Friday, November 2, 2012

The Adventures of Little Ethnic Man

We'll call him LEM for short.

As a graduation present this past summer, our STARTALK Arabic teachers gave each student a pocket-sized, vaguely-Arabian-looking plush weeble person. We lovingly dubbed him "Little ethnic man" just to be on the safe side of not offending any particular ethnicity. 

Naturally I brought him with me to Muscat and he has been having the time of his life 

LEM has his morning coffee

LEM gets new clothes for Eid

LEM eats a traditional Omani meal

LEM goes grocery shopping for the essentials

LEM is unable to emotionally process the fact that it's raining

LEM dies alone in the hot Arabian sun

Just a silliness for now but I'll have posts about Eid and Halloween and cultural stuff up soon!

Monday, October 22, 2012

The story of the football match

After much last minute planning on the part of us exchange students, we found ourselves at the Oman v. Jordan match last week, carrying illegal backpacks and still wearing out super-attractive school uniforms. It went something like this:

*Arabic class ends*
Someone: "Hey, I wanna go to the football match tonight"
Everyone except Lisa: "Hey, me too"
Some Sultan School YES kid: "Is anyone from school going?"
Another Sultan School YES kid: "No everyone's busy supporting cancer" 
Someone: "Does anyone have a ride/know if they're allowed to go?"
Everyone: "No"
Peter and Dylan: "We're boys so Omani society says we can do whatever we want and no one will care"
*flurry of calling parents and figuring out rides occurs*
Someone: "Hazzah! We're going to the match right now!" 
Hannah: *begins to throw hissy fit* "But....I can't....I have to change first....I'm still in my school uniform......cannot cope......wahhhh" 
Everyone else: "Hannah, get over yourself" 
Lisa: "Bye guys!" 
*Lisa does not go to the game for unknown reasons*

We stumble towards the stadium 20 minutes into the game, two white chicks in long navy jumpers, one normally-dressed girl in a vintage skirt that one of the jumper-wearing girls is exceedingly jealous of, an Asian kid in Ray Bans, and some guy in a dishdasha who no one can figure out if he's Egyptian or Lawati or a weirdo American, all carrying backpacks like a grade-school field trip.

So this picture is one of the times when they scored, and, because of my exceptional photo taking skills, everything is blurry. 

There were a few minor mishaps which turned out fine, like when they told us we couldn't bring our backpacks in and we had to plead and wheedle to make an exception for the stupid Americans. Or, at the end of the match, when we momentarily lost the boys in the crowd, and thought it would be a good idea to stand on a bench to see better, which of course caused small roar and stream of "hello how are you"s from the crowd of people flooding out of the stadium, because apparently 90% of the attendants of Omani football matches are 12 year old boys who have never interacted with women before. I can't say I wasn't warned, but it was still really funny/awkward. But all was well (to both of my mothers, don't worry, we handled ourselves just fine, honestly, stop worrying).

Oman won, 2-1 over Jordan, which is super exciting here because it means they might just possibly maybe have a tiny shot at qualifying for the world cup. In November they play Japan so, ehm, we'll see how that goes...
In all, a pretty fantastic first-ever football match :) 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What is r@w?

For all the engleejis, it's pronounced "rohw" and spelled raw.
I've been given several definitions ranging from "exceedingly tacky", "someone from the interior who is trying to act modern" and "Things that most Arabs like but that we don't like." 

Eithaar had a slightly more in-depth explanation.

 It's used much in the same way as affluent Columbian teens use the word "ratchet" as they walk through a Wal-mart and point out various bling-ful and weave-ful items. And if you're looking for raw, Lulu is the place.
If Wal-mart, a Dollar General, a TJ Maxx and a Food Lion had a baby in some kind of bizarre consumerism orgy, they would name it Lulu and exile it to the Arabian peninsula. It is a vast and shiny land, filled with bright colors, frustrated-looking workers who don't appreciate loud groups of teenage girls, and so. much. stuff. And apparently, a lot of it "raw" stuff. 
So far I've gathered that this is raw: 
This is raw: 
And this is very very raw: 
What looks like a vertical bed of gigantic flowers is actually a rack of these things that some girls put under their headscarfs to make their heads look big and poufy....because, I guess that's a desirable thing. Pretty much the definition of raw. 

Being an outsider, it's very strange to see the same genre of biases and stereotypes I see at home, but in a completely different cultural context. I have nothing hilarious or preach-y to say about this, frustrated and repressed sociology major inside of me (don't worry Dad, I promise to study something useful that won't have me working at Starbucks all my life) just finds it fascinating. It's very easy to see how natural the creation of an "other," an embarrassing or backward social group, is in a changing culture, I wonder if it's entirely unavoidable. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Adventures in Fabric and Culture

There's one kind of store I can walk into anywhere in the world and be instantly at home. Whether peopled by blue-haired old quilters, somebody's Abuelita, ironically-grey-haired hipsters, or floral-swathed Balushi women--fabric shops all have that familiar musty smell that means I'm home. 
So much shiny
We recently went to Pakistani fabric shop, in search of traditional-style Balushi dresses for Eid, the holiday that's coming up at the end of October. Long story short, we didn't find them. However that didn't keep me from getting distracted by shiny things and buying this beautiful totally non-Omani piece of fabric. 
The next day we went into the Mattrah Souk, an old-school marketplace that's 50% tourist trap 50% place where actual Omanis buy stuff. 

The souk is a maze of tight alleyways, bustling with women in abayas, men in dishdashas and old British tourists trying to haggle over prices. The main area is lined with shops selling random and generic things like camel-shaped snap-close gold leaf boxes or football jerseys. Every so often the line of shops is interrupted by a corridor jutting out, where the shops on either side sit within kissing distance of one another and the rows of vendors seem to stretch on for miles. Each of these alleyways loosely specialize in one good or another, ie textiles, silver, gold, etc. 
This entire shop was devoted to selling fancy trim
I spent most of my time flitting from one stall to another in the textiles area, constantly being distracted by the next exciting shiny thing. I think between that and the sparkly green fabric from the day before which I was wearing as a shawl, (classic white person tries to wear something "cultural" which just further accentuates their whiteness) I gave off the impression of some kind of deranged bird-woman. 

There's this feeling that pervades the entire experience of the souk that, as a foreigner, you're constantly being ripped off, so I felt kind of bitter about buying anything because I knew the "special discount price just for you" was still way too high. I ended up settling on some ribbon trim for a skirt that I will totally actually make and not just leave in the corner and sigh at while I do less productive activities like write blog posts.

All the cramped stores reminded me so much of the little junk / antique shops in old Ellicott City or Hampden. Of course "antique" here has a very different meaning than it does in the States, by a margin of about a thousand years. It was funny though to see that even, maybe especially, here in the souk, a place touted as "super actual traditional Omani" there were so many things not from Oman. Turkish antiques, Pakistani fabrics, Indian silvers, Chinese Khanjars, sold much cheaper than the real ones.
These are the traditional Omani daggers, called Khanjars, worn at weddings or cultural events by men 
So you have these distinctly-Omani daggers, which are being made in China to be sold to Americans or Brits or any number of people for whom Muscat is a port of call on their 10 day cruise. I don't know if that's a bad thing or a good thing or a the-world-is-becoming-a-mono culture-homogenized-wasteland thing, but it's definitely an interesting thing. 

It's a theme that keeps being repeated over and over in everything that i see. Omani culture is so much more than everything we think of as "traditional." Sure, it's easier to simplify Omani culture down to a twelve-person family sitting on the floor eating biryani with their hands, and I'm not saying that's not a part of the culture, but to get the full picture you need to see all the people speaking Swahili and Tamil and Tagalog. You need to see all immigrants and the native-born Omanis who don't follow any of those stereotypes. Omani culture historically has been and continues to bear strong influences from India and all over Southeast Asia. There's strong ties to East Africa, and Western Europe, particularly the UK. These influences aren't separate from "true" Omani culture to which all the rest is merely an addition. Culture isn't a snapshot of what people think it should be, it's an ever-changing, intangible conglomerate of the people who make it. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012

My new favorite place

I realized the other day that my house has a roof--and you can stand on it!.

It's beautiful during the day 

It's beautiful at sunrise

It's beautiful at sunset 

It's my new favorite place

Cliff diving and rock climbing

The other day my family went to see the "Cliff diving world championships sponsored by Red Bull" held at Wadi Shab, about two hours from Muscat. (Wadis are these naturally-occurring oasis-es, usually in mountain valleys. For reference see below.)

 Posters and adverts have been plastered everywhere since I got here, but honestly, few Omanis seemed as interested in going as me and my sister Mariam; a characteristic response was skepticism that it really was the championships, because, "This is Oman, why would they have something big in Oman?"

That attitude was evident as I looked out at the crowd, about 2/3 expatriate, and not few of them my teachers. It was weird seeing huge crowds of people completely disregarding Omani standards of modesty. A month ago I couldn't care less if someone was showing a ton of skin in public, good grief I worked at Merriweather, a living shrine to old people dressing inappropriately.
Also just a generally strange place
Now it seems obvious and kind of funny to see people walk around like they're in Miami rather than Muscat--I've definitely gotten very judge-y about my fellow expats who don't dress like they're in the Gulf. 

I digress. As beautiful as Wadi Shab was, it was also hot and crowded, so we dipped out early to have a picnic on the beach. 
very very crowded
We went to a beach a few miles away, near a town called Fins. My host family owns some land there, on which, inshallah, they plan to build a bed and breakfast one day. Right now it's just an empty beach with lots of exceedingly climb-able rocky outcroppings. 

The village of Fins is just as photogenic, it looks exactly like one of the quaint little towns you picture when you think "Arabian village." 

All in all, an amazingly-wonderful-I-can't-believe-this-is-my-life kind of day.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Muscat is no Mobtown

Okay so I know that it is completely unhealthy to dwell on the super-itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-totally-not-even-a-big-deal-mom twinge of homesickness I'm feeling right now---but oh well, I am going to indulge myself.

I miss Mobtown, Charm City, Bawlmer, Hontown that crime-ridden-sinkhole-from-the-wire, that-super-colorful-acid-dream-place-from-Hairspray, the O's, The Ravens even, Natty Boh, crabs, insert stereotype here

I miss Mobtown Ballroom
I miss the unofficial house band The Boilermaker Band
I miss feeling totally boss about my parallel parking skills
I miss the Charles Theater, and Moonrise Kingdom which I never got to see
I miss getting lost in Druid Park and locking my doors on North Avenue
I miss the Fell's point visitors' museum and that guy who built model ships from the War of 1812 
I don't miss Cafe Hon because that shit's touristy
I miss 100% grass fed beef burgers in Hampden 
I miss turning a corner and half expecting to get mugged
I miss crab cakes and lobster and old bay potato chips (okay, I actually never really liked those)
I miss being forbidden from going to Lexington Market 
I miss public art and the mural in Pigtown
I miss The Book Thing and its extensive collection of political analysis regarding the USSR
I miss not being able to find my car after seeing the Artist at midnight and being positive I was going to die on the street that night
I miss O's games and Matt being embarrassed by his Dad
I miss the Soundgarden---physical CDs here are limited to the top 40, legally obtained music is rare, and vinyl...ahahahahahahaa, in your dreams
I miss driving super slow over the cobblestones in Fell's Point and still feeling like my tires are slowly being ripped to pieces
I miss coffee---REAL coffee, brewed in pot, no cream, no sugar
I ridiculously miss swing dancing 
I even miss fadeouts
I miss big band music and failing miserably at lindy and the weird pop songs they play if you stay long enough and generally sexy people who like great music and great dancing
I miss driving South on 95 at ridiculous hours of the night and seeing the exit for New York day

Okay, that was cathartic. Honestly though, I really really love Muscat and being in Oman and like, everything. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else than here (okay, maybe if someone wants to teleport me to Cafe Jovial for for a few hours tonight I wouldn't mind--but I'm coming right back to Oman!) I think it's because I had so much fun today that it reminded me of the fun I've have back at home, seriously, today was  a really awesome outdoorsy-adventure picture-taking extravaganza. Anyways, I'll do whole post tomorrow about the beautiful Wadi Shab, the beach at Fins and every awesome cultural thing I've done so far to make up for this triple dose of self-indulgence. Promise.

Monday, September 24, 2012

How I spent my Saturday night

I find myself swimming once again in the murky bog of college applications, and all of them have these ridiculously pretentious essay questions like "In our university we all absolutely love to blah blah blah, please talk about how you also love to..." or "We know 90% of you are privileged suburban kids who have never known struggle, but still try not to sound like a total prick when you describe the greatest challenge you've ever faced."

I wish they would ask more meaningful questions 

Like, what color is this sayara?

Or what is the fish's name? Ma ismuha? 

This little girl was particularly interested in the fish and in taking pictures of them 
Or, in all the government schools in Oman, how many classes exist for children with disabilities?

How many kids have access to early-childhood intervention? 

My "Auntie" Sabah runs the Early Intervention Centre for children with Disibility, an NGO, which is one of the very few that teaches pre-school-aged kids in Oman. I had the chance to go see the school a couple weeks ago, when my host siblings and I went over to help convert an office into a classroom.

It's a cozy little school, pushed into the nooks and crannies of two converted houses; as I walked through hallways filled with murals and wheelchairs I felt like I was back at Cedar Lane, the special education school where my mom teaches. 

A school building may be nice, but without children it has no soul. I've been dying to help out with the kids, and I got my chance this past night. Every Saturday, parents have organized a support group for kids with Down Syndrome. Mostly it's just a disorganized time for the kids to run around the school and the parents to talk to teachers who volunteer their time doing extra physical or speech therapy etc. 

I hung out with the kids, pointing to things, building block towers, and yes, practicing my Arabic. I think I've finally met my linguistic equals in some of these 4-year-olds. 

I love kids because they're so full of life--they've yet to start following societal conventions which tell us to be unimaginative and mistrustful. Most of the those I met last night may never totally learn those conventions, that's why schools like this are so vital. These kids need a safe place to learn how to navigate a world full of people who have lost their wonder and excitement for life. 

But that's the thing, I mentioned that Early Intervention is a cozy space, I think about 5 classrooms, and there's so many families just on the waiting list to come. There's thousands more whose parents don't live near a school like this or who don't know a place like it exists.

It is so fascinating to see a country amidst transition, one that has been rapidly modernizing but which still has so far to go in many respects. I'm really lucky to have a host family that is right on the cusp of much of this change. My Auntie Sabah who runs the school, my host mom who works for World Health Organization, my cousin who is part of the growing arts community, or even my host sister who is wants to be a vet and is passionate about the (nonexistent) animal rights situation here. 

As an visitor, I can't make any sweeping proclamations or optimistic concluding statements about the future of Oman. I've only been here a month, and I while I only have the most rudimentary of understandings of this complex and diverse country, but I'm excited to be along for the ride

Friday, September 14, 2012

In light of recent events in my backyard

I feel silly to follow up the last post, which was so frivolous, with a such serious one, but I feel compelled to speak out in light of all that's been going on and my perspective as someone a little closer to it all than my friends in the states. I'm not sure what kind of coverage it's been getting over there, and I;m certainly neither the most eloquent nor the most qualified person to write on this. If you want better analysis of the recent unrest and attacks surrounding American and European embassies in Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and several others, I suggest al jazeeraBBC news, and particularly this post from RNS which very clearly debunks several misconceptions about the situation.

I don't want to talk about the "film," because that's not what it is---it's hateful propaganda created for the sole purpose of inducing ire. The more we analyze and sensationalize it, the more we're playing into the hands of the people who created it. 

The spark itself is not what matters, what is matters is the fire that follows it. What truly has significance is the action we choose to take in response, be it the response of some extremist terrorists to kill and destroy or our response to that destruction, even just with the formation of stereotypes or predjudices. I want my friends back at home, my family members--the Americans who probably see these news reports as a blip a midst a sea of politicians all vying to give the catchiest sound bite about the "Arab Spring,"--to know that these extremists are not their country. I want them to know that, in the same way that the people who created this hate-speech in the first place are not America, the people storming the embassy in Tunis are not Tunisia. 

Something my host family was discussing, as we watched the news unfold on Al Jazeera this evening, is that, yes, we all understand that the US has nothing to do with some video on youtube; my family and I are well-educated, Oman is well-educated, Oman hasn't been struggling under a repressive regime for the past four decades. My host Dad points out that half these guys protesting in Sudan don't even watch youtube. Many are just following the crowd, many angry at their own government, many unemployed. As educated people, we need to resist the easy route of generalizing and blaming everything on one cause or one people. 

As onlookers, it's paramount we remember that "Truth resists complexity." When you delve into the reports on these riots, you see that even those protesting are not homogeneous; in many cases protests are or begin as peaceful and separate factions are responsible for the violence. Particularly in the instance of the murders in Libya, it is widely speculated that these were not spontaneous acts in response to outrage, but rather planned terrorism with likely links to Al Qaeda.

What I want people to know is this: in the same way that the KKK and Westboro "baptist church" are not Christianity, the people inciting this violence are not Islam. It's a message that needs spreading even outside the context of recent events. I speak to my own experiences and knowledge of America, to the comments and articles I have seen regarding the aforementioned events, when I say that, as a country, we desperately need to have more complex, more diverse, more middle-ground picture of Muslims. Those who sensationalize minority factions and hold stereotypes based on the actions of extremists, forfeit their right to take part in rational dialogue, no matter what side they are on. 

The things I've learned so far

Number of blog posts I've started: 7
Number of blog posts I've finished: 0  1!

Sorry guys, I'm trying harder now that life and schedules has settled down a bit. Since I've been going to school now for about 2 weeks I thought I'd talk about everything I've learned so far. 

1. Omani time = [(the time you said you would be somewhere + number of people you're cramming into your SUV) ^ the number of minutes away you claim to be] / 2

2. Gangnum style is THE style 

3. Navy-blue floor-length polyester uniform jumpers are super awesome except for the times when the sun exists.

4. Socializing in the common room, water balloon fights, smashing birthday cake onto peoples' faces, dance parties and silly string battles are both strictly and particularly banned at The Sultan's School due to a long history with all the above.

5. Swings are fun but you are too old and dignified to play on them.

6. I remember embarrassingly little of Al-Kitab's vocabulary.

7. Walking from English to Economics is basically the same as crossing the Arabian desert. 
So. much. sun.
8. UNO is not the mild-mannered card game you once thought it to be.
you can't tell from the picture, but a lot of screaming is going on 
9. The entire world watches Game of Thrones

11. Sometimes when you try to make a video for the state department showing how much of a successful exchange student you are and not only are people's responses not the cheesy one-line quips you were hoping for but the administration walks in and confiscates your ipod in the middle of your video (but it's okay--you get it back)

Not exactly the sentiment I was going for, but this is what you get when you point a camera at sarcastic high school students :)

12. Sometimes you get so excited that you're about to actually finish a blog post that you skip a number

Friday, August 31, 2012

Everything new and not-so-new

I realize I need to write something while everything is still new, already time is moving so quickly! I've been here about three days and in this short time I've already done too many things to put in one post.
Settling in hasn't been too difficult, my family is very welcoming and the Amideast team (Fatin and Sarah) have been great in helping us get our bearings.

One of the first things we did with Fatin, our coordinator/mentor/maternal figure for our time here, was see the city and visit the palace of Sultan Qaboos, which is definitely majestic-looking.
Of all the things I've seen and experienced since coming--shops, museums, restaurants
--dinosaurs even
--the only thing I've struggled with is coming to grips with the humidity. The moisture here is unlike anything I've ever experienced; it embraces you the second you step off the plane--like a long, uncomfortable, sweaty embrace from an Aunt Bertha whom you haven't seen in years. 

But really, Aunt Bertha isn't all that bad, and I forget about it as get excited about all the cool things I get to do here; even in the midst of a new culture it's been very funny to be surrounded by so many familiar sights
The McWing is ubiquitous no matter where in the world you go
and sounds--I've heard everything from home on the radio here--from Rhianna and Drake to Missy Higgins and the Lumineers. 

Tomorrow I start classes at the Sultan School (here the weekend is Thursday-Friday), which I'm sure will warrant a post in and of itself. 

I'll leave you with the shells my host family has collected from the beach (we live a 2 minute walk away!) which live on my windowsill. I definitely want to collect some of my own too sometime!

I think this has been enough abuse of the hyphen and English grammar in general for one post, so until next time, 

with peace, ma'asalama

PS if you're wondering about the dinosaur, it's from a restaurant we went to called The Jungle. It is kind of like the older brother of the Rain forest Cafe, in that it is much bigger and more elaborate (it actually rained on us) and people are always asking its American counterpart why it couldn't be more like its older sibling ;)