14 April 2012

A Letter from a Friend

Hi Zineb,

Congratulations!  Thats great news that you will be studying in Oman this summer.  Oman will be quite different than your experiences in Morocco.  I am actually doing research in Tunis right now on a Fulbright and had an opportunity to travel to Morocco last month.  It was wonderful!

My first question is where in Oman will you be studying?  I hope that you will be outside of the capital since Muscat is flooded with foreign workers, most of whom speak Urdu (Omanization is being taken more seriously I think now since the recent riots).  I know there has been previous language programs in Nizwa and Salalah.  I studied in Nizwa, the former capital and still considered the religious capital of Oman.  Everyone spoke Khaliji arabic so you will certainly get the language and cultural immersion you are looking for if you are in Nizwa.  It is a gorgeous country and I encourage you to travel around as much as you can with a group or with a man.

Suggestions: Jabel Shems, Barakat al-mouz, ramal al-wahiba, Souwar have a picnic along the many irrigation channels, Jabel al-akhdar, Salahlah and so many more.  Generally speaking, the demeanor of the Omani people is very calm and laid back.  Traffic is more organized and less chaotic.  I found the Omani's I interacted with to be a little bit sensitive.  If you have an issue or would like to voice a complaint, try to positively criticize or approach it softly.  They don't respond well to the American way of addressing a problem bluntly and straight to the point.  Regionly, I have had many Khalijis tell me Oman is the "get away" in the gulf for various reason and to my knowledge it is viewed positively.  People typically mention something about Sultan Qaboos being a homosexual and haram.

Linguistically, Foosha is not spoken but is very much appreciated when heard as well as really nice handwriting, especially from a foreigner.  No one I met had any working knowledge of French and some Omani students commented that they probably wouldn't understand Moroccan dialect.  Having been in Tunis and Morocco I think this would probably be true. Though some things are bound to overlap so you shouldn't be completely in the dark.  I know that I had to play charades a few times with Tunisians at first to get my idea across :)

In regards to being an blonde American, it is not expected that you cover.  Some students I studied with went natural, some wore a lose scarf or the traditional hijab style to show respect or other reasons.  You will certainly attract a lot of attention with or without the scarf so it is your personal preference and comfort level (loose conservative clothing is highly recommended; long sleeves and long loose skirts).  I was never harassed though people would stare or if out at night maybe a group of young men would whistle or make some other noise or comment.

Generally, I found Omanis to be very respectful.  The most difficult part for me was the level of segregation.  In Nizwa, here are a few things that men and women don't do together: walk on campus, study together, eat together, converse for long periods (except if in group), cheek kisses, any touching, out late at night, and many more.  Some Omani females commented on being very bored however as a foreigner I am sure you will be granted leniency in many things.  Omani woman also speak very quietly.  I could barely hear them at first but my ears adjusted.

You will most likely not find women outside at night alone past 5-6pm.  The Friday goat market in Nizwa is mainly for men, though some women (many bedouin) would be watching from the perimeter.  I started making my way through the biding circle but felt very uncomfortable.  The time that I spent with women in the house eating, cooking, or just chatting are some of my best memories of Oman.  The women were very inquisitive, overly generous, and will want you to spend the night.  Many of the women I met were very ambitious though they had found very few outlets to pursue their aspirations.  When I was there the amount of women pursuing higher degrees exceeded that of men mainly due to the high cost of marriage.  Women often bring their education home and educate their husbands and children.

Random last thoughts: Omani oil money is new and is not expected to last.  Some people rumored that the Omani's historical memory only goes back to the mid 1950's or after the Jabel al-akhdar war.  Bahla is known for the practicing of black magic.  It was (still currently i think) illegal for people to form women's organizations so community programs typically take place in family compounds.  Women don't like their pictures taken and many females do not have fb.  There is a large population of Swahili speakers that have migrated from Zanzibar.    

I hope this has been somewhat informative.  If you have any more specific questions I will certainly try to answer them.  Good luck and have fun!



Oum Abdul-Aziz said...

Nice information overall. However, I don't think the situation for Omani women is as 'bleak' as this report seems. Most Omani women with higher education work outside their homes. I think you're more likely to find an educated American women who choses to be a stay-at-home mom than you are to find an educated Omani woman who choses that. (Relatively) cheap live-in maids/nannies make a big difference in that too.

I also wouldn't say that most expats in Oman speak Urdu. You're probably more likely to hear Hindi or Bangali. According to recent census data, expatriates make up nearly 28% of the Oman population, but in Muscat 45% of the residents are expats. These are the figures I've seen for the nationality of expats in Oman:

India 465,660
Bangladesh 107,125
Pakistan 84,658
Indonesia 25,300
Philippines 15,651
Sri Lanka 10,178 (the previous three are almost entirely female domestic workers)
Arab countries 68,986 (including Egypt 29,877, Jordan 7,403, Sudan 6,867, UAE 6,426, Iraq 4,159)
other Asian countries 12,939
Europe 8,541
USA 1,540
other countries 15,565

Colleen Daley said...

Thanks again for your comments. I enjoy having dialogue happen on this blog, and different perspectives presented. To be clear, this letter was sent to me by a 20-something white American, and was her response to my prompt of "What was your experience like in Oman and what do you think I should know before going?"