Sometimes, fate gives a traveler time to slowly absorb the intricacies of a new culture, but at other times situations force us to jump in head first, sink or swim.
On a weekend about six weeks into my second stint in the Sultanate, a Canadian teacher and close friend I’d worked with in Thailand came to visit me. Wanting to be a good host and give him a tour of some of the main tourist sites in northern Oman, we set out on a weekend trip to visit Nizwa and Balha, two towns of historic and religious significance in the interior.
I had readily found a small, inexpensive car to rent soon after arriving back in Oman, but I was so concerned about my friend’s comfort that I exchanged it for a Toyota Yaris which provided more comfortable seats as well as a more powerful AC system which would surely be needed in the interior. While driving the white Yaris out of its parking space and onto the highway, I felt a chill run up my spine, and just for a moment I considered returning it. I tried to pass off this negative feeling of impending doom as dehydration and drove on telling myself that I was just being silly. This decision would later come back to haunt me.
Being in a conservative Muslim country where the main weekly prayers and message from the imam are delivered on Friday each week, our weekend days off at that time were Thursdays and Fridays. So, bright and early on Thursday morning, my friend and I began the 3-hour drive to Nizwa. We drove across the backbone of the rugged Al Hajar mountains, passing through village after village, while commenting on the fact that we saw only men milling about outside. Once in Nizwa, we enjoyed an interesting afternoon touring its historic fort and walking the narrow alleys of the old center.
On Friday morning, we were up early again to take in all the activity at the colorful and entertaining Nizwa livestock market. Next, we did some shopping in the recreated old town souk, with my friend buying souvenirs while I purchased a vintage sword and sheath that reminded me of a prop right out of Lord of the Rings. With sword and souvenirs stored in the back, we then headed north to the town of Bahla to see its ancient ruins and grand UNESCO-listed fort.
After viewing the exterior of the fort (which was closed for refurbishment) and exploring the hauntingly empty mudbrick houses in the abandoned old part of Bahla, we were returning south to Nizwa when the traffic slowed due to the throngs of worshippers who were dispersing from the large mosque located on the main highway just south of town. The traffic heading north into the town of Bahla was backed up on this 2-lane stretch, and even though our south-bound lane wasn’t stopped, it was moving slowly.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, four laborers appeared directly in the path of my car. While part of my brain was still dealing with disbelief, my body systems reacted to the sudden rush of adrenaline and I felt as if my peripheral vision was all-encompassing allowing me to be aware of everything happening around me.
I reacted instinctively, hitting the brakes while at the same time trying to steer the car on a clear path to the right away from the laborers who were in my lane. Three of the workers stopped in their tracks, while one continued to run directly in the path of my car—just like the proverbial deer caught in headlights—for what seemed like an eternity.
I’ll never forget witnessing the horrified facial expressions of my visiting friend as the following events took place: The laborer was scooped up by the hood (bonnet) of the car with just enough force to roll his body up and into the windshield, shattering the safety glass. As the car came to a final halt on the shoulder of the road, I immediately jumped out and tried to keep the victim stationary on the ground until help could arrive. While I was urging him to remain still, others grabbed him and pulled him into a taxi for a ride to the hospital. I waited by the car for the police to arrive.
Within fifteen minutes, the Royal Oman Police (ROP) arrived at the scene, but didn’t linger. I believe their intent was to be sure that my friend and I were swiftly delivered back to the police station, but I was also concerned that they were being neglectful in not writing down any eyewitness accounts from the hundreds of bystanders who had by now gathered around the accident scene.
Back at the police station, I was more than a little freaked out, worried about the injured worker’s fate as well as my own. My fears were eased a bit by the friendly and respectful demeanor of the ROP officer as he filled out multiple forms with my responses to his questions for personal information as well as about the accident. I remember feeling very grateful that he spoke at least enough English for us to communicate, or so I thought at the time. I’ve since learned that an expat should always call a trusted interrupter who can translate all verbal and written communication that may be used in any type of legal case.
My parents raised me with a sense of duty to tell the ‘truth’, but my gut instinct told me that being openly concerned about the victim yet restrained (for once!) with my words would be best in such a situation. I had been confused trying to decipher the local version of honestly based on the behavior of my Omani students. I also remembered reading that in cultures with important oral traditions, such as those found in the Arab world, one’s words matter more than any amount of riches. I would later come to understand how important the ‘spoken’ word was to the Bedouin inhabitants of the Arabian Gulf, while at the same time experiencing just how empty those words could be, depending on the situation.
My Canadian friend sat nearby throughout the questioning, but was not visible to me, and listened intently—probably wincing every time I would stumble over a question. Still, I’m certain he was making mental notes in case this turned into a screenplay-worthy story. He had already determined this wasn’t going to be any ordinary vacation.
Just following the period of questioning, I made and received multiple calls to my recruiting agency in Muscat concerning suitable identification (the agency still had my passport for visa issuance purposes) and finding out what steps would likely come next in this unknown process. I was told an Omani company representative was being sent but that it would take several hours for him to arrive. The weight of the day’s events began to sink in more fully. I had committed a serious (and possibly punishable) act in a foreign country and I realized there was no buffer between myself and the new culture. I was at the mercy of their laws.
I was next escorted into a small but very busy office filled with multiple desks stationed by ROP officers and surrounded by other Omanis and laborers both sitting and standing. I was given a seat in front of an empty desk and told to wait. An hour or so later, after watching many people come and go, the office door opened to reveal the worker I’d hit who now wore blood-stained bandages around his head, one arm and a leg. He was placed in an empty chair facing me, so close to each other that our knees touched. Of course, I was THRILLED to see that he was alive and walking around unescorted, but the next hour of sitting there trying to make only limited eye contact with him was one of the most difficult of my life.
The plight of poor Asian workers in the Gulf
Since returning to Oman, I had taken a special interest in the plight of the legions of poor workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka who perform almost all the manual labor needed to develop and operate these rapidly emerging economies. While I understand that to some degree exploitation takes place within all cultures as wealthier groups exert their control over business and government systems to take advantage of the labor of the poorer masses, the degree of exploitation I witnessed in the Gulf countries seemed a bit too much like my idea of indentured servitude.
These workers often arrive owing a percentage of their tiny salaries to often unscrupulous recruiters back in their home countries while having limited freedom to leave their Omani sponsors, regardless of the work conditions. They live crowded into shacks filled with bunks or sleep on floor mats and must endure the intense heat twelve hours per day, six or more days per week as they build the infrastructure which is the foundation for growth in these economies.
In all my interactions with these laborers, I had tried to show respect and appear grateful for even the smallest things they had done for me. But now I found myself in a situation where I felt threatened by this worker’s very presence. My mind raced through all the cultural research I’d done on the Arabian Gulf countries, looking for a way to better understand the situation and present myself as both sympathetic and strong.
Only a few minutes after sitting down in front of me, the laborer began to repeat “help me” over and over in a very quiet voice while holding his unbandaged hand out in a ‘please give me’ gesture. Based on my experience of being seriously injured in multiple car accidents when I was younger and seeing the ease of movement the worker had just exhibited upon entering the office, I surmised that his injuries were only superficial at which point my attitude toward him turned from sympathetic to annoyed. It appeared obvious that he wanted financial compensation in the form of cash to be handed over to him now in such a public place. Of course, handing over cash would have seemed like a certain admission of some degree of guilt, so I tried to maintain a sympathetic smile while basically ignoring his repeated requests.
As the time droned on, I steadily became more irritated by the worker’s behavior and by being put into such an uncomfortable situation. After all, hadn’t he been the one who ran right into the path of my moving vehicle? I clearly felt there had been no way to avoid all four of the workers who had appeared on the highway, especially this one who had continued to run in front of my car as I attempted to swerve away from him! Had he done this on purpose, knowing that the ‘blood money’ mandated by the government, and paid to relatives of anyone killed on Omani soil, was equal to many years of savings for his family and possibly as much as he could earn in a lifetime?
I was finally rescued by an Omani officer who informed me this was the accident office and then proceeded to fill out a multitude of forms as I answered his questions. Most of the questions were directed at me while the Asian worker sat, watching my every move and wearing an expression that seemed to indicate that he wasn’t used to being the center of so much attention. Eventually, the laborer was told he could leave.
I was escorted from the traffic office and waited nervously for Abdullah to show up, still not having any additional clues to my fate. Time seemed to stand still, until finally Abdullah entered the station, greeted me and patiently negotiated his way around the office, being careful to show the utmost respect at all times. Once Abdullah had finished making the rounds and gathering information—plus repeated calls to the head of the recruiting agency—he came to me and explained that I would be released in his care but must return the following day to the give statements at the district attorney’s office in Bahla.
Abdullah was friendly and helpful, but noticeably upset because of being required to leave his personal Omani ID as collateral to secure my release. This, in turn, brought home the gravity of the situation in which I found myself. I didn’t have access to my passport and wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country until this legal matter was settled.
Waiting and worrying
The next two months were particularly unpleasant as I juggled my work schedule in order to make multiple trips with Abdullah back to the district attorney’s office in Bahla. I also used this time to talk with long-time Gulf expats and ask for their thoughts and advice, but I didn’t encounter anyone else who had personally experienced a similar situation. Some people advised me to find and hire an attorney, while others said it wouldn’t make any difference as the case appeared to be one in which I was clearly not at fault.
As word of the accident spread (news travels quickly in Oman), some of my students began to ask about the details. Upon hearing that the incident had taken place in Bahla, they regaled me with fascinating stories about jinn, or supernatural creatures, who were known to inhabit the mountains around Bahla and taunt the living by causing accidents and even possession.
Considering my stroke of bad luck, I wasn’t willing to discount their beliefs, nor was I happy about owning the vintage sword I had purchased at the Nizwa souk. Granted the whole experience had produced more than a bit of paranoia in my mind, but I couldn’t stop wondering how many lives had been extinguished by a stroke or plunge of its blade. It seemed like bad karma indeed to own such an object and I decided I would pass it on to an Omani at the earliest opportunity.
The courtroom blues
The day of my court appearance finally arrived, and Abdullah and I headed out for Bahla before sunrise. I sat nervously in the packed court room observing the cases that were presented before mine. Although all the court proceedings were conducted in Arabic, I was especially captivated by a female attorney who argued forcefully with the presiding judge on behalf of her client, so much so that an unsure verdict appeared to be swayed in her client’s favor. I sat clutching my clammy hands as I watched cases being heard that involved Omani versus Omani conflicts as well as various cases between Omanis and foreign laborers.
My case number was finally called and I was directed to stand in the British style witness box, which was slightly raised about the courtroom and located on the front left side of the space. The judge pretended not to speak any English, and so after a few minutes of not understanding what was happening, I was told (mainly through gestures and a few English words) that a translator was being summoned to come to the court building. Another hour or so passed with more cases being tried and settled, while my unease grew steadily.
Upon arrival, the translator spoke with the judge, after which time I briefed him on all the statements I’d made to the police and district attorney concerning the accident. He assured me that things would be fine, but at this point, I was regretting the fact that I hadn’t hired a lawyer to represent me.
More waiting ensued until my case was called and I once again took my place in the witness box. The judge looked at me and began by asking (in English), “Why were you driving recklessly when you hit this man,” gesturing to the worker who was standing with a group of people in front of the judge’s podium. My heart raced and my gut had that all too familiar sinking feeling at being asked such a provocative question, and one that I felt was blatantly false. I protested that I was driving carefully when multiple laborers ran directly in front of my moving vehicle.
After a brief conference with the translator, the judge raised his head and directed the following statement at me. “Omani law allows me to sentence you to prison for one year because you hit someone with your car,” he said, again using perfect English. The judge then turned his head and began addressing the laborer and other members of the group immediately in front of him while I was left to ponder my future in an Omani prison cell!
Following what is arguably the longest 10 minutes of my life, the judge finished his discussions and handed down his verdict. I would be required to pay a fine and court costs while the auto insurance company would pay the laborer a small sum for his injuries and medical treatment. There would be no further charges against me and I was free to go!
I felt an immense sense of relief as if a huge burden I’d been carrying around was suddenly lifted off my shoulders and chest. Abdullah could also breathe a sigh of relief since he could now seek the return of his National ID and no longer have to deal with my problems. Even though teacher recruitment agencies in the Gulf region often receive lots of criticism for their lack of organization, I must say how very grateful I am to my organization which used all their ‘wasta’ (special favors from people in high places) to support me and secure my release.
As the days passed, my work life began to fall back into a routine that felt quite manageable, especially when compared to the previous two months of stress and worry, but I vowed to never drive in Oman again. After all, I had read numerous reports of laborers being hit and killed on an all too frequent basis while crossing major highways and I certainly didn’t want to face such a situation again.
As spring turned into summer and I had to endure the discomfort of waiting on the side of the main highway for up to an hour while trying to flag down a taxi in dangerously high temperatures, I knew it was time to face my fear of being behind the wheel of a car. With the emotional support of my closet friends, and knowing that I needed to create a workable situation in this land of suburban sprawl without mass transit options, I rented another car and resumed driving.
Sometimes, fate gives a traveler time to slowly absorb the intricacies of a new culture, but at other times situations force us to jump in head first, sink or swim. The experience of hitting a pedestrian with my car would forever color the next eight years of my time working and living in the Sultanate. While I would never feel completely comfortable or at ease, I did trust that should another incident take place, the Omani judicial system would rule fairly as they had done in this case.