Imagine my surprise when one of my Omani students told me that the walls of his entire village had been painted by a local street artist. “Really,” I exclaimed with glee! “I love street art!”
On the following weekend, I headed north from the port city of Sohar in a bid to capture on video whatever I found. What I discovered in a small fishing village just west of the slightly larger town of Liwa was much more than I had expected. The walls of the village were indeed covered in art—an assortment of male faces—from the walls immediately surrounding the local mosque all the way to the sea.
This is a region of the world where the only public art on display was usually found in oddly-shaped geometric forms placed in the center of roundabouts on highways.
In a conservative culture where religion, traditions and family dictate all aspects of an individual’s life, what kind of statement was this artist making and why was it that the local people of the village didn’t object?
Idols in our midst?
Images of people–especially famous figures writ large on entire walls—were often said to be ‘haram’ (taboo) in traditional Arabian Gulf cultures because of the fear that they might be seen as idols in a land where there is no God but Allah. However, that rule hadn’t seemed to matter in the case of the Sultan’s picture which hung in every business in the country.
The male figures portrayed on the walls of this small village were mostly drawn from American movies, especially the characters from the “Fast and Furious” films. FYI–Omani males LOVE driving FAST!.
Sadam Hussein, who was reviled in much of the Arab world before the American Government’s disastrous invasion of Iraq turned him into a cult hero for many Arabs, was prominently featured alongside Arabian Gulf heads of state.
Bob Marley—complete with a cannabis leaf—was present along with Che Guevara and the Joker from “Batman.” It was quite an eclectic group of characters, recognizing both international and regional cult heroes.
A land of contrasts and contradictions
Repeatedly in Oman I experienced contrasts and contradictions as Western pop culture was rapidly confronting more traditional ways and blending into a new cultural mix.
Such is the cycle of popular culture—especially American music and movies—as it has become disseminated to all corners of our planet. I swear if I have to listen to The Eagles song “Hotel California” blasting from yet another bar or restaurant in the developing world, I’m going to scream.