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On the Open Road in the Middle East with Penn Law Student Michael Anderson

April 29, 2009

Before Michael Anderson rode his motorcycle from Philadelphia to Seattle last May, he grew a beard to protect his face from the elements. He didn’t know then that his beard would become his entrée into Middle Eastern society.

But in Qatar, where the University of Pennsylvania Law School student is spending 16 months researching Islamic finance on a Fulbright Fellowship from the U.S. State Department, Anderson’s full beard and Middle Eastern appearance opened doors seldom available to Westerners.
Anderson is of mixed African-American and Caucasian descent. He often needed to recount his family tree at least as far back as his American-born grandparents to convince new acquaintances that he was not from the Middle East or North Africa.  
As a result, his opportunities to experience Middle Eastern lifestyle have been plenty: invitations to two family farms, including one of a young sheik; family dinners regularly; and mosque and family business meetings weekly.
“I have offers outstanding to visit everywhere from Sudan and Egypt to Syria and Palestine,” he says.
At first, he found researching Islamic finance to be unwieldy and frustrating. The industry had been accused of being “regular finance with an Islamic gloss.”  Much of the legal research seemed to indicate that the verses of the Quran on which the industry is based were becoming codified “in ways that are unworkable in modern finance settings,” he explained.
But Anderson, who has an undergraduate degree in accounting, a master’s degree in taxation, and experience working for Ernst & Young and McKinsey consulting, got an assist from his past when a former professor pointed out during a phone call that accounting standards were changing in the wake of the economic collapse.  Anderson wondered if those accounting changes might contribute to a modern Islamic finance industry, as well.
From that point forward, Anderson shifted his focus from a purely legal to a more holistic look at the industry. 
“Students at Penn Law are encouraged from Day One by Dean [Michael] Fitts to look at the law and their roles as lawyers as inextricably mixed with the surrounding world,” Anderson says.
He spent the next two months dividing his time among studying Islamic finance law, Sharia’ah-compliant accounting, financial statement analysis, Arabic, and the Quran.
“Only then did I realize that a financial infrastructure will be in place within the next decade to create a fully self-sustaining system, regardless of whether that system is a better way of doing business or full of contradictions,” he said.  “And at that point, it won’t matter who agrees or disagrees with the underlying theory.”
That clarity led Anderson to concentrate less on theory and more on learning how Sharia’ah-compliant institutions work in practice. He spent more time in the offices of banking executives and less time with abstract theoretical ideas. He also took advantage of Qatar’s unrivaled position as the Arab world’s meeting place of ideas to network with participants at the Arab League summit and at conferences on topics such as the rule of law. The business community in Doha, the capital of Qatar, has taken an interest in his work, leading to meetings with bank CFOs, accounting and law firm partners, Shariah law scholars, and college deans and university presidents.
As part of his Fulbright Fellowship, Anderson also taught two English classes at Qatar University College of Law and co-taught legal writing with Salman Al-Ansari, a Qatari national who earned a master’s degree at Penn Law in 2007.
Like many Middle Eastern universities, Qatar University has two campuses, a men’s campus and a women’s campus, which meant double the work for the teacher. On Anderson’s first day, when Al-Ansari suggested that the female students introduce themselves to “Doctor Michael,” Anderson remembers that “there was a row of about five girls in full abayas, with their faces fully covered. I could see their eyes and could hear words, but I couldn’t tell who was speaking.”
Now, Anderson is quite comfortable teaching at both campuses, although the occasional guard will shoo him away from the women’s campus if he is not in a suit; wearing one is a clear indication of being a professor.
“Up until two years ago, a young, single male would not have been allowed on the campus,” he says.
Anderson’s beard also served its original purpose: He bought a Harley-Davidson Sportster and joined the local H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) motorcycle club. Like their motorcycling counterparts in the United States, his new friends tended to be “a little rough around the edges,” Anderson says, adding that he was one of the few members who tried to “bridge the gap” between the group’s Arabic and English speakers.
“It’s hard to explain what a thrill it is when you are riding in the desert and there’s a herd of camels running beside you,” he says.  Less thrilling was having the driver of an SUV two lanes to his right suddenly stop and try to make an impossible U-turn in front of him.  The accident interrupted what was to be a four-day ride through Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to the town of Fujairah on the border of Oman, but Anderson says it’s “sort of a miracle” that he was able to walk away from the mishap. The accident, captured by a video camera attached to a fellow rider’s helmet, still may make its way to YouTube.
Upon completion of the Fulbright Fellowship, Anderson plans to return to Philadelphia next spring to complete his third year at Penn Law.  Although he already has job prospects in the United States, Anderson expects that a lot will change in the next several years.
“If I do things right, there might be a niche in the Middle East for me,” he says. “I’m in a spot where I could work for people who either need someone who can bridge the divide between western and Arabic worlds or who need to know something about the Arabic financial world. I can be that person. There are a lot of opportunities.”
And he may not even have to shave his beard to take advantage of them.