15 August 2012

A Cautionary Tale

During our orientation in Washington D.C. before the program began, one of many meetings stuck out in my head amongst all the meetings  (common in US gov’t and State Dept. programs is to be inundated with PowerPoint presentations before embarking on any “adventure” - happened when I was a volunteer, and before my NSLI-Y program as well).  This particular story however was about why the Oman CLS program was returning to Salalah, a city in the south with much better weather (low 80s and foggy as opposed to 110+ and sunny and humid), after having been in Musqat since 2009.  This story cleared up some rumors I had heard before arriving in D.C., but, as a disclaimer, what I’m about to write here may not be exactly true, much was left to our imaginations.  Still, it is an example of what the consequences of being an Ugly American can be in Oman, and in the Arab World in general.

Once, in the CLS program in Salalah in 2008, there was a girl.  They called her “Gladys” but we might have figured out her real name.  Not that I’m going to post that here, but people are getting easier and easier to find online... Anyway, this girl refused to compromise in anyway when she came to Oman.  She refused to wear clothes that were culturally appropriate.  She saw it as an affront on her personal freedom that she was asked to wear long loose pants instead of shorts and asked to wear loose shirts with sleeves below the elbows instead of tank tops.  Maybe she didn’t understand, maybe she didn’t care.  In any case, it was “bad enough” that the administrative director and his wife took her out shopping to buy her some more appropriate clothes, and tried to explain to her gently the ideas of respect and compromise involved in their request for her to dress more modestly.  But she still didn’t change the way she was dressing.

Still, this was nothing compared to what happened towards the end of trip.  Apparently, one day she was walking to the souq, or back from the souq, or around the center of Salalah.  Maybe she had had a bad day, maybe her culturally-inappropriate dress had led to some harassment.  Maybe she was just tired.  But that day, as she crossed the street, a car screeched in front of her, and barely missed hitting her.  (Oman, like many countries in the region, has a surprisingly high rate of car accidents.)  She reportedly slammed her hands of the front of the car - this could have been added for effect, or could be just how I’ve been picturing the story in my imagination - and yelled F*** YOU!  at the Indian driver, who was driving his Omani boss around.  Unfortunately for the girl, this Omani woman knew enough English to know that she was being insulted, and even more unfortunately for the American, insulting Omanis is a crime in the Sultanate of Oman.

The woman pressed charges, and the girl, a young American student, was put in jail for a couple of days, and, more distressingly for Gladys, had her passport taken away.  When she got out - a bail which I am sure the State Department would NOT pay - she discovered that she would not get her passport back until her court date, which, unfortunately for her was not for 15 more months.  So Gladys was stuck in Oman for 15 months.  I don’t know what happened to Gladys but I do know that CLS was NOT welcome in Salalah after that, and not in Oman at all until 2010.

The lesson we were given from this cautionary tale was how not to behave in Oman.  I was both pleased and surprised that they told us the whole story, because based on my previous experiences, there is a lot of “need-to-know” secrecy in the State Department.  It makes sense, though, to tell us, when they had just succeeded in getting us back to Salalah after so long.  Some of the students later confessed that this story had scared the crap out of them, but to me it was just a firm, if over-the-top reminder of what the consequences of our actions abroad can be.  And, al-hamdulilah, we had no “Gladyses” on the trip, and, I hope, were able to show a whole new group of Omanis (and Indians, Philippinos, Pakistanis, and others) that the Ugly American is the minority.

14 August 2012

Pop Tops

One of the smaller, lighter, more amusing differences between Oman and the U.S. (and Oman and Morocco) that I noticed during my two months in Salalah was the exclusive use of pop tops!

Do you know what pop tops are?  I actually think that both ways of opening a can of soda used to be called pop tops, but I’m not really clear on the terminology.  Maybe it’s just a Midwestern term....

Some of the younger people on our trip had never seen them before, but I remember them from the late 80s, before, I think, the environmental regulations came into play and we stopped using them in the States.  I particularly remember them on the pineapple juice cans that my mother put in my lunches.

There’s not too much of a difference between the pop tops that they use in Oman, and the “normal” way of opening a can that we have in the States, concerning function.  The older kind can be used to make pretty great chains if you are under the age of 14 - the newer ones you have to keep together with a string, but the older ones you can just fold over each other [PICTURE????]

The problem, however, with the older pop tops, is that they come off of the can.  And then you are stuck with this sharp-edged piece of aluminum, and usually, no where close to throw it out.  Most of the time, I would just hold on to them, and put them back in the can when I finished, but sometimes, like in class for example, it was very awkward to hold onto the pop top.  I know, I know, first-world problems, but the problem was, more so than the awkwardness of holding onto the pop top was the danger of what would happen if you threw it out.  You could totally miss the trash can, or, if you were of a less-concerned-about-litter mindset, just throw it on the ground, and then, like I often saw, there would be these little sharp-edged pieces of aluminum everywhere.  They could easily piece through a flimsy sandal, or if indoor, catch someone’s bare foot when they weren’t looking.

Do I sound too much like a PTA mom?  Perhaps, but that’s what happens when you cut your big toe on one of these suckers.

13 August 2012

Word's from Rachd's Heart

Excerpts from one of my Omani teacher’s reflections on his trip to the States.  Reading this made me so proud to be involved in the work of cross-cultural exchange and education.  Hopefully it will give you a little glimpse into why I do what I do...

1- Don’t Give Up Your Dreams:

When I was 17 years old, I had a dream to study in the United States after finishing my high school in my beloved country, Oman. I couldn’t achieve that dream, but the wish to be in the United States has lived in my soul.  On December 1, 2007, I received a call from the university I was studying in that I had been nominated for a Fulbright Scholarship and I had succeeded in passing exams and interviews, which enabled me to live my dream to be in the United States for the academic year of 2008-2009.

2- Let Us Free Ourselves From The Prison of Misconceptions:

I live in a small village in my country, surrounded with beautiful mountains with my poor family.  I am the first person who got the chance to travel to the United States form that village.  It was hard for people there to imagine a young person with little experiences to have an unsafe adventure in a country has political problems in the Middle East.  “Being in the United States is not safe for a person from the Middle East, especially if he is a Muslim with beard!” some of my friends and relatives warned me.  “It is my life and I am free to make my decisions what to do in my life,” I replied to them.  “I think it is better to go there and find out the truth about the American nation myself.  Not all Americans agree with those horrible acts done by greedy, ignorant guys,” I said to them.

Being in the United States helps me see out of media’s negativity. I have met here many good decent people. I believe that living with other nations is the best way to know them instead just listening to news.  News can’t show the whole picture of any nation on this earth.   To know more about people in the Middle East, you need to go there and listen to them.  I am pretty sure that you will find out that most people around the world are good and most of us are victims of stupid politics.

After my experience here, I can prove to others we - as human beings- can live together if we give ourselves a chance to understand each other.

3- Study at the College and live in a small Appalachian town:

I am leaving the United States in few days, but the college and this small Appalachian town will never leave my heart.  The College is a small school with a lot activities which can help students grow intellectually and spiritually.  The town is a piece of heaven.  It is in the mountains with high beautiful trees where you can feel secure and meet friendly people.  After coming there, my faith in paradise has increased since I lived the beauty created by God.  Four seasons, wonderful weather, green lands and terrific views has made me live in a place like a paradise!

When I was applying for a Fulbright Scholarship, I tried avoiding the possibility to be in the South of the United States.  I was told that people in South are not friendly to foreigners.  I was stupid to believe them.  But, by a fortunate mistake, I signed to avoid the North!!  I believe it was God’s will and He always knows what good for us.

4- Be one in the Community:

I got to know many of people in the community.  They are very nice and helpful.  I visited more than 10 American families during my program and I really enjoyed talking to them and I established friendship and understanding with them.  Moments of visiting these families proved to me that human beings are great creation when we come together as one family.

5- Experience Religious and Political life:

My curiosity and desire to learn led me to visit more than 15 churches and to pray with Christians on Sundays.  Also, I got to know Baha’i and Buddhism which helped expand my knowledge and learn how to be tolerant to other faiths.

One of the interesting experiences happened to me while I am here was the presidential campaign.  Fortunately, last semester, fall 2008, I was studying a course about American Government with a great, knowledgeable professor.  That course helped me understand the US election more than before and opened my mind to get general ideas about the system of American Government.  Before studying this course, I hated reading anything touched politics.  Now, I believe that it is important to know how governments run countries and lead nations.  Democracy can not survive in ignorant societies.  Freedom will fade away if people do not know their rights and responsibilities.

6- Enjoy Teaching and Studying:

I admit that I was a student before I came to the States.  I was thinking how to teach American students who are very close to my age and almost have the same experiences in this life.  Then I considered this experience as a challenge can improve my personality and refine my teaching skills.  At the same time, I was a student; learned sometimes with same students who signed up in my courses I taught.  However, I really enjoyed each moment in teaching and studying.  This time, I can give my parents the official transcript from the College since I have no an “F”!!!

7- Offer thanks and Express Gratitude:

I feel that I have succeeded in my program this year. This happened because many people around me always supporting me. I am very pleased to convey my gratitude to:

  • Everyone who greeted me when I passed by.
  • Everyone who smiled to me.
  • Everyone who talked to me.
  • Everyone who shared his/her lunch or dinner with me.
  • Everyone who provided me with a book or a movie and to anyone who sent me an email within useful article.
  • Everyone who involved me in Thanksgiving, Christmas and other events.
  • Everyone who gave me a ride.
  • Everyone who made me feel that I am a part of this college and the community.
  • Everyone who provided me with clothes to keep me warm.
  • Everyone who was in my trips.
  • Everyone who helped in teaching me Southern dialects!!!!!
  • Everyone who helped me in scanning some papers I needed.
  • Everyone who attended some of my classes.

8- Ask a Favor:

Please do not believe everything you hear or you read about Arabs or Muslims in the media.  We need to find out the truth ourselves.  I believe that if anyone is faithful in knowing the truth, sooner or latter will find it. Just we need to be very patient and get rid of pre-conceptions and to open our minds to listen attentively.

You can start with these basic facts:

  • No real Muslims can kill or harm innocent people. “If any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as he saved the life of the whole people.” [Al-Qur’an 5:32]
  • It is a crime to force others to convert to Islam. “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error”[Al-Qur’an 2:256]
  • There are more than 15 million Christians in the Middle East living together with Muslims in harmony for more than 1400 years. 
  • There is a whole chapter in the Holy Quran with the name “Mary” talks about her story with her son Jesus peace be upon him. And Jesus has been mentioned in the Holy Quran many times as one of the greatest prophets was sent to the humanity.
  • Muslims can’t be Muslims if they don’t believe in all prophets and among them Jesus. They love Jesus and many Muslims with name “Jesus” in Arabic “Issa” 
  • What I mean that let us establish a strong bridge of understanding instead of living in prisons of fear and hatred. Let us remember that we all belong to same father (Adam) and mother (Eve) and we have been created by the same God. Many crimes are committed in the name of divine religions: Christianity, Jewish or Islam. As a matter of fact, greed, ignorance and pursuit of powers are behind most horrible crimes in the world. 

07 August 2012

A Little Info About Ramadan


Check it out!

05 August 2012

Arab Spring in Oman too... kind of...

First of all, I'm writing this on June 10, 2012 but I've set it to post after I leave Oman, just in case.  When I'm only in a country for two months, I don't want to risk any consequences.  Especially when I'm on a State Dept. scholarship.  Sad but true, freedom of speech being stifled... or different interpretations of what "freedom" actually means.  I'm torn.

Anyway, I noticed these two articles pop up in my NewsFeed/Blog Reader.  Even in nice, calm, benevolent dictatorship Oman, human rights are up for interpretation:

Gulf News:

Three activists were detained from Fahoud oil fields on Thursday for visiting the site to show solidarity with the striking workers from contracting companies, working for two oil companies in the country.
Former Oman volleyball player Habiba Al Hinai, Sohar activist Esmail Al Muqbali and Yaqoub Al Kharusi were held by security forces, according to a rights group in Oman.
The three had gone to support the striking Omanis, who are working for Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) and Oxy Oman contractors.
The workers are on strike for more than a week demanding better wages, risk allowance and provision for pension.

The strike has been termed illegal and workers have been asked to report back by around nine contracting companies. The workers have been warned they could risk losing jobs if they continue the strike.
Some of the Shura members and prominent citizens have tried to intervene.
According to a Facebook post by an activist, the last contact with Esmail Al Muqbali was on Thursday morning.
Esmail Al Muqbali, Habiba Al Hinai and Yaqoub Al Kharusi are among some activists who formed an independent human rights body. Oman already has a Human Rights Commission.

And follow this link for a more critical take on the situation.

Update from July 6, 2012:

Protests in Oman

Oman: End the Detention of Women Human Rights Defenders

Oman frees some protesters, keeps others in jail

Update from July 17, 2012

Jain Terms for Omanis