Arabian Nights

Arabian Nights

Last weekend, my classmates and I got the wonderful opportunity to attend a show at the Royal Opera House in Muscat! The show had performances of traditional Arabic music. Although I couldn’t understand a single word of it, it was amazing! The upbeat rhythms and the syncopated accompaniment of the harp-like instrument and tambourine was something I was not very familiar with. The vocalists were incredible and each had their own genre-specialization.

The show began with a male vocalist, Mohamed Al Jebali. Many of his selections were upbeat and quickly cadenced. He sang so beautifully and he had incredible runs. However, the runs were extremely different from the western music many of us are familiar with. The way he sang, he used a technique very similar to vibrato. It sounded similar to the vibrato on a string instrument, but not quite. On top of the very difficult runs, he would hold long notes for 15 or more seconds! He was an extremely talented vocalist. In addition to his voice, it was interesting to hear how different instruments were used and amplified in different songs and throughout some songs. The hand drum, I think, was the most interesting to hear and watch. The technique was similar to the kind used when playing the tambourine. Yet, there were some songs that the drummer would produce, quick sixteenth notes with one hand, and it was difficult to tell how they did that. The entire experience was new and exciting. Although I was not sure what the words were or what they meant, I could really appreciate the vocalist and the accompanying band.

After intermission, the next vocalist, Leila Hejaiej came out. She seemed to be well known by the audience and well liked. Many of her songs differed from the songs of the first vocalist in the sense that they reminded me more of ballads. It was very interesting to witness how many songs resonated with the audience. There was more than one moment that the instrumental would start and people would begin clapping along with the beat. This hadn’t happened in the previous performance, which I found a bit odd. Then I started to get the feeling that the songs the female vocalist had chosen were folk-type songs that many members of the audience knew, and knew well. At certain points, in some songs, she would be singing and she would then cue to the audience, and they would respond by singing what seemed to be the correct part. It was very interesting to witness a performance that was so interactive after just witnessing a performance that was not. I enjoyed being in a space where the performance of traditional Arab music became a celebration of tradition.  When she was finished with her set, the female vocalist gave a speech and invited the male vocalist back on stage. They finished the night with a set of duets, and then it was all over.

It was such an incredible experience to witness a culture through its music. In the time we had been living here, most of our cultural knowledge came from the classroom or field trips. Though I couldn’t understand the words, the music still told a story I could follow. The vocalists’ voices painted a picture. The performances I witnessed Friday night added to my understanding of the culture I was in. I was able to appreciate Oman’s beauty from a different perspective, and I am so thankful to have gotten the opportunity.

We weren’t allowed to take any photos in the auditorium so we took a picture in front of it

We also had a dress code to adhere to so we took cute pictures of our nice outfits

 

A Once in a Lifetime Chance

Earlier this week my group and I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to the United Arab Emirates. We were there to witness and participate in the Papal mass in Abu Dhabi! It was the most surreal experience I think I have ever had. Getting there and returning back was really difficult, but I would go through it all again just to experience something so extraordinary one more time.

The mass was on the 5th so we left a day early to make sure we would have ample time to get to Abu Dhabi, and the stadium the mass was held in. We left before the sun rose and arrived in the late afternoon. We took advantage of our time in another predominantly Muslim country to explore the different buildings of worship.

First, we visited the church because we were out around the time the Muslim evening prayers were happening. The church we visited was called St. Andrews Anglican Church. We went on a tour and learned about the church and its history. The actual building hosts over 45 different Christian congregations. I thought the church was especially interesting because it had been in the country for 50 years. The Emirati government allowed the church to be established in the 60s by the Anglican missionaries who helped build up the country’s medical infrastructure. I think the culture of religious tolerance, that began so long ago with this partnership, lead to the events of the pope presiding a mass in the UAE.

After the visit to the church and the evening prayers, we made our way to the Grand Mosque. It was really interesting to see the Emirati Grand Mosque after already having seen the Omani Grand Mosque. It was difficult to be subjective when going through the house of worship, but I enjoyed it. The compound the mosque is on is ginormous and it is as detailed as the actual building. One thing I really enjoyed is the serenity the fountains and lights gave the mosque. The courtyard is decorated with meters of crystal-clear water illuminated by soft blue lights and the light flowing from inside the mosque itself. It was so extremely surreal to be in a Muslim majority country, in a Muslim house of worship, knowing the next day I would be attending a historic event for Muslims and Christians alike.  All in all, the mosque was a wonderful experience and it was interesting to compare the different stylistic choices in both of the grand mosques I had seen.

The morning of mass had finally arrived. The only problem was that we had to queue for the bus at 3:00 am. We woke up around 2:15 to be out of the hotel in time to get to the bus stop. We had about a 15-minute walk to the bus stop. The only way we could get to mass was by regulated buses provided by the Emirati government because no cars were allowed anywhere near the stadium. That being said, they were Abu Dhabi public buses that had routes to complete so they ran from 2:30- 5:00 am. We waited in line for about 90 minutes before we got onto a bus. We arrived at the stadium around 6:15 am; the mass began at 10:30 am. Although we woke up early, we had a chance to get a quick nap in before the service actually started.

Around 8 am, the stadium began to fill up and spirits were rising.  People began chanting and doing the wave! It was incredible to see so many Christians, from all over the world and from different denominations, celebrating and worshiping together! I loved seeing how many Emiratis and Muslims were attending, as well. It was truly an image of tolerance and acceptance. The anticipation was so intense that when the pope arrived in his vehicle, the crowd erupted! The cacophony of the attendees lasted for minutes! When everything finally calmed down, the service began.

The Pope’s homily was completely in Latin so I didn’t understand much. However, there were screens with English translations on them. I gathered that he was preaching of tolerance and acceptance. The homily that was so fitting for the situation we were in: a Muslim majority country working on its religious tolerance. After the Pope’s sermon, he was escorted off the stage and mass proceeded like any other mass. At the end of the full service, the choir sang a sort of outro as everyone filed out of the stadium into chaos.

I will forever remember being a part of something so monumental and inspirational. I am so grateful for all of our coordinators that helped get us to where we were. I will hold an extremely touching and beautiful service in my heart. I will never forget the struggle of getting to and from the auditorium, and staying awake after getting two hours of sleep! Overall, the experience was one for the books and will continue to impact my life.

The arena was very dark and fairly empty when we got there.

The sun had begun to rise and the stage looked heavenly!

In One Weekend I Was Drained!

Justin made it very clear that he was going to help us get over our jet lag as soon as possible! We had an extremely packed weekend. We had arrived early on Friday, so after just a few hours of sleep, we all woke up early to get a tour of the city. Later that evening, Justin, his family, Jeff (the other associate director of our program), his family, and roughly 10 seminary students from Virginia all got to go on a dhow trip. A dhow is a traditional Omani boat that is completely constructed without any nails. However, our boat was slightly modernized with a motor and electric lights. We drank Omani spiced coffee and ate dates on our boat trip. Due to the timing of our trip, we were able to see the sunset over the ocean with silhouetted mountains in the background. Despite the relaxing nature of the boat ride, I was thoroughly exhausted at the end of it.

The next morning, our adventures continued as we all took a trip to the Grand Mosque. The mosque is open to visitors from 8 am to 11 am, Sunday through Thursday. It is truly one of the most magnificent, and well-thought-out architectural structures I have witnessed.  There were just so many details carefully considered during its construction 17 years ago. The entire mosque can accommodate a total of 20,000 worshipers in different praying areas! The Sultan’s goal for the mosque was that no matter the creed, race or nationality, anyone and everyone could find something that they identify with. We were greeted with an expansive English inspired garden. In the middle of the garden was a traditional Omani irrigation and water service system called a Falaj. The building itself was made from marble all harvested from the same quarry so it would age at the same rate. Inside the main prayer room, the rug was handwoven in Iran and finished as it was being laid in the mosque. There were 47 weavers who worked to make the rug a single piece; there is not a single seam in the rug that stretches several meters across the entire room. The amount of detail that went into this building was incredible, making the experience that much more enjoyable!

After touring the main mosque, we were able to go to the information center and converse with some Omani Muslim women about their faith, life, and other things. We were treated to dates and coffee again, and introduced to a new traditional sweet call halwa; it is made of flour, water, sweetener (I think dates) and spices. I loved getting to hear, firsthand, the experience of a Muslim woman in a majority Muslim country. The experience was so new and wonderful that I cannot wait to go back.

Later that same night, we were able to experience traditional Omani food, dress, and dance at the Muscat festival. The festival was originally created for Omani people to experience some traditions they may not have known or been as ‘in-touch’ with. Although not many foreigners go to the festival, those that do typically have some ties in Oman to even know about it.  When we were there, we got to taste traditional foods. There was a crepe-like flatbread that was filled with cheese, egg, and honey. Even though I did not try it, the response I heard from my classmates was nothing short of satisfied. I tried a fried, puffy bread drizzled with honey. It was phenomenal! We were also treated to fresh, hot halwa; I have to say it was much better than the room temperature one at the mosque.

After eating, we roamed around and looked at the different vending stands. I ended up buying some lotions and naturally scented oils. We also passed by some traditional dances performed by men, and a few women. We finished off the night by riding some camels and headed back home. All in all, it was a good weekend, filled with culture, good food, and battles with jet lag. If our first week began like this, I cannot wait for the remainder of the semester!

The main prayer room that can hold up to 6,500

The mihrab where the Imam leads prayers in the main prayer room

A courtyard that doubles as extra prayer space that can hold up to 8,000 people

Our array of Dhow snacks

The adventure begins…

The Adventure Begins…

Before I even left the country, trouble ensued. My mother and I were driving from our home in Grand Rapids to the Chicago O’Hare airport so I could catch my first flight to get to Oman.  Our drive began easily enough, but trust Michigan to throw a weather curveball when you most expect it, and least need it! We hit a wall of freezing rain and were stuck in traffic for roughly 90 minutes. Needless to say, I was not going to make my flight. Fortunately for me, the other student from Calvin had her GR to Chicago flight canceled, and the remaining four students from Northwestern college were also stranded. What had been a simple, interstate journey for all of us had developed to a full-blown winter disaster!

A day after we had initially planned, we were finally all in the Chicago airport ready for our semester together. The previous day’s weather may have thrown a wrench in our plans, but as I sat with my new classmates, housemates, and hopefully friends, I could tell that the delays had done nothing to our spirits! We were finally embarking on our three-month adventure together!

Our journey from then on was smooth and stress-free. We arrived in Oman safely, and effortlessly (at least as effortless as customs and immigration can get).  We were greeted and picked up by our program director Justin, and our program coordinators Lauren and Matias. Only at that point did it really start to click for me that I was actually in a different country and a completely different culture, and I was here for a while. However, pretty soon, that feeling of realization began to wear off. The new sounds, smells, and sights were so intriguing and different that it felt like a dream!

We finally arrived at the AL Amana center; our new home, classroom, and community space for the next few months. It was all so surreal. I was actually in Oman! Justin had a “quick” debriefing for the night (it lasted about an hour and a half), and sent us on our way to bed. We were all so excited and confused and overwhelmed that we didn’t even realize that the time was 2 AM when our meeting was over. Needless to say, we all went straight to bed; my roommate and I took quick, much-needed showers first. Despite the rocky start, it became clear that this semester was going to be a good one!