Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Our Christmas Day was a wonderful celebration with a group breakfast, Christmas movie watching, and a trip to the home of an awesome Embassy family (much laughter included at every part of the day!)

Christmas tree sent from my lovely American family :)

Cupcakes, courtesy of Quin!

Secret Santa exchange!

Noah's just a happy kid. 

Secret Santa gift!

Another Secret Santa gift... Noah loves his poptarts. Also, I am an awesome gift-giver.

YES Abroad family ♥



I also made gingerbread houses with my host sisters. Here's mine (if you want to see other pictures, they're on my facebook).
There actually are a lot of Christmas decorations in Oman. I found this one in City Centre Seeb.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Construction

Muscat is, to put things frankly, chock full of construction. Everywhere you go, men in blue suits advertise that some sort of building work is taking place. You can scarcely drive down a street without spotting some form of construction, either repairs or new work.

Of course monstrous amounts of new work are being built--because every Omani family has about 5 kids, it makes total sense that people have to build out. Kids grow up and start families of their own, and the city has to grow. Not only that, but people move from the Interior of Oman to Muscat.

And then there is the added work of repairs. Unfortunately, despite most of Muscat being fairly young, there is -plenty of work to be done. In fact, only 12 years ago my neighborhood was undeveloped sand dunes! And now it is solely residential--towering villas are everywhere you see. But still, last week we woke up to see a gaping hole in front of our house. I believe that the repair work was related to some sort of pipes, though fortunately we retained access to water all week.

The only problem that I see with building on the dunes, which is fairly common due to the need for new space, is that the dunes have been shifting constantly for thousands of years. They will not stop their movement just because people have built on them. People have to build on the dunes, however, because Muscat is trapped between the mountains and the sea. But I suppose progress is progress, and people will continue to build outwards (Muscat is not the type of city to build upwards).

Here are some pictures of the construction in front of my house:

This bridge is SCARY. Especially at night. But you have to cross it to get to the house, so I have to use it.


Also, I apologize for infrequent blogging. I've been fairly busy lately but once exams are over I promise to blog more!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

How to tie a hijab!

The truth of the matter is that there are a million and one ways to tie a hijab. Any way you can think of it will go... just like with any clothing type. In my host family, there are five women who cover. And there are five ways of tying the hijab, just in my house! Not to mention everyone at school and who I see on the street. Basically, if it covers your hair, it goes.
Also, they can be made from any pattern or fabric.
What I'm going to show you today is a fairly standard method, using a shayla. This type of scarf is worn with an abaya most commonly. The other major kind is a lahaf, which is thicker and often has more colors and patterns.
Materials:
One person with hair (my model is myself):

One shayla. You can identify a shayla because it's thinner, almost transparent.

One straight pin. This will hold your scarf in place... without it you have to re-tie it every 5 minutes.
And of course your abaya! Because you don't need a hjiab in the house and you must be fashionable when going out. Plus the shayla is just meant to be worn with the abaya.
Procedure:
Now that you've got everything, you're ready to begin. 

Step one: Ponytail! Otherwise your hair will be see-able in the back. Also use a headband to smooth back  your bangs (if you're going to show bangs. Otherwise it doesn't matter). 

Then you take your shayla and fold one long end in a few inches. Make sure to fold so that the rough stitching edges are on the inside.
Then take the end without the decoration (a shayla most always will have decoration on one end) and place it over your head, just covering the headband.
Then what you do is wrap the long end of the shayla under your chin and over the top of your head. 



And to secure it, pin it in place on the side! Make sure not to hurt yourself!

Then, to finish it all, drape the decorated end around your neck so it falls over your shoulder!

And khalas! You're done!


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pop Culture

Pop culture in Oman is essentially just like pop culture in America. Turn on 95.9 HI FM and you'll hear Katy Perry, The Script, Lady Gaga, and many many other American artists. The only concrete difference I see between HI FM and your average radio station in America is that any and all swear words are blurred out. However, my host family is more likely to listen to Arabic pop and occasionally children's songs... cutesy ones. Overall, though, pop culture revolves so much around American/British influences. If you look at the backpacks of the younger children at school, you're likely to see Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, and Transformers themed bags. The movies we see on TV are mostly dubbed American blockbusters. I've seen so many rom-coms through the TV, as well as action films. I saw Breaking Dawn here. Right now I'm watching Star Trek.
One big example that I see of Western pop culture is in the concert life. In November, both the Script and Jay Sean had performances in Muscat, and these concerts were the talk of the town. Everyone was going or knew someone who was. And when they made appearances at City Centre Qurum for autograph signings, my host sisters' Blackberries were blowing up.
One other common influence I see on pop culture here is Japanese anime. There are many backpacks also to be found with various anime stars decorating them, and the big children's TV channel, MBC3, is maybe half anime. One of my Omani friends enjoys drawing anime (though that may just be her).
And then we have the Turkish dramas. My favorite is called Forbidden Love. They are translated to Arabic, and are just so DRAMATIC! I don't even have to understand what's happening to realize that. However, I do know the gist of the story--essentially it's about a guy who falls in love with his uncle's attractive young wife but his uncle's daughter (his cousin) is in love with him and then he marries the cousin but is in love with the young wife and oh my goodness so much drama.

Essentially, pop culture here is very strongly influenced by foreign inputs. It creates an interesting mesh of many different cultures. However, I do wish there was more of an Arab influence. We see a few Kuwaiti series' and hear some Lebanese songs, but otherwise things mostly aren't from the region.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Tourism

Tourists are funny people. They leave their home and go somewhere else. They want to learn about the culture that they are going to--or at least they say they do. (I'll get more into this later). They take a crapton of pictures. They buy overpriced goods at local markets. Oh, and they are great sources of humor to locals and snarky exchange students.

Essentially a tourist has, on average, 4-12 days to try to get to know a culture completely. Which brings me to the cultural iceberg. The cultural iceberg is something every exchange student orientation ever goes over. They teach us that culture is really just a big floating mass of ice. You see 10% on the top--in dances, foods, clothing, language. This part is what the tourists see. They come to Oman for the palace, the souq, and the camels. The come to see the dhows and the beaches. An exchange student comes for the other 90%--the values, sense of time, and the little details that explain why the 10% are how they are. After all, it was the 90% below water that sunk the Titanic. That's the important stuff. And tourists just don't see it. And if you really want to know a culture, I recommend that you delve deeper and get to see the other 90%. Don't just come to hear the language, learn why the language is how it is. Learn about the -allah words and why they're so important. And come not to learn why those guys are wearing a musar, but to realize that it's tied in a certain way for certain people to keep the sun off their necks.

When tourists come to Oman, they inevitably will hit the souq. They go to buy tradition crafts--for wayyyy too much money. Dear visitors to Oman, if you're paying 50 Riyal for your kummah, you are paying way too much. Yes, the souq is miles and miles of winding shops and alleyways. And yes, the locals shop there. But the locals know how to get deals and bargain.

Which brings me to another point, and a small story. Last week, I was at Muttrah with my host sisters when we saw a small group of European or American men walking. They were clad in western tourist clothing--shorts and tshirts, cameras around their necks. But the funniest part was seeing one of them wearing a kummah (just purchased in the souq) with his shorts and tshirt. That's the thing with tourists. They come for a short time, 'burst through' all of the culture, and then leave. They don't usually actually understand things about the culture like that you can't wear a kummah with your tshirt and shorts. It made my host sisters and me burst out laughing but it also made me think about tourism. I've been a tourist places before and I've bought souvenirs that, in retrospect, probably were really ridiculous to the locals. That's one thing I love about being an exchange student: I might not be from here, but I can act like I am. It might not always be fun, but overall I just have so much of a better experience.

I don't think tourism is in basic being a ridiculous idea. It's a fun experience to travel somewhere new. I've seen some amazing places through tourism. And it can be a great economy booster--I believe that tourism may be in the top ten income generators in Oman. But it can also be funny and, from a local's point of view, kind of ridiculous!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Early Christmas!

Yesterday I celebrated my first Omani Christmas, despite the fact that it was only December 9th. No matter... it is December, therefore it is an excellent time for Christmas celebrations.
The five of us YESers went to the American International School Muscat (TAISM) for a Christmas concert! It was performed by the Muscat Singers, a group of adult expats (mostly American and British) who get together and sing. It was very... foreign, to say the least. Honestly, it was really nice to see a Christmas concert. They sang songs from all around the world (well, Europe anyways).
And of course there was the traditional sing-a-long. It was really fun to teach our Omani program director some of our favorite tunes (Oh bring us some figgy pudding!) and it just felt pretty homey to be sitting in a school gym surrounded by foreigners singing Christmas carols.
After the concert, we went to the home of one of the women who works at Amideast for a lovely Christmas dinner! They were so ridiculously kind to us... not only did they welcome us into their home, there were stockings! With wonderful things like bagels and calenders-that-start-on-Saturday in them! I cannot thank Sarah and her wonderful family enough for welcoming us, because this is the second time they've had us over, and they really are just an amazing family. 
Here are some pictures:
Noah and I have stockings! 

I discovered the awesome that is Christmas crackers.. we all got hats out of the deal! Also, there were fun gifts inside like a protractor, nail clippers, a puzzle, and so on.  I got the protractor :D

We had to take this three times because I kept messing the picture up. It turned out all right though!

They had their Christmas tree up! It was one of the super-awesome ones with ornaments collected over the years. 

hors d'oeuvres

It was a really wonderful evening! It is always nice to spend time with my YES Abroad family... and getting into the Christmas spirit is a wonderful way to do so.

Merry Christmas in advance! 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Muharram/ Ashura

Every year, Shi’a Muslims around the world mourn the death of one of their leaders, Imam Hussain, through a series of religious events during the month of  Muharram. On the tenth day of the month, an especially large ceremony called Ashura is held. During the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Shiites remember the story of Hussain.
Imam Hussain was a Shi’a leader living in what is present-day Saudi Arabia. What, in the eyes of many, perhaps made him especially important leader is that he was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. His father, Ali, is where the Shi’a and Sunni split off into two sects; Shi’a believe that Ali, being Mohammed’s cousin and married to Mohammed’s daughter, should have become the Caliph (religious leader of Muslims), whereas Sunni believe that the selection of the Caliph should not be based on family ties to the prophet.
At the time of Imam Hussain, there was a city in present-day Iraq called Karbala. It was, at the time, populated by Shi’a but ruled by a few Sunni (as in Bahrain today). The Shi’a of Karbala called Imam Hussain to come to rule them. So, he, along with maybe 70 of his family members ranging in age from infancy to elderly, made the pilgrimage to Karbala to rule the people. However, during the trek (not an easy one circa 600 AD), the leaders of Karbala persuaded their people to turn against Imam Hussain when he arrived. Nearing the city, Hussain and his family members were surrounded in a place with no water, and there they waited for three days. Then, they were attacked, and being surrounded by much larger numbers, were essentially demolished. Every man in the party was killed and all of the women and children were taken as hostage and forced on a march to Syria.
Karbala
Today, followers of Shi’a spend two months in mourning the murder of Imam Hussain. 10 million make a pilgrimage to Karbala each year to visit Hussain’s grave.
An interesting of the pilgrimage to Karbala, is that some of the pilgrims voluntarily beat themselves with axes or swords in order to bleed to feel the pain that Hussain felt. In Muscat, however, rather than this intense form of devotion to a leader, people choose to shed blood by donating to a blood bank. The practice is seen as a way to exhibit a belief that all humans face pain, and that even very religious people (like Imam Hussain). Followers of the tradition want to prove themselves as able to withstand pain in the name of their religion. There is a tradition still practiced, for similar reasons, in which people thump their chests rhythmically. 
The tenth day, Ashura (literally derived from the Arabic word for ten), followers of Imam Hussain spend the entire day attending lectures related to the subject. Many of my schoolmates were absent because they had gone to Muttrah (which is the Shi’a center in Muscat) with their families. In fact, on my school bus, half of the people were absent. My host family was in Muttrah from the morning until 9 o’clock at night.
Then, there are lectures fairly often for the next month and a half. Yesterday, I attended my first Muharram lecture. I went with my host mother and three oldest host sisters to the women’s room. We sat on the floor (there were also benches for older women) and watched a man on a screen giving a lecture. The first half of it was read in the style of Qur’anic chanting—perhaps it actually was a segment from the Qur’an; I don’t know. Then came the lecture. It reminded me a lot of a sermon, but it was in Arabic. I asked my host family afterwards, and it was about living a life with high morals.
After a while, the mood in the room changed and many women pulled out tissues and extra scarves to cover their heads with. I believe part of Imam Hussain’s story was being told, and many of the women broke down crying and bawling. This event is quite emotional, and it was interesting to see such ardent devotion to this man who died so long ago. I suppose that Easter could somewhat be considered an equivalent holiday, but I have never seen Christians so passionate in their ardor for their fallen hero. Honestly, Easter all seems rather commercialized to me, whereas the month of Muharram certainly is not.
Attending this lecture was an incredibly eye-opening experience for me. I got to experience firsthand one of the most important parts of Islam to followers of Shi’a. Also, the stories here are from my memory as told by my host family, so some details may be off because I misheard or mis-remembered them.
Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Exchange Student Lifestyle...

Here's a list of things that I do on a fairly regular basis that are different from things I do at home. However, even the most normal things can have unexpected happenings, as I discover daily. Life as an exchange student is an adventure and there are always new things to learn! One other thing I've learned is how to deal with is never knowing what's happening for sure. There are some patterns, but also things can change last minute! I've definitely learned how to go with the flow... I'm not always on time and plans are often made in Arabic so I'm not really sure what's happening about 60% of the time (though my understanding of  Arabic is improving and I can follow small conversations).

  • I wear a school uniform. It's a green dress, white shirt, and white scarf.
  • On Tuesdays, I attend Arabic class at the World Learning Center. It's a pretty cool place. We go right after school, so I usually walk with the other YESers to a nearby shawarma restaurant. However, they don't serve shawarma until night so we order kabab sandwiches, fries and Vimto. People like to honk at us; however, this happens less if Noah is with us because foreign girls alone attract a lot more attention. The thing is, I get attention no matter where I go or who I'm with. I get the most attention if I'm wearing an abaya and shayla, because I clearly am not an Omani with my pale skin and green/brown eyes. I have been told I look like I'm from Iran, though.
  • On Wednesdays, I attend Middle Eastern History class at Amideast. This is only with the five of us YESers, and it's taught by an awesome lady from the Dominican Republic. We go over current events, eat shuwa, learn about the Seljuks, and even had a guest speaker who was on the voyage of the Jewel of Muscat (here is a very basic explanation of what that is) come talk to us. All in all, it's a great time and one of my favorite days of the week!
  • I learn about Islam. I guess that comes with the territory-- I'm a YES Abroad student living with a Muslim family in Oman. But still, I've learned far more than I could ever imagine. Just from my observations, I have learned far more than a book could ever teach me. And if you consider all of the chats I have with my host family about different aspects of life, I have learned so much. My host family is very devout and also very informed. They know what they are talking about and are willing to explain it to me! All these conversations are making this year so much of a more informative experience for me, and I think that this is definitely what the YES Abroad program is all about!
  • I am roasted by the sun. Holy Jeepers the Omani sun is strong. You'd think that by December it might have stopped being so ridiculously intense, but it hasn't. Every day at the break we go out to the courtyard to buy food and are blinded in the process. For a Wisconsin girl like myself, it's absolutely a ludicrous thought that the sun should be that intense in December. Heck, it's also crazy that it should be so warm out at this time of year. Tomorrow's predicted temperature in Muscat is 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Tomorrow's predicted temperature in Beloit is is 30 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • I laugh about really really random stuff with Quin. By the way, did you know that the universe is insisting that we be friends? We were roomates in DC, ended up at the same school, have host families in the same tribe, and run into each other in places like the wadi. Also people think we live together and are sisters or something. Quite often.
  • I listen to songs like this. You don't have to get the Arabic ( I get maybe half of it.. it's about a kid named Filful, which is a made up name from the words filfil (pepper) and ful (kind of beans), who likes food) in order to understand why this is so awesome.  
  • I enjoy fabulous spicy food. My tolerance for such foods as chili has increased tenfold over the past three months. Due to Oman's close proximity to and history of trade with India, Omani food is a scrumptious blend of Middle Eastern and Indian food. I love it so much, and I no longer have to pick out the chili peppers from anything! Mostly what we eat is saluna, or stew, over rice. You can either eat with a fork and spoon, your hands, or bread. 
  • I spend a lot of time with extended family. Which is, for the record huge. By Omani standards, of course. By my American standards of family size (ie four cousins), however, this family is huge!! Every Thursday, I go to family lunches with my host dad's family-- he has three brothers and a sister. We also go to wadis and do other things with my host mother's family. Basically, family is your number one lifeline here. It's so important to people. Extended family is just as important as immediate. We see them once a week or so, as compared to my American life where I see my extended family maybe once or twice a year, if that. 
  • I research colleges. This is, of course, not very Omani at all, because Omani students actually don't apply directly to college; they are given a scholarship by the Ministry of Education. It's crazy to me, but any Omani who gets 80% or above in 12th grade qualifies for a full scholarship to virtually anywhere in the world (college picked by the Ministry, however). That's why my classmates are so into studying this year--their future lies in their hands right now. As for me, I'm exempt from this fabulous scholarship opportunity, so alas, it's up to me to figure out what's going to happen in my life after high school!
  • I have a ton of fun! Really, this is the craziest ride of my life, and it's so much fun to be on. I'm now 1/3 of my way through the year... I can't believe how quickly time has flown! Here's so an amazing next six months!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bragging rights: this country is BEAUTIFUL!

Here are some pictures of things I've seen around. All of these are in the Muscat region, and all pictures are taken by me!













Hope you all enjoyed these pictures! Oman is such a beautiful place, and I am loving my life here.