Even as a rabid student of geography, I must admit I had very little knowledge about the cycle of daily life in the Middle East prior to beginning my first teaching job there. I thought of the region as the ultimate exotic location–the land of Aladdin, Sinbad the sailor and genies who magically appeared from shiny lamps. So, before I can begin to share my overall impressions about Arabian Gulf culture through the eyes of my Omani friends and students, let me explain a bit about my own first impressions.
While I was studying at the University of Edinburgh in 2003, I met and became friends with student teachers from Oman and Syria who forever changed my view of people from this region. I found the Syrians to be very Western in both appearance and outlook as they mixed easily with the Europeans in the program. My Syrian friends were from wealthier families in Damascus and were quick to proclaim they were not religious. In contrast, my Omani friend, Abdul, openly bristled in social situations outside class and appeared to be generally ill at ease.
Abdul was especially vocal about the behavior of females who dared to exert their independence and readily expressed strong opinions which set him up to constantly be at loggerheads with the good-natured and fun-loving Greek teachers with whom I often hung out. Despite his apparent discomfort in Scottish culture, he exhibited a remarkable poise and it was evident to everyone he encountered that he was filled with pride for his homeland. The walls of Abdul’s small flat in Edinburgh were plastered with gorgeous posters of tourist sites in Oman, and he constantly raved about the mystical beauty of his country’s mountains, beaches and vast sand deserts.
About half-way through the intensive 12-month Master’s Program, Abdul began to show up for class dressed in his native long, white ‘dishdasha’ and colorfully embroidered cap known as a ‘kumma’. Over time I came to understand the meaning of his change in style from the regular jeans and T-shirt he had previously worn. In fact, he missed the close ties of the familiar—friends and family—so much that he would simply disappear at times and return to Oman for an unscheduled break. Just as we began the long process of researching and writing our dissertations, Abdul became so homesick that he left the program for good and returned to Oman.
I remember thinking how terribly unhappy he must have been to make such a difficult decision, especially since his tuition was being fully paid by the Omani government who would surely frown on such behavior from an adult teacher. Fast-forward to early September 2007, following teaching assignments in China and Thailand, and I found myself beginning a new teaching job at a government college in Oman. This is where my cultural education began in earnest.
Arrival in the Gulf
I had secured the teaching position through a recruiting agency who sent me an e-ticket to Muscat, the capital of Oman. Once the plane was on the ground, the intense heat could be felt inside the cabin and I could see what looked like fog outside the window. An agency representative met me in the arrivals hall and accompanied me to a nondescript hotel in what appeared to be an industrial area where I’d be staying for a brief orientation before heading to the college where I’d be teaching.
The hotel was eerily quiet since my arrival coincided with the first week of the month-long Ramadan period which dictates that all shops have limited daytime hours due to the fact that the local population is fasting from sunrise to sunset. I would learn that there are many other rules that both locals and the large expat population were expected to follow during this holy period, such as a prohibition on alcohol sales. Although this would become a constant source of complaints from other expat teachers, it wasn’t a big deal for me because I had been a teetotaler since I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005 while living in Bangkok.
The following two days of orientation were very ‘disorienting’ as I and the other two new teachers were given our teaching assignments in an inland town and filled out innumerable agency and government forms, yet received very little information about the program curriculum or student/teacher expectations. The agency seemed totally incompetent and the entire process a bit like the fog outside the plane on the night of my arrival—mysterious and vague. During my online research prior to flying to Oman, I recalled reading some advice on a website for expat teachers which stated that classroom survival in Oman required that an individual be able to deal with ‘maximum ambiguity’ at all times. By the way, the fog actually turned out to be a constant summer haze created by the intense heat and (since Muscat is located on the coast) humidity.
The morning we left Muscat for the interior everyone was in a positive state of mind, laughing and joking about what lay ahead. After about 2 hours of driving, we entered a beautiful brown-rock mountain range dotted by date-laden palm oases and each of us oohed and aahed with each successive curve in the narrow two-lane road. These were the landscapes pictured in the travel industry photos I’d seen while doing research online as well as in those beautiful posters displayed on the walls of Abdul’s Edinburgh flat.
The excitement that had built up because we thought we were getting near our final destination quickly dissipated as the recruitment agency chief continued driving on, emerging out of the mountains, past an area of sand-colored plateaus and into a flat sand and gravel desert broken only by the occasional scrubby-looking tree, a species I would later find to be covered with large thorns as a means of protection in this harsh environment. The harsh light and glare of the midday sun made the barren landscape look even more uninviting.
The silence in the car was palpable as we entered the small, dusty desert town which would be our home, passing one and two-story cinder block shops that stretched along the main highway. We were taken directly to the college where we met some of the other expat teachers and our supervisor who gave us the shocking news that we would begin teaching classes early the next morning even though none of us had seen any of the teaching materials or been told what to expect from the students—a sort of trial by fire.
The ‘physical needs’ barrier
As we left the college and drove back through town, we saw that all the shops had now closed for the afternoon. We were dropped off at our accommodations, a house near the center of town that was still being constructed for one teacher and spacious 2-bedroom apartments on the south end of the chockablock sprawl for myself and a young British woman, Susan, who would be living across the hallway. The apartments had been newly furnished, but the most important items were missing—food and water.
Susan and I quickly realized that we were stuck with our hunger and thirst until the shops reopened sometime after 5:00 PM. Why hadn’t the agency director offered us lunch at the college I wondered aloud? Oh yes, I realized again that it was Ramadan and the cafeteria at the college would have been closed. Mind you, the temperature outside was 48 degrees (around 120 Fahrenheit) and the wind blowing off the desert of the Empty Quarter (and Saudi Arabia) to the west made me feel as if I had plunged my entire body into an oven. My tongue stuck to the sides of my mouth and I seriously thought I could feel my skin rapidly drying out. Susan retreated to her air-conditioned apartment to sleep and conserve energy, while I sought to take my mind off thirst by organizing and unpacking. Already, the world of 24-hour convenience stores that had been ubiquitous in my most recent home of Thailand was fading into memory.
Just after 5:00, while the sun was still far too high in the sky, Susan and I headed out into the heat in search of food and drink. The town was mostly deserted since the Omanis were still taking their afternoon naps in preparation for nighttime feasting which would continue well into the early hours of the morning. Since there were no footpaths, we had to walk in the dirt and rubble that lined the side of the highway and the sandals we were wearing proved completely inadequate to protect our feet from the coarseness of the sharp rocks. We also quickly realized that our new town had few restaurants from which to choose, especially ones that served anything other than red meat and fried chicken.
From my pre-Oman research, I had gathered that plentiful local oil supplies had created a car-dependent culture that surpassed even the USA, meaning there were few other transportation options. As Susan and I wandered the streets on foot, we encountered the occasional engaged orange and white taxi but mostly the streets were owned by the type of large SUVs and sedans popular with Omanis, while the Indian and Bangladeshi laborers rode antiquated bicycles along the margins between the edges of the road and piles of rubble. Susan and I rambled along for about 2 miles, stopping in at multiple restaurants along the way and chugging several bottles of water each, before finally reaching the center of town where we found a newly opened supermarket which improved our moods momentarily.
Once inside, we discovered that most of the long aisles were lined with a single product in order to simply fill the space. For example, one aisle contained only large, family-sized bags of white rice and another was filled with hundreds of brightly colored boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes! To my dismay, the fruit and vegetable section was tiny and only contained a few yellow plastic crates of shriveled vegetables. We, of course, both bought a box of corn flakes, a loaf of basic sliced bread and agreed that we would stop in at a small neighborhood shop we had passed near our apartment building for large bottles of water on the way back home.
Finding you’re on your own
I had hoped things would fall into place during the following week, but that wasn’t to be. There was little guidance available on matters of classroom teaching, and I felt as if the college was satisfied with just having a warm body to baby-sit the students during the 90-minute class sessions. In addition, I spoke with the agency representatives in Muscat every day and begged them to find a car I could rent so I could drive to a larger town for regular food shopping, but they insisted they had checked with all the rental companies and there were no cars available in capital. I found this difficult to believe and was frustrated by their reluctance to give a new teacher assistance, especially since I was the one who would be paying for the car hire. After a few days of this back and forth, I took it upon myself to rattle the bushes on a local level in search of a car.
Just after sunset when business owners had broken fast with the Iftar meal, I began walking from one car dealership to another in search of an agency that rented vehicles. I was finally pointed in the direction of the only car hire business in town and settled into a chair along with a small cup of thick, sweet coffee, an offer which cannot be politely refused. After about half an hour, the conversation culminated as I was told they didn’t have any cars available. This was my first experience with the laid-back nature of business dealings in this region of the world, where the journey is definitely considered more important than the destination.
On the following evening after work, I took a taxi to the nearest large town more than an hour away across the desert to the south. After multiple rendezvous with other taxi drivers in the new town, I was taken to a car hire office where the usual coffee and conversation ensued. I was offered a contract for their last available rental car after about an hour of chat and negotiation, but the contract was written in Arabic so I asked if there was a neutral person who could translate the multiple pages—clause after clause—for me. Through my taxi driver, a local Omani English teacher was called and appeared after an additional wait of 30 minutes or so.
After looking over the contract, the English teacher told me this legal agreement stated that I was responsible for any (and all) damage should I have an accident while in possession of the car. Being aware of how important CDL insurance is in such situations—especially in a region where free-to-roam goats and camels can wander onto a dark highway at any moment and the driver is responsible for paying blood money for the animal’s life as well as for any vehicle damage—I graciously declined the car and headed back north in a taxi. Later I would realize that it was most likely the danger of driving at night in this part of the world that had caused the recruitment agency to be less than helpful in obtaining a car for my personal use.
It was around 11:00 PM when I arrived back in my town, feeling defeated and isolated by a lack of transport options and aware of how important finding the right foods for my diet were to sustaining good health. After a mere eight days of frustration, poor diet and a very upset digestive system, I had become a disgruntled employee and made a snap decision to return to Thailand. I found a travel agency still open at such a late hour, purchased an airline ticket for the following afternoon and wrote an accusatory email to the recruitment agency informing them of my imminent departure. Although I was ambivalent about leaving, it felt like the only decision I could make at the time as I knew from past experience that my health was of paramount importance.
Note: When I began writing this week’s post, I quickly realized that the cultural revelations I gained during 8 years of teaching and living in Oman could not be distilled into a 1000-word essay for Middle East Primer Part 2. As I stated last week, the cultures of this region are far too complex and the local traditions much too difficult to crack as a Westerner, therefore, patience and awareness are of the utmost importance as the cultural veil slowly disappears and begins to be replaced by understanding, even if the viewer still lacks full acceptance of what’s being revealed.
In next week’s post, I will share the story of my (hardly triumphal!) return to Oman and the many lessons and cultural revelations allowed through a partnership built on mutual acceptance with my students and genuine Omani friends.