Baldwin Alum Steps Across Cultural, Linguistic Lines
David McCarthy, a 2001 graduate of Baldwin High School, went from being a member of the Future Business Leaders of America to teaching English at a Royal Saudi Air Force base.
If, in 2001, you were to approach David McCarthy in the halls of Baldwin High School and ask where he’d be in 10 years, probably the last thing that he’d think to say would be Saudi Arabia.
McCarthy admits as much, sitting down in front of his webcam for an interview with the Baldwin-Whitehall Patch wearing a white robe, a beard and a rounded head cap. A member of the Future Business Leaders of America while at Baldwin, McCarthy now teaches English at a Royal Saudi Air Force base in Khamis Mushayt, a city in southwest Saudi Arabia.
McCarthy graduated from Baldwin in 2001 and enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh to study marketing. While there, he became engrossed in religious history courses and eventually switched majors. He had converted from Catholicism to Islam by the time that he graduated from Pitt with a degree in history, and he has been teaching English in Saudi Arabia for the past two years.
“I started feeling uncomfortable morally, I think, with some elements of big business,” McCarthy said of his decision to change career paths. “At the same time, that was when Hurricane Katrina happened.
“I started thinking about people suffering in the world, and I said, ‘You know, I don’t want to be like 80 years old and on my deathbed and thinking about my life (and say) my contribution to the world was (that) I made a really great sneaker campaign. Like, I really sold a lot of shoes.’”
McCarthy said that he isn’t anti-business; he simply knew that he had another calling in life. After college, he worked at The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, specializing in interfaith dialogue.
While there, he coordinated with local priests and rabbis to launch a campaign against gun violence. The experience opened him up to the tangible benefits of finding common ground across cultures, he said.
During that time, McCarthy got a certificate in teaching English as a secondary language. He was entertaining jobs in nations such as Turkey and Malaysia when he met his Saudi wife, Nawal, at a conference. They married in 2008, which he said “sealed the deal” with respect to where he would teach. Last year, the couple adopted two children from a Saudi orphanage.
Nawal, who had lived in the United States for five years, facilitated the process of job-searching and moving, having grown up in Saudi Arabia. A trained pilot who later switched to doing social work, Nawal joked that when Saudis meet McCarthy, they always say, “Oh, you are the one married to the pilot!”
“David was the first actual American that a lot of people met,” Nawal said, adding that many people visualize movie actors or soldiers from news reports when thinking about Americans. “He’s friendly. He’s peaceful. He doesn’t have a gun.
“People now understand the difference between politics and the people.”
McCarthy still is in the process of learning Arabic, which makes him ever-conscious of the barriers erected by language. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he said.
“I really think that you have to empathize with your students; learning languages (is) tough,” he said. “So, if you’re not able to empathize or sympathize with the process, I think you get a little bit cold sometimes with the students.”
Even with the language barrier, Nawal said, McCarthy’s social life hasn’t suffered. She said that his kindness and charm — and the intrigue that comes from being an American in Saudi Arabia — have sometimes brought him an overwhelming number of invitations to dinner parties.
“Anywhere I’ve traveled in Saudi Arabia — when people find out that I’m an American, they smile,” McCarthy said. “And they try to say something to me in English, just to kind of be friendly.
“There’s one word I’ve found that every Saudi knows how to say in English, and that’s ‘welcome.’ And that’s really how I feel over here; I really could not ask for a more welcoming environment.”
And when people don’t speak any English, Nawal said, the reception is no less warm.
“Some people who don’t speak English at all will say, ‘Welcome! Welcome! Obama! Obama!’” she said with a laugh. “People are just excited to see an American. America could never have a better (representative) in Saudi Arabia.”
McCarthy tends to downplay the differences between the countries’ cultures, instead focusing on similarities. This way of thinking led to his initial interest in Islam, he said.
“The first thing that you really get from the Quran is the similarities between Christianity and Islam,” McCarthy said. “And it’s not like Islam came from a different planet or something like that.”
In a post-9/11 United States, McCarthy said, citizens tend to harbor a misplaced anxiety about Saudi culture. But barring the Saudi government’s monarchy — which he said the citizens there largely support — finding common ground hasn’t been difficult.
“I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” McCarthy said. “Saudi Arabia is more similar to America than it is different from America. Everyone over here is constantly watching the newest American movie.”
Still an American citizen, McCarthy said that he plans to return to the States eventually to study comparative religion in graduate school. He also hopes to teach in the West one day.
“Islam is kind of seen as ‘the other’ in America,” McCarthy said. “And people — especially a lot of open-minded people — they really just want to find out: What’s the truth about this religion?
“As the saying goes, people fear what they don’t understand. And a big barrier to understanding is language, because along with language comes culture.”
Juxtaposed against running a successful sneaker campaign, furthering multi-cultural communication is something that McCarthy said that he would find significant upon his deathbed.
He talked about achieving that goal in the United States.
“The more we talk to each other, the more we understand each other,” he said, “and the more we can be good neighbors to each other. I mean, we’re all living in the same country. We all want good for that country. We want good for each other.”