Revelatory reflections on the people and places of Oman
By Rosa Shapiro-Thompson
Just days after Eid-al-Fitr, the celebratory end of Ramadan, I arrived in the small, sleepy town of Manah, Oman. Manah lies at the beginnings of the desert and the foothills of the mountains, which the dust clouds by day and the sky illuminates at sundown. Here, in this new landscape, I was to study Arabic through the state-sponsored SALAM program alongside peers from the United States, France, India, Tanzania, Britain, and Iran. Together we began an exploration of the Sultanate of Oman.
I saw evidence everywhere of the famed Arab hospitality, as Omanis welcomed us to their country with incredible kindness, heaps of local dates, and cup after cup of khaleeji (Gulf) coffee. The hot beverage serves to soothe the heat — Manah once reached 118 degrees during midday — and the dates cut the coffee’s bitterness. I learned the ritual practices of serving coffee and dates from a local woman, Zahra,* who had just finished her degree in Graphic Design. Zahra, an ever-exemplary host, welcomed me into her home for a beautiful spread of home-cooked Omani food. I tasted the flavors of interior Oman — the pastes made from dates grown in her backyard, the rice-and-chicken porridge made fragrant by saffron oil, and many, many sweets. Sitting together on the ornately carpeted floor, I met her extended family: sisters, mother, aunts, grandmother, and cousins; they graciously accepted us into their private social space. I felt privileged to be embraced by this community of women so far from home.
Geographies of Exchange
Oman, at the southeastern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, borders civil-war-embroiled Yemen, the expansive and ever-powerful Saudi Arabia, and, to the east, the United Arab Emirates. The surrounding seas connect Omanis to South and Central Asia as well as East Africa and have long enabled trade and cultural exchange.
In Oman, I saw that exchange daily. It manifests in traces of the past still-visible in daily life. From East Africa came architecture — especially from the island of Zanzibar, Oman’s former colony. Omani houses, otherwise simple and sand-colored, display intricate Zanzibari designs on doors, lines that swirl and curve back to each other; in the public sphere appear kummas, the African-styled head caps often worn by Omani men. Tastes from South Asia pervade Omani cuisine, as they have since ages past, for although sweet dates abound, vegetables and spices rarely grow in Oman’s arid soil.
What I witnessed in Oman challenges the dominant narrative of the Arabian Peninsula as isolated, backward, or in some way anti-modern. Not only is Oman, historically and presently, a melting pot of cultures by way of its ports and oceans, but globalization has also touched Oman in such a way that Omanis now engage with practices of modern consumerism alongside the traditional. Grand malls dot Omani cities; they are as extensive and as unrelentingly fluorescent as any I’ve seen in the United States. These malls include high-end shops that flaunt surprisingly immodest clothing, Starbucks, and even a Shake Shack. These malls, which today serve as appropriate public spaces for Omani women and families, exist alongside the traditional: the souq (market), its busy live animal auctions, its small shops cramped side-by-side in which buyer and seller haggle. In this country, men in national dress — a white dishdasha (an ankle-length robe) and a kummah (the popular African-influenced cap) or embroidered turban called a muṣar — wear RayBans; women in black abayas and headscarves hold glitzy pink-and-gold mobile phones.
Migration and Wealth
But today’s most extensive exchange is quieter. As phones and kummahs cross Omani borders, so do people: the two million who have migrated from South Asia and poorer Arab states that now make up half of the Omani population. The state does not clamber to discuss this half of its residents — they are not citizens, not Omani, after all.
Though rarely spoken of, these guest workers are integral to the functioning of Omani society. They cook and clean, build houses and keep shops. Their hands built the shiny new national museum, but they are charged twice the admission rate than that of citizens and are prohibited from owning property. They are transient: they do not intend to stay in Oman but instead return home, bringing their share of Oman’s wealth to their families.
Since oil began to flow forty years ago, the extraction of Oman’s fossil fuels has propelled Oman from poverty to development and wealth. Petroleum allows Omanis to afford their high standard of living and also to sponsor the huge foreign population that conducts the undesirable work of development and domestic life. This wealth also enables the state to sponsor language programs that bring foreign students like myself to learn about the country, and to witness its incredible economic success.
The reign of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos coincided with the discovery of oil resources below the sand and mountains of the country’s east. Before Sultan Qaboos came to power in 1970, there were no girls in school and only two hospitals; today, there is full enrollment in primary and secondary education, over 50 hospitals, and over 800 medical centers. On lists ranking GDP per capita, Oman sits between Canada and the Cayman Islands. The Sultan is widely seen as a modernizer responsible for the high standard of living today, and, so, his portraits adorn public and private buildings. I once met a woman who collects pictures of the Sultan as a hobby, and after my six weeks in the country, even I — a foreigner tending to be critical of nationalism in all forms — now feel affection toward the Sultan as well as respect for his policies.
My daily experience this summer was one of safety and tranquility, hospitality and learning. I learned more, and in more ways, than I could have ever imagined. Besides the daily intensive Arabic classes, I entered ancient castles and forts alongside modern supermarkets, as well as the nearby souq, or market, famous for both its silver crafting and live cattle auctions. I sipped from the old aflaj aquifer system that carries water from the mountains to towns and homes aided only by gravity. I began to know Oman: the cultural icons of dates, coffee, aflaj, and dullahs, to know both the country’s contradictions and its beauty. For all this, I am incredibly grateful.
*This name has been changed in order to respect privacy.
Rosa spent six weeks studying Arabic and traveling in the Sultanate of Oman as a recipient of the SALAM scholarship from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in D.C.. At Yale, she studies History with a focus on the Middle East. You can contact her about Arabic studies, Omani development, or coffee — khaleeji and otherwise — at firstname.lastname@example.org.