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.