A Westerner’s walk through Oman

 

Students from my school walk through a beautiful ancient village near Nizwa, Oman.

I finally let my Nikon’s screen go black as our bus chugged toward the mountainous village of Misfat Al-Abreyeen.

The distraction of the radio had pulled me away from looking at the simple photo of a boy, his father and grandfather, which had morphed into a symbol of the generational shift I see in Oman.  (click here for photo from previous blog)

“Ramadan Kareem,” the radio host said to his listeners.

It wouldn’t be strange for the host to wish every a happy holiday, other than the fact Oman is an Islamic Republic and Muslims aren’t supposed to listen to music during the Holy Month. Simplified to the extreme, Muslims use this month of fasting during the day to focus on their relationship with god and tune out worldly distractions.

(Check out a favorite song of the summer in Oman. I first heard Enty while eating spicy corn and ice cream, a gift from my local friend, as we made our way though chaotic Omani traffic to a wadi just outside of Muscat. Apparently it is about a women who would rather her man not talk when she does something wrong.)

The radio went static as we drove higher. It was as if we were escaping the changes seeping into Oman.

The bus, with more than 20 Americans, one Australian and a Spaniard, was unusually silent. It was probably out of fear that our beloved bus would finally die like it seemed to threaten to do at each switchback that led to the village.

I had no idea we were about to explore one of the few places Westerners can see that feels nearly untouched by Oman’s recent modernization.

The ancient village that gives a hint into Oman before the 1970s.

In the quietness, my mind replayed a conversation with an elderly woman at an Islamic Informational Center a few days before.

She described the man who had “brought Oman back to life” – Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said.

Before the sultan overthrew his isolationist father, Said bin Taimur, in a palace coup in 1970, the people of Oman had no idea Qaboos even existed.

“He was the surprise to Oman,” she said.

As she talked, the sultan seemed to be watching our conversation from the position of a wooden frame that hung within the Islamic Informational Center. To be honest, I would be surprised not to see the sultan’s picture hanging in any building I enter by now.

His sudden appearance in the 1970s was just a foreshadowing of the changes he would bring to Oman. He began his reign with a promise – “Oman will transform into a modern country.”

He told this to a people who had no electricity, faced death somewhere within their forties and had only two hospitals to rely on when disaster struck.

Forty four years later, the image has changed. Health has improved, wealth has spread, education has been stressed and the floodgates to the western world have been opened.

 

Omani society then and now

  1970 2008
Life expectancy at birth (years) 49.4 75.9
Fertility rate (births per woman) 7.20 3.05
Hospitals
2 58
Schools 3 1,283
Students 900 623,389
Telephone subscribers 557 3,493,527
Sources: World Bank; National Economy Ministry
       

This explains why the Islamic country has a radio host who will wish his listeners a Happy Ramadan. Or why I am able to buy food in public even though eating in the open is against the law during the Holy Month (Though I have had a meal or two in bathroom stalls).

Billboards have English words bolder than Arabic. My teachers tell me not to stress out “too much” about being modest – after all I’m “a westerner” and therefore am somehow excused if I want to show my elbows or ankles.

The product is Oman and the buyers are foreigners.

(Oman continues the push for tourism, and it is working).

As our bus parked among brick homes built into a mountainside I realized we, our bus full of westerners, were yet another example of this change as more than 20 foreigners entered the quite village of Misfat Al-Abreyeen.

 ***

For more photos and posts, check me out at http://katherynhoughton.wordpress.com/

For updates on my trip or other fun facts, follow me at @UMHoughton

Myself and other Arabic students flock around a donkey of Misfat Al-Abreyeen while the rest of the village continues with their routine.

We explore the village.

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