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.
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.
Following US President Donald Trump’s first visit to the Middle East, it’s a good time to take stock and refresh our collective memories about past foreign policy decisions (those of the USA as well as others) and the effects they’ve had on the ground across this vast region. Learning from past mistakes certainly seems prudent since current events in the Middle East occupy a prominent place in the discussions that determine the foreign and domestic policies of Western governments these days.
In this series of articles, I want to address three areas: 1) the collective Western image of the Middle East and its people, 2) observations I’ve formed based on academic research and discussions with both locals and expats who call this region home, and 3) the effects of past and current Western influence and interference in the governments, and therefore the lives of the people, all across this region.
Is anyone else having difficulty these days sorting reality from fiction??? Life seems more and more like the plot of a dystopian movie that’s set in a world where the public at large exists in a tube-fed state of reality (but not a blissful one), and seems to have no will to challenge the dominant paradigm that’s controlling them. In this drama, the masses seem to exist within the confines of a Reality TV series where they’re controlled by a ‘Big Brother’ entity–a sort of quasi corporate/government hybrid.
Yes, I am referring to the current state of the government of the United States of America and how it relates to both the ‘American’ people and the world at large. I’m also referring to the failure of the USA’s two party political system. In my humble view, both the Republican and Democratic National Committees, which openly operate like major corporations, only exist to polarize the population and therefore divide and conquer, an obviously winning political strategy historically used by successive world governments to gain power and control over the masses. Is what’s profitable for a major corporation also what’s beneficial to its customers—in this case, the ‘American’ public?
I had just snapped some pics when I heard what sounded like GUNFIRE ring out. As I turned, I saw the security guards from all the surrounding restaurants run in the direction of the sounds. At the same time, all the Colombians turned quickly and ran in my direction and away from the sounds. I immediately ‘got’ that the locals recognized the difference between the sound of exploding firecrackers and gunshots so I turned and ran as well. I don’t know any details but as I hurried out of the area, police units were arriving from every direction–what an incredibly quick response time! This took place this afternoon as I was walking in the Lleras Park area of Medellin, the city’s most well-known entertainment district. It’s located in a very upscale neighborhood near the apartment I’m renting for a month.
Some of you will say ‘stay inside and be safe,’ just as I’ve been repeatedly warned by American relatives to ‘please return to the USA.’ This was especially true during the eight years I lived in the Middle East. I suppose it’s normal to feel more comfortable, and therefore safer, when we’re close to the place we call home, regardless of the reality shown by statistics.
We seem to be living in a period where it’s become the norm for the USA’s highest level elected officials to create melodrama in order to distract folks from the destruction of institutions that made America great in the first place. Ask people in other countries what they admire/respect most about America and they will, without hesitation, mention public schools and higher education, quality healthcare, environmental safeguards, freedom of the press as well as religion and America’s amazing National Park System. Aren’t those also things Americans should care about? Do these positive quality of life factors really have to be obliterated in order to create decent paying jobs as Trump purports? Wouldn’t investing in science and technology–especially in the creation of technologies to produce carbon neutral sources of energy–create more jobs for the future rather than using those investment dollars as direct payment to long-established major corporations whose only (unethical) goal is to increase profits in the short term for shareholders?
Don’t think that watching the destruction of American institutions is any easier from my viewpoint abroad. If anything, living in developing countries–where corruption and cronyism in government is tolerated and often encouraged–only heightens my awareness of the damage currently being done to the fabric of American society, or at least the remnants of what remains. On a daily basis, I witness the results of weak environmental protections, lack of zoning regulations and the poverty that results when government officials care more about lining their own pockets than about the welfare of citizens. As I write this, I’m constantly interrupted by fits of coughing due to the poor air quality in the city where I’m currently staying. This is what lack of government regulation brings, and believe me when I say it isn’t the quality of life I know most of my friends in the USA cherish!
In my zeal to discover myself as I move from place to place around the globe, I often find myself cringing at my own behavior. Yes folks, this roving lover of all things cultural has been known to behave badly at times when faced with challenging situations in distant lands.
Oh, how I wish I was one of those travelers who could eat anything without upsetting my stomach and fall asleep on a rock. Unfortunately, I’m extremely sensitive to many of the external forces that I encounter as I drag my bags from one country to another. I also started my life of international travel late—in my early 40s—at a time when many people want a bit more predictability and comfort in their lives. As I age and health problems begin to creep in, the challenges of constantly being on the road grow for me as well as those dear souls unlucky enough to meet me in one of my worst moments.