Saturday, January 14, 2012

My Day: Imam Hussein, Mourning Processions, Harees, and the Wrong House

Today was an incredibly active and cultural-learning-filled day. I woke up at about 11:30 after a very late night yesterday, and yet again we went to Muttrah today.

When I arrived, my host sisters had already been there for a while, so I waited in a side room for them to finish praying. Eventually they came out of the prayer room, so I headed out of the mosque with my eldest host sister to a place where we would observe an Islamic lecture. Unfortunately, our process was halted because there was a large mourning procession taking place, with probably 100 men in black dishdashas walking slowly through the lanes of Muttrah. These men were clearly in mourning, and it was interesting for me to see their progress. At the time, the word "parade" came to mind, but in retrospect the word "procession" is more accurate. It was a really interesting spectacle for me to see.

After the group had passed us, we had to hurry to reach the room in which we would observe the lecture. On the TV screen, we saw the men from the procession enter the men's matem, and proceeded to engage in a very impressive show of their grief. It is typical for men to beat their chests in rhythm with one another to attempt to feel the pain felt by Imam Hussein and his followers, and the men of the procession were particularly active in expressing their grief. Following this, a man gave another Islamic lecture and once again told the story of Imam Hussein and his followers' exile to Syria.

Following the lecture, women in our room pulled out large sheets of plastic, set them down, and brought in buckets of harees, which is an Arabian food made of wheat. Harees is very similar to porridge, except that it contains meat. In truth, it does look a little bit strange, but with pickles and hot sauce it's really quite good. Basically, we sat in a very small room with about 200 other women, squatting around long yellow sheets of plastic, eating harees. It definitely provides a sense of community--in fact, the traditional Omani eating style is one of my favorites because of the sense of community it provides. In this scenario, we were not eating quite in the traditional way (there were utensils and individual plates), but I do love the ideals behind how Omanis socialize while eating.

And then comes the most interesting and funny story from today...

Following the food, I went back to the mosque area and saw Bailey! Her host mother is also Shi'a and is of the same tribe as my host family, so she also had come along for the day. We were going to wait for her host cousins (who had gone to see a friend) but ended up being pointed in the direction of Bailey's host mother's house in Muttrah. There was another procession of mourning men coming, so we ducked into the house that we thought belonged to her host family. Once we got inside, after a few worried glances and shoulder shrugs, we realized that it was the wrong house: neither of us recognized anyone! Of course this was a bit more than a slightly awkward moment for us, because, even though we were both dressed in abaya and shayla, it was really easy to tell that we were nothing but a pair of white girls who weren't actually with anyone! It didn't help that the women in the house came to us and started to ask us questions in rapid Arabic--questions that we, with our very limited Arabic skills, couldn't answer.

To add to our predicament, we couldn't just mutter an apology and leave. There was a very slow procession of mourning men walking by, and with thin alleys for streets, there was no way to get out of the house. We were, for all intents and purposes, stuck. So we stood there awkwardly, looking around. At one point, my youngest host sister somehow got by the procession, poked her head in the door, looked at us, and (so I was told later), told the women of the house "Just keep them." Then she left.

 It was a fairly small house, and there were a lot of people, so we definitely generated some stares. After a while, though, people just ignored us. Right as procession cleared, a woman came up to us and offered us tea! This sort of made things even more awkward, because it's actually pretty rude to turn down tea, but we've been raised not to accept food from strangers, and we didn't know any of the people in the house. Then we saw Bailey's host cousins, so we darted out the door with a quick thank you to the people whose home we had just sat in (or stood, embarrassed, in, depending on your perspective).

We did end up finding Bailey's house in Muttrah: it was the one next door to the one we ended up in, and apparently her host mom grew up in the house that we were in. Also, ending up there was an adventure, to say the least! Fortunately, the people in the house were actually my host mom's friends, as she told me later. Definitely a learning moment in this exchange. It's always good to know how to stay cool in even the most uncomfortable moments, and I think we succeeded in this instance.  


  1. Hello! I love your blog and I was just wondering, how often do you see the other YESers assigned to Oman?

  2. About 3 times a week... we have Arabic and Middle Eastern History classes, and we go on trips (tomorrow we're going off to camp in the desert for three days!)

    I think in other countries it's a lot less, but we're lucky enough to get to visit a lot. It helps that we're only placed at two schools, and that we're all in the same city.

  3. I have another question, how often do you talk to your family back home in Wisconsin?

  4. We talk once a week, and email every few days.

  5. Dear Emma,

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    On behalf of and the Lexiophiles language blog