Monthly Archives: May 2015

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.

Tour of the College and a Visit to Manah

It’s hard to understand how different Omani culture is from that in the United States. Everyone knows that women in Oman must dress modestly, but modesty is required of men as well! We were told that we cannot wear shorts outside of our room, and I’ve heard that I will need to wear long sleeves during Ramadan, so I guess I’ll need to buy some clothes! There are also a lot of rules: for example, we cannot leave our compound aside from planned excursions. Some rules are unclear because everything has been in Arabic! I can’t complain about anything though. I’m the foreigner here, and I’ll go with whatever they want for us.

I didn’t start the day of so well… There are a lot of bugs in Oman, and most of you know how I feel about that. Wasps are constantly trying to fly into our bathroom, so of course as soon as I got in to take a shower in the morning one flew in, and I flew out when I saw it. We took care of it though. This will wind up being a good thing I think; it will help me conquer my fear of bugs. In sha’ Allah (god willing).

After that, we took a bus to the actual Sultan Qaboos College for Teaching Arabic to Non-Native Speakers. Yeah, that’s a long name, so I’m just going to call it the College from now on. We met all of the workers there. I’m already bad with names, so I’m even worse at Arabic names. We took a tour of the school, and after that we had about two hours of lectures on various rules and Omani culture (all in Arabic). One interesting cultural rule is that those of the opposite gender do not shake hands when they meet. Then we took a two hour placement test. It was very difficult, but I don’t really mind since I won’t have any fun if I’m not in an appropriate level. We all have different skill levels, so it’s a very good idea to have us split up into classes with equal levels so that people don’t get upset and everyone has equal opportunities to speak.

More of Sultan Qaboos. In Arabic, it says "God Save the Sultan".

More of Sultan Qaboos. In Arabic, it says “God Save the Sultan”.

After we went back home, we had a break in the afternoon and then went to visit Manah in the evening. We had a very cool tour. We started with a falaj, which is an Omani underground irrigation system. It’s really a pathway underground for water to flow through. I think the source for this one was about 25 kilometers away. We went to some ruins of a village in Manah around a fort, and then we went to the ruins of another city that are currently being restored. They are not open yet, but we were allowed in! I believe the village we saw then was over 600 years old. Not all of my facts may be accurate because all of the explanations are in Arabic!

It was a fun day, but I’m very tired now.

Also, this was outside my dorm building:

Oman doesn't seem to be the best place for one who doesn't like bugs...

Oman doesn’t seem to be the best place for one who doesn’t like bugs…

First Day in Oman

Today was my first full day in Oman. I’ll start with a few random interesting things in case you don’t want to read all of this. Oman is pretty, but also incredibly hot! Not that I didn’t expect that. Pictures of Sultan Qaboos are everywhere! On billboards, in every office space, in our dorm, everywhere. The buildings, even modern ones, though, look very different. They’re mostly light colors and built to be more heat-efficient in this weather. There’s a ton of empty space here as well. And by empty I mean nothing other than rocks and some bushes. Some people in my group have said that it’s a lot like Arizona. Even Muscat, which has 1 million people, only had mostly smaller buildings than one would expect and was very spread out. Most people here speak some English, and almost every sign is in English and Arabic. Speaking Arabic has helped, though, and people here are always impressed to see Americans speaking it.

I’ll start with last night since I haven’t written since then. We arrived at Muscat around 10:00 PM. Even at 10:00 at night, it was about 90 degrees outside, and it was humid! And I saw my first mosque in Oman in the airport parking lot. After we met our guide, Tilal, and a few others from the Sultan Qaboos College for Teaching Arabic, we went to a hotel in Muscat. I thought we were going to drive straight to Manah, but staying the night in Muscat turned out to better. Tilal wound up taking us out to a restaurant called “Old Turkey Restaurant”, and I had some Tabouli, Hummus, and Baba Ghanoush.

Tilal wants us to speak only in Arabic, which is cool but difficult. All of our travel directions and instructions are now in Arabic (of course he will speak English with us if we really need). Luckily, everyone in the college is very comfortable speaking Fusha, or Modern Standard Arabic. I’ll now go off on a tangent about Arabic in case anyone isn’t familiar with the difference between Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial Arabic, so if you are already familiar or not interested you can skip the next paragraph.

The current state of the Arabic language reminds me a little bit of Latin in the early days of the development of Romance languages. There are several dialects of Arabic, some of which are mutually intelligible, and some of which aren’t. Two of the main groups, for example, are the Levantine and Egyptian dialects. Then there is the Fusha (“foos-ha”), or Modern Standard Arabic, which is derived from classical Qur’anic Arabic. No Arab speaks Fusha in their everyday lives, but everyone understands it because it is used in most media, and Arabic is traditionally only written in Fusha. So it’s a little bit of an awkward situation with the language. People don’t really just speak Arabic, they speak their own variety of it, and some are about as different as French and Spanish! But people in the Middle East want to preserve the idea of Arabic being a single language because of its religious connotation. We learn Fusha in most schools in America because all educated Arabs understand it and because it’s easier to sell I think because one can claim more speakers. Anyways, it’s nice that Tilal and our guides at the college are willing to speak Fusha with us because most of my Arab friends seem to prefer English.

I essentially passed out after I finished my food because I was so tired. Fortunately, though, I have almost no jet lag! I’m eight hours ahead here, by the way. Today we drove from Muscat to Manah, which was about a two hour drive. We drove through the Jebel Shams mountain range, which was very pretty but strange. The mountains are almost all rock; I’m used to seeing green mountains.

We arrived at our dorm complex in the afternoon. Our complex is on the outskirts (far out of walking distance because of the heat) of Manah, which is an incredibly small town on the outskirts of Nizwa, which is a slightly larger city. We’re far away in our own little enclave. The dorms are nice, though. Unfortunately there is not a piano or guitar in sight. We went to a grocery store called Lu Lu but for some reason we only stayed about thirty minutes (even though the drive there was thirty minutes).

I’ll be taking a few Arabic placement tests tomorrow!

Checking in from Doha, Qatar

I just touched down in Doha, Qatar. I’ll be here for a couple hours before we take our final flight to Muscat, Oman, where we will immediately drive for about an hour and a half to Manah. The flight was about what one would expect for a 12 hour flight (it wound up being one hour less). There was a crying baby, but it didn’t cry the entire time, and I managed to get a good bit of sleep in. I’m also very glad that I got Majora’s Mask 3D for my 3DS. I took some pictures of a few things that I thought everyone would find interesting.

Arrival in D. C.

Today I landed in Washington D. C. at about 4:00. I had no idea how huge Dulles is! I had to take a tram just to get to baggage claim. I managed to make it to the hotel by about 6:00. The room is nice, and I even get free breakfast tomorrow. I met with three other students in the SALAM program for dinner, Matthew, Delilah, and Michelle. They are all cool; I’m looking forward to hanging out with them for the next six weeks.

On the plane from Greenville to D.C.

Tomorrow, I need to check out of the room by 12:00 and go to orientation at 1:00 (I don’t really know what that entails). I’m not sure what will happen until the evening, but at 9:00 I’ll board the 13-hour flight to Doha, Qatar. Speaking of which, I think that Thirteen-Hour Flight would be a really good band name.