Sunday, 31 August 2014

Min7eh: Explore More

In my studies, the world has become so small. I have traveled across the sea and been received to the welcoming arms of many families. My feet have jumped across wadis, my tongue has stumbled over foreign words, and my heart rests deeply in lands beyond my own. Growing up in small and rural town in central Michigan, I would have never dreamed of this life I lead now. My world is expanding, but one of the brightest experiences I have had is the opportunity technology has given me to share my adventures with all of you and to receive the incredible support that you have shared with me.

In an age of computers, smart phones, and the wonders of WiFi, we experience a very different world than one would have found two decades ago. In constant communication, conversations bounce across the street and around the world. They can be as trivial as that morning's choice in breakfast cereal and as meaningful as a heartfelt reassurance that the world will not always be so cruel. Many criticize the population's growing dependence on cyber communication. "We are losing the value of face-to-face interactions," they say, and honestly, there is merit to these concerns. What I have found in my travels, transcends these concerns, though. Tramping across the world, vibrant experiences can often be overshadowed by overwhelming unfamiliarity. I have found encouragement when the isolation of language barriers grows to high.  Despite the criticisms of the technological connections changing the interface of the world, I have found it to be absolutely invaluable in the development of my journeys.

Perhaps most significant, though, is the power technology has given me to promote understanding of the world around us. Running from school to work to home and to all of the other obligations that weigh on a person, many have a tendency to get "stuck" in their own microcosms of life. People are victim to the human temptation to stay within the bounds of one's own knowledge that grows from the experiences to which they are exposed. We are limited by our own experiences that our lives have presented. I do not claim that I have become exceptionally wise in my short life, but I do hope that my stories prove valuable for the growth of those with whom I interact. Every word I type is intended to close the gaps between the familiar and different in the minds of those who surround me.

Everything in this world is connected, and the expanse of the internet has underlined this for me. Whether I am sitting in a coffee shop in southern Oman, enjoying a madeleine in a French villa, or curled under a blanket in my college apartment, I have the world at my fingertips. My mother may still cringe in worry for my safety, my friends may still laugh at the thought of me riding a camel to school, and most of the world may still be oblivious to my travels. In my explorations of the world, though, internet has sent me the support of family and friends and allowed me to invite you all to the learning adventures my life has become.

This blog post is in honor of the Explore More scholarship sponsored by DirectStar TV. Thank you for your consideration.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Akal: Food

Here’s a little bit on the food related aspects of living here:

-We eat with our hands. Always. Especially rice which we eat a lot of in Oman. You collect it in your hand into a little ball and push it into your mouth with your thumb. It’s actually really fun, but it becomes necessary to watch your hands both before AND after eating. 

-We eat on the floor. Unless I'm in a restaurant, I have not eaten at a table the entire time I have been here. We’ll lay out a little rug meant for eating and then a plastic sheet over top with food placed above that. We’ll all sit in a circle around the food, legs crossed. I’m starting to get pressure sores on my ankles.

-Plates and cups. Sometimes we have our own, but it’s completely normal to share plates and cups. Plates more so. Especially rice when guests are over. We’ll put it on a big serving tray and everyone will eat from it, grabbing little bits as we go. With dips like hummus, dal, or fasulia (beans), sometimes we have our own plates, but many times, it’ll be together share with at least one other person, using bread to pick it up.

-Tea. We make tea every morning and every night with milk. After lunch, it’s always with just sugar (no milk). Lunchtime tea is only made sometimes in our house but always with guests. My family really likes to have it with bread. Crunchy bread especially. Chapati and spread cheese is also a favorite. Sometimes they’ll fill a bowl with really thin, Omani bread like tissue paper and fill it with tea. Eat it that way. I'm not usually a fan, but it is what it is. 

-Spread cheese and jam sandwiches are a must.

-Pita bread (khubaz lebnani here) and spread cheese with “Omani” chips (taste like barbecue chips) is practically a national food. Like peanut butter and jelly national except the people I've met are more vocal about it. Maybe it's more like mac and cheese. My family told me to take Omani chips back with me. J

-Rice is for lunch every day without fail. There is no question. In my house at least, but I've been told it’s common elsewhere throughout Oman.

-Yogurt is used everywhere. It’s not like the yogurt we eat most in the US. That’s considered a dessert in Oman and elsewhere I've been in the Middle East. They have yogurt without sugar but with salt instead. I personally like it mixed with rice; that’s really good. It's so popular to drink here, though. For my birthday, my family made me "ice cream" popsicles with this yogurt. It was so kind and much appreciated, but still very difficult for me to resist refusing. 

-Here there is a huge influence from both East Africa and India, so there’s a lot of food from each. The background of the family speaks to what's eaten in the home, but many restaurants are either Zanzibari or Indian. My family is Indian/Omani, so food is more oriented that way. It wouldn’t be likely to have Zanzibari food. It’s really interesting about East Africa, though. Oman used to be a mini empire stretching from Oman all the way to the coast of East Africa. It didn’t stop until the British came and said otherwise.

-Lunch is the main meal of the day. Sometimes the only meal of the day. 

-Spending time with family is really important. On the weekends, weather permitting (it’s been raining for two weeks now, so it hasn’t been possible), we’ll go out with our food and meet the family at the park for picnics. We usually go at night after the sun has gone down and the park is always so full of people.

-They don’t have much kanafeh, a personal favorite I found in Jordan/Palestine. I would recommend looking it up. It's definitely worth a search and even a trip to Dearborn. Shaami (the northern region of the Middle East) food just generally isn't found in Oman. Stuffed vegetables like Kuseh. Shwarma. Things just aren’t the same as they are in the north. So many things are different. It should have been easy to guess before I came, but if there is one thing I've realized in being here, it is that different parts of the Middle East vary in many many ways. In food, in dress, in custom. 

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Al-La7ja: The Dialect

For those of you who don’t have quite as strong of a background in Arabic, there is one basic thing that you need to know. Arabic is a crazy, crazy language. The trick does not come merely from learning it. It doesn't come from the alphabet. You can pick that up rather quickly. It's not just difficult because it comes from a different language family from English. It comes from those moments where you feel like you might actually finally be getting the hang of it and realize you still can’t use it.

Arabic has a million different dialects. So many that are so incredibly varied that I’m so surprised that they still consider them all one language. It’s ridiculous. The people from the Sham (Jordan/Syria/Lebanon/Palestine) can’t understand Omanis. Saudis can’t understand Meghribis (Moroccans). No one can understand Moroccans. Within a country there can be a dozens of significantly different dialects. Despite the smaller size of many of these countries, it's possible that many can't understand their fellow compatriots. Most people studying Arabic learn FusHa, or the standard Arabic which no native speaker speaks. It’s comparable to using Latin a few decades ago. Some people can understand you if you try to speak it, but even then it’s mostly with the more educated people.

These differences include a complete change in vocabulary. A change in grammar. And at its simplest, a change in pronunciation. The most well-known in the Arabic speaking world is changing the letter jiim (a soft j as in the word "genre") to giim (a gutteral g as in the word "goodbye"). This is very characteristic of the Egyptian dialect, but Omani dialects similarly vary. So I’m frequently called Magi, Magen, Meji, Mejan. In addition, my family, being from Sur, a town further south along the coast, change another letter, qaaf (a letter without an accurate English equivalent), to a giim pronunciation. Already struggling to keep up at times, I find myself translating letters as people speak around me. The word “wajid,” used here as katheereh/katheeren or “a lot/too much,” can be pronounced “wajid,” “wagid,” or “wayyid.”

Then there’s grammar. The first thing I learned about the Omani dialect was that “b” added before verbs indicate the future tense. For example, saying you will study ("adros" is the present tense conjugation) is “badros.” In the north in countries like Jordan and Palestine where I've studied before use “b” in their dialect, too, but it’s used as a PRESENT tense marker. Then in FusHa, they don’t use it at all. I find myself constantly switching between all of these conjugation rules in my speech. 

In questions, Omani dialect uses "mu" as "what." "What are you doing would be translated as "mu batsawee."

In Arabic, possessive articles are added to the end of words. In standard Arabic, the feminine possessive for affix "you" is "-ki." In Shaami dialect (the northern dialect), it's "-ek." Here in Oman, though, the feminine possessive for “you” is “-sh” As an example, asking “How are you?" goes from “Keif Haluki” in FusHa, to “Keifek” in the Sham to “Keif Halish/keifish” in Oman.

Vocabulary differences have led to some interesting learning experiences. One night, I was out sitting with family, and my host mom turned to me and told me to “dreesheh bindi.” I had no idea what she was saying. Part of me wondered if she was speaking Hindi (She’s Indian and we always have communication problems. She speaks Arabic, Urduu, and Hindi). My host brother’s wife just kind of laughed and translated. She meant “sakri shubak” which means “close the window” with “dreesheh” meaning “window” and “bindi” meaning “close.”

I still have no idea how it came up so much, but the first couple of weeks, I used the word for “cat” quite a bit. Surprising to me, the word varies a lot across dialects.  In FusHa, it’s “qateh,” but I like the word in Shami a lot, “biseh” or “bissus” as the plural. Here it’s “sanureh.” It's proved to be a very good word to know with all of the stray cats roaming around. For a beginning Arabic learner, talking about cats becomes a very wonderful conversation starter.

And so many other words I’m just beginning to pick up. For so long I thought that my Arabic was terrible. I could understand next to nothing. It’s still not the best, but these crazy dialects are definitely partially to blame. Realizing this, my self-confidence bas been slightly restored J

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

A Night at the Opera

In Oman, the world runs from connections. You are who you are and you do what you do because of where you’re from and who you know.

I’ve apparently met the right people. Through a crazy line of connections, I met a particular pair of kind, interesting, and important people. After a night of enjoyable conversation, they invited me and a friend to the Royal Opera House this past weekend.

Constantly being surrounded by abayas and dishdasha, going to the opera was a bit of a shock. It has been a while since I saw a gathering with so few dressed in typical Omani dress code. A handful still dressed that way, but the audience was largely foreign and other Omanis make different fashion statements. Unaware at the time of what was appropriate, a friend lent me a dress of her own. 

The opera house is very new. I believe it was built in the last few years. It’s beautiful, though. Very impressive. There was a lot of controversy when it was being built, though. Many of the Musqati (the people from the capital) were in favor of it, but the outer dakhiliya people from the interior were very against the construction. Many believed that there were better ways to spend the money. People don’t pay taxes here, but the Sultan’s spending affects the whole country. 

We almost didn't make it. We found a ride at the last minute and rushed to the center of town. We walked into the opera with just seconds to spare before the doors closed.

Being here without a car has made me appreciate driving so much more. There are so many places to go, but without a car it's nearly impossible to go. You can't meet people, and those you do know become weighed with the "responsibility" to drive you around. 

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Attaqs mumtar: Rainy Weather

Rain. It really is absolutely wonderful. I know that people talk about going out dancing in the rain, and I’ve jumped in a fair amount of giant puddles in my day, but I’ve gained such an appreciation for it here.

Oman isn’t in desperate need for water. I'm not sure how, but there a giant reservoirs below the city and they are pumped up though certain points. Little trucks drive around the city, bringing water to the houses to pump through the pipes. Our water guy comes every day. We use about 50 gallons? Washing clothes is normal, dishes, hands, showers. I do close to what I would do in the US. Obviously conserving water is still important, but there isn’t a dire shortage. The interior may be different. It likely is. 

The weather really is different, though. To preface, Oman's climate is extremely varied as one crosses over the mountains from the desert to the sea. There’s even snow on the top of the mountains at times. It still gets SO hot, though. And so humid. The entire summer is 50 degrees Celsius day and night (115ish F), but really, it’s likely much hotter. The government is required to call a national holiday for any weather over 50 so it very, very rarely goes over that. I’ve been told that showers are nearly impossible in the summer except for the middle of the night or very early morning for fear of burning yourself. So the rain we've been experiencing these past few weeks offers quite a change. The "cold" weather is spoken about with just the same happiness, although I don’t think they’re ready for Michigan winters. Cold weather here is about 65 F. 

At this point, though, I may be more excited for the rain than others. I just had a nice little conversation with my host dad about the storm last night that I slept through. He had been laughing at me while I had been running in the drizzle in front of our porch. A little while after the rain stopped, I headed back into the house. Minutes later he called me back to the porch where he is sitting doing work to show me the rain that started to pour again.

Further south in Oman on the other side of the desert, the Dhofar region maintains this miracle-esque rainfall throughout the summer. Unlike the north with only periodic rainy weather, the rain continues to pour throughout the season. A dreary desert becomes a tropical, rainy, misty, and green paradise. It's not as flashy as nearby Dubai, but the region attracts many tourists and is even believed to be Bountiful, paradise, for many Mormons. People of all sorts swarm in by the thousands, multiplying the population of the tiny town every summer/fall. Heavy rainfall and scores of camels populate the region.

Now in my home, as I hear little rumbles of thunder, and hear glops of rain hit the tile outside of our home, I can’t help but to smile just a little bit. It's just another day in Oman. :)

Friday, 5 April 2013

The Other Side of Things

As I sit here in this little coffee shop in Salalah (a city in Southern Oman, which you all will have the opportunity to hear about another time), I can’t help but to think about what it means to be here. Here in Oman.

I haven’t really said much in this regard, but as some of you may know, this trip has been a bit of a struggle. There have been multiple bumps and bruises along the way with drama that seems to persist. At times it’s worse than others, but life continues on.

So many times when you hear about study abroad trips, people cannot stop talking about how wonderful it is, how many experiences they’ve had, how much they’ve grown and learned. And in many ways, they are great, but you don’t typically hear about the struggles along the way. Some are harder than others. Problems differ in color and size. Perhaps you miss someone more than you can say, maybe you miss being with friends at home, maybe you miss mashed potatoes, maybe you miss knowing how to actually act and live, maybe you can’t help feeling the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations. With all of the new friends that make, you still can't help but to think of home. These experiences, travelling, they are fantastic. Even with all of the difficulties, there are so many other things that fill the voids. The truth is, though, that not everything is always as magical as a picture might imply. All of the "bad" still happens and it still hurts.

There's the typical. Languages are exhausting. Speaking Arabic all of the time has been really taxing. General life has made me exhausted. Life doesn't stop while you try to figure it out.

Then there is the unexpected. As an example, I've had so many issues with my school. Contrary to original presentation, the program was disorganized, the faculty miserable, and run by people more interested in money than the happiness and success of their students. In my strongest American vernacular, it was pretty sketch.

As a beginning traveler, I've been extra sensitive to what I've interpreted as "failures" on my part. I blamed myself for not being able to break the barriers between me and everyone else. Connecting to people has been really difficult. I'm starting to realize that I've been taking myself a little too seriously, but it's still hard. Sometimes it feels like no one really understands me and I feel like I constantly have to prove myself. My inner cultural crisis is practically the theme of a stereotypical highschool movie.

Gender relations have been difficult for me. It would be one thing if "appropriate" was consistently defined. From family to family, though, standards change drastically. I've gone to families’ homes that have clear distinctions between genders. As a non-relative, talking, greeting beyond a slight acknowledgement, shaking hands were all completely off-limits. I've met others that have laughed at me for even considering wearing hijab as a non-Muslim or found it rude to be "unnecessarily" distant.

With this variance, daily interactions become a game of constant cultural negotiations. Is it okay to shake hands with a man? Is it okay to have a conversation with a man? Is it okay to make eye contact? Is it weird if I say hello? What's too friendly? Omani women don’t really have to worry about this as much. These social rules are ingrained just like we as Americans know that standing closer than three feet to someone while talking is weird or that staring is creepy. You don't have to think about it to know. But as an American coming to Oman, I can never quite figure these rules out completely.

I sit in the kitchen with one of my brothers from time to time after he gets home from school. He comes home later than the rest of us, so just as everyone leaves, he comes walking through the door. I have no purpose to be in the kitchen other than to talk with him, but I usually stay, and I'm constantly on edge wondering if it's strange to the rest of my family. In all likelihood, it's probably entirely fine. I honestly just worry too much, but living in Oman has made me question it. My host brother is family, but he isn’t at the same time. In Oman, women simply don’t (or are not supposed to) talk to men who aren't family. No one would say anything to me for talking, but it’s the little things that make people uncomfortable or affect the way that they see you. That's what I worry about.

I was talking to one of my other brother’s wives as we sat around eating mangoes in the living room walkway. She told me about the other girls that stayed with my family. She said that before me, she never really liked the others. There was one, she was nice, modest, wore hijab in the house. My sister said, though, that she found out that the student wore shorts at The Wave, a condo complex specifically for expats in Muscat. Knowing this changed everything for her. She said that it was a matter of respect, and by not staying fully covered, this girl risked shaming the name of the family even if it was only among other expats. I am a generally modest person, but in Oman I've extra cognizant of it. Still, though, there have been times that I've worn (Bermuda) shorts or showed my arms up to my shoulders when I went camping or swimming with friends.

I've taught myself to walk on eggshells, but I'm slowly relearning how to step down a bit more firmly. Everything is a process and another opportunity to learn.

I may struggle with the most basic things, but so many others embody the life I've found in Oman. It's watching a group of women in abayas and tennis shoes running across a dusty field just after sunrise. It's sitting down in the park with the family on a Friday night. It's sitting in the car as one of my Omani brothers amuses himself with extreme offensive driving. It's about making plans with friends to tie-dye a dishdasha. It's about having the context to give all of these experiences meaning.

At the risk of sounding too dramatic, travelling teaches you things. It allows you to know something that others may not have the opportunity to learn. Because of my time here, I've been able to join a subculture of exchange. I live in a world of new idiosyncrasies. From amusing to difficult, these experiences have become home. 

Wednesday, 27 March 2013


About this time last week, a few friends and I started planning a trip to Dubai. Two of us needed to leave the country this past weekend to renew our visas. It was a bit last minute considering the weekend here is Thursday/ Friday, but here we are. Things fell together mostly well, and come Wednesday night we were off on our way to Dubai.

The trip to the Omani-Emerati border is two and half hours of nothing mixed with slight blips of houses and strip malls as we made our way through small towns. Just before the border we stopped at a mall in Sohar, and as road trip rules dictate, I had McDonald’s for the first time in ages. For those of you that are wondering, it was not the same as the US.

Through the mountains, the road weaves back and forth across the border, running through what seems to be a million different checkpoints. It was night when we first made it, so we couldn't see much through the windows. Driving back, though, I realized how interesting the landscape is. Dubai is an extremely new city, and it's still growing. Unlike cities from the US that I have been to, there is no real suburban sprawl. It just kind of appears.It sprouts from the desert without much exaggeration.  

                A few minutes from the city. 

We didn’t stay in Dubai the first night, but instead we got a hotel in Sharjah, a neighboring emirate. It was the next day that we finally made our way into the city. 

We met our other friends in Dubai mall, which is HUGE. I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s crazy. It’s the world’s largest mall with over 1,200 stores and covers an area of over five million square feet and six floors. It includes a GIANT aquarium, a water fall, and sits right next to the Bourj Khalifeh which is the tallest building in the world.

The Bourj Khalifeh is a funny thing. Like the mall, I can’t emphasize how big it is. It’s incredibly tall. Looking at the skyline, you can see it miles before seeing the other buildings. The other buildings aren't short, but the Bourj Khalifeh reaches at least twice the height of the other buildings there.

                                     Picture thanks to My pictures weren't 
       quite up to par.

Every building is a little unique. There's different architecture, different colors, different lights (each trying to impress with mini light shows). To be cliche, Dubai towers are like snowflakes with the exception of those in Jumeira, a really well-off part of Dubai constructed for foreigners (or that’s what it seemed).

There’s so much that we didn’t see. We didn’t make it to the souks or the giant water parks that attract thousands. We did go to two of the well-known beaches in Dubai, which were beautiful. Lincoln Park was a high point. Simply driving around the city was wonderful, though. 

Thursday night was an absolute headache. At the recommendation of another friend, we had delayed booking a hotel and consequently spent half the night looking for an open room. We drove across all of Dubai and the surrounding emirates. It was not the smartest decision I've ever made and I certainly will be more timely in the future. It provides a fun story, but a long drive, and a bucket-load of luck. I’m pretty sure we got one of the very last hotels in Dubai in a hotel far outside the city.

Getting back to Oman was a breeze, and now once again I am legal. All things are good. Altogether, a very successful trip.