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A Few Random Things and a Recap of the Final Weekend Trip

So I’m a little behind now. You might have seen that I got back home last Saturday, the 4th, appropriately. But I still have another few posts to make, so I’ll be playing catch-up for the next few days!

I wrote this last week but wasn’t able to upload the photos because of the internet connection.

One thing that I’ll miss about Oman is the design of the signs for most stores here: they’re incredibly tacky, and most of them look very similar. They’re a little hard to describe, but I have some poorly photographed examples.

They usually have the name of the store in Arabic and English, and a lot of times they say “Sale of…”, e.g. “Sale of Water Purification Equipment” or “Sale of Ice Cream”. They use the same simple font with a loud, solid background color, and then they are loaded up with cut-out pictures of whatever the store sells. And a ton of the signs are like this! It was this way in Muscat, Sur, Manah, and Nizwa.

We had a lecture last week about religious tolerance in Oman. According to the presentation, all religious proselytizing is illegal in Oman, but groups from all religions are allowed to practice freely (and privately). We even watched a video in which an American expatriate was talking about how he was able to go and sing Christmas carols with a group for patients in a hospital, claiming, “You can’t even do that in America!”

Last weekend, we went on our final weekend trip to Sur on the East Coast of Oman. It wasn’t actually planned at the start of the program. The students in our group were going to put in a proposal and plan the trip ourselves if the college would grant us permission to go anywhere, but the college decided to pay for the trip and provide us with transportation! This was the original destination of our previous trip that we were unable to visit because of the storm.

On the way to Sur on Friday, we stopped at another wadi, Wadi Shab. This wadi was incredible because it not only had beautiful, clean water that we could swim in, but the river was in the middle of a massive canyon. The trip was a little bit complicated though because of Ramadan. Hiking through the canyon took about two hours when going quickly, and none of us drank any water all morning before the hike because it’s considered rude to drink in front of people who are fasting. I only had one bottle of water that I brought with me from the Guest House. We wound up being fine, but a lot of us had to slow down and swim to keep from getting heat stroke. I’d guess it was over 100 degrees outside, and there were no clouds. There was supposedly a waterfall in a cave at the end of the canyon, but I wasn’t able to make it there in time before I had to turn around. I did jump off of another cliff again, which was even higher than the ones I jumped from at Wadi Bani Khalid and the top of the boat in the sea near Muscat. The hike was exhausting, but it was still enjoyable. It was also cool because I probably heard more different languages on the hike than I have in the last year from all of the different other tourist groups there. I definitely heard German, French, Spanish, and Italian, and there were a few British and American groups there, too. It wasn’t crowded though; people were spread out well.

Unfortunately, the supervisors who drove us here and the students fasting for Ramadan who chose not to hike were all pretty upset at the group for taking so long at the hike. We were supposed to spend 3 hours there when we would have gone the previous weekend, but they asked that we only take 1.5 hours this time. I was sorry, but being late couldn’t have really been prevented – I moved quickly and didn’t even make it to the end of the hike before I had to turn around, at which point it had already been longer than 45 minutes. It was mostly because I kept moving forward and other tourists kept saying, “Oh yeah, the waterfall is right around the corner!” Of course, it definitely was not!

Everything was fine, though. We were late to our hotel, Turtle Beach Resort, near Sur, but the staff very kindly kept the restaurant open until 5:30 so that we could quickly get a lunch type thing. The hotel was quite nice – we had a private beach, and there was a lot of good Indian food. I also found a tiny hermit crab on the beach at the hotel. In the evening, we went to do probably one of my favorite things I’ve done here.

In the evening Friday at 9:00, we went to Ra’as al Jinz animal reserve to one of Oman’s famous sea turtle beaches. We were split into small groups with an Omani guide who led us around with a light, and we were able to see green sea turtles on the beach. First, I was able to see a sea turtle laying her eggs! As in I actually saw them falling into the pit that she dug. Yes, I know that sounds kind of gross, but it was beautiful. Second, I saw a few turtles going into and coming out of the sea. And last, I got to sea a turtle covering up her eggs and digging a fake hole to confuse predators. That was fun because the turtle flung a bunch of sand into the hair and knocked a bunch of sand all over my body. I never thought in my life I’d get to say that a sea turtle flung a bunch of sand on me when she was covering up her eggs! I also didn’t think I’d get to see a sea turtle in the process of laying her eggs.

I like the German names

I like the German names

Apparently only 2 out of 1000 turtles will make it from hatching to adulthood, according to our guide.

I slept in late the next day, ate another huge lunch, and left with our group to return to the Guest House. We stopped at Hiwayat Najm on the way back – a huge sinkhole that was originally believed to be meteor crater according to Omani legends. We only stopped briefly, but I was able to swim because I thought ahead and wore my bathing suit to the park! I also wore a towel the entire time I was out of the water in order to remain “modest”.

And I’ll finish with a bunch of random photos.

Ramadan, The Cultural Evening, and Other Cultural Experiences

Hello again, I’m sorry it’s been so long since the last blog post. It’s been a pretty hectic time because of the start of Ramadan!

So I suppose my factoid for this blog post will be about Ramadan. Ramadan is a holy month (determined with a lunar calendar) in Islam practiced since the time of Muhammad. Each day during Ramadan, adult Muslims are required to fast from dawn to sunset – meaning no food and no water! There are of course exceptions for those who are sick or traveling. In addition, Ramadan in general is a time of heightened piety for Muslims in Oman and throughout the Muslim world. For example, lying, cursing, and talking behind someone’s back, while frowned upon at all times, are particularly discouraged during Ramadan. Even non-Muslim women in our class were asked to wear the full hijab, the head-covering that some Muslim women (and nearly all that I’ve seen in Oman) wear in public. Men were also asked to wear long-sleeves at all times. I definitely wasn’t expecting that, but I have no issues making small adjustments to respect the culture here, especially since I’m a guest.

Because of the fasting, many Muslims shift to a more nocturnal schedule during Ramadan. Muslims listen for a call to prayer to break the fast around 7:00 in Oman, and they eat a very small meal called Iftar to prepare for dinner. It’s customary to break one’s fast with a date as Muhammad did according to the writings about his life (known as the Hadith). Some Muslims eat the equivalent of a lunch at around 10:00, and then most eat a breakfast-like meal called Suhoor at 3:30 AM before another call to prayer at 4:00. Most I think sleep until 3:30 and get up briefly then, but some of the students in our group who are fasting just stay up until then.

My conversation partner Ibrahim suggested that I fast just for one day to see what it was like, so I fasted on the first day of Ramadan, last Thursday. I fasted the correct way – no water, no food, and not even any gum. It actually wasn’t unbearable, especially since we didn’t really do much that day. I decided to continue the next day – it wound up being pretty easy because I slept in until 3:30 PM, so I only had to fast for a few hours. I decided to stop though because I didn’t want to disrupt my ability to focus during class.

So anyways, a lot of interesting small things happened last week.

Last Tuesday, we had a Cultural Evening (Umsiyya Thaqafiya) at the Sultan Qaboos College for Teaching Arabic. We spent a few days after we got back from Muscat preparing for the evening, which consisted of two parts. One hour was made up of poster presentations like a science fair where we talked about any aspect of our respective cultures (in Arabic, of course!). My friend Eman, a Japanese-Egyptian student here presented on Japan with another American student who studied abroad there before. I talked about Blues and Rock music. There was also a presentation about the South with sweet tea, and another about Texas with guacamole. There were others displays as well as some made by Omanis about Ramadan and Omani food.

The second half of the evening consisted of performances. As you might guess, I sung and played that classical guitar that I found earlier in the trip. My friends know I’ve really played this song to death, but since I have a new audience I could play it yet another time: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. Before I sang in English, I had to demonstrate my Arabic ability in some way, so I decided to translate the lyrics to Arabic and read them to the audience (which I think consisted of at least 100 people). I wasn’t planning to before, but I decided halfway through the song to try to sing in Arabic. The phrasing was a little weird, though, so I switched back to English in some parts.

There were some other performances from the students in our program. The students from Texas sang “Deep in the Heart of Texas”, and another read some poetry in Arabic. We were able to see some Omanis perform the ‘Azi (a traditional military exercise thing that’s really hard to describe), and the men in our group were even able to participate. At the end of the presentation I joined the group of performing Omanis with another student from our program, and I talked with all of them for almost an hour in Arabic about a few things like universities in the US, what there is to do in Manah, and studying Arabic. I caught a video as we were all parading out together.

The night was a lot of fun and a huge success. The next day we celebrated the 3rd anniversary of the college with a traditional Omani meal at lunchtime – beef that had been roasted in a fire pit called a Tanoor for 24 hours. According to everyone who ate some, it was delicious. I tried a couple pieces and wasn’t a huge fan, but I think that’s just because I have only really had one other bite of steak in my life (in Yellowknife).

Thursday, we had a presentation on Omani proverbs and learned about the traditional clothing for Omani men. The long garment is called a dishdasha and the turban a musar. There is also a cylindrical hat called a kumma that is worn by itself or under the musar.

We spent the weekend sleeping and shopping at the Souqs in Nizwa and Muscat. I was able to buy a dishdasha for only about 15 dollars!

Also, it’s rained here more times than I’ve expected (thrice).

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…

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:

Day 0

This is the first real post in the blog. I decided that I should keep a journal of what’s going on while I’m here in Oman, so I also thought I might as well make it public! A lot of my friends and family have asked for me to post what I’m up to, so rather than crowd Facebook and give Zuckerberg all of my pictures and information, I’ll keep it here. I’m planning on doing daily (?) journal entries as well as blog posts about miscellaneous stuff.

So, tomorrow I will fly to Washington, D.C., where I’ll stay overnight. Then Thursday I’ll fly to Doha, Qatar, and then to Muscat, Oman. I’m almost packed, but still not completely done. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something. Either way, I’m excited and a little bit nervous. Not so nervous about safety, actually, but how my Arabic ability will compare to everyone’s expectations. We’ll see when I meet everyone Thursday.