Second Weekend in Nizwa: Mountains and a Marriage

As was noted in the previous post, this was a short week due to the holiday of Isra wa al-Miraj.  Regardless, during our three days of class (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday) we continued to follow the structured learning schedule established during our first week in Nizwa.

I can notice my ability in Arabic taking small jumps forward.  Its interesting that this improvement occurs in such “quantum increments,” and usually a day of noticeable progress is followed by a day of apparent backsliding, as if my brain needs a day to reboot before taking in any more Arabic.  Indeed, on a few days this week I had some weird moments after school, when my roommates were talking to each other in English.  As they were speaking, I had trouble processing the English words because my ear was expecting to hear Arabic sounds and rhythms.  “Great,” I thought, “now I can’t understand any language.”  Luckily my comprehension snapped back into place after a few seconds of confusion.

After this short week was over, the girls in the group went to a wedding to which they all had been invited in our first week at the university. The months of June and July are wedding season in Oman, and the brother of Aisha, one of our group’s peer facilitators (or talibat musa’ida), was marrying a local woman; in fact, it was in preparation for this wedding that the girls had their hands and forearms decorated with henna during our first week of classes–you might have seen the pictures in the album which I linked to in my previous post (these can also be viewed by clicking on the “Week One” photos link to the right.

Men are not allowed to attend the wedding ceremony itself, so the girls went and reported back to us.  They told us that the only men in the room were the bride’s father, her brothers, and at the very end, the groom (Aisha’s brother).  They told us that, due to this lack of  lusty male gazing, the wedding was an occasion in which Omani women do not feel constrained to wear an abaya, which is the black, robe-like outer garment that all the women here wear when they are out in public; instead, women at weddings wear very colorful, ornamental dresses.  Furthermore, according to the girls, there was lots of music and dancing, which is something I have not seen nor expect to see in Nizwa.  Of course there was no alcohol but plenty of food, according to the girls.

While the ladies were at the wedding that night, the shabaab and I went to a Turkish coffee shop and grill (a “mushawi”) and had dinner and watched a repeat of the Sweden-France Euro Cup match, before meeting back up with the girls to learn about the wedding.

The next morning,– a Thursday– Matt, Ian, James, Carter, and I decided to explore some of the mountainous terrain behind our neighborhood.   We left our apartment and began to explore the wadi, or valley; this wadi is actually part of a network of dry river beds that drain the mountains around Nizwa when it rains.  We followed the wadi system, for about 2 miles, up to the base of what we considered to be the highest peak in the vicinity.

Behind our apartment, the dry wadi that leads to the base of the mountain we are about to climb. We walked through this wadi for about two miles.

From here we began to climb; after a roughly 30 minute ascent, we were standing at the summit of this small mountain, which afforded us some outstanding views of the mountains to the north, south and west of us, and the city of Nizwa and more mountains to the east. Incidentally, Nizwa is derived from an Arabic root meaning both “from the mountain” and “isolated.”

Getting close to the top of the mountain, looking down into the valley below us. The climb itself only took about 25 minutes after we got to the base of the mountain.

View of Nizwa at the end of our hike

After this excursion we were all pretty exhausted and we went back to the authentic Omani restaurant to dine, and after that we ventured to “Nizwa Nights,” the local night spot to watch the Euro Cup match Portugal and France and drink coffee.  I was feeling pretty tired at this point and I knew that we had a big day ahead of us because Larry, Judy, and Faisal, the organizers of our stay here, had planned an excursion for us on Friday.

Before ordering at the Omani restaurant. Here everyone has just gotten settled in the dining room. Every place I’ve eaten in Oman uses kleenex as napkins; bottled water usually appears soon after you sit at the table or on the floor.

We all woke early the next day to go to the highest point in Nizwa, al-Jabal al-Akhdar, or the Green Mountain, which reaches just over 10,000 feet at its highest point.  About twenty minutes east of Nizwa, we stopped in Birkat al-Mouz, or “Bounty of Bananas,” on the way to meet the group from Muscat which had traveled with us last week to Bahla and al-Hamra.  I suppose that Birkat could be roughly analogous to my birthplace,  Hickory, NC, as both are crossroads towns that serve as gateways to the mountains–although Hickory is much bigger and more populous.   In Birkat, there was  a falaj, an old masjid, and some watch towers, and the pictures here provide a good idea of the local landscape of small towns in this north eastern part of Oman.

The old masjid in Birkat al-Mauz, with the Jabal al-Akhdar mountains in the background and the falaj of the city running past the building’s front door.

In Birkat al-Mauz, some of the group walking back along the falaj in order to board the bus to Green Mountain, or al-Jabal al-Akhdar

From Birkat we proceeded up the mountain, stopping several times to take in the views; the mountain range, the Hajar al-Gharb, is apparently a very famous tourist spot in the Middle East; in fact Princess Di came here with her lover Dodi Fayed (or Prince Charles–I heard both narratives but to me the former seems more likely),  and there is a spot near our second stop now known as Diana’s Point.

On the way up the mountain, we stopped at several overlooks.  At one point, we saw this fossilized fish, at over 9000 feet altitude. Al-Jabal al-Akhdar and the surrounding mountain range we were once on the ocean floor.

Finally we reached the mountain community of al-Ayn, where we stopped for another Yemeni-style lunch.  After lunch we went to the old village of Al-Ayn which is remarkable and regionally famous for its gardens and agriculture, especially for its roses, pomegranates, and date palms–which are all over Oman anywhere there is water.  As is so common here, there was an intricate falaj system running through al-Ayn which was really fascinating to me.

Gardens high above the valley on Jabal al-Akhdar; the fertile and fallow terraces are really visible in the left of the photo.

View from the streets of al-Ayn. The buildings join each other over the street, providing shelter for the walkways.

Pomegranate blossom turning into fruit in the relatively cool Meditteranean climate at al-Ayn

A view of the rose gardens of al-Ayn, with the village masjid in the background

After a very nice tour of al-Ayn, we took a short drive to a site where we were able to look out across a wadi in which there were three villages scattered below us, and here we received a short history lesson about the region and its role in the Jabal al-Akhdar war in the late 1950s.  This war pitted the Imamate against the Sultanate.  The Imamate was a polity led by the Ibadhi imam of Oman and galvanized by the perception that the Sultan Said bin Taimur (the father of the current Sultan, Qaboos) was giving all the valuable land and resources of Oman to the British, and only after British intervention on behalf of the Sultan was the war decided in favor of the government in Muscat.

Listening to a lecture on the history of al-Jabal al-Akhdar.

Following this poignant historical narrative, related to us by our native Omani guide, we went to a village that had been bombed by the Royal Air Force during the Jabal al-Akdhar war. Exploring these ruins, many of still containing relics and trappings of daily life, I was constantly struck with a strange mix of nostalgia and guilt, stemming  from the idea that someone once had a life here, interrupted by war, and that we were desecrating their memory.

Ruins from the Jabal al-Akhdar war

A close up of the village across the wadi from the village that we explored. Both villages were bombed the RAF during the Jabal al-Akhdar war.

During this adventure, some of our group (Carter, Matt, Natasha, Jessica) ascended the mountain above the village.  After everyone came down we made our way back by following the falaj which once linked the bombed out villages with the wadi beneath them, and we returned to the place where our buses were parked. There we had some Omani coffee and dates, and some of the group purchased the locally famous rosewater produced in the area.  There were also holistic medicines and curatives, made from local flora, for sale here.

As the sun began to sink in the sky, we began loading in to the buses and to leave this beautiful mountain and return to Nizwa.  We got back to Nizwa at about 7:30 p.m., ate dinner at One World Restaurant–a spot that has quickly become one of our favorites–and got back to the apartment around 10:00 to hit the hay and get ready for our third week of classes at the “Jami’at Nizwa” (Univeristy of Nizwa).

For more visuals of what I experienced this weekend, all the photos related to this post can be viewed here.  I apologize in advance for the overabundance of mountain, rock, and palm tree photos–its pretty much all I have to work with!

Categories: Al Jabal al-Akhdar, Al-Ayn, School Days, Week 3 Photographs, Weekend Excursions | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Third Week in Nizwa: Physical Challenges, Technical Glitches, and a Boat Ride to Ras al-Hamar

After returning from al-Jabal al-Akhdar Friday night and hitting the sack after a good dinner at One World Restaurant, the third week in Nizwa began, for most of the shabaab at least, with a wave of what we all think was some sort of food- or water-borne illness.  Beginning on the bus ride to school on Saturday morning, I was under the weather from Saturday until Wednesday night; however, it was nothing too serious and I was able to attend all of my classes and function somewhat normally, outside of some severe stomach cramps on Tuesday afternoon and night.

During this week, the class days began to go by in a blur, and I am really thankful that my Arabic professor back home, Dr. Haydar, prepared me for the grammatical concepts that are being presented in Istadh Abdullah’s class.  Luckily, much of what he is teaching us is a review for me and I don’t really have to work too hard to make sense of what he is saying, and I already have completed much of the homework that he is assigning  from our textbook once already back in Arkansas.

Istadha Fatima’s class remains a day-to-day challenge.  On some days I am able to follow the videos and and articles that she presents, and I can converse with her and my classmates about the topic of the day.  On other days I am overwhelmed with the speed of the language and what seems to be an avalanche of unfamiliar words.  I would say that on balance, I am having more good days than bad and I feel like I am learning a great deal from Fatima.  I probably will really notice it when I get back home.

On Saturday, the first day of our school week, the director of our program, Larry, came to Nizwa from Muscat to give us our second round of food stipends (42 Omani Rials every two weeks) and to deliver a lecture about the ancient history of Oman.  Apparently, archaeological evidence supports a theory that some of the earliest humans migrated from East Africa through Yemen and Oman before finally stopping to settle in what is now the United Arab Emirates.   Larry also talked about the importance of the frankincense trade for the region during ancient times, and he brought several pieces of old tools, pottery, and cookware that he had found while exploring some of the ancient settlements that dot the mountainsides and wadis of this part of the Arabian peninsula. Larry told us that some of this pottery had been dated to be about 900 years old by an expert from National Geographic.

On Sunday, all of us SALAM students gave a talent show for our “peer facilitators” or “tullab musa’idun.”  James started off the exhibition with some stand-up comedy that he developed during, and about, our trip. Carter showed us some of the photos he had taken–he is an excellent photographer.  Matt played some lacrosse videos for the audience, all of whom had no idea what lacrosse was, and Ini read us a short story she wrote in Arabic.

For the talent show I read a poem by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish titled “Victim number 48”; this is a poem that I had memorized and read for the Fulbright College Language Festival in April, so it was not much of a chore for me to dust off the cobwebs and trot it out for the small audience of my colleagues and our new Omani friends.  Ian also read a poem, by Syrian poet Nizzar Qabbani, and the Omanis really appreciated that he and I were able to recite these poems using proper standard Arabic pronunciation and grammar. Furthermore, as we both would find out later during week 4, this reading was valuable practice.

The real show stopper at the talent show, however, was the performance by Natasha, Jules, Brooke, and Fiona of a beautiful a cappella rendition of “the Star Spangled Banner.”  These four are all musically gifted and they all have some singing gigs on their resumes.  Hearing their version of our national anthem all the way here in Oman made me feel proud of the story of the birth and early decades of our nation. Following her performance in the quartet, Fiona then stole the show by singing a rendition of “Habibi” by Lebanese chanteuse Fairuz, in beautiful Arabic that had the Omani students visibly moved.

On Monday, several of us were feeling a little homesick for American food so most of the group went to the Domino’s Pizza in Nizwa.  They have a dining room there and we split three pizzas, chicken wings, and breadsticks.  The food was decent, not too unlike Domino’s in America I guess, although until this experience, I honestly hadn’t eaten their pizza in over 5 years.

On the way to Domino’s Mark, Matt, James and I stopped in at Nawras, one of the Omani telecommunications companies, and we purchased a wireless router and an internet plan, which we will pay for by the week.  Unfortunately, this was only a partial solution to my internet issues, since the router is a 2G model and the service which it provides is very very slooooooow, especially when all four of us were using wireless at the same time.  The glacial speed for uploading photos to the blog or to the Picasa web album is pretty frustrating , taking about 24 minutes per photo; moreover, many times the connection would falter just as a photo was half-way through being uploaded and I would have to start over.  This explains why I decided just to link readers to photos for each week at the end of each post rather than create a slide show within the post itself, even though the process of sending photos from my camera/computer to the Picasa web album is long and painful too, if not more reliable in terms of not losing uploaded data when the connection crashes.  Thus between the inconsistent or non-existent connection at the University and the frustratingly slow pipeline at our apartment, keeping the blog updated has fallen down on my list of priorities.  I have been making good notes though, to be transferred here when I do get a more consistent connection

On Wednesday and Thursday most of the guys and some of the girls went to watch the Eurocup soccer matches (Czech vs. Portugal and Italy vs. England) at “Nizwa Nights,” a hookah bar, restaurant, and catering operation, which is fast becoming one of our favorite “night spots.”  In addition to having a big screen television there, they serve coffee and fresh juices, and there is not really a problem if the girls want to join us. They also stay open much later than anywhere else here; as far as Nizwa goes, it is a pretty hip place.  Omanis, like most other people in the world, love soccer and in the Eurocup matches that I witnessed at Nizwa Nights, they seem to favor Portugal.  This makes sense I suppose since Portugal long had a colonial presence in Oman in the 16th and 17th centuries.

We closed out our third week in Nizwa with a weekend excursion to the Marina Bander Ar-Rawda marina on the southeastern side of the capital of Oman, Muscat, about 2 hours away, where we boarded a traditional dhow.  On the way there, we met up with another exchange program group from the United States Naval Academy in Muscat, so there were easily around 28 of us on the boat.  Luckily, we didn’t employ the traditional style of locomotion–a triangular lateen sail to harness wind power–to reach our destination.  With the motors running, it took us about an hour and 10 minutes to get to our destination, the calm bay of Ras al-Khiran.  When we finally reached this cove tucked away into the coastline southeast of Muscat, we enjoyed a few hours of swimming, snorkeling, and kayaking in one of the most peaceful salt-water swimming holes I have ever been in.  The pictures of the trip to and from this bay can be viewed here.

Conspicuously absent from these pictures are any images of what for me was the highlight of this trip–the exploration of a cave which cut into a huge rock formation that was poking up from the middle of the cove.  This cave went back into the heart of the rock about 20 meters before finally narrowing to the point where a person could not comfortably squeeze through.  Although the water was well over 9 feet deep at the mouth of this cave, it became about 5 feet deep in the middle of the channel going into the rock, and a little more shallow than that, farther back towards the inaccessible, low-ceiling room where the incoming tide was being forced up the walls of the cave.  After a few minutes of goofing around in there and appreciating the crystal clear water and the little crabs that inhabited the cave, I struck back out for the dhow, anchored about a 10 minute (for me, anyway) swim away from the cave.  I didn’t get any images of this cave because I didn’t take my camera into the water with me, even though it waterproof… I didn’t want to risk losing the camera since I didn’t bring the floating strap.

Categories: Coastal Excursion, Week 3 Photographs | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

First Weekend in Nizwa–Field Trip!!

First off, before I fill you in about my adventures in Oman, I want to apologize for the delay between posts, but the internet at the university has proven to be troublesome at best and non-functional at worst.  I think that perhaps due to the censorship filters in place here in Oman, we are all having problems staying connected for any length of time if we choose to access social media sites and many news pages.  For instance, the first day we had access, at the University, I logged on and navigated to the Yahoo! sports page.  I was cautioned that my activities were being monitored when I clicked on a story about game three of the NBA finals, and after reading that article, I tried to click to another sports story, but I was denied access and from that point on for the remainder of the day I was unable to get back on the web.

Likewise, I am sometimes able to log on to the blog site, but it will not allow me to update posts on a reliable or regular basis.  I really don’t like using the internet cafes here: the rooms are unbearably hot and sticky, the computers are plagued with viruses and trojan horses so I am reluctant to connect with my camera or flash drives, and paying by the hour quickly adds up. 

Somethings Just Don’t Translate… A Sign at the Internet Cafe in Nizwa

My roommates and I are investigating getting portable “hot-spot” USB devices from Omantel, the local telecommunications company, which will allow me to use this blog as I had envisioned before leaving. In the meantime, I have posted an album of some of the photos which I took during the first week, which can be viewed here.


Anyway… back to the subject at hand:

Following our first week of school, which I summarized for you in the last post, we experienced the unexpected joy of being told that we were going to have a short week for week 2.  Not only would we have Thursday and Friday, our usual days off, to end the first week of school–we also were going to have two vacation days on Saturday and Sunday, normally the first two days of the school week, to commemorate Muhammad’s night trip to Jerusalem and his trip to the seventh heaven where he conversed with Moses and several other Jewish and Christian prophets.  This holiday is called Al-Isrra wal Miraj

The first two days of our long weekend were spent relaxing around town and the apartment. On Thursday we all slept pretty late and then all twelve of our group met up and went to the souq, or market, for a very late lunch.  Strangely enough, it began to rain as we got to the souq, and we got to witness a real downpour.  We split up, and six of us (Fiona, Natasha, Carter, Mark, James, and me) explored the fruit and vegetable market, bereft of customers but buzzing with preparation for a busy Friday market, where we met a local man named Suleiman who was very friendly and who took us to his uncle’s electronic and appliance store.  In some ways I felt transported back to McLaughlin’s Appliance and TV.  I definitely thought about Papaw and all of us who spent time in “the shop.”  Suleiman is from Zanzibar, a former colony of Oman, and he was pretty fluent in English.  I think he enjoyed practicing his English with us and we in turn practiced our Arabic with him.  At the end of our two hour stint with Suleiman, he invited us to go back with him to his home in Ibri the next day. We all exchanged phone numbers, but as of yet we have not reconnected with him.

As Suleiman left us for the evening prayer, the sun was going down and we rejoined our group for an awesome dinner at an authentic Omani restaurant– I plan to post more about this restaurant later.  Some really good conversations ensued as some members of the group who had not really had a chance to talk were able to get to know each other due to the intimate style of Omani dining.  In Omani and Yemeni restaurants, diners take off their shoes and sit on the ground to eat, so we ate in authentic Omani style, shoeless and on the rug.  I had thareed dijaj khaj maa khubs–a dish with boneless chicken, potatoes, carrots and a thick, savory spicy sauce. As with every meal we’ve had here so far, there was plenty of hummus and fresh baked bread, or khubs, to eat. My only complaint about this dining experience was that after an hour or so my knees began to hurt from being bent while sitting on the ground.

On Friday, which is akin to the Muslim “Sunday,” all the guys in my apartment slept in.  We tried to call Suleiman but we got no answer. We were kind of bummed at missing out on an opportunity to see another area of Oman, but I was also glad to have the day to myself to do some housekeeping and laundry.

On Saturday, right in the middle of our four day weekend, we were treated by the Center for International Learning, our host program, to an excursion to some of the areas surrounding Nizwa.  But we first began our day at the morning market in Nizwa; this reminded me of a very dusty and loosely organized state fair, without the rides.  Goats and cows were being walked through the livestock section of the market by men calling out the prices and qualities of their livestock, hoping to sell their animals, while men milled back and forth through the livestock souq making small talk or haggling about the animals.

Some of the Action from the Livestock Souq: An Omani Boy Attempts to Ride A Calf

Man Parading His Black Cow Around the Souq Trying to Find A Buyer

I also made a return jaunt through the now crowded and humming fruit and vegetable souk, so empty just a day and a half before, where I was amazed at both the variety and quantity of produce.  But we were on a tight schedule and I knew that I could come back on a later weekend to experience this part of the souq. 

After this quick spin through the by-now-familiar old souq (we had visited there most of the nights during our first week in town), our group toured the Nizwa fort.  This fort has been restored and in the past it served to protect Nizwa when the city was the capital of Oman in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I plan on going back to see this fort in more detail because we were kind of herded through there on this visit; likewise, I will try to devote a post entirely to this fort later.  But I did get some great pictures from the top of the fort overlooking the city and its surroundings.

A Nice View From the Top of Nizwa Fort: the City Stretching Out to the Mountains Beneath the Mosque Dome and Tower

Date Palm Plantations of Nizwa, from the top of Nizwa Fort

A View of the City Stretching Towards the Mountains East of Nizwa

The beginning of this day was really hot, and after going through the fort from 10 to 11 a.m. I was beginning to worry a bit about the tool the heat would take over the course of the day. 

Following the tour of the fort, all of us from Nizwa joined a group of American students from Muscat for a trip to the nearby city of Bahla.  Bahla is very old, just like Nizwa; near by there is a castle–Jabreen Castle— that was the seat of the imam, or head of the religious community in Oman in the 17th century.  This castle is being restored and is off-limits for tourists, so I was only able to get some exterior photos of this imposing structure. 

Jabreen Castle Viewed from the Visitor’s Entrance: an attempt to illustrate the heighth and width of the palace walls and interior structures

A Shot of the Jabreen Castle: note the detailed window lattice and the defense chute at the top left center of the tower. This chute would be used to pour hot date syrup or rocks down onto attackers besieging the castle.

We did learn from a citizen of the area about the jinn, a supernatural life form, similar to ghosts or spirits, which are supposed to inhabit the area (and its people!).  While the Qur’an does mention jinn and explain their presence, the belief in jinn dates back to pre-Islamic times and is common still for people all over the Arabian peninsula and throughout Arab cultures; however, apparently Bahla is renowned all over the Arab world for both the quantity and intensity of the encounters between jinn and humans.  Our guide told us a few stories from his own life to support the existence of jinn.  According to him, they can appear as animals, lights, or even take possession of people.  Incidentally, the Arabic word “jinn” is where the English word “genie” comes from.  Hey Allie–Yapple Dabble!

Our tour guide at Jabreen Castle, center, who told us about the jinn that populate Bahla region and who gave us a lecture on the history of Jabreen Castle. He is university educated but very much a man of tradition. He and Faisal, our program coordinator in the yellow shirt, were college buddies at the University of Nizwa.

From listening to our guide explain his region’s conservative culture and the commitment of its residents to doing things in the manner of their grandfathers, I was able to see the difference between the more liberal, cosmopolitan lifestyle of coastal Muscat and the people from the interior where we are staying–such as Nizwa and Bahla. 

After the speech by the tour guide we were taken to eat Yemeni food, where we dined shoeless and sitting down again.

In the Yemeni style, a huge tray of rice and chicken was brought out for me. The food was not that remarkable but the amoung brought out to me was so great that I thought that it was for the group. But nope, it was all mine.  Which is good, as it turns out, because we all burned a lot of calories on this day.

After lunch, a dust storm blew through–the sky became dark, the wind grew angry and strong, and the air stung my face with flying sand.  However, this was a short-lived tempest and a welcome one at that, because following the storm, the air temperature cooled off considerably. 

We left the restaurant to visit Al-Hamra, a mountain about 30 minutes to the north of Bahla. On the way out of town we saw from our vehicles another old fortress in Bahla, which served as the hub for an extensive system of walls forming the boundary for the oasis of Bahla, from as early as the 12th century.

We only saw the famous fort of Bahla from the road as we traveled to al-Hamra

Good bye, Bahla Fort

Once we made it out of Bahla and up the mountain of Al- Hamra, I became enchanted by the old throwback settlement of Misfat, an old farming village built into the mountains where the people subsist by harvesting date palms and raising goats.

Not much mystery about who is the boss here.  Goat pen in Misfat.

The air was very cool in Misfat–the village sits at an altitude of about 2100 meters–and it was a beautiful day for hiking.  We spent the reminder of our time, from about 2:30 to 5:00, exploring the area and climbing the mountains.  As we climbed there was the sound of thunder in the hills but no rain fell.

Bird’s eye view of Misfat

The scenery in this area is striking and memorable: the mountainsides of al-Hamra are dotted with crumbling stone guard towers from three centuries ago and the valleys are lined with the village’s falaj and date palm plots.

A falaj is basically a complex aqueduct system that provides water to a region, and these falaj are widely used all over Oman to bring both spring water and ground water, tapped from deep beneath the mountain by Omani farmers, to human settlements and agricultural areas.  We were fortunate enough that towards the end of our hike, after coming down from the mountains and back through the quaint village, we walked for a while along the falaj as it wound through the settlement and its agricultural plots.

I actually captured one photo of a man harvesting dates with his children from his plot–but as i zoomed in for better shot my camera battery died.  I took over 300 pictures on this day, so that is not surprising. If you want to see the 183 that were worth keeping, at least for now, you can view them here, or by clicking on the Week 2 Photographs link on the right side of the page!

Date palm farmer

A farmer is harvesting dates from the tree in the center of the photograph. In the picture you can also see that these date palm trees flank the falaj, or small canal, that runs through the bottom of Misfat and that provides precious water for the palm trees, sorghum, and bananas that grow here.

On Sunday, I ended my long weekend–our first real weekend in Nizwa, following our first real week of school–by doing homework for the following week’s classes.  I also managed to get in a quick 3-mile run, in my hiking boots, on the gravel roads behind our apartment and around the Nadi Nizwa (Nizwa’s sports club) dirt track, which loops around the club’s soccer pitch.  After this, my apartment mates and I went to the Lulu, Nizwa’s version of Wal-Mart, to look for some foodstuffs and also a drying rack to speed the drying of our clothes, since we don’t have a dryer here.  This lack of a dryer is not really a bad thing because a dryer would only add heat to our quarters, and the air is so dry here that the clothes dry quickly when spread out on a rack.

I can tell you I was pretty mentally and physically tired from our first week as students at the University.  I was glad to get to bed Sunday night before midnight to get some sleep before beginning our holiday-shortened week two.


Categories: First Days in Oman, Nizwa, Week 1 Photographs, Week 2 Photographs, Weekend Excursions | Tags: , , , , | 11 Comments

Stardate Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Today my colleagues and I did finally receive our identification cards from the university, which if you will recall from the last post will allow all of us to access the wireless on campus, but we got them too late for me to actually log on and upload pictures and posts.

So, a few of us came back to the market to tool around and I have just dipped back into the al-Mutalik internet cafe again to update the blog.  Its 9:21 p.m. and still incredibly hot; I am sweating bullets just sitting here typing.  But, malesh, as they say here, no worries, its all part of the fun.

Today was our fourth day of classes, which means that tomorrow will be our “Friday.”  We also have a four day weekend coming up because a Muslim holiday is being observed on Sunday and Monday.

Thus far, our days are structured.   The bus picks up the male students at 7:20 in front of our apartment.  We arrive on campus at about 7:35 and begin class at 8.  We have free coffee, tea, and cookies (they are called biscuits here) available throughout the day in the lobby of the building in which our classes are located so that is a nice perk.

At 8 we have a formal grammar and vocabulary class in modern standard Arabic (its called “fusha” in Arabic).  Lucky for me, this week we are covering a chapter in the book which I studied in Arkansas back in February.  We are moving  through this section of the book pretty rapidly, and the instructor, Abdullah, has made it known he is not a big fan of the text and he has been supplementing our course with his own materials.  I really enjoy learning from Abdullah; he is a very patient and gentle person who loves teaching his native language to English speaking students.  He also spent some time in Japan teaching Arabic to Japanese students and he knows quite a bit about Japanese culture and language too.  Today I found out that he and I are the same age.

We work with Abdullah for two hours before having a short break from 10-10:30.  Then we go to Fatima’s classroom to learn about media, current events, and Arab culture.  Fatima’s class is a real challenge because she rarely talks in English and we are covering some pretty complex material.  Yesterday, I thought my brain was melting down at one point in there, as she showed us a movie about all the religions practiced here in Oman and then we had a pretty grueling question and answer session about religious tolerance in the context of the Oman.  What I took away from her lecture and our dialectic question and answer session was that here in Oman the dominant “brand” of Islam is called Ibadhism and it is known as a a very traditional “sect” within Islam.   This means that they take very seriously the Qur’anic injunction that there is no compulsion in religion and they believe in letting people “live and let live.”  For tonight we are supposed to read an article from an Omani newspaper about the current situation in Syria and write a response to it; tomorrow we will learn all about Omani engagements and weddings.

We finish with Fatima’s class at 12:30 each day, and the shabaab (this is the name for a group of young males) and I head to the male restaurant for lunch.  Its always cheap but its starting to get monotonous.  We all tried eating in the Omani style yesterday, i.e., with our hands–and it was like being in a high chair again.  We were all scooping rice and chicken into our mouths and dropping more food on the table than was landing in our mouths.  I don’t know how the Omanis do it and make it look so easy. 

Our lunch break ends at 2:00 p.m. and then we spend two hours with our “peer facilitators,” or students from the university who are helping to explain Omani culture and dialect to us.  Much of this time is very conversational and they are teaching us the finer points of how to behave when interacting with Omanis.  Two days ago the male students took us to one room where we were taught the ritual of drinking coffee and eating dates while the binaat (the word for “the girls”) were taken off to another room and taught the proper etiquette for female guests.  Yesterday four of us went to the calligraphy department and got our names written in each of the seven types of classical Arabic calligraphy by the calligraphy professor.  Today we are going to learn about how to negotiate with a taxi driver, even though the male students have been doing that already for the past three nights.  The girls have not had to contend with the linguistic challenge of getting a cab because they live close to the souq.

These peer facilitator sessions end at 4 p.m. and so far every day I have been mentally exhausted and ready to head back to our apartment.  Once the bus gets us back there it is about 5:30 p.m.; this week, I have  just cooled off and tried to rest for an hour or two before heading to the souk each night. 

Beginning next week I will add lots of pictures to the blog; I have already taken over 340.  Also, I will have a post about our coming weekend excursion to Bahla and al-Hamra.   So please keep checking in, because after our holiday, I will be able to post more frequently and more in depth.

Categories: First Days in Oman, Nizwa, School Days | Tags: , , , , | 15 Comments

Sorry For the Delay…

Well folks, I have been here four days now but so much has happened and I have seen so much that it seems like weeks!  Also I have not been “connected” in a Western sense, so the passage of time has been distorted.  There have been some problems here with me finding internet access, so keeping up with the blog here in the early part of my trip has been challenging impossible.  We do not have internet in our apartment and as of today we still do not have internet access at the University of Nizwa where we are studying.

Right this second, at 7:30 p.m. Gulf Standard Time,  I am sitting in an internet cafe in the old market of Nizwa, so you can probably figure out that we safely made it to the city where we will be studying for the rest of the trip.  The van ride here was interesting though. Our driver got a speeding ticket before we were out of the Muscat city limits!!  The transport service sent over a replacement driver after that and then we were on our way.  The new driver did very little to discredit the stereotype of the dangerous Omani driver, as he zig-zagged up the mountain road dodging between traffic!!!  We were all so jet-lagged though that we thought it was kind of funny.

At any rate, the first three days of class have been demanding but also rewarding.  I plan on providing more detailed information when I am able to get free wireless service; here at the internet cafe I am paying 400 baisas per hour, which comes out to about $1.o4.  Yes its cheap but it is really hot here so I plan on expanding on my coverage here at a later date… as of right now, we are supposed to get our student identification cards from the University of Nizwa and with that I should be able to log on at the campus and keep up with the blog on a daily basis.

I can tell you in this brief missive a few things: this is a very beautiful country–the landscape and topography are breathtaking; the people are gracious, warm, welcoming, and gentle; there are more Indian food stalls here than you can shake a khanjar at; the folks I am here with are an awesome bunch of people; and I am thoroughly enjoying this opportunity to experience and study this ancient culture and improve my language skills with the help of a committed group of teachers and tutors who are as passionate about improving the world through cultural and intellectual exchange as I am.

I have loads of pictures to post and I will when I am more confident about connecting my camera to a computer that I trust and one that I am not paying by the minute for.

Also, I have to run down to the tailor’s shop to pick up my new dishdasha–the boys and I got measured last night and they are going to be ready here by 8:00 p.m. local time.  With this we will not only fit in with the locals a little better, we will be able to keep cool during the 50 degree Celsius days which are right around the corner.

Categories: First Days in Oman | 7 Comments

The Trip Over and Arrival in Muscat

Marhaba ya asdiqa’i wa usrati!!!

Last night at 10:00 p.m. Gulf Standard Time, our Lufthansa A34-600 landed at Muscat International Airport, nishkur allah.  After landing, the first thing we did was have our passport stamped and buy a 30-day visa, which will have to be renewed later in our stay.  We also exchanged our $US for Omani rials:  There are 2.69 dollars per 1 rial, and the rial is made up of 1000 baisas.   The 100 baisa note seems to function like a dollar bill in the United States.

After we got our visas and found our baggage, we met our program directors, Larry Brown and Judi Garfinkel.  They are a very energetic married couple who work for the Center for International Learning. Their enthusiasm and appreciation for Omani culture and society really shone through last night as they introduced us; so far, their descriptions of the accommodating and hospitable demeanor of the  Omanis have rung true.

We were driven from the airport in two vans to the Al-Husn al-Khaleej Hotel Apartment building in Muscat and we got to our rooms at about 11:30 p.m.  Here on this first night in Muscat, I shared a flat with Mark from the University of Arizona, Ian from Notre Dame, and Matt from the United States Naval Academy. However tomorrow night we will be transported about an 1 hour and a half away to Nizwa, where we will be living and studying for the reminder of our trip.

After dropping off our bags our entire 12-person entourage reconvened in the hotel lobby to stroll down the street in front of our apartment building. I spoke for a few minutes with the men at the desk; I tried to speak Arabic but eventually we just slid into English.  They were very helpful and eager to tell us about their country and city, pointing out the array of restaurants and cafes which stay open until about 3 a.m.   We set out as a group to find some food… we were all hungry and tired at this point.

My first act was to stop at an ATM on the main street, where I proceeded to take out a 100 rials.  My jet-lagged brain was thinking that 100 rials would get me about as far as a $100, but after I got the notes in my hand I realized that I had just taken out $269 from my account!  Whoops!  This will go a long way, though, because last night 12 of us ate at the al-Hilal Turkish Cafe for a grand total of 15 rials–and we ate like champions too.  Before we got to the restaurant we stopped at a juice bar where we all 12 of us were treated to complimentary tamarind “shooters” by the barista.  Several of our group ordered mango juice, because mangos have just come into season here.  I was more hungry than thirsty though, so I waited to spend my money until we got to a cafe just across the street from our apartment building.

The cafe was thriving at 12:30 a.m.  Since it is so hot during the day here the night time is the most active and social part of the day.  There were no women sitting outside of the cafe and from what I could tell there were none inside either.  In general, women are not supposed to sit out on the street with the men her–it is a society that is segregated by gender– so I immediately felt self-conscious with 6 American girls sitting at a table with me and the other five guys.  I guess because Muscat is the capital and more “open” than the rest of the country, the other patrons of the cafe did not really stare or glare too much though, so my unease was quickly dispelled.

At the cafe, I ordered for my table and spoke in Arabic to the waiter. I told him we were all studying the language at the University of Nizwa and he was very happy to hear such a strange looking person trying to communicate with him in his mother tongue.  He told me “Welcome!” and told some of the other waiters that we were studying Arabic and several of them came over and greeted, welcomed, and congratulated us on being in their country.

Though it is called a cafe, this place also specialized in grilled meats, and we all shared several plates of grilled chicken breast, grilled chicken wings, beef and  chicken shawarma, and lamb. These plates came with hummus, lettuce, tomatoes, and what I took to be na’an bread.  I also drank a very delicious and refreshing but strangely frothy apple juice that was freshly made with whole apples, because bits of the seeds were in the bottom of the drink when I finished the glass.

Here in a few minutes we will meet to go on a bus tour of the capital city and then we will be taken to the Center for International Learning for detailed orientation and a language placement test.

Later tonight I will add more description of our flight over, our first night here,  photos, and an update of our first day here.

Categories: First Days in Oman | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Depature Eve

Today’s Warm-Up Trip

Although my trip officially starts tomorrow (June 6), I have been on the road and in the air already today.

I left Fayetteville, Arkansas today from XNA at 4:30 p.m. CDT, and after a short stop in Cincinnati, OH, I landed in Washington, D.C. at 9:24 EDT.  I took the complimentary hotel shuttle to the Chantilly Comfort Suites, where I now sit taking advantage of  free  wi-fi here while enjoying a clutch performance in game 5 by Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics as they educate Lebron James and the Miami Heat in some old-school basketball.

…And Tomorrow’s Marathon

But tomorrow the journey begins in earnest.  I have to be at Washington Dulles International for a 2:00 p.m. briefing tomorrow, where I will finally get to meet the other 11 students with whom I will be spending the next six weeks.

The leader of this briefing, a representative of the SQCC, will tell us a bit about the program and give us a chance to ask any questions, although I have to say that the folks at the CIL have done a very nice job  of  letting us know what to expect during our time in Oman.

My Itinerary for June 6-7

So here are tomorrow’s travel plans:

  1. Depart Washington Dulles International June 6 at 5:55 p.m. EDT
  2. Arrive Frankfurt International June 7 at 1:05 a.m. EDT (8:05 a.m. Frankfurt time)
  3. Depart Franfurt International at June 7 at 3:50 a.m. EDT (10:50 a.m. Frankfurt time).
  4. Stop for a brief time in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  I don’t know the time; I am assuming that we will not “de-plane” here.
  5. Arrive  Muscat International at June 7 at 12:10 p.m. EDT (9:10 p.m. Muscat time)

According to the  CIL’s  pre-departure information, upon arrival in Muscat, the capital of Oman, we will be taken by bus to the Husn Al Khaleej Hotel Apartments, where we will stay the night.

On arrival, we will each be given a cell phone to use for the duration of the trip, but I doubt that I will be calling the United States when I arrive–if ever–with this phone.  Instead, the hotel has wireless access in all the rooms, so I will notify family via email or chat or whatnot that I have arrived as soon as I get the lap-top out of the bag at the hotel.

Likewise, I will put up a short post here too for those of you who already have acquired a need for a continuous information stream from me… ha ha ha…

So Stay Connected…

I will also be sure to post something after our first day in Oman.  For now, here is the plan the CIL has given us:

After waking up in Muscat on the first day, we will be given a brief bus tour of the capital before heading to the CIL for lunch.  Following lunch we  are scheduled for an orientation which will include

  • Introductions to staff and students
  • Questions and answers
  • A Program overview
  • Provision of Health and safety information and emergency contact information
  • Briefings on expected behavior and decorum
  • an Arabic language placement test
  • a briefing on our food allowance and cell phone usage
  • a talk on “how to cope with culture shock”
  • Briefing on safety and security by the United States Embassy staff

After this first full day of touring the capital and getting oriented into the program, we will then be taken to the ancient city of Nizwa, where we will be living and studying for the next six weeks.

While that’s about it all I have in the tank for now, but there will be more to come over the next 48 hours!

Categories: Introductory, Itinerary | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

The Back Story–How and Why I Am Going to Oman

For the scores of people whom I have told that I am going to Oman, the first question they ask me is “wait–you’re going where?”  And then the second question is, usually, “now how did that happen?”  While hyperlinks can help me show you where Oman is, it will take something along the lines of this post to explain just how I managed to get the chance to go there.

So, many of you already know that I have been taking Arabic for the last two and a half years at the University of Arkansas, as part of my course work in the Ph.D program in Comparative Literature.  Big deal, right?  Lots of people take Arabic at the University of Arkansas as well as at universities all over the world.

Well, one morning in the first week of April 2012, my Arabic professor grabbed my elbow on the way into class, and he asked me if I would be interested in going to Oman for a few weeks over the summer.

I said, “Sure. But what’s the catch?”

He told me if I could drop by his office later, he would explain.

Later that day, I did indeed pay a visit to Professor Haydar’s office, and he showed me the details: a  fully paid, six-week summer scholarship for the study of Arabic language and media, in the Gulf country of Oman, was being offered by the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, in conjunction with the Center for International Learning, to 12 intermediate-level Arabic language students enrolled at universities in the United States.  Officially, the program attached to the scholarship is called the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center (SQCC) Summer Arabic Language and Media (SALAM) program.   After hearing all of this I thought, “why not… I probably won’t get it, but surely it won’t hurt to apply.”  Like my dad, the basketball coach always says, “you will miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

That very afternoon I applied for my passport and began to go through the whole application process.  I quickly filled out the scholarship application, completed the 40-question diagnostic Arabic language test, and composed a 200-word hand-written statement of purpose in Arabic (I’m not very smooth at typing with an Arabic font, and my Arabic handwriting is much better than my scrawling in English).  My professor agreed to write a recommendation letter, and so I got the ball rolling.  By the application deadline of April 25,  I already had my materials submitted to the SQCC for over a week!  But still, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be chosen, so I didn’t tell anyone that I had applied except my girlfriend Chantal.  Yet, when my professor informed me that he had sent off the recommendation letter, he  made me promise him that I would tell him first, before anyone else, as soon as I heard something–so in hindsight, I think he knew something even then.

So cue the drum roll.

On May 2, right before heading into Kimpel Hall 205 to teach Act IV of Hamlet, I dipped into the English teaching assistant computer lab to check my email, as I did everyday this semester.  And here is what was waiting for me.

After reading this letter I was filled with a range of emotions: pride, happiness, anxiety, indecision, excitement.  As can be imagined, it was very difficult to go into the classroom literally seconds later and try to talk about the rage of Laertes and Ophelia’s death by drowning after receiving this news.  Somehow I managed to repress my emotions enough to lead a discussion of the tragedy of Hamlet with the appropriate blend of solemnity, reverence, pathos, and snide humor, without giving into the urge to blurt out what I considered to be amazingly great news to the class, most of whom at that point were probably dreading their upcoming final exams.

Since I didn’t tell them then, I am now crowing about it here to you.  And what are the terms of the scholarship? You might recall that the acceptance letter contains the phrase “fully paid”, which means that airfare, a weekly food stipend, housing, weekend excursions, and intensive Arabic language instruction in the classroom and “on the street”  are all paid for. I am particularly excited by the fact that I will have an individual “peer facilitator” conversation partner who will be assigned to work with me one-on-one for a few hours each afternoon.  I expect that this is where the “immersion” into the culture and language will occur.

But you also might be wondering what exactly is the focus of the scholarship.  In the language of  the Center for International Learning’s pre-departure information packet, “[t]he program teaches Modern Standard Arabic and Omani dialect to intermediate level students, building functional usage of the language through the study and analysis of the media: print, broadcast, internet, film, and literature.”  Sounds right up my alley!

Now, even after a month after hearing the news of the award and just hours away from my departure for the Gulf, it’s still hard for me to believe. Considering that five years ago I was pulling 12-hour shifts every day as the sous-chef at Twisted Fork restaurant and staring down the barrel of an unsatisfying career in food service and hospitality, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would receive such an opportunity.  Reflecting on the blessings I have received over the last five years, I have an immense amount of gratitude for everything–both the good and the bad–that has happened in my life to get me back into school and moving towards the realization of my long-held dream of living a “life of the mind.” So many people have helped me on my path and they–and you, probably, dear reader–are part of it.  That is one of the main reasons I wanted to keep a blog about my trip: to share, in words and pictures, the details of this exciting summer adventure with all of the people who have helped me get there.

At any rate, that is the story of how and why I am going to Oman.  Now, the question is, what will happen when I get there?  I hope you are as curious as I am.

Categories: Introductory | Tags: , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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