Cookeville – January 31, 2011 – Over 250 people came together for the 2nd Rotary International Night at the Clarion Inn of Cookeville on Saturday to raise money for the international and humanitarian programs of the Cookeville Breakfast Rotary Club, to eradicate polio in the world, provide clean drinking water to people who have none and for hosting students and visiting groups from abroad. Each year the club chooses a theme country to celebrate – this year it was Saudi Arabia – as part of Rotary’s objective of increasing global understanding and enhancing international peace by building bridges among countries.
Cookeville Breakfast Rotary Club President Bob Gunter opened the event welcoming the packed house, and he talked about Rotary’s 25-year pursuit of polio eradication being like the Apollo moon landing program. “President Kennedy raised the excitement and expectations of all Americans by announcing a goal so big it was hard to put your mind around it.” He added, “When I joined Rotary in 1999 I learned about the goal of eliminating polio from the world, an incredible challenge like Apollo, and today we are close to achieving the goal.” The concept of an annual international celebration began last year as the club sought to meet a polio fund challenge, along with the Gates Foundation, to raise over $500 million over several years to help wipe out one of the world’s dreaded diseases. The event’s goals were expanded to include other humanitarian works and to incorporate an honored country this year to expand community understanding of the world.
Emcee David Hill, of the Breakfast Rotary Club, reminded everyone of the sponsors and supporters that made the evening possible including a major donation from the Zahid Group of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The Clarion Inn and Best Western of Cookeville, he noted, were once again in the forefront of supporting Rotary’s good works through their sponsorship of facilities and arrangements as they had been at the 2010 International Night celebration. All of these contributed to the great success of the fund raising effort.
The International Night focus on Saudi Arabia, in connection with TTU’s Saudi Students Club’s outreach efforts, included coffee and dates from the Kingdom during the reception and a sumptuous Middle East buffet dinner. Two distinguished visiting speakers from Washington provided presentations on developments about the country — its society, culture, religion and relationship with the United States. Rotarian Patrick Ryan, who has traveled widely in the Middle East as a naval officer and businessman, put the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia in perspective during his introduction of the speakers. He noted the historic business and government partnership that began in the 1930s, formalized through a meeting between President Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, during World War II. “Despite the strong strategic relationship, economically and politically, and the joint work our countries did to fight Communism in the Cold War, the personal connections between American and Saudi societies fell short of what was needed to build mutual understanding and to weather tough times.” Ryan added, “So tonight, with the help of many of the 150 Saudi students from Tennessee Tech and our distinguished visiting speakers, we will strive to build those bridges between people.”
Doctor Mody Alkhalaf, the Saudi Embassy’s Cultural Affairs Director told the audience about her background, born in the 1970s in a mud brick dwelling into a poorly educated family. The modernization programs in the Kingdom, including expanded education opportunities, prepared her to become a Ph.D. of Linguistics and a professor at a Saudi university. She later worked as a journalist and now as a diplomat at her country’s embassy in Washington. Dr. Alkhalaf’s presentation described educational development, including the national scholarship program that sponsors over 30,000 Saudi men and women studying in the United States this year. American universities, she said, were one avenue for Saudis to learn about the U.S. and for the students to become ambassadors for America when they return to the Kingdom and begin their professional lives. She also talked about the progress of reforms in Saudi Arabia that were enabling women to take a more prominent role in society, “The participation of women more completely in the life of the Kingdom is the game changer that is making our modernization successful.”
The question what do one billion Muslims think, was tackled by Barbara Ferguson in her presentation on the myths and realities of Islam. Ferguson, the Washington, DC Bureau Chief for Arab News, the most popular English language daily newspaper in the Middle East, was embedded with U.S. Marines during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. She has since been working as a consultant with the Marine Corps in Quantico, Virginia, on cultural training, as she noted, “To prepare our warriors with the knowledge they need to operate in the different environment of the Middle East.” Ferguson noted the common origins of Islam, Judaism and Christianity and where the three great monotheistic religions share common grounds.
The capstone of the evening was entertainment provided by the Saudi Students Club of Tennessee Tech led by its President, Fahad Alanazi. After a poetry reading by a young Saudi child, the students presented several lively dance routines, in native garb and with ceremonial swords. Many audience members joined in the finale of the dance routine as everyone got into the mood of the evening.
The Cookeville Breakfast Rotary Club’s International Night next year, according to President-Elect Dr. Meenakshi Sundaram, will feature Germany as its honored country and he asked everyone to mark January 28, 2012 on their calendars for the celebration.
In his remarks, Club President Gunter, talked about “addressing the people to people aspect of our relationship,” with the hope that, “By the end of this evening you will leave with a better understanding of the food, culture, and people from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And perhaps the beginnings of some new friendships.” By all measures that hope was realized.