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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Us?

International travelers know that there exist many contradictions in how we engage with our host cultures. It is thus unsurprising that after one year and three months of life in Oman, one of the most beautiful aspects of Omani culture that I have come to appreciate and admire is the same aspect I have found the most difficult to adopt and adjust to. The aspect I refer to we will call, relationship maintenance.

Now, by virtue of my culture, upbringing, personal choice, values of my family, and so on, I have always been driven toward self-sufficiency. I have fought to build my life such that I rely on no one but myself to ensure my well-being, secure my basic needs, or enjoin my pursuit of happiness. Ironically, in the course of my pursuit I have come to find that my happiness is very much contingent on the lives and well being of other people. Oman has been a wonderful place to reconcile this seeming inconsistency as this society places very little to no, value in being a self-sufficient self-reliant individual. On the contrary, it seems in some circumstances the more people you have to do things for you, the better off you are.

With the existence of the “Wasta” system, comes a great deal of emphasis on establishing and maintaining relationships. This really exists at all levels and avenues of society whether you need strings pulled at the Ministry or whether you need a ride to the airport. Some important factors in raising your social “wasta” strength is age, wealth, establishment (that is prestige), and the notoriety of you or your family. Some characteristics, such as age and reputation (for example a reputation of becoming easily agitated or for getting things accomplished quickly, etc) play bigger roles within families, groups of friends or neighbors, we’ll call it “social wasta.”

Generally, I find the tight-knit familial relationships in Oman to truly be remarkable. Families are often big, and look out for each other unquestionably (generally speaking of course). Parents, older siblings, close aunts or uncles, play a big a role in the major (and sometimes minor) decisions of your life from choosing spouse to choosing a car. Over the course of my stay, I have had the pleasure of meeting and being supported by many wonderfully generous people, who have particular concern for me considering I am living here without family and thus (they may assume) I must be at a loss for that guidance, and help. Indeed I am not. I have been very reluctant to inviting people into my life who, no doubt have the best of intentions in wanting to create bonds of friendship, support me and be good Muslims, not because of those individuals but because of the system it will tie me too. There is not a doubt that if I become a close member in someone’s social wasta circle, I’ll find myself finding jobs for people’s cousins, writing letters for visa applications or suddenly engaged. Not that I wouldn’t be happy to do any of those things. I’m sure if I really utilized the system I would also develop a social wasta network, one in which I would happily serve others as they serve me. But that drive for self-sufficiency has pulled me in another direction. I have no regrets, as I’ve done what works for me. But those of you entering into Omani society, this is a very important factor to consider. How will you play it?

Friday, September 24, 2010

On generating a modern Islam

I received a very insightful comment from Aziansea regarding the post "Impacts of modernization on marriage frameworks". This comment inspired me to consider to one of the larger issues that Muslims  the world over are facing, which is how to engage with Islam in a modern context. The comment is below:

"This was one of the best explanations of gender relationships and modernization I've read. I thought about it in relation to what constitutes "appropriate" relationships between the sexes now, in contrast to the time of the Prophet, PBUH. The essence is the same--in terms of humility, modesty--but the ground on which those values are enacted is vastly different and more complex than in the 7th century peninsula. It also seems that modernization and higher education have a double potential: to increase women's education and role in the public sphere, but also to weaken the patriarchal extended family. I wonder if this creates a situation where it is easier to blame family problems in society on women since they appear to be the main beneficiaries of greater access to education...Are we not seeing this in the right-wing backlash against the women's movement in the US? Good post!"

Thanks for your comment Az! I think you're spot on in terms of the backlash against women in the states and in many other countries around the world. With that, we hit another layer of hegemonic patriarchy. Maleness is the norm and anything or one that pushes what is currently defined within that norm is the "other," a potential threat, and ultimately wrong. So the impact that women's involvement in public has on marriages, on families and on society is now women's problem/fault, that each individual woman should correct for.
Every society in the world (that I know of, though perhaps not all) operates in a patriarchal framework. So everyone deals with this. There is only a sliding scale regarding how much or in what ways this force impacts our lived realities. The same is true for Muslim cultures and how have interpreted Islamic teachings throughout history.  The power of patriarchy and the difficulty with challenging it using familiar methods is that there are only two international recognized genders. So men are continuously presented in opposition to women and vice versa. In this model, there is always 'an other' and keeping any 2 things in opposition will always be limiting. Strategically, the subjugated has no allies other then sympathetic members of dominate group. That familiar method of fighting systemic power structures is arduous (we've all seen this before) and international scale almost unheard of. With this oppositional framework in play as the foundation within which men and women interaction, it's no wonder so many marriages fail.

One modern method of engaging with Islam has been through a feminist approach. While I can certainly appreciate modern feminist interpretations of Islam (that is re-reading the Qur'an, lessons from Hadith, etc), I think this dichotomous approach continues placing male interpretations, also called 'traditional', interpretations at the center. It won't get us (humanity) anywhere but going back and forth among ourselves.  Its suffocating. I think one of the messages we can take away from the Prophet (PBUH) and his marital relationships is that there is no one way beyond perhaps a principled one. So, as we look to address Islam to inform our modern lives, let us do so not with an eye that the guidance and texts inform or describe what exists or even should exist, but with the eye for seeing what is possible. Let possibility be our framework. What do you think?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Eat, Pray.....Fast

My first Ramadan in Oman has been remarkable. Since Ramadan began about four weeks ago I have had only three meals at home--and those decidedly so--sometimes travelling hours to fulfill on an invitation for iftar (the break fast meal that happens at sun down). Every household has their own routine for the hours between iftar and sahoor (morning meal before you begin the fast and before Fajr the early morning prayer). Though what has been consistent in every home I've visited is a lot of eating, great conversation, and a health mix of pray and sleep. My favorite iftar came from a visit to Quriyat where the formula was: eat, pray, eat, pray, eat, sleep, eat, sleep, pray, sleep, fast, repeat.

I woke up that day and went to work per normal. I was sure to take a short nap after Dhur (noon prayer), which has also become normal during Ramadan, because I knew I had a long drive ahead that afternoon. I started on the road at 4:40pm already a bit late to make the 6:30 adhan (call to prayer). As I departed the city following the signs to Quriyat, I noticed the mountains getting closer. I took a deep breath, whispered "bismiallah" (in the name of God) and pressed the gas pedal to the ground praying my little peugot was up for the trip. After a long stretch of highway I found myself etching up and around the mountains feeling my way along the curves of the road. Those who made this trip daily zoomed passed me on what was by now a familiar path. The sky turned a warm tangerine color and in the nick of time I arrived in Quriyat. Quriyat is a fishing town along the coast of Oman. It lays in a valley between the mountains and the sea. I met my host in town. He brought his sister, who rode in the car with me as we followed him bumping along the now dirt roads until we reached their home. On the way she described where the road used to be, pointed out where farms and houses stood before the recent cyclone Phet collapsed and flooded the valley. She told stories of her neighbors having to be evacuated to the mountains to escape the flood, where there are temporary houses for them.  Several months had passed and there was still much reconstruction needed. I arrived and was ushered into the majalis (sitting area).

My host's sister and sister-in-law brought out a full tray and set in front of me and the 2 of them sat across.  "Allahu Akbar" the adhan began echo off the mountains. "Bismillah" we each began with a date. The iftar meal had the staples, dates of course (which is always the first food item used to break fast), leban (a salty yogurt drink), sombosa, fruit, some other fried treats including my favorite of all, lukaymat (fried dough balls crunch on the outside soft in the middle and soaked in sugar water).  We ate and talked a bit.  As a guest, I was of course encouraged to eat more and try everything.  But I know that dinner would follow shortly so I made sure to leave room.

Twenty minutes of iftar then we all broke off into different rooms for Maghrib prayer.  The women (as it is only women who sit with other women) came back cleared the food then left again to prepare the next meal (I assumed). The matriarch of the house came to greet me along with several other female members of the family including my host's wife and daughter. We struggled to communicate, my trying to make out their accent and them trying to decipher my far too formal and completely broken standard Arabic. The younger women (in the early twenties), who had been taught both standard Arabic and some English in school, acted as the translator for me and the older women in the room. Then came another meal, a little more than an hour after the first.

Dinner was rice, chicken and salad which we all at from a large shared tray with the rice stacked high and the roasted chicken perched on top. I carved out my section of the tray with my right hand and dug in. I knew I was being honored as I ate from the first try that was brought out. I shared with my host's mother, the 1st wife of the house, her sister, the wife of her eldest son and her small children. The second tray that came out was shared by the second wife of my host's father, his sisters and his wife. The third was for the other young girls in the house and a few neighbors who had also stopped in. I was told to eat more, and did, until I reached my limit, leaned back on the cushions and with a smile and polite hand wave, I said "khalas....shabana Alhumdulilah" --- "finished....I'm satisfied praise God." My hosts mom nodded in acknowledgement, then told her daughter to bring dessert.

Time for Isha (night prayer) and the room that was bustling with a dozen women emptied once again. They went back to their homes and rooms for prayer. I prayed in the majalis amidst children who continued to play, and made a special supplication of thanks to God for providing such a generous family to welcome me. After prayer the older women came back. My hosts' aunt insisted I visit her house but I didn't know that until the younger women came to translate into standard Arabic. I of course accepted and we all got up and crossed the dirt road to her house. I sat with her mother (my host's grandmother) who was blind and very hard of hearing but no less present.  I was unable to decipher her soft words and without my translators present I didn't understand when they were repeated to me by the other women in the room. What I did understand, was their explanation of who I was. An American Muslim, working in Muscat with her grandson, teaching other Americans Arabic and about Oman.  She approved.

Even for our short 25 minute visit, Omani hospitality would not have you leave without eating and drinking something. So a tray of fruit and juice was brought and I did my best to sip and swallow one or two pieces. As we headed back across the street we realized the hour. The women insisted I stay the night and not risk the hour and half trip back to Muscat. "There are no lights on the mountains, it is not safe and you will be scared," one of the neighbors said. She was right. I agreed with her and we collectively decided that I would sleep there and leave after fajr (morning prayer) to make it back to the city into for work. With more time on my hands I was able to visit more people. I was ushered to another house right behind the one I was in. The young girls were there so we were able to have a nice long conversation about clothes, marriage, and who is who in the family tree. I was asked about Muslims in America, how I liked Quriyat compared to Muscat and how I'm fairing living here all by myself. I asked about familial relationships, the clothing they wore (as there were 4 women wearing the same exact dress), and the unique things about Quriyat. I was invited to try on a traditional Omani dress and pant, and to have someone paint henna on my hands and feet. Instead I accepted a glass of vimto and chose to make it an early night.

My host's mother arranged for me to have a mattress and blanket brought into the majalis.  She thought I'd be more comfortable in my own room, undisturbed. Someone would wake me for sahoor (meal before you begin the fast), then again for Fajr, and I should keep the door shut, so that the children don't come in and disturb me. I should drink water (there was a bottle and glass on the side table) and get some rest so that I wouldn't drive sleepy. I followed all of her instructions and laid down round about 11:30. 15 minutes later, she sent her daughter to check if I was comfortable, then 15 minutes after that she came in herself. I promised that I couldn't be more comfortable if I were at home which seemed satisfying for her. By 12, I was asleep.

3 am and time for sahoor. I had barely digested dinner, not to mention the fruit the followed and it was time for 'porage' (rice soaked in leban), and fruit. I couldn't even pretend to eat at the point. My host's wife was there with his sister and both their children. She seemed disappointed that I didn't eat then, then I noticed that she didn't eat either save for one handful of rice. We all sat in relative silence, still groggy. A full five minutes passed without anyone touching the rice which was signaled that was enough. 3:25 and we were all back in bed.

4:30am time for Fajr. I got up to pray and someone peaked in to make sure I didn't over sleep. After prayer I sat and waited for somone to come in so that I may give my thanks before I headed off. At 5:30 my host's wife came in. It became obvious quickly that she got up only to send me off politely which I hadn't realized before I suggested leaving after Fajr. I tried to compensate by leaving quickly and without much fuss. I thanked her again and again, then began my journey. At the time of morning, even the sky was yawning and the sun was muted by its inhale. I drove in a calm silence.  Life seemed to get louder and louder the closer I got to the city. My daily to do list formed in my head, the road got more crowded, and the silence was overtaken with white noise. That night in Quriyat however filling and bustling, was the perfect respite and one of the most memorable moments of my first Ramadan in Oman.

Sheik Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi




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Monday, August 9, 2010

Impacts of modernization on marriage frameworks

We are all familiar with Oman's rapid growth over the past 30-40 years.  One of the many results that came along with opening Oman to international business and trade was the need to create an Omani workforce up to the challenge.  In the past decade, dozens of institutions of higher education have been popping up in various regions in Oman and it seems that in them, women are dominating.  Not only are women out numbering men expotentioally in large and mid-size colleges like, Dhofar University, Nizwa University, and Rustaq College of Applied Science, they overall tend to be more serious and more successful students.  All of this points to what most have already noticed, that while some industries are still dominated by men (such as the oil industry) some companies are getting more gender diverse and will continue to.  This reality has a broad spanning impact on several layers of Omani society including on organizational culture of companies, marriage rates and average marriage age, tribal relationships, women's empowerment, not to mention "Omani tradition" itself.  Consider as well though, before this time of higher education and work outside the home, an adult woman didn’t interact with any male who wasn't related to her.  There was no opportunity to, no space for that in who society operated. A step further, some didn’t (and perhaps still don't) interact with any man who wasn't her Mahram (a related male who is ineligible for marriage such as a brother or uncle).  Looking at this feature I then ask, what impact does the reality of women having professional and academic relationships with men have on what used to be their only relationship with a man who was not her mahram?  Does the modern reality of women having more access to males in professional or educational partnerships have an impact on a young women's relationship with her husband, or relationship with her future husband?  Does her interacting having any type of relationship with a man other than her husband, even those non-romantic types, make that her relationship with her husband just a little less novel?
First, let me state my assumption (one of several).  Having so little access to people of different genders in affect makes an individual "sensitized" to those relationships.  Imagine, that before modern times, your husband was the only non-related person of the opposite gender who could form a relationship of ANY sort with you. That alone made it special.  It may have been enough that he looked at you intently in the eye, that he asked your opinion on an important matter, that he included you in making a decision, that he celebrated with you one thing or the other.  Now she can develop relationships like that all over her life. Her professor looks her in the eye when discussing her test, her male classmate asks her opinion on the approach for their presentation, her boss held a team meeting where she give him the golden idea for their marketing campaign, and they all celebrated the success as a team. To simplfy the issue let us assume even that these are 'culturally' appropriate interactions;  that there are no romantic advances in the mix.  These are just the type of interactions that come along with men and women working together on a given goal.  The reverse question is also applicable. As little interaction as women had had with men who were non-family relatives, men had less than that with women who were non-family.  All of this serves to make the husband and wife relationship just a little less unique. 
 The preciousness of the marital bond may well have been a de facto result of your spouse being the only person in your life that didn't share DNA.  Perhaps marriages were two people contractually obliged to provide certain services to each other, with standards of decency and kindness in place.  Of course when you spend your life with a person affection grows (in most situations).  Even when it doesn't, that needn't be a dismal fate. In that case, the relationships you have with people of the same gender, provide that support, loyalty, compassion, and other such qualities and emotions that I have come to expect of a spouse.  My presumption is that during the times where there was less gender interaction, ties with the same gender were more important or prominent. Human needs for interaction don't change so people create relationships where they can. That could easily leave you with a fulfilling life.I and many people who share my cultural framework often view our spouses to be the main source of financial, physical, emotional, and mental partnership in all aspects of life.  That may be a result of all of the opportunities I have to form meaningful bonds with men.  Me, like some young college educated working Omani women find their main source of mental enrichment at work or in school (or with peers), the emotional support from friends and family, the financial support a combination of you and your spouse (now that you are working) and the physical needs fulfilled solely by him/her (unless he has a second wife in which case those responsibilities are also shared).  These women may now opt for the "one and only" model that I more readily subscribe to seeking that precious marital bond that from their mothers and grandmothers describe at time when that all of the features of that bond could only come from one source.



 
I imagine the Prophet's (PBUH) relationship with Saidinah Khadijah was like the one and only model; while his relationships with his other wives after her were more this sharing model.  That could be another reason why he was able to have multiple wives so successfully; they weren't all complete dependent on him.  Considering this, I wouldn't venture to argue one model over another or that there is some time of singular path toward "modernization" that would answer this.  Rather I hold that different models will work for different people or as a cultural standard.  The fact is, however, the two models cannot exist at the same time in the same relationship. The crisis that Omanis are facing in this regard as they are in transformative times people are entering marriages with different expectations.  The important thing then is making sure you and your partner are living in the same model. For that to happen there needs to be a distinction made where there currently isn't one. Perhaps this asking too much at once. Let us keep this in our minds as we continue to create Oman's future.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A second type of Omanization

Here, as in many Gulf countries, the is process in play called "Omanization." Where every company foriegn or domestic must subscribe to a quota of Omani employees. It includes other stipulations regarding the job level Omanis must hold, restrictions on job termination, etc. All together a smart system for a developing country whose focus is on capacity building to have. I find though there is another informal process happening in the social realm of life in Oman. Where by making yourself at home here, means assimilating to Omani culture.



This is a beautiful country indeed. Have you noticed that you rarely meet Omani's outside of Oman? And when you do, they always have a return ticket, or some plan for when they will make their way back to their country. At the prospect of my leaving many of my friends and acquaintances were confused as to way I wouldn't do everything that I possibly could to stay.  I don't blame them. If you are Omani, why leave? Yes there are problems but every society has their share, and the ones here are hardly unique.  I totally understand why Omanis would want to stay, its consistent with cultural and Islamic values family and community obligation played out within a traditional context.  I don't imagine it well change in the future.  On the contrary, I predict both national pride and allegiance to family and tribal networks will strengthen, the quality of eductational systems will increase and it will keep more and more Omanis home (if ultimately the job market cooperates).

All that said, quite frankly, this is not my country. I have no investment here, no roots, no family--for an expat, life here is opportunity driven. When the opportunity runs its course, so does your tenure.  Its much like the tradition of hospitalitiy here. With its soft outter shell, that well make you feel comfortable and looked after but the hard inner one that still recognizes you as a foreigner. You will have the furnished villa or apartment, company car, imported goods and all the fixings. But you don't and can't own the property, your staples are treatd as novelties, and your participation in society is conditional. Ditto you'll be offered tea and coffee, be told to feel at home and perhaps even invited to weddings or familial events, but the actual relationship does not pass cordiality. This is not a critique at all, as there are many cultures who don't even have that soft outter shell. However, to break into the hard center, being incorprated into people's lives and into the fabric of society-- to feel at home in Oman, certainly takes decades to develop and some amount of assimilation.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Opinions are for the world like what chocolates are for the body. They provide no real--that is nutritional--value and can even be harmful when consumed in excess. They make you feel good, a comforting extravagance, and  are an indulgence that few can afford to have in bulk. But once you finish one you are ready for another.  Please do use in moderation.