Friday, April 27, 2012

Recipe: Chicken Biryani

Though it isn't usually considered to be strictly Omani food, my host family eats a lot of biryani. This morning, I helped cook lunch and so here is the recipe!

First, you need your ingredients. To start, onions...

Garlic, potatoes,cilantro, and tomatoes, all cleaned and chopped. Also a whole chicken, split into pieces.

Fry the onions in oil..

To make the masala, mix together the garlic, some turmeric, cumin, and chili pepper using a mortar and pestle.

Once it's mixed, add some green chilis and grind again. 

And mix it in with the onions. 

Add the tomatoes...

And chicken...

And potatoes and cilantro and black pepper and salt and some cardamom pods and cumin seeds and some more whole green chilis, as well as biryani masala mix (which you can buy or make).

Sit and let it simmer for a while, until the chicken is cooked. 

While it's cooking, make the rice. Half-cook it. When it gets to that point, drain it. Then, put three-quarters of the rice in a pot, put the masala mix (what I just detailed) on top and finish off by covering it all with the remaining quarter of rice. Return it all to the stove and let the rice finish cooking. Then, stir it all and tada! 

To make a nice sauce for it, put mint and yogurt in the blender. Optional is red chili powder.  


Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Element of Surprise

Last week, I was at a party for a girl who had just married into my extended host family. An Iraqi woman was present. Towards the end of the party, she approached me and asked in Arabic where I was from, and why I was there. I explained to her that I was there to learn about Omani culture and Islam. This woman gave me a huge hug and told me that she had never met an American who was not in the military. I told her—truthfully—that I do not support the war in Iraq. She took pictures of me and kissed my cheeks many time.

It may seem a little bit strange that she took such a liking to me despite the fact that all that she knew about me was that I was an American who did not support the war in Iraq and who was living with an Omani family. Nonetheless, she wanted to be my friend.

The media here is the polar opposite of the American media in terms of content (however, general message is surprisingly exactly the same!) It portrays Americans as being unwelcome invaders, crusaders, and aggressors. The American media portrays the Middle East as being in dire need of someone to come bring democracy to a region of terrorism and oppression. I’ve discussed before on this blog what I interpret as inaccuracy on the American media’s part.

However, a common opinion here is that all Americans stand behind what a majority in Congress says, or what the military does.  Like anywhere, media is biased. For people, it can be strange to realize that “not all Americans are like that.” The fact that I’m opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan shocks some people. So does the fact that I tend to support a Palestinian state (although EVERYONE should read the book The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East by Sandy Tolan because it is an absolutely amazing, objective book that is actually a really interesting, captivating read. Seriously. Read it now).

One of the most vital lessons that Oman has taught me is to look at all sides of a story before drawing a conclusion. More often than not, people surprise me. I’m sure I surprised the Iraqi woman I spoke of before, and I have surprised many others simply by being myself.

That’s what I love about humanity. It catches us unaware, takes our breath away sometimes. People defy our stereotypes all the time. All we have to do is look out our front doors, get to know our neighbors, either close-by or far-away, and be shocked by what people have to share with us. So many of the people I have met here have done that for me. I thought I was open-minded when I came, but I still found that I had pre-conceptions that sometimes were mind-numbingly inaccurate.

Oman has instilled a sense in me that I am right and wrong at the same time. It has taught me to get to know people. See what they can teach me. What they are really like. And they, again and again, blow my mind with who they are and what they do.


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It's Almost the End...

I found this meme while skulking around the internet, and I love how accurate it is at describing Omani greetings. 

Except it usually goes on for longer. 

And this is my gift to the new exchange students who have now been picked and will be coming next September to--gasp!-- take our places. Learn it well. You will indeed need this. 

Which brings me to some other thoughts. I have 54 days left until I return home. Fifty-four. It sort of rolls of the tongue in a happy-sad way. It can be a bubbly number or a slowly fizzling out one. At any rate, I have fewer days remaining than I did last time I started a countdown, last summer, for my return date. If I recall, I made a paper chain last summer. It had ninety links when I began. This picture is the remnants, right before we left. And now here I am, anticipating the return with a sense of excitement and dread. I have my plane tickets. I can tell you the exact time I will see my family again (unless, of course, the Chicago airport is its normal slow process). It is indeed a strange feeling to be here in the brink of continuing my life. I have loved the past year. I have gone from the initial dramatic excitement of taking pictures of everything I see to rock bottom to a sense of being home in my life here. My Arabic is indeed improving. I feel so much at home in my family and school. The exchange students and I have reached a kind of friendship I have never felt before, based on both need for each other's support and other typical reasons for being friends (as adolescents, that is). I cannot put into words how much my exchange student friends have become my best friends in the world because of the weird understanding we have for one another. 

On the other hand, I am anticipating my return. Perhaps not so much returning to the mundane-ness of high school, but the aspect of moving on. I have learned so much this year, not just about Omani culture but about myself as well. I am eager to leap forward into the rest of my life and take more opportunities. I want to go on to college and get a job and grab life by its metaphorical horns. I'm excited for the future. 

Here I am, suspended in a state of confusion. I marvel at the past year of my life. Part of me wants to continue with this fabulous adventure but another part knows that now is the time for me to continue, for others to experience all that I have. Some of me is angry that there are others coming--to take my experience, my friends, my school, my Omani exchange. The other part of me is excited for them in a way I never could have comprehended before. A year ago, I was in their shoes, researching Oman like mad. Absolutely obsessed with the fabulous and exotic life I was sure to have. My views of this place have mellowed and strengthened since then. Oman has gone from fantasy to a reality. A reality that has more meaning than I ever could have imagined. And for that, I am excited for the new students. Now, as I was, they are naive. Their view of Oman is idealized. I hope that, like I did, they will soon come to appreciate an Oman with depth. The one that I think I know. Their Oman will likely be different from mine, but I hope that they discover their own truth. I know I have. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Photo Update: Some Things I've Done in the Past Few Months

In no particular order...

Fell down a sand dune...

Eaten some awesome food...

Gotten in a pillow fight with Noah...

  1. Taken more pictures of doors...

Found this restaurant and questioned its legitimacy...

Found the neighbor's pet rooster in our yard...

Written humorous things on our Arabic class's whiteboard (kudos to you if you can read them!) *

Had a bird eat some of my hair...

And some things without pictures:

Learned how to make Omani tea...

Participated in my school's Charity Day...

Went to the souq...

Figured out how to get to my house from virtually anywhere in the city...

Attempted to learn the Omani National anthem...

Learned the proper way to flash a peace sign, and the response to it...

Read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking...

Survived a massive dust storm...

Watched a woman next to my school chopping grass with a machete, probably to feed her goats...

Also observed a pretty snazzy lineup of cars, including a Bentley and a nice yellow Porsche. 

Got henna applied again...

And of course, the most important: Swung on a swing by the ocean. :) 

Hope you all have a great day!

*The first one says, in a very weird way, "I want muffins with blueberries." The second one says "You are a psycopath."

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Communication, Oman Style

It's the IT age. Instant communication is everything. The internet, cell phones, television, and so much more have now become connected in one little contraption: the smartphone. Oman is no exception to this crazy: in fact, just about everyone here has a BlackBerry. In the USA, I had never heard of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM). Here, it is everything and people use it far more than texting or calling. If they don't have BBM, people probably have an iPhone and therefore use What'sApp

What I find most interesting about this cell phone craze, though, is how limited it is to Muscat and other cities. Even in some parts of the Muscat region one is hard-pressed to find cell phone service. We went to a wadi yesterday, and I was shocked to find that there, just 15 minutes off the highway (on the other side of which is a large, modern residential area), there was no service. I know that service doesn't get there because of the mountains, but it just seems bizarre that somewhere so close to home could be so disconnected. Perhaps this is a telltale sign of Omani culture in general, with Muscat zooming towards modernity and the rest of the country staying back in tradition. Honestly, that's one of Oman's unique traits that I like the most: it is modern and traditional at the same time, providing an even ground in a region that can be considered extreme.

Also related to communication here is an idea I was completely oblivious to in the world of phone contracts: credit. Here, every phone has a SIM card. You have to put credit onto your phone in order to text or call. A text is 7 baisa each (about 2.5 cents) and a call within Oman is 20 baisa per minute (about 7 cents). Every SIM card is tied into a company; here the main two are Nawras and Oman Mobile. Bailey and I were talking the other day about how much we miss not having to deal with credit!

I find that Muscat's modernized communication and inter-connectivity to the outer world is both beneficial and harmful to me as an exchange student. On one hand, I am easily able to stay in touch with my other life in America. I can email, facebook, and blog. On the other hand, sometimes too much connectivity can be detrimental to the adjustment process here. It's an increasingly small world, and I hope that next year the internet will be able to keep me in touch with my friends and family in Oman. 

A Brief Update

Hello, readers! First I would just like to apologize for the scandalous lack of posts lately—I’ve fallen out of habit and I can’t pick it back up! No! I promise to try to get back into the swing of things though. Anyways, here’s a brief update of what’s been happening in Muscat recently.

Firstly, RAIN! Absolute madness for April. For one week straight and counting, it has rained here a little bit every day. The past few days especially have been rainy—kind of scary considering that there are virtually no gutters on Muscat’s roads. We were hoping for a rain day sometime last week at school, but alas! nothing. For a month when the average amount of rain is something like .1 cm (and yes I just made that up), we’ve had an ocean, though not quite literally. Luckily, it’s also cooled things down a bit here. However, the weather here is still beastly hot. Apparently it’s something like 70 degrees in Wisconsin right now, and everyone there thinks it’s hot. Well, my friends, it is about 100 degrees or so here right now. Oh, and in the midst of the rain there was another sandstorm! Lots of exciting weather around here lately!

Secondly, I’ve been kept very busy with weddings. It seems to be wedding season in the area, because I’ve been to two in the past week. The first one was for my host family’s second cousin, and the second was especially exciting: a first cousin, in fact one who we are quite close to. For the first wedding, I wore a jalabiyya, a Yemeni/ Arabian style dress.

 For the second wedding, I went the traditional Omani path, and this is what I have. It’s in the Dhofari (the southernmost region of Oman) style, and you can tell this because of the shorter front and much longer back. The pants are a more modern, Muscat-esque touch. Because we were family, we went to the salon to get hair done. Some of our group got their makeup done there too, but I tend to look like a zombie with too much eyeliner, so I did my own. My hair somehow managed to go from slightly-damp-and-tangled to this massive curly fabrication—a built in qamboua (which is the bump that some people wear under their hijab).

This particular wedding was the most fun of all of the ones that I’ve been to if only for the reason that I knew the people there. There was dancing and food and lots of fun.

I’ve also received my return plane tickets: we leave on June 18th, less than two months from now. If anyone who I personally know would like more details, please let me know. It’s absolutely bizarre to me that it’s already mid-April, when it seems like I only just arrived. I’m determined to make the best of these next few months, and I know I’ll miss Oman! 

Saturday, April 14, 2012


This is a fabulous little dessert that I’ve learned to make with my host family. As for the name, I’m fairly certain that it’s called Rasmela or something along those lines. I apologize for the lack of clear measurements, but I will be more than willing to teach anyone how to cook this summer! Anyways, it’s fairly simple to make:
-milk powder (lots and lots of it!)
-saffron (zafaron in Arabic)
-baking powder
-a few eggs
-cardamom pods (hayl in Arabic)
-rose water

First, you have to mix together the egg and baking powder.

Next, put some water in a pot. Add milk powder and cardamom pods and stir well.

Leave them to boil for a while. Add sugar. Then, taste it and decide it needs more sugar. Repeat several times.

Mix together saffron and rose water and then add it to the pot. If the color doesn’t turn yellow enough for you, sneak in a few drops of yellow food coloring.

Meanwhile, go back to the egg and baking powder. Using more milk powder, mix up a dough. I counted sixteen heaping tablespoons of milk powder to make ours, but that’s a very rough estimate that depends on how much egg and baking powder you used.

Once it’s dough-y enough, make small balls with diameter something between a nickel and a quarter. Drop them into your boiling mixture, and leave them to boil for a long time—at least a half an hour. You take them out “once they are cooked.”

Then, leaving them in the sauce, refrigerate until the whole mixture is nice and cold. Yum!

(Oh, and the word for ‘sweets’ in Arabic is halweyat)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Bahraini Activists

Yesterday, my post featured the video Shouting in the Dark. Today, I would like to talk a little bit more about what is happening in Bahrain, and to feature one family's protest especially. 

The al-Khawaja family is a well-educated Bahraini family that has been a major advocate of human rights. Most outspoken in their work have been the father, Abdulhadi, and the daughter, Zainab. Zainab was educated in the United States, and in fact my father knows her fairly well from her time there. Because of that, I first learned of her story last summer. Her father had been imprisoned, and she was hunger striking for his release, despite the fact that she had a year-old daughter. 

Now, her father, still in prison, is 60 days into a hunger strike and is very weak. He refuses to stop the hunger strike until he is released. Zainab has been arrested twice within the past few days for attempting to see her father, who is in a military hospital. Updates are being posted on Zainab's twitter. 

This is not just an issue for Bahrain, or for the human rights community. This is a human issue. The imprisonment of people who have done nothing more than attempt to make themselves heard. So I would like to do my part to make them heard--if not by the Bahraini government, by people. The international community. Knowledge is power; anyone who can spread knowledge of what is happening in Bahrain is in a position to empower those who are fighting on the ground. This issue has been so largely ignored by the media and the international community, and now is the time for that to stop. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012


The word ‘tribe.’ Think about it, my Western readers. Likely it brings up thoughts of primitiveness. Backwards. Uncivilized. Rough. Uncultured. Barbaric.

Before coming to Oman, I’m afraid I had similar premonitions regarding the word. Tribalism just was not a concept I associated with the modern world. Then I came here, and I redefined what tribalism means, at least in the context of this region. In Oman, a tribe acts as a buffer of people between family and other people. Members of a tribe are often friends, they marry, and they are involved (at least historically) in similar trades.  Private schools can be composed of large groups of one tribe, though they aren’t usually exclusive. Members of one tribe generally have the same religious sect. Although many people have moved away from their tribe’s home area, on weekends and for holidays like Eid people tend to return home to their tribal homes.  

Now think about the more recent history of the Middle East: the Arab Spring. The United States says it will support the democratization of the region, and to some extent it has. But I find it quite interesting what came before that—in the early- to mid-1900’s, the dictatorships in place in so much of this region were put there by Western superpowers, especially Great Britain and France. But before imperial powers came to implant their leaders of choice in the region, the primary form of governance was tribal: one of the purest forms of democracy. Just some food for thought. 

Shouting in the Dark

In Bahrain, a minority group rules the country with an iron grip. Protests have been happening around the country for the past year, and the foreign media has largely ignored it because, at least for America, Bahrain is a strategic ally in the region. I beg all of you readers to sit down and watch this 50-minute documentary, and to spread it on. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


Lately I've been wondering a lot: what exactly qualifies as success for an exchange student? How is that defined? At our orientation, they say that you're a success if you stick it out through the whole program. I think it's a bit more than that, and here are some moments that I deem as being some indicators of a successful exchange, in this case mine.

1) Embarrassing others: I was at the ice rink with my youngest host sister the other day, and there was music on. So, without thinking, I started dancing and singing along. My host sister said to me "Emma, stop dancing!" I asked her why, and she said no reason...but the reason was indeed clear to me. I consider this to be an outstanding success because the aura of American-ness and foreign-ness that I carry has been depleted enough that I am no longer cool enough to fend of embarrassment of others by my actions. YES.

2) People thinking I am part of my host family's tribe when I wear an abaya. Pretty self explanatory :)

3) My blog being a source of inspiration for future YES Abroad students.

4) Getting fat: Perhaps this is negative in some ways, but in Oman, food is love and therefore getting fat is a sure sign that you're loved!

5) Speaking Arabic: I feel like I can finally actually have a conversation, albeit a brief one on limited topics, in Arabic. With simple topics, I can have a conversation 95% in Arabic, and I know all of the basic words and expressions used in Omani colloquial. Along with this goes understanding Arabic, which is amazing. I often completely understand when people talk to me, which is an amazing feeling!

6) Buying Omani clothing: Yes, this is an outrageously vapid point on my list, but I just bought my first jalabiyya and I am very proud of myself. Admittedly, my host mom did the bargaining for it, but I feel very excited that I picked it out on my own! And it is awesome--so awesome that I might just be the Oman-obsessed kid who wears it to Senior Prom next year.

7) Being outrageously out of touch with American affairs: Sometimes I regret this one too. However, I know what's going on in Oman and Middle Eastern events, and I think that is very important. If I only knew about American affairs, I would be trying to live in another life of mine. Knowing more about the situations in Israel/Palestine and Syria are honestly more important to where I am right now than knowing about the Republican Primaries.

Anyways, I liked to consider that the cumulative efforts of the last seven (GASP!) months have been a success, and that the next two and a half will be even more successful! 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

How to say Hello

In Oman, there is a very set-in-stone method of greetings. In America, it's common to greet only for a short minute before moving on to other conversation topics. Hi, how are you, fine, and you? fine.

Here, there is almost a whole script that people use in speaking to one another. The answers almost never vary.

P1:salaam aleikum 
P2:wa aleikum assalum! kayfik?
P1:tamam, hamdullah. kayfik enta?
P2:hamdullah, kayf saha?
P1:zain, hamdullah
P2:kayf awlad?
P1: hamdullah
P2: makhbarik?
P1: hamdullah

At this point, the conversation switches, and person one asks the questions to the same responses. A transliteration is :

P1: Peace be upon you (this is always always always said!!)
P2: And peace be upon you. How are you?
P1: Good, thanks god. And how are you?
P2: Thanks god, how's your health?
P1: Good, thanks god. 
P2: How are you children? (this is asked of anyone who is old enough to have children, even if they aren't married!)
P1: Thanks god
P2: How's the news? 
P1: Thanks god. 

Answers are always postive, and only after this has been said can the conversation continue. Hamdullah, or Thanks god, is a proper response to any of those questions, though it is often used with the word zain (good) or tamam (good).

When women who know each other greet, they kiss each other's cheeks, one on each side. If the women know each other very well, they will kiss more than twice. Men do the same with one another, albeit less frequently. Women and men do not kiss each other unless they are closely related.

It can be considered rude to not greet someone who you know, so as a word of advice for travelers to Oman: greet everyone you recognize, even if just with an assalamu aleikum!