June 2010: Arriving at the airport in Irbil (also spelled Arbil or Erbil), the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, I was struck by the diversity of the people buzzing around the small, crowded terminal. I had been equally surprised by the large number of Chinese workers on my flight from Dubai, most wearing a company shirt that identified their purpose for the trip.
I was aware that the regional government of Kurdistan was ramping up production of their oil reserves, but flying in foreign workers in such large numbers was surely a sign of the kind of new-found prosperity I’d become accustomed to in the Arabian Gulf countries. From the online research I’d done, I had expected this experience to be very different from my previous 3 years spent in the Gulf, both in cultural and standard of living. For a moment, I felt my heart move toward disappointment, but that emotion was quickly replaced by my need to focus as I entered a new culture, one that would turn out to be more proudly rooted in tradition than any I’d experienced before.
Nature is what we all have in common~Wendell Berry
The summer of 2017 has been one for the record books as far as natural disasters are concerned. I spent two weeks visiting friends in Seattle and was greeted by smoke-filled air each day due to wildfires that were raging out of control in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.
Next, I returned to the Southeastern USA just in time to witness the arrival of multiple record-breaking hurricanes that had churned their way across the Atlantic.
And then over the past few days, I’ve been intently following the post-earthquake rescues in my adopted home of Mexico.
Haitham, one of my brightest communications class students, stood in front of my desk nervously fidgeting with his notebook until I finally nudged him into telling me why he’d made an appointment to speak with me in the privacy my office. “I just wanted you to know I really admire your culture,” he said, emphasizing the word ‘your’ in an effort to express his dismay with his own.
“Really,” I retorted, with an amused expression on my face that I couldn’t seem to control. “I can think of a few aspects of American culture I don’t admire,” I added. In his most earnest voice, Haitham continued by explaining that he was actually referring to ‘standards’ which he felt were completely absent in Omani culture.
The flashpoints that sparked the clash between world views earlier this month in Charlottesville, Virginia are just the latest battle in the decades-long culture war over racial and economic inequality in the USA. Once again, groups on the left and right of America’s political extremes (along with others) are battling it out in online forums and public protests. The most recent lightning rods are American Civil War monuments to white generals and soldiers who fought for the Southern Confederacy to maintain their (economic) right to own slaves. It was, of course, the slaves that allowed the South to prosper by providing the manual labor needed to run vast agricultural plantations.
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.