Sunday, June 29, 2008

Qaboos and lassies

I’m back, friends. And by back, I mean away. Between now and August I’ll periodically post on my thoughts and experiences in Oman this summer. I’ve been fortunate to spend some time in Egypt and the Sham so I’d especially like to use this place to apply the comparative lens to Oman.

I’ve been here about a week now, having spent a few days in the capital of Muscat and since moved on to Salalah. One of the first things I noticed about Oman is the cultural diversity. From the mango lassies to the samosas, the South Asian influence is particularly pronounced. As I walked around Muscat, I found my Arabic was no use in many cases, whether with a Kashmiri shop owner, a Baluchi internet café attendant, or a Tamil waiter. According to reliable sources, the population numbers 3,311,640 with 577,293 non-nationals included. I've heard much higher estimates of the number of non-nationals on the street.

These disparate flows of culture and people are nothing new for Oman. The Sultanate’s power once stretched from Zanzibar in East Africa to Sri Lanka and the cosmopolitan nature of Oman has been preserved under the leadership of Sultan Qaboos bin Taimur, the man who has ruled the country since taking over for his father in a bloodless 1970 coup. Subdued portraits of the Sultan hang high on the walls of most stores and homes. My favorite so far was at the Muscat airport departures terminal, where Qaboos’s leonine visage looked on, one hand raised in a solemn farewell. His pictures certainly lack the dress-up quality of, say, King Abdullah of Jordan. Instead, they reflect a stately man who, in the eyes of many, has been fundamental in navigating Oman toward development while maintaining traditional culture. (If you don’t believe me, you can check out his facebook page. I’m not a fan…yet.)

But, as I mentioned earlier and as the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque demonstrates, Oman’s traditional culture is anything but exclusivist. Completed in 2001 after six years of construction, the structure features a Khurasani carpet that was at one time the largest carpet in the world (maybe Qaboos would have more facebook fans if he boasted about that in his “about me” section);
tiles from Esfahan; and design themes from different geographic areas for each wing.

You don’t see much like this in Egypt or Jordan, partly due to money and partly due to geography.

Just as the mosque underscores the pluralist heritage of Oman (as well as Islam, for that matter), the location also belies Oman’s developmental status. The minaret of the mosque mingles with cranes in the somewhat hazy skyline. Parking lots surround the complex in a location removed from the center of Muscat.

With a sprawling layout and mediocre public transportation, a car culture definitely exists, with Muscatis clogging the car dealership lined highways. All of this is to say that Muscat is Los Angeles, except without medical marijuana, Vincent Chase, or the Reverend Keegan de Lancie.

That might be an overstatement. For one, our German tour guide described the relatively short buildings of Oman’s skyline as such (in a wicked German accent): “This is not like Manhattan. It is more like Lilliput.” All Jonathan Swift references aside, what is clear is that the coming years will be interesting for Oman. Lacking vast oil resources to sink into large-scale infrastructure / weather control projects like in Saudi or the Emirates, the Sultanate must spend its money wisely so as to ensure that the mango lassies continue to flow even after the oil dries up.

Friday, June 20, 2008

women are like tea-bags

perhaps we need to change the images we have of a feminist. i do not pretend to know how to best define a feminist and i’m too smart to even fall into that trap, or too obsessed with deconstructing labels. either way, i have learned that just like how i hate being defined, i hate defining others.

in my mind (which is a very dangerous place to be), a feminist is like a snowflake, unique and intricate.

the women i am meeting are so incredibly different and none of them are easy to dismiss. one woman i met, who is a private english teacher, described the woman of syria so beautifully: we are simple, yet clever women.

these women are sick of the colonial powers’ desires still limiting their lives. as one woman was driving me home, she told me that the first Arabic fashion designer rose about ten years ago. great, i thought. she paused before the clincher: “who then has been designing syrian clothes for the past 50, 100 years? the clothes we are wearing, both male and female, are what the french colonizers want us to wear.”

the word ‘moda’ (fashion) follows me everywhere. walking down al-hamra street or the white bridge, i see stores like “raghda’s mode” copying after designer stores like “vera moda.” if you speak to some of the revivalist women i have been talking to, you will hear woman after woman complain how ‘moda’ has limited their movements, oppressed their creativity and destroyed their sense of identity.

tomorrow i will be trying to hunt down some women artists. we’ll see how far these thoughts reach across the rest of syria.

i suspect that same fed-up-of-the-west-telling-them-what-to-do sentiments will not be hard to find.

as for me, well, i think this poem says enough:

let me put on my scarf

she gathered herself for an
odd, normal ritual,

ducking under twisted teal drapes,
or perhaps,
raising green’s careful spread,

she intricately pins
covered freedom
-exactly three feet squared-

reaching in delicate tucks
wrapped by whirling,
she sighs in the day’s face
that will tan her liberty
into a shield.

originally planned as
a self test of her control,
forcing the world along
her eye-line,
she would fold and arrange
their vision
in rainbows.

but she took this morning to
remembering the private joys
of inner peace

Monday, June 2, 2008

silence is a source of great strength

every time i walk into a mosque or attend a lecture for my research, i cannot help but feel that i am about to be judged. every woman is wearing the same long rain coat style dress and the same round white scarf. last week i walked into a mosque wearing varying shades of blue and (rather lovely if i may so say myself) light blue wrap-around hijab. and two minutes after sitting down a girl comes by and asks me my name. i tell her and she smiles and asks for my family’s phone number. ‘oh, she’s trying to hook me up,’ i thought. i guess that means she doesn’t disapprove. (i told her my father wan’t in the country so who was she going to ask for my hand?).

yesterday i attended the halaqa of the second oldest sheikha in syria and i was going to interview her afterwards. she is very well respected, wears a black scarf and black abayeh. her voice is so soft i can barely hear her during her talks and she would not let me record our interview. i was intimidated. i thought for sure she would disapprove of me as soon as she saw me. what a mistake. she grabbed my hand, smiled and exclaimed ‘mashAllah, you are very beautiful, visibly beautiful but also beautiful on the inside.’ now, not that i want to brag but she is said to be able to sense other people’s thoughts.

however they are still very suspicious when i ask them personal questions in the interview. so i guess them liking me only gets me so far.

there is this one sheikh, sheikh rajab. he is one of the main sheikhs for the abu nur mosque in damascus, where most of my research is centered. he is an adorable old man probably in his 80s who lives in the rows of apartments that are built into the mosque to house its students. my cousin taghreed, who knows him, and i went to see him when i first got here. we walked in on him eating lunch with his wife and daughters in his apartment. he tells us to sit and join him. the table is lined with dishes small in quantity but varied (they even had grilled goat’s brain which is actually pretty good).

he is a very witty and hilarious man. during lunch he randomly turns to me and declares ‘your husband does not ask about you!’ i stuttered a reply, completely caught off guard because umm i’m not married. he then laughs ‘your pair of socks!’ and for those of you who love puns get this. the word for husband in Arabic (jooz) is the same as ‘pair’ (jooz) in the phrase ‘a pair of socks’ (jooz grabat) because couples are pairs. i came in wearing sandals.

while drinking tea after lunch he randomly turned to me and asked if i wanted this to be my family’s house. again i was completely caught off guard and could barely stammer a reply. he continued saying that i should consider his small apartment in the mosque my family’s house. i was completely touched. in the end i got to know his daughters and he gave me some books about the mosque. but he did tell me to bring my husband next time!

i have been keeping my opinions to myself and hope they will tell me theirs.
i have to admit, maybe being outspoken is not helpful all the time. i guess lao tzu was right about some things.