Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Football Mania!

Today was the first time I’ve experienced firsthand the phenomenon I’ve often heard happens outside of the USA: football mania. For all of you Americans, by football I mean soccer, not the sport of the Packers. Today was the World Cup preliminary match between Oman and Thailand, and it took place right here in Muscat.

The first way that it affected my life actually had to do with school: we were let out early from school because of the match. My school is fairly close to the stadium, and there was of course an expected influx of traffic in the area. The match began at 1 o’clock, so we were released from school at noon so that we wouldn’t add to the traffic and so that it wouldn’t inhibit student pickup.

Upon leaving school, it was very clear how completely psyched people were for the game. Just about everyone was in red, white and green. Outside of the stadium were thousands of people just waiting to get in. Today is probably the hottest day of the year so far, and so you have to admire the dedication of the people who attended the game.

When we got home, we of course turned on the TV to watch the match. I’m fairly certain that at least 99% of the households in Muscat tuned into the same channel. I’m also fairly certain that if someone were to somehow collect the energy of people whenever an Omani goal was scored that they could AC the entire country for an hour or two in June.

I won’t bore (alternately: fascinate) you with the details of the game, but Oman won 2-0. (Also, Saudi Arabia lost to Australia which is a huge deal because it means that Oman advances to the next round of the competition.) I actually had a class at Amideast, and while we were waiting for the driver to get us I got my first glimpse of what is called masira. Parade.

                Upon return home, my host sisters and I went out to be observers. While a football victory masira is not an official parade in the 4th of July sense, it is quite possibly more exciting despite the lack of candy and Shriners in small cars.

                Basically, we drove around Muscat for a while, observing the jubilant celebrators. Here is a list of people/ things I saw: a man who got out of his car to dance at a red light, several people riding on the tops of cars, countless flags draped on the top or back of cars, two men standing on the ledge of the window, many red, white, and green afro wigs, a guy (flashing a set of peace signs that would make Richard Nixon proud) on the back of a scooter, a red-green-and-white-sequined-mask, and a group of people camped outside of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And a lot of face paint.

                I apologize for the lack of pictures… I took some, but my camera decided to blur absolutely everything. I swear, it really does have a vicious mind of its own. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

A Tragedy at the Hands of NATO Troops

It recently came to my attention that an absolutely horrible obscenity has been performed by American NATO troops in Afghanistan. These people burned the Holy Qur'an, the most sacred object in Islam. In an analogy to Christianity, the Qur'an is the Muslim equivalent to Jesus--it is the literal word of God. Prophet Mohammed is the equivalent of the Virgin Mary, as more of a carrying case for the word of God (I read this analogy in a book once, and it sort of clicked for me). The Qur'an is not to ever touch the floor or even be touched without clean hands. The Qur'an is holy. 

By burning the Holy Qur'an, these troops have offended over a billion Muslims around the world. I cannot even describe how absolutely heinous and offensive an attack on Islam this was. I would like to make a point to say that I, along with many other, completely reprimand this monstrosity. Things like this make me ashamed to be an American. And they make me ashamed yet grateful to be in the Middle East.

 I am ashamed because I know that the people I am surrounded by--Muslims-- may view me in a different way because I share a nationality with the people who have committed such a faux pas, such a blatant show of hate. However, I am grateful to be here where I can hopefully show to people that not all Americans are full of antipathy towards Muslims. Many of us would never consider anything like this. And I refuse to stand behind American soldiers who will uphold that it is in any way acceptable or, forbid, good to slander anyone's beliefs. To me, it does not matter who someone is or where they come from, there is absolutely no acceptable reason that these American troops should be able to do this. There is no excuse, no nation's ego that is great enough to cover up the heinous truth that what these Americans in Afghanistan committed is an obscenity, an act of pure, unadulterated hate.

The Fascinating Existence of the Omani Door

                If there is one thing in Oman that just fascinates me to no end, it would not be the desert, the ocean, the mountains, the food, the religion, the mosques, the clothing, the henna, or the souq. No. It would be the doors.  I am absolutely mesmerized by the doors of Oman, particularly in the small villages. The houses may all be made of the same camel-colored material, but the doors are a splendiferous array of colors. They can be made of a variety of materials, metal, wood, or both. They are just pure, unadulterated awesome, in the literal awe-inspiring definition of the word. Omani doors have history, they have grace and beauty, they have been lovingly crafted and painted. It could be said that a door is like a door into someone’s life (mashallah, Emma, awesome simile), but Omani doors have so much more to them than other doors do. Wallah.

To curb this humdrum rambling of mine, here are some pictures of various doors I have encountered and photographed endlessly. I hope you find them as undeniably fascinating as I do.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Evil Eye

The other day, a good friend of mine from school gave me a bracelet as a gift. I thought it was quite pretty but nothing particularly out of the ordinary until my host mom saw it and asked me about it. What it turned out to be is protection against something called the Evil Eye, which is essentially another name for jealousy. The eye-shaped pattern on the charm is said to ward off bad thoughts from others who are jealous of you. For the same reason, when complimenting something it is required to say ma sha’ allah, or ‘god wills it.’ Essentially, that is said so that you do not seem jealous, but are instead saying that god wills the other person to have what they have. Both are protections against something that is kind of like bad karma. It is believed that by wearing the charm that looks like an eye and by saying your ma sha’ allah, one can avoid nasty repercussions caused by jealousy by and for you.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Sharqiyya trip

I spent two days in the Sharqiyya region of Oman doing fun touristy things with my YESers. It was likely the most action-packed two days of my life, so I was pretty tired by the end but it was definitely worth it!

We left early on Thursday morning from Amideast, and our first stop was Quriyat. Quriyat is a fishing town, and is actually still in the Muscat region. It’s maybe an hour away—but just a few years ago the Quriyat road opened and cut down a 9 hour travel time. We only stopped for a few minutes to take pictures. And swing on swings, but I don’t think that was officially on the agenda. I was reprimanded for noticing that there was a seesaw but somehow managing to miss the beautiful beach, the ancient fort, and the ocean next to the seesaw. Eh.

After Quriyat, we had a lot of shorter stops. We went to see Qalhat, which was a seaside village destroyed by a massive earthquake in the 13th century. However, a building lovingly dubbed Bibi Maryam (Grandma Maryam) still stands, so we went to see the ancient old building. Many legends surround the building—who Maryam was, in particular. It is widely agreed that she is buried in the building though. One, which was scoffed at by our guide, was that Maryam was Jesus’ mother, which makes no sense considering that she would have lived all the way across the Arabian Peninsula from there. Another story is that Maryam was a beautiful young girl, and she was so beautiful that her father wanted to marry her (umm, ew?) and so she ran to that building and vanished from there.  Meskina!

Then we were off to the sinkhole, which is a massive, well, sinkhole. Not too much else to say, but it was interesting. Then we went swimming at a beautiful, white-sanded beach. That kind of place makes me wish that Wisconsin had more beaches, because it was just amazing and warm.

After the sinkhole came Wadi Tiwi, which is a wadi that curls back very far into the mountains. There were at least two villages, actually both quite green. We saw mango trees, guava trees, and orange trees. I was not aware that any of those grew in Oman, and neither was our Omani program director. After a heart-pounding trip up a cliff up the mountain (all the while thinking ‘I am so glad my mother isn’t here because it would be a heckuva lot worse’), we ended up in a small village with very fascinating doors, a tower, and access to a part of the wadi that is most certainly National Geographic-worthy. After a mountain goatesque hike involving me falling partially into a stream of water (yay for super-strong Omani sun drying my socks in a half an hour!), we stopped for lunch and some breathtaking photography. In all seriousness though, there is no way that I actually managed to capture the beauty of Wadi Tiwi or anywhere else we went. It was just too much awesome. And then I saw a guy galloping on a donkey, which certainly made my day, because I had no idea donkeys could move that quickly, especially when burdened by an adolescent boy.

After these stops, we made it to Sur, which is one of the four largest cities in Oman. The eeriest thing about this place was that in our several hours over two days there, we saw two women. One was British and the other was a housemaid. It was just bizarre to see so few of my gender. In Sur, we went to a dhow-building factory. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see any of the actual building, but I did climb a super-sketchy ladder in order to see the inside of one.
The lighthouse in Sur

A fish market!

After Sur, we headed to Ras al Hadd, where we would be spending the first night. On the way, we saw what was maybe possibly my favorite part of the trip—A TIGER! Remember when I posted about the missing tiger from Muscat? Well, I didn’t find it. What we did come across, however, was a tamer cousin, aka a giant rock painted like a tiger. Infinitely safer, and I could sit on it. Ba-da-bing!

We stopped by the hotel, had Pakistani food, and were off to a turtle reserve where we would hopefully get to see green sea turtle laying their eggs! We weren’t assured of seeing anything because this is the off-season of egg-laying, but we were in luck! Four turtles were on the beach, laying eggs that night. We weren’t allowed any photography, so I’ll try to paint a mental image here. Turtles in the sand look like big rocks in holes. With heads and flippers. We were in three groups, and ours was the YES group, our program director, and a lot of Danish tourists. We walked around the beach, taking turns looking at various turtles. Mostly we just saw them covering nests, but luckily at the end we got to see one actually laying eggs! An interesting fact is that of 1000 babies, maybe two or three will live to adulthood. The rest will either not hatch, get eaten by a fox or something, or just die of a variety of other factors.

The next day, we awoke at our hotel to go to Wadi Bani Khalid, which is a very touristy place, but was nonetheless wicked fun. We went past the bulk of the tourists, mountain-goated over some rocks, and had coffee for the 90812309283th time of our two-day trip. Then, a young boy offered to show us up the wadi a ways. Wadi Bani Khalid is outrageously deep in some places, so we had to actually swim. It was better though, because wadi gravel is painful on bare feet! It was so surreal to be there… we were in a channel, surrounded on both sides by boulders, swimming through blue-green water.

Then came the grand finale to our trip: Wahiba Sands. I’ve wanted to go there for a while, but this was the first time I had a chance to. Wahiba is a desert in every sense that you have ever imagined. It takes four days to cross driving, ten on foot, assuming you keep a swift pace. There are miles and miles of endless yellow, orange and red dunes, as tall as five-story buildings. They just roll forever and ever. Once again, pictures just cannot compare to the vastness or the color. A few times I was positive I was going to die though, when our driver took us straight over dunes that essentially just dropped a few hundred feet. Ma mashkila. No problem. Also, I ran down a sand dune and quite on accident made a faceplant, which was caught on video. Typical Emma, eh?

We also got to visit with a group of Bedouin who were currently living there. I say currently because they do move around quite a bit. We had coffee and dates and got to see their house. Basically, it was just sticks from some kind of tree trussed together. There is no need to protect from rain because, well, it’s the desert. There also were some canvas tents around, and it was all inside of a makeshift fence.

After a while, a young man came into the building. We followed him outside and he had a camel with him! Noah, Bailey and I each rode the camel, which was very different from when I’ve ridden a camel before (which was at the Wisconsin State Fair, and had a saddle and everything). This one had a Pac Man blanket hung over its haunches, and to ride it was to face imminent possibility of losing your seat. However, we are clearly all turned to Omanis by now so none of us fell off!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Call to Prayer

                I’m going to try to make this blog post a poetic representation of the adhan. (Admittedly, it will only be poetic prose, if that, because my poetry never really matured past rhyming cat with spat with yowl. Also, as a disclaimer, if you, my reader, ever feel that it’s a vaguely angry-sounding post, then that is likely due to the large street-cat-fight taking place directly below my window.) The adhan is the Muslim call to prayer. Every day, five times per day, it echoes from every masjid in the world.

                The first time I heard the call to prayer (in my memory) was last summer. The Oman, Mali and Morocco YES Abroad students were on a trip to a mosque in Washington, DC. We had dinner there and then were going to observe prayer. So, of course, before the prayer, someone had to inform the Muslim community of the prayer time. For those of you who don’t know, the prayer times change every day.
Anyways, the adhan from that day is one of the things I remember most about that trip. Being in the actual basement of a mosque, we were able to hear the call with absolute clarity.

                It was a surreal experience for me. The call to prayer is almost like a chant, but somehow more fluid and musical. Yet it isn’t quite singing either. I remember that all of us sat transfixed in that basement, listening to a sound like nothing we had ever heard before. The adhan, on its own, is eerily enchanting. It’s the kind of sound that stops people when they walk down the street and hear it—literally, so we were told by the Imam in that DC mosque.

                Upon arrival in Oman, it was instantly clear to me how entwined the call to prayer was with daily life of Omanis. Since their childhood, they have heard the call to prayer five times a day, every day. To use an interesting analogy, my Omani friends and family have heard the call to prayer more times than they have eaten a full meal, assuming they eat three times a day. After a brief calculation, I have established that a 16- year old in Oman has heard the call to prayer 11,680 times more than she has eaten a meal. Whenever the adhan begins, it is almost required to listen. People switch off their music and mute the TV, conversations quiet down or pause, and teachers lower their voices.

                Because Muscat is home to so many mosques within a small proximity to one another, and each mosque begins within a few seconds of the last one, there is a strange and haunting harmony formed by the overlapping strands of music. One finishes the first words (allahu akbar, or God is great) and the next begins the same words, almost in a choral-like round.

                Hearing the adhan is actually one of my favorite times of the day here. I like hearing the different, slightly unsynchronized voices echoing throughout the city and region and country and continent.
I’m afraid that was not particularly poetic as I had anticipated, but I hope that it was informative!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Dating and Marriage Traditions

Seeing as how today is Valentine’s Day (and I’m sitting here eating a bag of conversation hearts lovingly sent from Wisconsin), I thought it would be appropriate to write a post about love, romance, and dating… Omani style!

                The funny thing is that the phrase ‘Omani dating’ is a bit of an oxymoron. Despite blatant westernization on many fronts, there is still, as I’ll reiterate a very prominent Muslim culture here. And Islamic traditions are seen most prominently, I think, in how people manage their love lives.

                Traditionally, marriage goes through the parents. Marriage is based, like so much else, on reputation. Marriage is generally kept within your tribe (though this is changing in today’s capitol region). Usually, the boy and girl know each other beforehand and on some level arrange it, but the boy’s family has to approach the girl’s with an offer.

                As a wedding contract, the groom traditionally has to give the bride a sum of money that is for her personal use—no one else can touch that. It can be spent on anything or saved. Generally, it is between 2,000 and 10,000 RO ($5,200- $26,000), though this can be higher or lower depending on the families in question.

                More traditional Omani views to love remind me of advice that Charlotte Bronte gave a friend of hers in a letter. She advised her that marriage is a contract, and two married people will grow to love each other after a year or two of marriage. I think that these sentiments are somewhat typical here, because marriage is a contract between two people, two families.

                In the case of divorce, which is uncommon but not unheard of, the courts, like all civil courts, are ruled by Sharia Law, or Islamic law, and this determines how estates are split up and where the children go.

                While, on some level, dating does take place among the younger set, it’s kept on the down-low. Very down-low. And quite a bit of it tends to be done in complete secret. Also, I’ve noticed that “having a boyfriend/girlfriend” often actually refers to chatting on Blackberry Messenger but not actually seeing each other in public, ever. I think a lot of teenagers maybe do experiment with this, but it also is typical for them to then eventually stick to the traditional methods of marriage.

                Happy Valentines/ Single Awareness day to you all!


Also, I would just like to thank everyone who voted in the lexiophiles blogger contest—I received 7th place! You can check out the other blogs here.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Happy Birthday Prophet Mohammed!

A few days ago was the Prophet Mohammed's birthday, and of course people celebrate. Here's what I did:

My host mom, youngest host sister, and I got dressed up, with my host sister and I doing our hair. We arrived at someone's house to find the celebration in full swing. Everyone was dressed up, especially the younger girls (who in all-female environments typically will uncover their hair).The celebrations were nothing like Christmas celebrations that I've seen before: they were less about the awe of the birth and more about group singing and chanting as well as listening to people read verses.

One woman was clearly in charge of leading the group. I think that a lot of it was in a call-response format. Basically, there was a lot of clapping and singing. The most recurring words (which are actually common at a lot of events) were "salam! aleik! ya habib allah mohammed!" which essentially means 'peace be upon you, the dear one of god, Mohammed."

After the singing, women came and threw candy and money at everyone, and then the celebration is over--but not before they gave everyone food! This is something very typical of Omanis; you can't let people come or go without food.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Views on the American Government

It’s a global world that we live in, and no one is central in news like the United States. US foreign policy is built on getting the American agenda across in all aspects, so across the world, people are affected by American ideals. They know about US policy, in some cases, even in more detail than many Americans.

Many people, in what is a very valid point of view, come to resent this massive intrusion into their country’s personal business. While people in Oman tend to be very friendly toward the American people as a whole, I have yet to find many people who are supportive of the American government, particularly in their intrusion into Middle Eastern affairs as of the past 70-100 years, and here’s why. The following is based on both my discussions with Omani people and research done during my Middle Eastern History Class at Amideast, and it does not necessarily represent the views of all Omani people or my personal views.

First and foremost, there is the matter of American presence in and support of an Israeli state. When Jews first moved en masse into the region of Palestine, the people who lived there were quickly moved to smaller regions of their country. They were removed from their homes. And the base of the Jewish state, the Balfour Declaration, was made by someone who quite honestly did not have the authority to give away the land in question.  However, wealthy people can do a lot of powerful things.

Omanis, being Arabs like Palestinians, look at the Israeli location in the middle of Palestine as a complete intrusion to their culture. And because the United States is so supportive of an Israeli state (and also opposed to a Palestinian one. When Palestine tried to join UNESCO and the United States withdrew funding, people here were appalled. I’m afraid I don’t know the details behind the US withdrawal of funds, but people here were not pleased). Omanis tend to view the American and governments as a bad influence in the Arab world.

Another major issue in terms of anti-Americanism is the US invasion in Iraq. I think that this one is fairly self-explanatory, but basically it’s a mostly common belief that Americans had no right to intervene in Iraq. People here, in my opinion correctly, are convinced that the United States did not have the best interests of Iraqis in mind when they ousted Sadam Hussein, but rather were enthusiastic to hold American interests in the region’s oil. Many Omanis feel as though the American military presence in the Middle East is just an intrusion where America need not intrude. But, then and again, American foreign policy is strongly based on a need to spread American influence as far and wide as possible, and this is just one example of that.

And a third reason that people tend to not appreciate the American government is the lack of commitment to relationships. Consistently, the US government supports people in power and then withdraws support, in fact vilifying the people who used to be in huge favor. This is seen over and over—Mubarak, Qaddafi, Sadam Hussein. Monarchs/despots in the region rise and then fall, often with both ends of the cycle of power at the hands of the Americans. And I think a lot of Omanis are worried that the good relations that Oman has with the USA will fall because of the patterns seen in the region.

Now, from this post, I am aware that I seem fairly pessimistic regarding Omani-American relations, but I want to stress that Oman and the USA in fact have very good relations. Omanis, while perhaps displeased with the government, are remarkably welcoming to American people. I have never felt personally hated or attacked in any way, shape, or form by an Omani, but I did want to share some of the reasons, with explanations, as to why the US government is often disliked around the world. They say (whoever the heck they are) that the first step to solving a problem is to admit it's there. To take a look at why people don't trust you, and to step back and ask yourself what can I do to improve that trust? Now, of course I am aware that my blog post here won't revolutionize American foreign policy, but I do wish that we would take a minute to step back and think about how our actions might be interpreted by other people. America has a lot of potential to improve relations in the Middle East and around the world, and I hope that we are someday able to harvest that potential.

مهرجان مسقط

Every year, Mahrajan Muscat (Muscat Festival), is held in several locations around the region. One of the locations, in Qurum Park, is home to the Traditional Village. This contains many features of typical Omani village life. People from all over Oman come for the festival, and from what I heard sometimes they even plan their schedules to fit it in. I visited with my host sisters and it was definitely a great experience!

I went on a weeknight, so apparently there were fewer people than there would be on a Wednesday or Thursday. That being said, there were thousands there. Surprisingly to me, very few of the people were foreigners; practically everyone was Omani.

To my host sisters, who attend every year, the most exciting part of the festival was the food. We waited in massive queues to get food, all of which was traditional Omani food. We had three dishes: beans, chickpeas, and a special kind of wafer-like bread spread with egg. There also was of course a massive halwa stand, where men stoked fires under massive pots—easily containing 20 gallons of halwa apiece.

For me, one of the most exciting parts was the traditional village itself. There was a traditional Omani well: these function with the assistance of animal power. Donkeys and cows are hitched to ropes, and men walk them back and forth. The walking allows buckets to be dipped into the well and then pulled back out, so that water can be harnessed. Also, there was an animal-run sugarcane mill, a traditional dhow, and a “Bedouin camp” with camels. All very exciting, because it was right in the middle of Qurum!

These two pictures are of the traditional well.

Sugarcane mill

A traditional dance!

And of course, I cannot forget to mention the souq of the traditional village. First stop was to the Dhofari souq. One thing I strongly recommend when shopping in a souq is bringing an Omani along! They aren’t given the tourist price, and they can bargain. Basically, the price can drop by as much as half. In the Dhofari souq, I bought a jingly ankle bracelet and some bakhoor (incense) for a grand total of 1 Riyal, 500 baisa (about 5 dollars). After that, I went to a different section and made my favorite purchase by far: a traditional Omani burqa. Now, this is not a burqa as many Americans would think of it, in the Irani style. The Omani burqa is merely a face mask, and is worn by Bedouin. I bought two of them, one being a very-covering traditional black one and the other being a thinner, fancier gold one. I would have to say that these are two of my favorite purchases thus far. So, to those of you who I promised that I wouldn’t ever be wearing a burqa in Oman… well, I am afraid to say that it appears that I have lied to you.

And the more decorative one. Not a mustache, as is commonly believed (according to my Facebook friends)

The festival was definitely an amazing snapshot of traditional Omani life, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is in Oman!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Women's Rights in Oman

There are a lot of stereotypes in the western world regarding the treatment of women in the Middle East. Prior to my departure from the USA, I was asked by a lot of people about how my treatment would be because I am female. People were worried that, like the stereotypes dictate, I would be locked in the house or forced to dress a certain way. And, to be honest, while I didn't expect a severe case of oppression towards me, I did expect that there would be more restrictions upon me than there would on males. 

However, upon arrival, I immediately realized that this was wrong. My host sisters have just as much freedom to go out with friends as I did in the United States. The eldest two can and do drive. In terms of clothing and modesty, I do see a difference, but certainly not a negative one. My host sisters and mother do wear headscarves completely, but that is their choice, not one that they were bullied into. They do it because of their religion, not because of any form of oppression. And it is very common to see women who don't wear the scarf at all. These women do occasionally face some spitefulness from society, but there is no political pressure, no Taliban imprisoning women for not covering up. One of the things that I love about Oman is just that-- go to any mall, and you see girls in skinny jeans and tee shirts next to women in full niqab. There's acceptance of both clothing choices. 

Also, women are able to vote and participate in politics. In October, elections took place for the Majlis A'Shura (Oman's legislative body). 82 women ran for office this year, although I do not know how many won that position. It is true that there is a stark difference in numbers between men and women who are politically involved but the same is true in the United States. For a country in this region of the world (in fact, right next to Saudi Arabia, where women cannot even drive) that 40 years ago was entirely undeveloped, I consider this a great accomplishment. 

Anyways, I just wrote this little post to quell any fears that anyone might have regarding my place here as a female. I have the same rights as a female as I would were I male here. And I don't feel like I miss out on important parts of the culture because I'm female (unless you count riding taxis/ baisa buses as important parts of the culture, but I wouldn't recommend that anyone ride a baisa bus from what I've heard). Oman is very open to women and modernization as far as I have seen, and I'm grateful that this is so.