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Letters to Home: Where is Oman...?

December 15, 2011

by Kate Johnson
Letters to Home: Where is Oman...?

Or, as an alternative title, "Oman: Our Friends are Drinking in Europe Right Now" There are three different kinds of reactions you experience when you tell someone you’re studying abroad in Oman. One, they immediately admit they have no idea where that is. Two, they pretend like they know where it is, all the while maintaining a slightly confused look. And three, my personal favorite, they tell you that you’re pronouncing it wrong; that it’s Amman, "AAA-mman." Yes, you’re very smart. But that’s in Jordan. And this is a separate country.

The land of the unknown, that’s where I am. Even some Arabs can’t locate Oman on a map. One of my friends at CMC asked if I had blindfolded myself and thrown a dart at a map of the world to choose where I was studying abroad. It would seem so, perhaps. Yet one year later, I’m sitting here during Eid, covered head to toe, speaking broken Arabic to women clad in brightly colored, bejeweled jalabiyas.

Oman represents an interesting dichotomy. Modern, yet incredibly conservative and traditional. Authoritarian rule, but steadily increasing its democracy. Friend to every country, foe to no one (yes, even Israel). As a result, in a typical day I could be driving around the city with my host brother who’s wearing Puma sweats and blasting techno. Or instead I may be drinking Omani kahawa (coffee) and eating dates with my host family adorned in dishdasha, abayas, and hijabs.  

In the south of Oman, I sat at Job’s Tomb, watching Pakistani immigrants clutching their Holy Qurans, tears streaming down their cheeks. In Dubai, I was culture shocked by finding my own culture in such an unexpected place. I’ve been places where I was asked to cover my hair. I’ve been asked by an Omani why I’m covering my hair if I’m not Muslim.

At one Omani birthday party, the family rolled their bodies and shook their hips like they were trying out for a Shakira music video. At a different gathering, the women and men sat in completely separate rooms and music wasn’t allowed because they believe it’s haram, forbidden according to the teachings of the Holy Quran.

Eid Al-Adha was no exception to this merging of tradition and modernism. Eid is like a three-day Islamic version of Christmas. You’re supposed to eat, sleep, pray, and pass around babies. (I swear this is the informal criteria. Emphasis on the eating.) The second morning of Eid, the ten cousins sleeping in one room woke me up and we all began changing into brand new clothes. I’m talking head to toe, undergarments to head scarf, it has to be new. Walking into the sitting room, you must pay your respects to the elders and begin the traditional process of drinking coffee, eating dates and cutting fruit. We spent the day watching hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, on TV.

In a strange conclusion to the day, at night my thirty female host cousins picked up Pizza Hut for a picnic which culminated in the classic game familiar to every U.S. youth, Truth or Dare. A scandalous dare consisted of one of my cousins running around a tree ten feet away while waving her hands in the air.

Sometimes when I come home, my host family is watching a traditional Turkish soap opera, set in a small village in rural Turkey. Other times they’re watching So You Think You Can Dance. For dinner, there may be the customary Omani chicken and rice dish or it could be hot dogs. My very first night in my host family, they fed me a creamy pasta dish. I asked them what it was called in Arabic. They looked at me and said very slowly ma-ca-roni. Well, then. How exotic.

Beyond the food, the dinner conversation may be in Arabic, Swahili or English. The only thing you can be sure of is that they will talk about football and they will make you eat more. That’s the true Arab way. After eating with our hands and washing it down with the mandatory tea, I just say shukran, asantay sana, and thank you to be sure I’ve covered all my bases.

Surprisingly, I’ve gotten quite used to this strange combination of activities, foods, languages, and cultures. I never know what will happen or what customs I’ll be adhering to for the day. Just to be safe, I keep a head scarf in my bag and LMFAO on my iPod; I could need either at a moment’s notice. Now, there’s something I didn’t expect.

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