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.

1 comment:

Michelle said...

I was pretty skeptical of that story as told to us at the time. I had actually expected there would be a similar story, with a (very probably female) student who had broke the rules and paid the consequences. I just had the impression that the organizers would try to instill in us a high level of "self-policing" and that a story like that would be a good way to do it. I thought this one was particularly over the top, as I could not imagine any young woman behaving that way - especially once I arrived and felt that discomfort that comes with being stared at wherever you go. Even though I felt perfectly safe, it took me a *long* time to get used to it and after my first 2 weeks, I was convinced this woman was fictional, or greatly exaggerated. Who would *court* those stares?

However, it's actually been confirmed in its entirety by Ustath Hussein from Soff Muscat. Which makes me then just wonder about this girl. I'm so glad we had no students who engaged in similar behavior.