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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?

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