Back to Business

Friends, I’ve moved! The city lights and seaside views are no more in this small, interior town called Ibri. The desert dust seeps into my apartment and my sense of direction is all turned around – although if you know me, it may not have been there in the first place. I know that Saudi Arabia is one way, and Yemen the other. Needless to say, shifting from Muscat has been a bit of a challenge. But, the prayer call remains the same and I am more certain I will have more and more conversations with Omanis and others who have settled in this rocky, traditional town because of the language skills I will be learning here.

Side of the bus I take to school in the mornings

The next six weeks I will be studying Arabic at an institute about a forty-five-minute walk away. I’m sharing an apartment with three other students from the United States and a wonderful Irish woman who has just spent the last seven weeks in India. We are all so passionate about learning the ancient language, and as we walk from place to place with our hair flowing wild, it is painfully obvious that we don’t necessarily belong here. Yet, having a bit of a crew has been refreshing.

On the first day of school, we were picked up at 8:00am and driven by bus to the institute. We had some Omani style Cardamom coffee and Karak tea (sort of tastes like sweet chai—yum!) and settled into the space before those who have some experience with Arabic took a placement exam. David, another Hope student, Éabha, my Irish roommate, and I skipped out because we had too little or zero (me) Arabic experience and decided to venture about outside.

We marched down the road and came across a group of Omani men standing in a circle under a roofed ring. As we approached, the bleeting of goats and the booming shouts in Arabic revealed we had entered an auction. Goats of all sizes were being dragged, tugged and carried about by men of all ages. One man welcomed us in with a crooked-toothed smile and invited us to take a picture of his prized goat. I was distracted by the baby goats running after their mothers and whining for their morning snack. Older men smiled and joked with their neighbors, while the man in charge of it all recorded prices and names in his book.

Goats watching the madness

Every morning this business goes about in Ibri. These goats aren’t pets, rather the next meal, but it is remarkable to think that this trade has been going on for centuries. Maybe, it has been happening in this same spot near my school. I think one of the highlights of living here will be to walk through the community near the school and remember how old the world truly is. We are surrounded by mountains that were once flooded with sea water. Now, they boast beautiful layers of color from oranges to purples and greens. A geologist’s paradise—and now my new home! I cannot wait to soak up the details of it all, although it’s going to be pretty dry for the next six weeks in Ibri.

Dishdashing at the Omani Opera

Jessica, Laurel, and I in our Opera attire posing before the show.

When I packed for my adventure abroad, I went for the practical hiking clothes, clothes to cover up and the comfiest t-shirts I could find for lounging around our home. What I did not anticipate were the glittering gowns and long stunning skirts I would find venturing around the market. In the middle of this rocky desert landscape, there is so much glamour, and I have found the center of it all: The Royal Opera House in Muscat.

Our lovely resident seminary student and musician Laurel encouraged our group to join her at the Opera last week. The show: “The Fifteen top Classical Arab Songs”. My first thought: what will I wear? While the boys went shopping in the Souq and got fitted for dishdashas—the traditional menswear of Oman– my roommate Jessica and I ruffled through our stuff deciding what to wear. Jessica selected a gold caftan that she had bought the week prior and I pulled out a skirt, a cotton top and the fanciest scarf I had thrown in before I left. It would have to do.

When we arrived at the Opera, we walked into the lobby and immediately were met with an architectural gem. From floor up, white and gold accented details danced until they reached a wood-paneled ceiling with hand-painted designs. Around us, men draped in spotless white dishdashas and topped with brightly wrapped Musalas strutted about as women’s skirts sashayed over their strappy high heels.

The front of the theatre glittered as lights danced off long silver pipes. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said comes often to the Opera for organ concerts and the center of the space is devoted to the beloved instrument. In front of the organ on the stage were seats set for a full orchestra. We sat in our seats and waited watching people chatter and the ushers leading guests throughout the theatre. After a while, the lights dimmed and the concert began.

The orchestra silently marched on stage, men in tuxedos and white bow ties and women in red and green garb with beautiful, gold headdresses. The conductor bowed and took his place. Then, the first singer, Jahida Wehbe arrived on stage in a stunning sheer green draped dress with gold accents. When she opened her mouth to sing, a stream of Arabic flowed out and she held notes I wish I knew how to reach.

Drums deep and low set the undertones, the flutes twinkled their tunes, and the strings sang along. The singer performed with great control using her arms to gesture on the fast-paced Arabian journey. The woman next to me in her sparkling black and silver wrap was wiping her eyes during the lullabies and clapping along to the marching melodies. The audience’s attention and their hearts went especially for the next singer Ali Al Haggar as he went on in deep vibrato.

Drums deep and low set the undertones, the flutes twinkled their tunes, and the strings sang along.

What started as a one hundred thirty-minute show quickly became a three-hour event as Ali offered encore after encore. Women swung their gold bangled arms and cheered to the songs as the orchestra carried on. By the end of the night, I was exhausted, but the atmosphere kept my eyes wide. The traditional tunes are still much loved here, and I am so lucky I got to hear them from the best of the best: the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra.

Check out the Opera site: https://www.rohmuscat.org.om/en and Ali Al Haggar (I couldn’t film during the show) here.

 

Juice Dates

This past week has been loaded with new places, new people, and new and improved perceptions. What is not new is the number of bad puns I try to make in a week. You’ll see what I mean…

Drinking a super green juice — celery, spinach, lemon, mint, and cucumber

Oman is a country with many kinds of people, pathways, and shops. What it does not have, however, is a social atmosphere that surrounds drinking, as it is illegal for alcohol to be sold within the state. I have, nonetheless become addicted to another substance: juice. Rather than asking a friend out to coffee like I would at Hope, I find myself asking “Juice anyone?” at least three or four times a day. Pomegranate, kiwi, watermelon, banana, you name it, I’m pretty sure Oman has a juice for that!

 

Friend Danny drinking kiwi juice

One of our favorite places to go for a quick bite of shawarma–a traditional sandwich made of chicken, lettuce, and sauce rolled up in a piece of naan or pita—has endless options of juice along with a meal. On our first night, I tried spicy lemon-mint juice and cannot get enough. As a result of returning for more, we have met the two men that run the restaurant and they have become quite accustomed to seeing our faces. The shop is right on the harbor and next to the Souq – a large shopping market in Mutrah.

While I sit and sip, it’s fun to watch taxi drivers greet incoming tourists coming off their cruise liners. One man continuously imitates Lionel Richie, “Hello! Is it me you’re looking for?” and shakes hands with visitors hoping to earn a few Rials (Omani currency). Stray cats run in and out of the Souq and seagulls scoop down into the water. The men at the shop are always smiling and as I slurp down the last of my juice, a small plate of dates always promptly arrives on the table.

Pomegranate & Pineapple juice on a walk

Wait a second, dates? Juice and dates? I’ve consumed more than enough dates just from being offered some by waiters, shop owners and on excursions throughout the city. Omani’s have given so many things to me from endless chai tea and samosas to sticky, honey smothered dates. The trickiest part is trying to eat the date with one hand – let me know when you master that one.

By now the shop owners know me well and as a result, last Thursday I went home smiling with a plate of dates carefully wrapped up just for me. Before I left, I promised my new friends to return for juice and shawarma soon – a date I fully intend to keep.

Plate O’ Dates

Covered in Prayer

This morning, for the third time since I arrived here, I woke up to the sound of Arabic voices radiating from giraffe like towers rising across the city. The unified melody is curious and unfamiliar as the language is unknown to me. Yet, the strength of devotion they emulate is becoming one of my favorite components of living in Oman. I am a white Christian woman who grew up on hymns and contemporary tunes. Still, the energy of the Muslim call to prayer is affecting me deeply and I am excited to see where the discovery of a new religion and culture will take me.

Homesickness has come haunting a bit more than normal this trip. I don’t miss my bed or my cell phone data or even my carefully cared for succulent plants. I don’t miss my Netflix account or my favorite sushi place (yet). I simply miss the company of those I spend my days with and the empty spots they fill are most obvious in those times when the sun hibernates.

Coincidentally, sunrise and sunset are two of the six times a day that Muslims are called to prayer. This Call to Prayer known as Adhan (“to listen”) is a purposeful act and spiritual commitment to Allah and a reminder of surrender to him. In my tradition, I also spend time in prayer but not often out loud with others.

On the first day here, I woke up around 4:00am due to a severe case of jetlag. As a result, the dark, eerie essence of unfamiliarity and emptiness reminded me of my loved ones at home. I twisted and turned in my sheets thinking too much and questioning my reasons for being so far away in a foreign place. As the clock ticked away in the corner I breathed and concentrated on a spot on the ceiling hoping I’d drift back to sleep.

Suddenly, a song arose out of the air and in through my windows. The morning prayer. A sound that normally would be a backdrop for an Iraqi war film nestled over my body and ironically my heart was instantly at ease. A shaky, uneasy morning was met with an easy, confident voice of prayers. It reminded me that a community of students at Hope is praying for my group and that those I am missing at home are rooting for me and wishing me well. More importantly, it confirmed that God is indeed here in this place.

I am always going to wish those I love most are here on this journey with me. But, I am even more encouraged now that I will meet future loved ones here in this community of Omanis. In fact, I am confident that relationships within this new culture will change my heart and the hearts of those I share stories with at home and on this blog.

I hope you will stay tuned!