Posted by: roamingolivia | July 19, 2010

Interview: My sister reports on Oman

This is a summary of my sister’s current program in Oman, about which I am interviewing her today. I like them, and they summarize some of the conversations we’ve had on Gchat about her life there:

departure from hotel to school via bus/Abdullah the driver: 730 am
bus drop off at hotel from school: 430
number of hours in school: 100 (meaning 8)
hours of homework: a billion (meaning 4)
degrees outside: 110
humidity: 90%
time spent outside per day: 6 min
time spent in bed under AC: 16 hours/day
number of outfits that i own: 5
number of these outfits that look like they’re owned by Pakistani guest workers: 5
level of sexiness: 100
number of notable locations in Muscat: 0

Now we’ll move on to the interview with Marissa…

She says her hair is frizzy in Oman.

Where are you, and why? How long will you be there?

I am in the lovely port city of Muscat, Oman on a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. State Department. Disclaimer: All of the opinions in this blog are mine and mine alone and do not represent the opinions or view of the State Department. I have been here since June 14 (the day after my birthday) and will depart on August 13.

What is a typical day like?

Saturday-Wednesday  (the work week) I depart the hotel at 7:30 to spend all day in school until my return around 4:30. Abdullah the bus driver isn’t always punctual so it’s not always exact. He is certainly a character though, so I think it is worth it. As far as the school schedule, I have Modern Standard Arabic (used in Media, the Quran, official documents, and most literature) class from 8-9:45 then a 30-minute break, which I use to start my homework. MSA class focused more on grammar concepts than the other 2 classes.

Then there is Media Arabic from 10:15-11:30, where we read newspapers, watch the news, or otherwise practice our language comprehension skills. And finally there is the Omani dialect course from 11:45 to 12:45. Our teacher is also a character and slightly crazy so it is much more like a culture course than a language course. I use the dialect I learned in Jordan more than Omani and she doesn’t seem to mind. We talk about families, school, and work and anything else we happen to think of. She often makes us delicious food. Not that helpful for language acquisition but a nice break.

Then there is an hour for lunch where I either bring Ramen or go to a shopping mall (very cultural) and have something in the food court or from the grocery store. Neither of which is very exciting. In the afternoon, for 2 hours, we were split into groups of 3 and given a “peer facilitator” who is a local college student or graduate and is there to help us with cultural exchange, Arabic homework, or conversational skills.

Today we watched a Syrian soap opera after I was done with  my homework. I am actually not a huge fan of my peer facilitator because he makes some pretty offensive comments about women. But, we are allowed to mix groups and we have done a few activities with other groups, including an outing to downtown Muscat and one to Sultan Qaboos University.

Sultan Qaboos University

Okay, so what do you wear every day?

I have 3 pairs of pants and 2 dresses. The 2 dresses are typical American-style maxi dresses. My other 3 outfits are all linen or cotton. And I bought most of the outfits from a Pakistani store in Houston. Many people have commented that I look a lot like a Pakistani or Indian guest worker here in Oman. (Also something I heard while in Houston when shopping for the clothes). Several of the Peer Facilitators decided that they would give me an “Indian name” because of my outfits. They decided on Mary. Weird.

Pakistani worker outfit?
More importantly, what do you eat?

For breakfast I eat some mixture of fruit, yogurt, corn flakes, chocolate cereal, or oats.

For lunch, as I said either eat Ramen or something from the food court. Which is mostly American food. Or today I had strawberries, hummus, a vegetable samosa and a kinder bar.

For dinner I either eat good Indian food from my neighborhood (Omanis don’t work in restaurants so all are run by Indians or Pakistanis) or some pretty mediocre Lebanese food. Unfortunately though, the Indian food occasionally gives me stomach problems. But it is worth it. Also, all “Omani” food is just plain rice and fried chicken so it is really boring. Last night I had fish for the first time in Oman which is shocking because there is so much of it here, but it is not eaten as much in summer because the salt content can cause dehydration. (because Muscat is a sauna)

Other exciting meals that I have had(there are very few so I can list):

  • Dairy Queen
  • Goat on Rice for our first lunch at the program
  • One Omani meal that was NOT chicken and rice. It was nice to see the Indian influence mix with the Arabic. Just really good spice.
  • Turkish Kibabs
What is the worst thing you’ve eaten?

There is something wrong with a lot of the chicken in this country. First of all, my first few experiences with the chicken here were terrible. I was literally repulsed by the taste at my first meal at a nearby Iraqi restaurant. I still don’t know why, but it was terrible. Second, none of the chicken is de-boned and a lot of it is very greasy. Not pleasant to eat. So, I have gotten much smarter about chicken, and also I stick to Indian food.

What’s the best?

Indian food. Generally the only good food to be had. Also, Dairy Queen.

How is it different – in food, dress, culture, etc. – from Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, where you’ve visited before?

In dress, all of the men wear dishdashes, which are essentially long single-colored gowns. They are generally white but they can also be tan or brown. They wear what is called a kuma on top which is just a patterned hat. The women all wear black abayas with different colored headscarves. It is generally much more conservative than other countries that I have been to. Also, all Omani men wear the dishdasha because non-Omanis (guestworkers) are not allowed to wear the dishdasha. Also, Omani law requires that all Omani men wear dishdashes in public buildings.

The food is generally worse for the above reasons. But also it really isn’t “Arab” food. It is much more similar to Indian food.
As far as culture, it is interesting because there are essentially 3 different categories of Omanis (excluding the guest worker population): The Zanzibari-Omanis, Arab Omanis (Sunni and Ibadi), and the Shi’ite Omanis. Obviously, these groups are not all-encompassing or exclusive. They each have a different economic role in society. But more interestingly, Zanzibari Omanis do not always speak Arabic, and many of them only speak Swahili. They are the remnants of the Omani Empire which was based in Zanzibar (an Island off the coast of Tanzania).

Oman was a major maritime power and this also accounts for the cultural diversity here in that it meshed the Zanzibari/Swahili influence with Gulf Arabic, and Indian influence. The way that these relations play out in modern Oman is interesting because Zanzibaris are considered less conservative, and there seems to be some tensions between them. Also, a lot of the Sunni population here is actually Baluchi and not Arab.

But, generally, there is a strong sense of unity rather than sectarianism between the groups unlike places like Iraq. In my opinion, this unity is facilitated by the state in that they all wear the same clothes and have the same rights if they are “Omani” regardless of background. But, as I said, each group sticks to different employment sectors, etc.

Another important note is that Oman is the only Arab country that was not colonized for long periods of time and was also not included in the Ottoman Empire. Because of this, it has retained a strong sense of its own culture (why they insist on dishdashas).
And secondly, Oman was completely excluded from modern life until 1970. Literally, there was no electricity, water, roads, or even eye glasses prior to this, when the currently reigning Sultan Qaboos assumed the throne. Because of this, there is much appreciation for the Sultan generally because of the great development efforts he has made. And really, Oman is a nicely developed country for the  most part. Indeed, we often make the comment that Muscat looks like Disney land because of all the lights and things like that.

Also maybe it's like Disney because of stuff like this (this is Olivia's comment, not Marissa's)

How big is Oman? Do you get to travel?

I don’t know how big Oman is nor do I have anything to compare it to. Sorry. We make small trips to forts, etc but no we don’t get to travel a lot. But this weekend we are going to a city in the south, called Salalah, which is known first of all for its cooler weather. Many Omanis and other Gulfies have summer homes there to escape the heat.
We have to get program permission for travel outside of Muscat, but this Saturday is a National Holiday so we are taking the opportunity to get away.

[Note: she is so excited about going to Salalah she sent this description of it, from Lonely Planet:

Salalah, the capital of Dhofar, is a colourful, subtropical city that owes much of its character to Oman’s former territories in East Africa. Flying into Salalah from Muscat, especially during the khareef, it is hard to imagine that Oman’s first and second cities share the same continent. From mid-June to mid-September, monsoon clouds fromIndia bring a constant drizzle to the area and, as a result, the stubble of Salalah’s surrounding jebel is transformed into an oasis of misty pastures. Year-round, Salalah’s coconut-fringed beaches and plantations of bananas and papayas offer a flavour of Zanzibar in the heart of the Arabian desert.]

What’s the coolest trip you’ve taken so far?

As we have not taken many trips, the best was the one this past weekend which was our big program trip around the North of Oman. It was very well planned and also very exciting. Last Wednesday, 10 SUVs picked us, our professors, and some peer facilitators up to take us on the trip. First we went to Jabal Al-Akhdar which was gorgeous. Actually, when we arrived it was thunder storming (a BIG difference from Muscat). The name literally means green mountain.

some of the cars

a waterfall - I think this is related to this part of the post (she didn't have captions on Facebook)

We spent that afternoon and the next day wandering the mountain and exploring the waterfalls, farms, villages, etc.

We ended the day with a lunch at a local house with families. Where we had chicken on rice. It was really beautiful and we got to eat from a pomegranate orchard as we were walking.

From there, we moved on to the desert where we went “dune bashing” through the desert which essentially just means taking our big SUVs and driving all over the dunes. It was exciting and crazy, but not as crazy as when I did the same thing in Jordan, riding outside of the vehicle in pickups. [Our parents will be happy to hear that.]

We camped that night. Suprisingly, though, the camp had a swimming pool. Next we went to a turtle beach resort along the Arabian Ocean coast. We spent the day swimming and then at night saw sea turtles come to shore to lay their eggs. [Sadly, no pictures of this?!]

The next morning we went to Wadi Shab, which was my favorite part. We went to an amazing river area between two mountains that we hiked through and then swam up the river to a cave that was awesome and very reminiscent of one of those amusement park rides that takes you through caverns, except it was natural and the water was clear greenish blue. and everyone jumped off the rocks and played in the waterfalls etc. I honestly think it was the most beautiful place I have been in the Middle East. [Also no pictures of this, I think.]

Only downside of the trip was that it was physically exhausting and I got stung by a wasp.

Let’s go through your pictures you posted on Facebook. What are the black rocks at the beginning?

The black rocks are just the landscape in Jabal Al Akhdar.

That waterfall is amazing, and the landscape. What can you tell me about those views?

The views were more amazing than I can describe or the picture does justice too. Also in Jabal Al Akhdar, after the storm so the water was even better than usual. Also, this water is what keeps the farms producing things.

… And you got around on those water troughs?

Yes. That’s the only way to walk. The PF accompanying me fell once and broke his camera and scratched his leg on barbed wire, so yes they are dangerous.

Okay, we’ve come to some food. What is it?

Chicken and rice, as I said.

Where are you in this adorable picture in the green skirt? Why are you smiling so much?

I’m smiling because I love sand, and I was happy to be out of the car. And the green skirt is my lovely friend and roommate, Zoe’s. That is in the desert on my last trip.

And what kind of bug did you see?

Scarab beetle. Colloquial: Aladdin bug.  [Note: I found out through a conversation on this picture in Facebook that she is still, apparently, obsessed with Aladdin.)

What’s the sandy village?

That is actually our camp in the desert.

This sign is awesome “for the ledies” – what was it?

At a rest stop on the way to the Ras Al-Had from the desert. Just bathrooms.

Is fishing a big industry? What are these ships? Do they make them by hand?

Yes, it was and is a big industry. The ships are just being made at the factory, and the wood is what they make the ships out of it. They do make them by hand, I think, but I don’t know because the factory wasn’t actually open. But it looked like it when I was wandering around the boats…

A note from the editor: I have sent her some more questions, and we will do at least and probably 2 follow-up blogs. If any of you have questions, leave them in a comment (on Google, or Facebook, or here, or in email) and I will send them on.

And many thanks to Marissa!



  1. First of all, the guest worker outfit is actually the first one in the post. The second one you put is not, and is actually Zoe’s daily attire.

    The Disney thing was at an amusement park.

    No pictures of the turtles because it was not allowed. And no pictures of Wadi Shab because I had to wade through water more than half of the way! We were told to leave it in the car.

    And yes the waterfall was in Jabal Al-Akhdar. Facebook is shockingly slow here so it was not worth writing captions. Sorry!

  2. I really liked reading all of this about Marissa’s trip since I was not sure at all on what she was doing there. The food surprises me a lot, but I am pleased to hear that she was able to obtain some Dairy Queen. How could you live without that?? Anywho the class schedule sounds much better than I assumed also. It actually sounds really well rounded out – though I’m sure our govt made sure to look into that while picking it.
    I feel like my opinion on the blog is so general b/c I don’t do these things that your family does haha. But I get the feeling that this trip to oman is one of her more boring locations compared to the others. I mean boring in a good way though…

  3. hope your sister enjoys the drizzle in Salalah – horrible weather if you were home – but magical in Arabia

  4. Thank you for this report, Marissa & Olivia.

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