muslims, and most of her students are part of the extremely conservative Bedouin culture. For the girls she teaches, the school affords the only regular social interaction outside of their families. Gender separation in public is legally required. “Everything is segregated by gender,” Cooper explains. “In restaurants, for example, women are required to sit in sections near the back, booths with curtains that can be closed. Women always cover their hair and heads, and most cover their faces.” Cooper also wears the hijab, covering her hair, in most public places, but dispenses with it when in the larger, more cosmopolitan areas such as Riyadh.

With respect to the cultural adjustment, “Saudi Arabia is not just another country; it is another planet,” Cooper says. She feels this is true not only for a woman like herself from the American South, but for any foreigner new to the Middle East. Cooper realizes that as a teacher in Saudi Arabia, she is able to experience and immerse herself in a culture that few Americans fully understand.

Cooper also acknowledges that her job affords her incredible opportunities for travel that she would never have with a conventional job placement. As an Interserve teacher, Cooper enjoys a summer vacation which lasts between six and nine weeks, as well as ample time off during the academic year. Almost all of her free time is devoted to travel.

Weekends for Cooper and her co-workers begin on Thursday, and they typically fit short excursions within Saudi Arabia and the surrounding Middle Eastern countries into their weekend breaks. With the exception of Islamic holy sites, such as Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is generally not regarded as a travel destination. However, Cooper notes that tourism is growing in the west coast region of Saudi Arabia. The Hejaz Railway, part of the story of Lawrence of Arabia, as well as Madain Saleh, a significant archaeological find, are both designated as World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Cooper finds the temples of Madain Saleh, built by the same people who built the Petra in Jordan, the more fascinating of the two. “The best thing about travel in Saudi,” Cooper says, “is that your group will have the entire place to themselves. Anything that predates the times of the Prophet Mohammad is considered pagan and unholy by the locals, so it will be undisturbed.”

Just beyond the Saudi borders are other travel destinations that Cooper recommends. “Everyone knows about Dubai,” she says. “It is completely over-the-top in extravagance and is certainly my preferred weekend trip out of Saudi Arabia. But Abu Dhabi is worth the trip to see something really spectacular. The mosque of Abu Dhabi as an architectural wonder.” Cooper describes the city as much more subdued than Dubai. Cooper’s ideal getaway in the Gulf Region is the Chedi Muscat, a luxury hotel in the Sultunate of Oman. “Oman is truly the pearl of the Gulf,” Cooper says. “The people are friendly and educated, the seas are emerald green and everything is well cared-for.”

In the winter, when school breaks afford the chance for longer getaways, Cooper’s favorite travel destinations include Budapest, Switzerland and Prague.  Each summer, Cooper takes an extended leave from her restrictive life in the Arabian desert and heads to Southern France, a place she describes as being the cultural opposite of Saudi Arabia.  In the South of France near St. Tropez, she rents a small apartment from a local Frenchman and spends her summer vacation partaking of all that France has to offer, hanging out near the sea, eating wonderful fresh food, drinking wine and generally enjoying life.  After months in the desert, Cooper always finds France to be a welcome change.  “I shop in the local fruit and vegetable markets, where everything is as beautiful as an Instagram photo and so fresh that there is still dirt on the roots,” says Cooper.

While in France, she tries to immerse herself in the French culture and do everything the local way.  “Very few people there speak English,” Cooper says, “so it is a great way to practice my French.”  Of the people, Cooper notes, “Although France has a reputation for rudeness, I find that showing genuine interest and following cardinal rules of society in France will put almost everyone at ease.  I have made friends in town just asking where to buy cheese.”

Unsurprisingly, Cooper loves reading travel books and travel magazines, and she says that her Pinterest boards are filled with ideas about where to go next. As for travel advice, she typically shies away from hotels, preferring instead local rentals found through sites such as Airbnb.

“Get lost,” Cooper also advises, noting that she loves to wander aimlessly through the neighborhoods in Paris.  “I always find the most interesting restaurants and shops by spotting a chic woman on the street and literally following her to see if she goes anywhere cool,” says Cooper. She also finds that visiting drug stores and supermarkets are easy ways to get a feel for what life is really like for locals.

Cooper describes how walking around without an agenda can sometimes lead to surprising discoveries.  Once, while wandering through the small alleys in Paris, she came upon a street party outside a little wine bar.  “Everyone just started handing me glasses of wine and champagne.  It turns out I had crashed a closed party for a restaurant that had just received a huge award,” Cooper laughs.  “They were dancing to a live band in the street, and at the close of the party, the band played ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ a request from the crowd.  You can’t find that in a guide book.”

Cooper says that she has always had an inherent desire to understand people, and feels that this is at the center of her quest to see and experience the world.  Essentially, she says, she just wonders about other people’s lives and how other people spend their days.  “For example,” Cooper notes, “people all over the world sit down with someone for a meal each day.  I always want to know what that meal is like.  How do they do it? What do they eat? How does their food taste?”

“What I really love is seeing, hands-on, how other people live,” says Cooper, noting that travel is primarily about educating yourself and satisfying a basic curiosity about other people and places.  “Especially today, I feel like everyone thinks that people here in the Middle East or in other foreign places are so different, and they are,” Cooper acknowledges.  “At the heart of it, though, we are all so much the same.  Everybody cares about their loved ones.  Everybody wants their kids to be healthy.  Everybody wants love in their life.”  Cooper, like most travelers, is convinced that we can all discover much about ourselves by exploring the places, customs and traditions of others around the world.

In the winter, when school breaks afford the chance for longer getaways, Cooper’s favorite travel destinations include Budapest, Switzerland and Prague. Each summer, Cooper takes an extended leave from her restrictive life in the Arabian desert and heads to Southern France, a place she describes as being the culture opposite of Saudi Arabia. In the South of France near St. Tropez, she rents a small apartment from a local Frenchman and spends her summer vacation partaking of all that France has to offer, hanging out near the sea, eating wonderful fresh food, drinking wine, and generally enjoying life. After months in the desert, Cooper always finds France to be a welcome change. “I shop in the local fruit and vegetable markets, where everything is as beautiful as an Instagram photo and so fresh that there is still dirt on the roots,” says Cooper.

While in France, she tries to immerse herself in the French culture and do everything the local way. “Very few people there speak English,” Cooper says, “so it is a great way to practice my French.” Of the people, Cooper notes “Although France has a reputation for rudeness, I find that showing genuine interest and following cardinal rules of society in France will put almost everyone at ease. I have made friends in town just asking where to buy cheese.”

Unsurprisingly, Cooper loves reading travel books and travel magazines, and she says that her Pinterest boards are filled with ideas about where to go next. As for travel advice, she typically shies away from hotels, preferring instead local rentals found through sites such as Airbnb.
“Get lost,” Cooper also advises, noting that she loves to wander aimlessly through the neighborhoods in Paris. “I always find the most interesting restaurants and shops by spotting a chic woman on the street and literally following her to see if she goes anywhere cool,” says Cooper. She also finds that visiting drug stores and supermarkets are easy ways to get a feel for what life is really like for locals.

Cooper describes how walking around without an agenda can sometimes lead to surprising discoveries. Once, while wandering through the small alleys in Paris, she came upon a street party outside a little wine bar. “Everyone just started handing me glasses of wine and champagne. It turns out I had crashed a closed party for a restaurant that had just received a huge award,” Cooper laughs. “They were dancing to a live band in the street, and at the close of the party, the band played ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ a request from the crowd. You can’t find that in a guide book.”

Cooper says that she has always had an inherent desire to understand people, and feels that this is at the center of her quest to see and experience the world. Essentially, she says, she just wonders about other people’s lives and how other people spend their days. “For example,” Cooper notes, “people all over the world sit down with someone for a meal each day. I always want to know what that meal is like. How do they do it? What do they eat? How does their food taste?”

“What I really love is seeing, hands-on, how other people live,” says Cooper, noting that travel is primarily about educating yourself and satisfying a basic curiosity about other people and places. “Especially today, I feel like everyone thinks that people here in the Middle East or in other foreign places are so different, and they are,” Cooper acknowledges. “At the heart of it, though, we are all so much the same. Everybody cares about their loved ones. Everybody wants their kids to be healthy. Everybody wants love in their life.” Cooper, like most travelers, is convinced that we can all discover much about ourselves by exploring the places, customs and traditions of others around the world.