Good Eats

My whole life I have been surrounded by creative cooks. From my mom fixing up schnitzel and spaghetti carbonara in the kitchen to my boyfriend, Daniel, mixing up a new pastry or challenging dish, I am never without a new treat to try. In Oman I am surrounded by new foods, but there is a simplicity in the palate that I’m not used to—unless I’m eating at an Indian restaurant where they bring on the spice. The important element of meals is not necessarily what is on the plate, but who you are sharing the plate with. There are some treats that I grab on my way to meeting someone, and other meals that center on sharing them with your neighbors or family. However, every Omani dish I have had was in a hospitable, friendly setting.

Dinner together outside

In a typical Omani home, a specific room called a majilis is designated simply for hosting. I have been to a few different majilis and each one is different. Otherwise, we would share a meal in the hadeeka (garden). Men and women typically eat separately and typically in a home if possible there will be a men’s and a women’s majilis. This took some getting used to, and I will admit to not enjoying every flavor of every food, but the time to sit and have conversation is where I learned most about Omani culture and Islamic tradition.

Some of these items are not unique to Oman, but either brought from Indian cuisine or a general favorite across the Arab world. I’ll do my best to dish out which is what. I’ve had these prepared in many ways and every time they have tasted different. I cannot hope to replicate the dishes, but I’ve enjoyed sampling. Let’s start with dessert….

Dessert

Halwa is the most traditional dish for a sweet bite and is uniquely Omani. It’s a unique combination of tapioca, spices such as saffron, ghee, cardamom and nutmeg as well as rose water, and assorted nuts. The consistency is similar to sticky jello. Sometimes fruit or date paste is added. The best halwa I had was fresh at the Muscat festival. The picture is warmed and wrapped around and around a hot bowl like taffy. Fresh is the best when it comes to halwa, but I have been offered a free bite from every tourist spot and bakery.

Drinks

            Qahwah (coffee), Chai Karak (tea), and juice are all offered in every “coffee shop” around Oman. Each is a social drink and consumed several times daily in small paper cups. It’s hard to imagine coffee when it’s not in a big mug, however the cardamom coffee that is unique to the region is hard to take in big quantities. So, little porcelain cups in homes are used to share coffee with guests. Traditionally, guests shouldn’t drink more than three cups when visiting. I will miss the karak tea most because it is sweet and the first drink Shah brought me when we met. No two cups of karak taste the same. When my language partner made me some in Ibri, I almost didn’t recognize the combination of spices she used versus the coffee shop on the Mutrah corniche. But, one thing is guaranteed: the tea will be sweet.

Snacks

My absolute favorite snack in Oman is samosas. Samosas are most famous as a side to your Indian restaurant’s main course. However, they are found all over the Arabian Peninsula as well. Samosas can be stuffed with anything from vegetables to chicken. My favorite were in Ibri right across from my language school. These were stuffed with potatoes, onions, cilantro and a combination of spices. It took everything I had in me not to get a couple every day. By the time I left, the men in the shop knew me and always asked “samosa?” when I walked in. In Muscat, we get plenty of smaller, crispy samosas when we visit Shah. These are made of a lighter dough and are always fresh when we get them from the coffee shop on the corniche.

Tabouleh is a salad with a parsley and garlic base, cucumbers, tomatoes and lemon. I was familiar with this snack from home, but the garlic is much heavier here in Oman. Occasionally I feel I am not getting enough grain from my normal diet so I’ll go grab tabbouleh to boost my iron. I just might brush my teeth four times that day!

Litchi, Bananas and coconut are my fruits to throw in my bag for a snack. Coconuts are grown more in the southern city of Salalah. For part of my spring break I spent a few days in the sun and my taxi driver dropped me off on the side of the road to have a vendor chop off the top of a fresh coconut for a drink, and hand me a banana. Litchi is a fruit I never have back home. I feel as if I’m eating a rose, and I love litchi juice as well!

Meat, Meat, Meat

For lunch with guests, fresh goat and rice are typically the first pick. After sharing qahwah  the main meal will come out. On one occasion on a visit to a farm, our group was met with a huge platter of rice and meat. Half the goat went to the women, and the other to the men. We all stayed around the platter and pulled off the meat with our hands and some of the women helped us scoop with our hands. Out of this struggle came laughter and joking and fun memories. I also had a bit of the brain…how’s that for a cultural experience?

Among with goat meat, camel kabobs and chicken are common to find in town. In Salalah we tried some camel from a shop off the road. During the week in Ibri, camel kabobs hit the spot when we wanted some added protein. A man just down the road would grill up the kabobs next to his car and smother them in a spicy sauce before smiling and handing us our lunch.

Shwarma is a great combination of chicken, sauces and maybe some veggies wrapped in pita. It’s great for a lunch or late-night snack and has definitely become a part of my weekly diet in Muscat along with a large watermelon or lemon mint juice.

Honorable Mention

One of the best places for dinner in Mutrah we refer to as “Plate o’ meat”. The mixed grill of lamb, beef and chicken along with hummus, pita and a side of fatoush (basic green salad with fried pita chips on top) is perfect for a big meal. This is a typical middle eastern mix of dishes along with mint tea to finish.

…and don’t forget the Dates

            Of course, I have to finish with the most popular part of the Omani diet: dates. I’ve mentioned them before and I’ll mention them again because every Omani home has a stash. When visiting Nizwa, I saw more dates than I will probably ever see again in many, many varieties. The date trade has been present in Oman for centuries and most are still picked off the palm trees individually. On one visit to a farm, try the process of wiggling up the trunk of a palm tree as a date farmer would. I finished with nothing but several scratches to show for it.

 

Shah’s Shop

Where Everything is Possible

A five-minute walk and a skip away from the Al Amana Center, deep into the Mutrah Souq and around the corner is a cute little shop where I like to spend my days. Colors literally wind about the walls as they make up the expertly woven rugs and embroidered scarves folded neatly on shelves. Customers from German tourists to Omanis in dishdashas and abayas chatter away and feel the extraordinary fabrics as they debate which one to take home. A sweet gray, spotted cat sleeps on a stack of square pillowcases and cuddles up to the intricate designs. Further back, there is a leather desk chair with a red patterned seat cushion spinning because a man just leaped up to get some tea for his guests. Welcome to Shah’s shop, where I introduce you to the owner of that chair, Shah, and the generosity and hospitality he has taught me.

Shah has lived and worked in the Mutrah Souq for about eleven years. He is a friend of our program director and was the first local we were introduced to when we arrived in Muscat three months ago. Except, he isn’t local at all. Shah is from Kashmir and works in the souq while his family weaves and works back in his home. The spotted cat Monica has become one of his pets and is just one of many cats who linger and whine in the paths of the souq searching for scraps and sleeping in corners. Another cat named Pumpkin, because of his shiny orange fur, we call him Mushkillah (meaning “problem” in Arabic) lingers as well. As a younger cat, he lives up to his nickname by mauling the valuable merchandise and demanding attention. They have found a home in Shah’s shop. With free hot dogs for breakfast and dinner, pets from Shah and other strangers, and surroundings of luxury carpets and other linens, who can blame them for staying?

The comfort Monica and Muskillah feel is why I too have become attached to this carpet shop. But, I know that it’s not just the location that keeps us coming back. It’s the smile and the hospitality we are met with from Shah every day. The souq, which I mentioned in my “In the Neighborhood: Muscat” blog is a huge market with a maze of shops and stalls to explore. It is hard to choose who to buy items from and where you are getting a bargain, especially because most of the shop owners call me madam and sweet-talk me as they invite me inside. Shah didn’t need these extra flatteries or compliments because we knew him through stories from our Program Director Justin. He simply invited us to sit, brought us some Chai Karak (Chai means tea in Arabic— remember that next time you order your “Chai tea” at Starbucks) and began a conversation. No questions asked, he serves and loves rather than aggressively offering you trinkets probably made in China that you don’t need on your desk back home.

The invitation to sit and read on a rug in the back of his shop, come by for tea and samosas and chat, or even to ask him burning questions about Kashmir, Oman or Islam always stands. Which is part of the reason “everything is possible” is Shah’s favorite catchphrase. Aside from his afternoon break from 1-4:00pm (when the afternoon heat is so unbearable all the shops in Mutrah close), he spends almost all his time in this shop. Never once have I heard him complain. Rather, he has befriended the neighboring shop owners and devotes his time to hearing stories from us and welcoming other expats and tourists to Oman. Justin even lets his kids stay with Shah while he runs errands. They bounce around the loft/ extra stockroom above the shop and receive huge bear hugs from Shah before they leave.

I trust Shah more than I trust some of my neighbors back home. I’ve learned much from him, from how the beard of a goat turns into the lovely, soft Pashmina scarf for sale in his shop, to the political struggle in Kashmir and the sides of the conflict in Syria and beyond. His selfless giving to others, whether it’s tea or a whole meal, or simply just listening to personal struggles, renews an honest spirit of people here in Oman.

“I trust Shah more than I trust some of my neighbors back home.”

While the media has painted images of violence, pain, and mistrust in the Middle East, Shah is just one example of the need for new pictures of hospitality, peacefulness, and kindness of those who live in the Gulf. Shah too knows the media is often mushkillah when it comes to portraying the Middle East, especially in the United States. I asked him what he wants people back home to know about this community in Oman and he said, “Omani people are more tolerant and very much hospitable to other communities. Omani tribes take good care of each other which is a very good thing. Oman is all about mutual trust.” He told me this after I asked him if I could quote him in this blog to which he replied, “everything is possible. No mushkillah”.

I am so fortunate to have met Shah and to make memories in his shop.  I’ve found that the more people one meets in a place, the more that place feels like another home. A couple of days ago, I bought a beautiful, blue cashmere scarf to remind me of that little home. Shah embroidered my initials and his name in the corners taking care to keep each knot straight. While I will always treasure this piece of the shop, the urge to pick up the whole shop and take it with me is strong, but impossible. However, the examples of selflessness, friendship and hospitality I can and will take with me. Thank you Shah, for your messages and your kindness.

 

In the Neighborhood: Mutrah

For three more weeks, I get to wake up and go to sleep in my cozy room at the Al Amana Center in Muscat. I finally feel as if I know this neighborhood and some of the patterns the locals take each day. I’d like to take you through the streets and let you smell the smells and feel the sweet sun on your face. I hope that pictures and descriptions will work, although I encourage you to one day walk through Mutrah, Oman (a specific section of Muscat) and if not Mutrah, then take a walk through a neighborhood very different from your own. The people you meet and hidden gems you find may leave impressions on you like tattoos on the heart.

Every morning around 7:00am, David, Laurel and I make our way across the street to Hammer Gym to get some lifting in before it gets too hot. Surrounded by men lifting and grunting on their machines, I can take a spot on a treadmill that faces the Al Amana Center. Straight below is a clinic and I watch women dressed in all white from hijab to sneakers arrive for work. Sometimes I’ll see kids in school uniform on the staircase to the gym, but other than that the mornings are quiet aside from the morning prayer call just before dawn.

Past Hammer Gym and around the corner, a taxi stand is busting with men in dishdashas and kumas hoping to find some luck transporting a tourist today. They know our group well enough by now that they don’t ask “taxi?” and instead offer a greeting “As salaam alaikum” (peace be upon you).  Occasionally, a new driver might ask if we need a ride earning him a shove or a light slap from the guy sitting next to him. “They don’t need ride, their bait (house) is right around the corner”. It’s nice to be recognized. Across from the stand, a walled-in, makeshift garden has smoke rising from a kitchen chimney. Smells of meat and fries float from the restaurant. We call this place “Plate O’ Meat” because they offer a mean Turkish grill under strung up twinkly lights in the evening complete with juice and mint tea. Yum!

Down the street, shops upon shops lead up to the entrance to the Mutrah Souq. The souq (market in Arabic) has supposedly been planted in Mutrah for around 600 years. It holds hundreds of stalls and salesmen who day in and day out sell dates, incense and frankincense, scarves, rugs, spices and other trinkets and souvenirs. Both the local Omani and the tourist shop here and it’s right in my backyard. I love walking through in the morning and at night as I blend in with the droves of shoppers looking for a bargain. I love the mix of people and the maze of paths to take. The smell of floral perfume sticks to the walls and most days I can’t shake the smell off of me for hours after visiting. An entire section is devoted to just gold which is designated for only women in Islam. I’ve stuck to smaller items, but I’m still drawn to the glitter of the gold and the interesting designs of abaya I find in the shops.

If you continue down the main stretch of the souq, you walk right up to the corniche, a path right along a harbor which is fed by the Indian ocean. In the Mutrah harbor, the Sultan’s two yachts anchor next to temporary cruise liners and military boats. Occasionally, I can hear the boats honking all the way back at the Al Amana Center. I once spotted a sea turtle here and always meet with swarms of seagulls on the shore. The water is a deep blue and the sea breeze does nothing to mask the thick humidity of spring.

To the west, a Shi’a mosque boasts brilliant teal and blue colored minarets. Just near the towers is the best shop for Karak tea (a secret recipe of spices and condensed milk added to black tea) and samosas. These are staples in the Omani diet.  Beyond that, is a giant fish market. Anything from huge sharks to fresh shrimp can be found here along with fresh produce and fruit. I came home one day with a huge hunk of honeycomb from Iran that a sweet, older Omani sold to me for a bargain. For those who know me, this honey kept my tea sweet and my heart happy for days following.

To the east of the souq, you can find the best little shawarma shop in Oman run by twin brothers who always greet you with a smile. It was here that I wrote about “Juice Dates” in another blog and it’s a great spot to people watch at night. If you keep walking, you’ll see Mutrah fort up a hill and even further is a monument meant to boast Oman’s frankincense trade. Up on its hill, the world’s largest frankincense burner sits in the rocky hills. Mountain after mountain encircle the village of Mutrah and I’ve climbed some of the peak with friends here. The city at night is certainly different than the sunny mornings. My favorite time to climb is in the evening when I can sit on the rocks and listen to the final prayer call. From above, I am surrounded with chants on all sides, though lately the heat is still blistering even at night.

The word Mutrah means “to throw something down”, and ships have thrown down their anchors in this major port city for centuries. Living in Mutrah has caused me to want to plant myself within the community and learn more and more about the people here. But, anchors are not supposed to stay embedded in the sand forever. Rather, they must be lifted back in their boats and carried off to somewhere new. I look forward to heading home in a few weeks. However, until then, I’m planted here to take in all the sights of the neighborhood that I can. My individual anchor may not leave an impression, but I hope I’ll remember the impressions this place has left on me.

Me on top of a mountain looking out over Mutrah

Even so, Come Lord Jesus

” A new way of understanding other religions implies a new way of understanding Christianity. Christians do indeed face both problems and promises when they honestly and lovingly face the reality of other religions. ”                                                                                                           – Paul F. Knitter (Introducing Theologies of Religions)

Wow. Never have I felt like there is more at stake in my faith than I have in my Muslim-Christian relations class. Just one question, “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” can make my palms and neck sweat immediately. There seems to be something heavy attached to me when I am asked to share my theology or what I think about an Islamic thought. A weight that I’ve never felt feel so dense before. My mind is full of questions like, what do Christians do in a more pluralistic society? What does it mean to be inclusive in a religion that preaches of exclusive salvation? How can Muslims and Christians get along when their beliefs are seemingly so contradictory? Oy. Loaded concepts, difficult, heart throbbing, heat rising. So many questions with individual and communal implications. Implications for the church and for my future. Yikes, that’s a lot!

Let me explain. For my next paper, I have to write about my personal theology of religions in reference to Paul Knitter’s book Introducing Theologies of Religions. In other words, how should/do Christians relate to other religions theologically and in practice? The hardest part is knowing that this question is what I should be asking myself anyway. This essay isn’t just for a homework assignment, it is crucial to my hopes for now and for the future. Especially, if I’m going to head to seminary after undergrad, or even just for my personal relationship with God. Studying abroad, learning about new cultures and meeting people who are very different than you — especially if you’re in a country that centers on a whole different religion than your own— makes you ask huge questions of yourself, of others, of the world and even of God. Even writing this my forehead is damp and my heartbeat has spiked because I know these aren’t small things to ponder.

Books I’m reading for my Muslim-Christian relations course: A Muslim and Christian in Dialogue by Badru D. Kateregga and David W. Shenk, Theologies of Religions by Paul F. Knitter A History of Christian-Muslim Relations by High Goddard

When faith, when salvation, when the religion I center most, if not all of my actions on is questioned or pushed, it can be scary and overwhelming. Sometimes, I catch myself wondering if I’m a good enough Christian as I see the devotion of Muslims heading to prayer or hear the conviction that seems to be greater than my own in the voices of my peers. Other times, I find myself questioning if there are beautiful parts of Islam that I wish were more emphasized on in Christianity such as reserving judgment or to strive for peace between “people of the book” (Muslims, Christians and Jews). This is not to say that these elements are not in other religions, they just seem clearer to me in Islam.

Yet, God’s voice has been so present in helping me. When questions get uncomfortable, I find comfort in scripture and prayer. When I feel overwhelmed with not knowing what to think, he reminds me that I am known, and he is all-knowing. He listens to the struggle. At one point I asked our program director and professor Justin how he handles it all living in Oman as a Christian and interacting with so many Muslims. He said he doesn’t always know what to do, or when he feels useless or like he is not reaching people, he remembers to think “even so, come Lord Jesus”. I’ve since written that phrase on the back of my notebook as a reminder.

I’m searching for and questioning Truth in every class, and I’m still only confident in the fact that faith has to be had because I simply won’t ever know all the answers. I might share about my faith with my Muslim neighbors purely as a witness to what I have learned in the gospel and not to convert (conversion of any kind, not just to Christianity, is illegal in Oman), and not quite do it justice. “Even so… come Lord Jesus”. I can mess up my words and not truly say what I mean or even say something that is wrong altogether, “even so… come Lord Jesus”. I may have a moment of doubt in faith, “even so… come Lord Jesus”.

Just one of the many mosques in Muscat, Oman. They line streets like churches in Holland, Michigan, form the intersections of community. I love seeing all the colorful minarets.

So, back to this essay. I’ve realized that the weight I feel when I read the prompt is simply just passion. The question of how I relate as a Christian, as a person of faith, to people of different belief systems is so, so important to me. I am passionate about caring for people of different faiths. I am passionate about preventing violence with religious values that only promote peace. I am passionate about interfaith dialogue and action. If so, then why do I feel like a weight is holding me back? Why do I need a three-hour nap after every class as if I’m defeated by the conversation?

A lot is at stake when I’m not sure what the answers are.  So, I give them over. God is the all-knowing. If I don’t know all the answers, it’s okay. Shway, Shway (Arabic for “little by little”—it’s becoming one of my favorite phrases). I will learn. When I realize that, the heavy weight of passion turns into a light, lofty sail, and it pulls me to where I can question again. It propels me to keep learning, reading, writing about interreligious relations and cooperation. I’m so happy and lucky to have this opportunity to learn in an active, dynamic, “high stakes” environment. Being in Oman, at the Al Amana Center is sometimes difficult and at times anxiety driving. But it is so, so worth it as my passion is renewed and pulling me onwards. In fact, it is crucial to my growth as an individual, as a Christian and for my part in community. I’m feeling excited, enthusiastic and renewed and still, I say, “Come Lord Jesus”!

Dow Trip

This is the first blog I’ve written that feels like an advertisement in a travel magazine or a television commercial for traveling to the Middle East. I felt like I was living a real life “Samantha Brown’s Passport to Oman” episode. When I was little, my mom would turn to the Travel Channel while we were dusting or sorting through papers together. Samantha Brown would flash her smile, crow’s feet flaring and hair blowing as she ventured through cities and towns pointing out incredible restaurants and historical castles. In my bedroom mirror, I would pretend I was the host of the show and make up adventures of my own: “Alley’s Passport to the World”! Today, I lived one of these real-life adventures. I snorkeled and swam with turtles, ventured out along the coast of Muscat on a dow (see photo above), and watched dolphins leap along the horizon. I felt like I was on the television screen in my living room…if only mom were with me.

We started piling onto the boat at 8:30am, slipped off our sandals and claimed our seats before the Dow set off into the waves. Our Program Director, Justin, and his family invited us as well as another missionary family visiting from Bangladesh. Including our student party of six, there were fifteen energetic explorers, three talented crew members, and one Captain Said on deck. Each one with cheeks fit to be sun-kissed. I claimed a cushion and started snapping pictures, bobbing with the waves and concentrating on staying upright.

About an hour in, the captain slowed the engine down and I heard one of the kiddos shouting “Look! Dolphins! Dolphins! Loooook!”. I knew there was a possibility of a dolphin sighting, but I didn’t think it would be so soon. Nonetheless, there they were, a pod of about thirty dolphins hopping through, chatting on their way like a family on a road trip. As they disappeared from view, we spun our boat the opposite way and continued toward our swimming destination.

The usual Omani terrain of tall, rocky mountains loomed over every border of the harbor we pulled into. The sun reflected off the peaks and bounced back on the caps of the waves. Below the surface, collections of coral supported schools of fish and millions of other living creatures. The humans on board our boat, including myself were glistening with sweat due to the heat of the day. Thus, many of us immediately dove in as soon as the anchor was dropped.

The water was a teal-green pigment with a flawless tepid temperature. I floated for a while, laughing with friends and squinting against the cloudless sky. As I moved my arms through the translucent sea, I didn’t realize that a creature was none too pleased to meet me. He left his mark on my lower left bicep and it tingled like a collection of static tickles on a fresh sheet out of the drier. The static soon turned into an irritating pierce on the surface of my skin. The invisible critter was a jellyfish and I had just been stung.

Back on the deck of the boat, the sting swelled in three spots leaving harsh, red ridges where the jelly’s appendages had swiped. The captain suggested I pour cold water on my arm and let it calm down. It did settle and only hurt for about ten more minutes. I sat on the shaded deck and soaked in more rays watching kids splash in the water and giggling as my friends plastered snorkeling goggles to their faces and dove in with flippers flapping on their feet behind them.

After chomping down a sandwich and some Oreos, I decided to give the water another shot. I grabbed my own set of flippers, a clear turquoise mask and bright yellow breathing tube and launched off the boat into the salty sea. I pumped through the waves, face flat in the water until I could find the reef. Always aware of the globs of jelly waiting, I hauled my body through the water until I found myself in the middle of a school of fish (the species of which I could not tell). Long, lanky eel-like critters mixed with blue and stripped, finned creatures and I witnessed their soiree silently from above.

Without fail, water would seep into my goggles causing me to come up for air. On one occasion, I was thankful for the break to breathe as a couple floating on a boat nearby shouted and pointed where they spotted a sea turtle. I followed their arm and dove to the deep. It took a bit of twisting and turning to find the shell, but there she was! A stunning turtle gliding along the bottom of the ocean floor. It didn’t take long before I was choking on salt water again. But, seeing her was all I needed before heading back to the boat.

Around 2:30pm, we departed back through the water toward the marina where the boat would dock until its next adventure. The Dow rocked back and forth, and mist lathered our cheeks occasionally while we watched the horizon. The scenery was even more picturesque than the Travel Network would show it to be. I may have a scar from the jellyfish, and way too much salt water in my system, but I still felt I was part of a trailer for a new travel film. So, any room for a co-host Samantha Brown?

 

 

In the Neighborhood: Ibri

Sometimes I catch myself wondering why I didn’t choose a place in Europe to go study abroad. A place where I could walk around freely and find boutiques and coffee shops to linger in. A place that had familiar foods and ancient cathedrals marking the skyline. Where the nightlife is vibrant, and smiling old couples hold hands in parks. Call me a romantic, but these images seem so much more appealing to me than Oman feels sometimes.

This trip wasn’t picked to be easy. I wanted an experience that would show me things I’d never seen and give me a taste of Arabic culture and Islamic tradition. The newness of it all can be exhausting some days. My Arabic intensive classes are sometimes a sweaty, clouded minded experience. I take many naps out of exhaustion and too much heat exposure, and sometimes I get super anxious to meet with my language partner because I’m embarrassed at how little Arabic I can use to communicate.

When I walk outside, it’s not charming cobblestone, but rather dusty desert roads and concrete paths. There are no fresh baked bread smells, instead cardamom and frankincense mix in my nose— although, I enjoy frankincense some days. The neighborhood is not where I’d live forever, but it does have its charms if you look for them. It took me a while to see past the concrete buildings and dry parks and find little hideaways to withdraw and rest.

The best walks are when my friend David and I escape to the wadi down the road. Right now, the wadi is dry because there hasn’t been a rainy season in a while. Yet, surrounding the wadi is a community of date farms and trails with lush gardens and palm trees. We have to walk through the bland, rocky desert land before we get to the neighborhood. Sometimes we find surprises. For instance, a couple days ago, we glimpsed two young Omani’s riding horses.

Homes in Ibri range from huge, walled in, double-decker masterpieces with sparkly tile, to smaller three-room apartments with one bathroom. Omani families are large and often eight to twelve kids can occupy one home. Past the new, bulkier homes, a collection of mud brick buildings surrounded by tall walls form a tourist attraction called Al Sulaif Fort. The village was abandoned not more than twenty-five years ago and walking through it feels like you’re in a rewinding historical movie. Two tribes shared the town in the past, but now it’s a pigeon’s paradise.

The city is our reminder to turn right past its walls and into vegetation. Further into the neighborhood, because the houses are closer together, we are in a maze of paths. It’s easy to get lost along the falaj system that flows through the farms providing water to plants and homes. This is my escape. A community built around what sustains it: creation. On my way back to my apartment, I always say hello to some camel friends in their pins along the road. I am so thankful for the little retreat I can return to when I am in need of peace.

The other place to escape is up! Across the busy street in front of our apartment building is a rocky brown mountain. It’s part of a range that curls around the city. At its base, the consistency is like slate and walking up the slope sounds like shattering porcelain plates under my feet. Further up, sparkly, white marble peaks through the old ocean floor and at the top a cliff peaks out over the other side of Ibri. At the base of the other side of the mountain, fine sand collects and tracks show the result of teens riding four-wheelers after school. From far away, the mountain walls look menacing and harsh. When I stand on them there is silence while my calves scream from the hike. It’s quiet until the prayer call of one mosque ignites a couple more mosques to chant as well.

I am finding sanctuaries in Ibri. Although I would love to be worshiping in Dimnent Chapel or sitting in an Italian cathedral for Sunday Mass, God has been meeting me in these places. It’s clear even in the middle of this dry and confusing desert, even in the middle of an Islamic country, the Father meets with his children. Once again, he has shown me his face in his creation and brings me peace instantly when I am walking through my neighborhood.

What a Wadi

The day after the desert, we woke up in time for a 7:00am breakfast and an 8:00am departure to Wadi Bani Awf. A wadi is a valley or channel that is dry until the rainy season, and when it is full of water is a perfect swimming hole for relief from the heat. This wadi was in the middle of a collection of mountains that used to be seafloor just like those in Ibri. We had to travel through the rock before finding the little haven. Then, we followed an old falaj* until we found its source of water.

I saw glitter before I realized that there was a pool of water expanding through the landscape. Lush, vivid, paradise. By the main pool, a restaurant was open for visitors and we used the bathroom to change into our swimsuits and cover-ups. Signs requested guests to cover up and be mindful of cultural guidelines. Translation: no bikinis, keep the hips covered and feel free to sunbathe with your shirts on. Other signs warned to be careful of slick rocks and not to jump in certain parts. My favorite sign boasted about creation:

“secret of universe and creativity of God shows the beauty of nature and its charm. Nature is a mirror with which you harmonize your essence and expand your imagination, so take care of its elements because there you find yours”

I smiled seeing that because it reminded me how faithful many people in this country are and how Muslims too share the care for nature just as Christians do.

Once I was lathered heavily with sunscreen, I got a spark of confidence and slid right into the blue. Beautiful. It felt beautiful. I paddled about, absorbing every touch of fish nibbling my toes (free pedicure!), every splash and every polished rock. The water lead through tunnels and walls of rock and I found myself wedged between dry, harsh boulders but yet still there was a lush, living stream.

After a while, I carefully pulled myself up and out of the water onto a slippery rock. I needed sun, so I headed up the wall by intentionally placing my toes in holes narrowed by years of water erosion. My wet clothes turned sticky, but I continued in my bare feet until I reached the top of the mountain. Across the cavern on the other side of the wadi, an Omani family sat down for a picnic while little girls pranced about in their traditional, colorful dresses. I watch for a while, then climbed back down for lunch.

With about 45 minutes left, my friend David and I realized we had not seen the cave at the end of the wadi. So, we set off on a mission to find it before we had to pack up the bus. We followed a trail through pebble bottom creeks, under and through sweating boulders, and barely stayed on our feet—I won’t tell you who took the first tumble, but it wasn’t me.

When we found the steps to the cave, David borrowed a phone for a flashlight from some Omani boys next to the entrance and we headed in. We crawled through damp, muddy gaps and I scrapped my knees and knuckles. I could feel my hair matted on my forehead and under my hat.  My cheeks were red and sweaty and puffy. But we kept going and found a pool of water in the bottom of the cave. In the process of one hour, we had gone to the highest point of the wadi and perhaps the lowest. We rushed back to the restaurant and made it just in time for me to change before heading to another city.

In the bathroom after changing back into my dry clothes, I caught myself in the mirror and laughed at my beet cheeks and crunchy hay-looking hair. I was a mess, but my wild green eyes were joyful.  Little places like the wadi show light in the midst of darkness. Life, where there seemed to be only dead, dry things. Coming into contact with the Lord in this way fills my heart and was an important reminder before heading back to school the next day.

I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”  (Psalm 27:13)

*ancient water channels and a system of irrigation using gravity to pull water all over the region — I could write an entire blog about the Afalaj systems in Oman

Visiting the Sahara*

Last weekend we all packed a bag, piled into the bus and drove 4.5 hours to the desert (plus a couple of pit stops for juice and a bathroom). At a gas station just on the edge of where the desert began we switched into four-wheeled vehicles and went off through the dunes, past some wild camels and up to a circle of square cube huts and rugs in the sand. Truly a retreat and my mind was ready for it because of all the Arabic letters and words swarming loudly inside it. We arrived just before sunset and after we grabbed our keys and dropped our bags on our beds, we booked it up a giant dune to watch the sunset.

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Many of us heaved and breathed deeply when we reached the top of the red sand mountain. On the other side was nothing but cream pie meringue waves of sand. The wind whipped across my cheeks carrying grains of sugar sand across my cheeks and nose. Directly west the sun had left winking behind rocky mountains and to the east the moon was confident on the dusk screen of sky. It was a full moon feature night.

I posed for pictures then pocketed my phone and ran my palms against the sand. There was not a sound other than the pull of the wind through my ears. Eerie because not much lives in the desert (although, we were warned of snakes and scorpions before coming). The only movement were the streams of sand winding around my ankles. My friend Ben posted on his Instagram the other day that the experience of the desert helped him understand why Jesus would retreat to the wilderness to spend time with the father. I cannot agree more.

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Jessica and I rolled down a hill on our sides and made sand angels that didn’t last more than two minutes before the next wave of sand rolled over them. Truly the dunes looked like waves yet felt like heavy dust. Sand weighed down the bottoms of my pants and spilled out of my pockets. That night, I emptied my boots into two large anthills outside of my concrete room. Every freckle on my face had doubled by sticky sand powder. The desert wasn’t going to let me leave without a piece of her with me. I keep finding twinkly red sand stuck to my clothes.

Later that night after a full meal of camel kabobs, lentils, rice and chicken, and fruit and Karak tea for dessert, we all gathered around a bonfire. Hefty jeeps charged up the side of the dunes and raced down noisily next to our camp. I imagined they were caravans of camels instead, carrying silk and spices and silver to the next city. We chattered on and on, and I stayed up way too late because of it. But, when I got back to my room, I smelled like earth and still felt windy ghosts in my hair and through my fingertips. I went straight to bed happy. So, so happy to be there.

*Sahara is Arabic for desert

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و (“wow”), I’m a Preschooler Again

I have started an entirely new subject from scratch. Language is always tricky, and Arabic is known as one of the more difficult languages to learn. I’m fortunate enough to have patient teachers and dedicated classmates that spur on my learning here in Ibri. As a result, on the ten-minute bus ride home, I’m in a whole new world as I sound out the Arabic script on all the buildings and billboards. In class, I’m giddy when I get something right and turn beet red when I say a word the wrong way or say something ridiculous or completely inappropriate by accident.

Morning in the classroom

I had forgotten how rewarding learning a language can feel. These lessons are refreshing compared to the rigorous, stressful experiences I had in my Spanish classes. Often, I was an anxious, ball-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach student who studied for days toward the next test and then forgot what I had learned the next week. I stopped studying Spanish because I associated it with failure and frustration and hit a plateau in learning. Now, the child-like atmosphere (while sometimes reduces me to toddler age) rekindles confidence in my abilities. The language is beautiful to write and I’m excited to say after two weeks I’m able to form sentences with the all-new Arabic alphabet!

That is not to say I’m not exhausted after five straight hours of Arabic every day. Sometimes I go to sleep sounding out every word I’m thinking. “I’MMMM TYYYYEEE YERRRRD”. Other days, I’m massaging my temples after attempting to correctly pronounce the letter ع (“ein”).

The street in front of my school

Many of the students here have been studying Arabic for years and still have trouble with reading and pronouncing words. But, the atmosphere of encouragement and hard work ethic is contagious and so we carry on in Ibri learning and practicing Arabic.

 

One of these opportunities to practice is with my language partner. We meet twice a week for an hour to speak Arabic, hangout, and work on my homework.  She is sassy and encouraging and I’ve loved hearing about her husband and her daughter. Every time I open the door to my apartment she looks excited to see me, flashes a full smile of turquoise braces and we kiss on both cheeks before I lead her inside. Today, she brought homemade Karak tea and we sipped and shared about our days while munching on biscuits. I have not met many Omani women and feel so blessed to hear and share stories with such a patient friend — even if she is tough on grammar.

My school

My favorite aspect of Arabic by far is the writing. Last week, we had a lesson on calligraphy from an artist named Mohammed. We all watched in awe as his wrist and fingers slowly and carefully moved his pen over his paper.  Loops and curls with such intentionality formed letters and words in six different styles of Arabic script. Arabic is as much an art form as it is a communication device. We attempted to repeat and replicate his letters but came up empty handed compared to his beautiful pattern. Because of these experiences, I am feeling confident and optimistic about learning a foreign language again —- and و (pronounced “wow”) it feels good.

The Castle & The Palace

When I was a little girl, my dad would wrap me up after my bath in a lovely pink towel dress. Then, he would spin me around and call me a princess and of course, I insisted on keeping my gown on as long as possible before putting on my pajamas that night. On the car ride to Nizwa (another interior city) today, I felt the familiar excitement of playing princess as great fort walls loomed ahead of us. I’ve gotten this feeling twice since arriving in Oman. Once at the Sultan’s palace in Muscat, and today at Jabreen castle just outside of Nizwa.

The Palace

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The Sultan’s palace is located in the center of Muscat and while I didn’t enter the rooms, I did walk with as much poise as possible down the marble sidewalks and up to the palace gates to take a picture. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos would just three days later meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after a parade of horses and uniformed men marched up to this same spot.

Group in front of the palace gates. Left to right – Ben, David, Danny and Me (Hope College) and Jessica (Northwestern College)

The walls of the palace are brightly colored and a garden wraps around the building. Everything surrounding its walls is glistening and clean. Magenta flowers cascade down the outer fences in beautiful batches. Around the back, the palace looks out on a crystal harbor. For centuries, Portuguese ships would import and export goods to Oman in the same place.

Cascading flowers

As we looked around and watched the windows of the palace, I wondered what it would be like to live in such an enclosed structure. What would it be like to clean the palace or be a guest of the Sultan? As we walked away, the great gold crest of the Sultan beamed from its spot of the gates, and my skirt twitched in the wind. I twirled around as I walked through archways and posed for the camera feeling like a princess.

 The Castle

Today, we journeyed out to Nizwa and toured a different regal structure; Jabreen Castle. Built around 1680 AD, and home to Imam Bil’arab bin Sultan Al Ya’rubi this castle held many diplomatic visitors and was heavily armed in its prime. Passageway upon passageway wrap their way around the interior and just when I thought I had seen it all, another staircase would appear and take me to a brand new place.

The thick walls have been redone to mimic the structure of the castle in the past. As a result, there were many windows without rails and arches that I had to be careful not to bump my head on. I found the kitchen and the bath, the Iman’s personal quarters as well as his grave, and the tiny spots that armed guards would hide in if case intruders were threatening the castle. There was even a system of rooms devoted solely to date storage in case of siege.

On the top of the castle, there was an old mosque and at one point, a school for studying Islam. Peering across the horizon I saw great mountains, palm tree farms, and several camels roaming in the sand. When I looked down, a chaotic collection of people were going about their tours and taking pictures as they walked from their buses to the castle door.

Back inside, I walked through a hallway and found the men’s and women’s jail to be tight black holes in the walls. There was even a spot for the Imam’s horse to stay on the second floor! When I reached the courtyard in the center of the castle, I spun around and spread my arms out wide. I’m not sure this would be my ideal home as a princess, but with all the places to hide and wiggle through, it would make an incredible place to be a little girl ready for adventure.

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