Author Archives: Victor Reynolds

I'm Victor, a student of Computer Science and Islamic World Studies at the University of South Carolina. I like Arabic, music, and cirkus performance.

Recapping The Week

I just wanted to make a quick post to share a few photos and talk about my actual classes this week, since they’re why I’m here!

The view outside the college - just some random buildings.

The view outside the college – just some random buildings.

Would you be surprised that I haven’t seen a single paper napkin the entire time I’ve been here? Everyone just uses tissues as napkins…

My classes in Arabic are structured as follows. We have two separate classes with different teachers. First, from 8:00 AM to 10:00 we have Media Arabic class, then from 10:30 to 12:30 we have Grammar class. We have discussions and activities in both, and we usually have a set topic for the week in the Media class. For example, we talked about human rights this week and made posters for specific rights today. My group’s was the right to peaceful protests. We discussed the differences between rights in Oman and rights in the United States as well as the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Our poster explaining the requirements for peaceful protests - both for the protesters and the government.

Our poster explaining the requirements for peaceful protests – both for the protesters and the government.

Twice a week in the evenings, we meet with our conversation partners. I can definitely tell that my Arabic is improving – even if I’m not learning new vocabulary at the rate that I’d like, I’m much more comfortable now with the words that I already knew. I went for a walk with Ibrahim, my conversation partner, and was able to talk for a few hours only in Arabic. I explained the NSA, the differences between Democrats and Republicans, the next election, and other things.

We also had sports night Sunday with our conversation partners. I played volleyball and soccer; I was pretty bad, but I still had fun.

Tonight we had a very cool lecture about the Royal Opera House in Muscat that I visited last weekend. Dr. Nasser al-Taee, a former professor at the University of Tennessee talked about the mission of the Opera House as well as his theories about the relationship between East and West, citing Edward Said and Orientalism. The mission of the Opera House aside from entertainment is Cultural Diplomacy – to foster cooperation and understanding internationally and specifically between the West and the Middle East by presenting Middle Eastern culture in forms comfortable to the West. He mentioned Gandhi as a good example of the understanding the Opera House hopes to achieve. Gandhi learned English and spoke in English when he was communicating the British but his end goal was still sovereignty for India and its culture. I’m not sure if what I’m saying makes sense, but I’m writing this more so that I can remember what happened than to give a detailed account.

Also, it looks like I might have a new roommate. I found a lizard on the ceiling in my room that I’m not really sure what to do with – I’m concerned that I might hurt him if I try to catch him, but on the other hand I don’t want him to be stuck in there unable to find food. I think I’ll go try to find a solution now…

My new roommate...

My new roommate…

A Weekend in Muscat

Well, this is going to be a long post. For some reason I no longer have internet in my room, so it took a while for me to get all of these photos uploaded, but here I am now.

Have you ever spoken with someone who didn’t understand English well, had them not understand something, and you just repeated the same thing more loudly? I’d like to say I haven’t done that, but I think I’m guilty. It’s a pretty weird thing to go through, and it’s happened to me a couple times. Some of the words can wind up being pretty hard to figure out as very few sound anything like their corresponding English words.

Last weekend, I had an exhausting but fun trip to Muscat, the capital of Oman. It’s where we arrived on the first day, but we didn’t really spend any time there. We started Friday (I’m not sure if I mentioned this previously, but Friday and Saturday make up the weekend here: Sunday is the first weekday). We got up and were on the bus by 7:30 in the morning, and our first stop was the Royal Opera House. Sultan Qaboos is a huge fan of classical European music – and that was very clear to me after our visit there. Everything was polished, ornate, and decorated. The lighting was weird in the actual theater area so unfortunately I don’t have any good pictures from there.

We went to the Muscat Grand Mall after that, which wasn’t very interesting because it had mostly Americanized stores. The only stores I would have wanted to visit were closed.



We had some free time to hang out in the hotel in the afternoon, then we went to the Matrah Souq in the evening. It was a sprawling market with several shops where one could buy just about anything. Honestly I didn’t even get to see that much of it, as two hours really wasn’t enough. I went with one of our supervisors from the college, Malik, to try to buy a dishdasha, but I just decided that I would wait until later. I don’t have any pictures from the Souq, but Khalil has a funny video of me trying to barter with someone that I’ll most likely be able to post in the next few days. Hopefully I’ll be able to go back and actually buy a few things before I head back home.

Some of us went to a Shisha Cafe later at night, which was fun because I spoke with an Egyptian guy there who was very impressed with my Arabic. Before I left I just said “I’m a crazy foreigner, I don’t speak Arabic well”, which he thought was pretty entertaining (transliterated Arabic: “Ana ajnabi majnoon, la atakallam al-‘Arabiyya jayyidan!”).

That concluded day 1 in Muscat. Day 2 was the intense one.

We began Saturday at 8:30 with a visit to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Honestly, I was as impressed visiting it as I was visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. It’s very pretty on the outside, and it’s really hard to fathom how big the main hall is inside. I’m certain that my family’s house at home could fit in the center comfortably as my pictures don’t really capture the size. The women’s prayer hall is far smaller and less ornate than the men’s – our guide gave us an interesting reason for that which I can explain if you ask me but that I’m not going to write here.

After that, we went to a museum in Muscat. I wasn’t able to take pictures but I learned some interesting things about Omani clothing and traditions.


After that, we had my favorite part of the trip – a boat ride and snorkeling trip in the Oman Sea of the coast of Muscat! I saw a lot of cool creatures that I’d never seen before, like some cool rainbow fish, a pufferfish and live coral. My favorite creature I saw though, was a cuttlefish. That was totally surreal. I’d seen cuttlefish before on T.V., but I never realized how weird they really are. It wasn’t flashing like they usually are in videos, but it was camouflaged with the coral, which was just as cool.

One weird thing was that I got very seasick one the way out and back from the cove where we swam. I’ve never gotten seasick before, even in a smaller boat blasting across the Great Slave Lake or on a larger cruise ship in the Aegean Sea.

My favorite thing that afternoon though was probably overcoming my fear of heights to some degree. The video doesn’t do it justice, but I jumped off the top of the boat into the water, which was probably about a two story jump. Of course plenty of others did it without hesitation, but I was proud of myself either way. I did it twice.

We were all very tired by the time we got back to shore, but we still had one more stop planned: Sultan Qaboos’s Grand Palace in Muscat! We were only able to look at it from behind a fence, of course.

Even after that, we still had a two-hour bus ride back to our Guest House in Manah. Needless to say, I’m still tired from the weekend!

More Arabic and More Strange Creatures

I’m making a short post just to share a few photos. Today we had practice with our conversation partners, and I spoke only in Arabic for about three hours. I can feel a bit of a shift happening, but it’s still pretty difficult to me. Of course it’s not really reasonable for me to expect myself to suddenly find speaking and understanding Arabic easy after only doing it seriously like this for a week.

My new method of trying to quickly remember new words...

My new method of trying to quickly remember new words…

Khalil has a cheap classical guitar that he is letting me borrow (it was on the top of the cabinets in one of the classrooms), so I’m very happy about that. I made a pick out of a water-bottle cap. I know classical guitar isn’t supposed to be played with a pick, but I’m hoping to play some non-classical songs at a Cultural Night later, so I’m making to with what I have.

And wow, Oman is not the place to be for those with a phobia of bugs. We found a camel spider trapped in the drained swimming pool on the Guest House complex, which was one of the creepiest things I’ve ever seen (although pretty much harmless to humans). Tonight at dinner there was a huge commotion when people saw a scorpion running across the floor, but I jumped up quickly and was able to catch it in a cup, after which my roommate flung it over the wall.

A More Usual Day of Class

Today was not as busy as yesterday, which I’m thankful for because I was still tired. We had class where we talked about government and non-government organizations as well as Iran and nuclear arms. I’m pretty bad at speaking and understanding Arabic but I get a little bit better every day. I still forget words as soon as I hear them, but I’m remembering more.

After class, we met with our conversation partners again. Tonight all the men in the group participated in a mock Omani military-ish ceremony which is kind of hard to describe. It kind of reminded me of the military Exhibition Drill. The two ceremonies we had mock versions of were called ‘Azi and Razha. Hopefully someone recorded a video that I’ll be able to share later.

My notes from today. I'm trying to draw pictures for new vocab instead of the English word. So the word with the stick figures under it on the left means "minorities".

My notes from today. I’m trying to draw pictures for new vocab instead of the English word. So the word with the stick figures under it on the left means “minorities”.

Al-Jebel Al-Akhdar

I had quite a long weekend, so I’m still a day behind. Hopefully by tonight I’ll be caught up.

While the weather in Oman is very hot, it’s actually very cold inside. Every room has its own air conditioning unit here, so having a jacket inside is almost a necessity. I never thought I would have a problem being too cold in the Middle East.

Yesterday  we went up to explore al-Jebel al-Akhdar, one of the most spectacular regions in Oman. There were tall mountains and huge canyons, and the weather up in the mountains was actually very pleasant. We began with visiting a wadi, which is a riverbed through which water flows only in times of heavy rainfall or flooding. Around the wadi was an ancient village. We were able to walk up the stairs and explore inside the buildings of the village. I climbed almost to the top of the mountain, which wound up being pretty hard since there wasn’t really a path.

After that we went to visit a rosewater factory. That was interesting because I learned that there are several types of rosewater; my favorite was one that had a much smokier scent. We then went to see a spring as well as some of the terraced farms for which the region is famous. The spring is called an ‘ayn (عين) in Arabic, which has a sound that doesn’t exist in English, and the farms are called mudarraj (مدرج).

After this, went to the Sahab Hotel, a resort on the top of one of the mountains there, for lunch. We had a most excellent buffet. There was also a swimming pool that some of us used, but I didn’t bring my bathing suit and was also far too tired. After lunch, I was about ready to just go to sleep.

After lunch, we made a few more stops at various places around the mountains. Pictures really don’t do the views justice.

To end the day, we saw one more falaj, the Khutmain Falaj, which is famous because it splits into three parts of equal volume. It is a UNESCO world heritage site.


The Khutmain Falaj and its three channels.

Exploring Nizwa

This post is from yesterday, but I didn’t have time to publish it because the images took too long to upload.

One really important thing I’ve learned here that I didn’t understand very well before is that a lot of things that we consider Islamic are actually traditions among Arabs in the gulf. For example, the type of clothes that Omani men wear are simply traditional rather than Islamic. It’s the same with a lot of other behaviors and ideas. Another is that no generalizations can really be made about the Middle East because the cultures within are so vastly different. Omanis wear completely different clothes than Saudis, but they are neighboring countries! And as I mentioned before, the dialects of Arabic speak can be as different as the different languages in Europe. We don’t really make generalizations about all Europeans, so it’s not possible to make generalizations about all Arabs.

Another thing that sets Oman apart is that the majority of people here are Ibadhi Muslims – they are part of a sect that formed before the Sunni and Shia sects did. As a result of this, they mostly stay outside of the Sunni-Shia conflicts and are able to remain practically unscathed. Maybe I’ll talk more about Ibadhi Islam in another blog post.

Today was another busy day. We had to be on the bus by 7:00 in order to see the animal auction at Nizwa. In case I didn’t make this clear earlier, Nizwa is a pretty big city that we’re about 30 minutes away from – there are definitely a lot more people there than in Manah.

The auction was incredible; I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Goats also make some very strange noises. Most of what was being sold were cows and goats. There were people leading goats around all over the place and through the crowd, and we were really the only Americans there. Of course the vegetarian in me felt a little upset seeing the animals treated this way, but I also understand that this is a tradition in Nizwa.

We got to look at an Omani Helwa shop, which is a famous Omani sweet made with nuts, sugar, and some other spices (so I’m not able to eat it). We had a few minutes of free time to browse the stores. I made a purchase only in Arabic! But I can’t say what I bought because I don’t want to spoil anyone’s surprise.

After spending a little bit of time looking at the shops in the Souq, we went to see the Nizwa fort. It was built in 1650 – it is where the imams ruled the interior of Oman until it came under control of the Sultanate. I’ll talk more about this later but Oman was until not to long ago two separate countries with separate governments because the mountains pretty clearly separate the coast and the interior. There were all sorts of setups for crazy traps on the way up to the main tower – four trapdoors (covered now, of course) and several holes where soldiers would have poured boiling honey or date syrup down on invaders. Yuck.

After that, we got to see another falaj and were even able to step into it a little bit. Even though it was before 12:00, it had to be at least 90 degrees outside, so putting my legs in the water was very refreshing.

After I got back, I was so tired from the heat that I’ve been in a daze for the rest of the day, and am now going to sleep because I’ll have an even busier day tomorrow!

Omani Coffee and a Night in the Nizwa Souq

Wow! It’s been a long past two days. So much so that I’m going to split them up into two separate blog posts.

I’ll open with two photos that I just found now.

Having a large family is very normal here. My conversation partner Ibrahim says that most people usually have 7 or 8 children.

Yesterday instead of Arabic classes we had classes about Omani culture (of course, still in Arabic). We learned about Omani Coffee and Omani Coffee etiquette. Omani coffee is stronger than the usual American coffee and it is served in much smaller portions. It’s not quite as strong, however, as Turkish coffee, so I actually enjoyed it a lot. I usually hate black coffee, but this was an exception. I volunteered to participate in a demonstration of the correct way to greet someone and sit and drink coffee; of course I sat down the wrong way. In the Gulf and most of the Arab world, it is considered offensive to show the bottoms of your feet to someone because they are dirty, so one must sit on the ground so that his feet our not pointing outward. Obviously, Indian style won’t work, so one must either sit on his knees (which is impossible for me), or he has to sit with his legs crossed in a weird way that you’ll see in one of the pictures. I tried to do the latter but my foot was still facing the wrong way. I didn’t understand what they were saying in Arabic, so Khalil said in English, “This is not an Arab way of sitting”. Anyways, I moved my foot and had no problems.


Ustaz Mustafa Abu Saidi demonstrating Omani coffee etiquette.

After the demonstration, we all sat outside to have coffee with several Omanis who joined us as well as the rest of the staff from the college. We had a picnic of sorts, with all sorts of fruit and halawiyyat (sweets). My favorite was a type of pasta like thing flavored with saffron that has a flavor that I really can’t describe. I can’t remember what it is called, and I can’t find it online. I also had a piece of some very good mango.

We had a short break in the afternoon. I went to Lulu to pick up some snacks since I had time, and then immediately went to our first extracurricular activity: calligraphy class!

Most peoples’ first exposure to Arabic is through the calligraphy, so it’s no surprise that everyone here wants to learn it. We will each have two classes in our time here because our group needs to be split up into two sections of 15 that will have class in alternate weeks. We’re learning the Naskh script, which I’ve actually studied a little bit, but I need much more practice. We spent about two hours going over each letter in detail, and it was a ton of fun.

Practicing calligraphy...

Practicing calligraphy…

After that, a group of us went to the Nizwa Souq (market) to scope it out, but there wasn’t much open at night. I looked at a lot of stores and tried on some Omani Kummas, but I didn’t buy anything. I tried Zanzibari Karak tea in a restaurant as well. It was sweet and had a taste that I can’t describe, I’d say a little bit more herbish, but it was also milky. I liked it. After that we passed some more time walking around and got smoothies from another shop. Mine was papaya. One thing that’s really nice here is that there are a ton of these types of smoothie shops around where the smoothies are all made with fruit that you see the workers take out of the fridge. My favorite smoothie that I’ve had is actually avocado flavored, strangely enough. With honey it has an almost vanilla-like taste.


We got back at 11:30 and I pretty much immediately went to sleep because I needed to wake up at 6:30 this morning!

The First Real Days of Class and the Early History of Oman

Wow, it’s been a busy past couple of days. I didn’t write a blog post yesterday because I was so tired.

Having classes only in Arabic is very difficult. I only understand about half of what our professors say, but I think it’s getting better. Our first teacher, Fatima, is much easier to understand than Uthman, our second teacher, but I like both of them a lot. They are very kind, and they don’t get frustrated when I don’t understand them.

Yesterday when I got out of class, I was very upset because I really had no idea what was going on, and I didn’t even understand our homework. This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt lost in any class. But today I understood more; if I improve the same degree every day then I will have no problem keeping up. I talked with Uthman about switching to the beginner level, and he said that if I work and study hard I will be fine. Of course I don’t really want to work that hard during the summer, but all of you who know me well know that I’m not usually someone who chooses the easier option.

In our classes the past two days we’ve read articles and talked about cooperation between different cultures, coexistence in the world, and forms of communication throughout history. Everyone here has been so nice; I haven’t even seen any Omani say or do a single thing that wasn’t generous.

Last night we had a very interesting lecture courtesy of Dr. Suleiman Al-Husayn about the history of Oman from when the first people settled there until the 19th century. I’m going to summarize that lecture in the next paragraph so if you’re not interested feel free to skip it.

Humans began to live in Oman about 1.6 million years ago, but these are not the same people who populate most of Oman today. Most Omanis are descended from tribes led by Malik bin Faham, who immigrated to Oman from Yemen; this is when Oman became an Arabic country. A second major event in Omani history was when Oman accepted Islam under the two kings Abd and Jafair – they converted peacefully after talking with Muhammad’s ambassador ‘Amr bin al-‘As. Oman had an agreement with Muhammad to maintain its own government. By the 8th century, Oman was an important center for trade. Omanis are known as skillful sailors and negotiators – not fighters. During the 18th century, Oman had an empire stretching from the Arabian peninsula down the East coast of Africa to Madagascar – the capitol of this empire was on the island of Zanzibar. Oman lost its territory after the Western powers began to colonize Africa. This is just a short summary of the main historical points of the lecture; there was a lot more information.

My favorite thing that Dr. Al-Husayn talked about was the “meaningful emptiness” of the desert. He said that the desert is a place where one is completely alone with his own mind, and I really liked his phrasing. This lecture was actually in English.

Afterward I talked with Al-Husayn. He said that he is so happy that there are Americans who want to learn about Omani culture and that it is important that we understand and tolerate different peoples. Then he mentioned to us that Islam came to Oman peacefully and that people must not learn about Islam by force. He hopes that we can be ambassadors for Oman in America. This is actually possible in a way because there are a ton of Omani students at USC. USC has a partnership with the Omani government, and there is an Omani Student Association at USC that I hoped to be involved with.

I leave you today with two pictures that I forgot to upload the other day:

Our First Day in the Classroom

Long hair is not really mainstream in America. This is even less the case in Oman. No one here has hair like mine, so I really stick out like a sore thumb here. We went to a “hypermarket” called “Lu Lu” today, which is kind of a like a Wal Mart, and everyone stared at me. Of course this is fine; if a traditionally dressed Omani were walking around Haywood Mall he would probably get more than just a few looks.

It’s also scary being in a place where everyone speaks a language that you don’t understand well. While I’ve studied Arabic for two years, my vocabulary isn’t really that great, so I’m very far from understanding everything said to me. I have much more respect and empathy for immigrants in the US who don’t understand English very well.

Today was our first day in the college. We had interviews to assess our levels and what subjects we’d like to discuss in our classes, and we have homework now as well! We will have a grade in our class as well, which upsets me a little bit because although it won’t be an official record, I still feel the habitual pressure to make above a 90, which probably won’t happen. I’m forcing myself not to care about the grade so that I can just relax and enjoy my time here.

After class, we had free time in the afternoon. I took a bus to the store I mentioned above to buy some supplies. In the evening, some Omani students came to help us practice our Arabic. We talked for two hours, using only Arabic, which turned out to be very tiring in the end. My partner’s name is Ibrahim.

Tomorrow will be the first real day of class.