How to dance like an Omani

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On one of my favorite nights in Oman, my friend Ashraf (right) and Saleh took me out to watch an American movie at the mall, car dance to Spanish music videos and then sing old Arabic songs on top of a mountain that overlooked our city, Muscat.

It was just after 7 p.m. I knew the call to prayer had sounded but I couldn’t hear it over Ashraf’s salsa music.

With his left hand on the steering wheel he used his right to filter through music videos on his iPad. I was worried his eyes took in dance steps more than the road.

“Ashraf, watch the road,” I said between nervous laughter.

He paused only to dance or swerve through traffic.

“Katheryn,” he said patiently, “you are in my country, I’ll keep you safe and still drive like an Omani.”

From the highway I could see the lit dome of the Grand Mosque. I was taken by the irony.

Just a few weeks ago I had walked within the Mosque’s walls, my hair covered beneath a hijab, my bare feet hot on the sun-exposed marble floors.

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The courts at Sultan Kaboos Grand Mosque

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Inside a prayer room.

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I rarely felt the need to wear hijab, but when in a mosque or a smaller community I always covered up. And to be honest, for short amounts of time it was nice. I felt like I dressed for myself and not those around me.

I Now I sat in the back of my friend’s car, a shawl hiding my black dress as we sped to my first salsa class, which happened to be in an Islamic nation returning to normality after Ramadan.

An hour later a man in traditional Omani clothing bought me a shot of “sex on the beach” and the irony felt overwhelming.

Even now, I feel uncomfortable admitting I accepted that drink. I know some of my Omani friends reading this would never have entered “the club”. In Muscat international hotels play the role of bar, and young Omanis blend in with a mix of Europeans and other East Asians.

To a few of my friends who described me as “not the average American” – meaning I’m not a daily partier and wont date a man that doesn’t get the okay from my parents – that moment might contradict who they think I am.

My personal conflict of whether or not I should write this post is a side effect of my own entanglement with the cultural shift in Oman.

When I left Montana to live abroad for the summer I thought it was a temporary goodbye to my new love of dance. I wasn’t aware the country I was about to live in had a stronger beat then most of Missoula.

My friend Fahm moved around me as I tried to follow.

“Katheryn, I am the man and you are the woman,” Fahm said. “You are supposed to shine. But instead, I am shinning.”

I stopped dancing and jokingly glared at him. “Well, maybe I don’t know how to shine like you.”

It was true. My hips swayed like a dysfunctional robot.

He replied simply and sweetly, “It’s okay Katheryn. I will teach you how to shine.”

He tried. I failed.

Though my friends seemed more comfortable in the atmosphere of the club than I was, it wasn’t due to drinking, since every Omani person I had came with were followers of Islam. I took a break and watched them in their element – Movements felt more passionate, clear without the blur of alcohol.

Dancing wasn’t just exclusive to this mixed niche of foreigners and vibrant Omanis.

I danced Bedouin-style with new gracious friends in my small Omani apartment. We only took a break to have the last meal of the night before another day of Ramadan began and they returned to fast. (A video will be posted in the near future)

I danced crammed in a car with eight Omani women when a beloved song came on the radio. Their wrists flicking to the beat and their heads swaying in a somehow perfect way I couldn’t imitate, much to their amusement.

I danced in a village with an Omani family over Eid when a woman asked me to teach them “American dance” while an Arabic version of MTV was on. The men had left and the woman ran to lock the door. Before I understood my role, she impatiently repeated, “American dance Katheryn! American dance!”

I initially tried swing dance but soon found out they were looking for a toned-down version of grinding. She tried to do the same, allowing her hair covering drop to her shoulders. There was a knock on the door. We covered ourselves and let the men back in the room, suppressing smiles.

I danced alongside two young girls at a backyard tent wedding in front of over 100 people as one of two white people in the room. The crowd of women let out short yells as I failed to mirror their Omani dance, the shy bride smiled. I never saw the groom. Omani weddings are segregated.

The juxtaposition of old and new is apart of this country I may never get use to but I will always love. Thank you for the dance, Oman.

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My new dancing friends in a small village dressed me in a traditional Omani outfit after I taught them “American dance”.

 

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Little boys peer out from the wedding tent at the white stranger outside. When I first took this photo I didn’t realize they were there. My friends and I showed up 30 minutes early for the Omani wedding – we were the first to arrive and waited another three hours for the bride to walk down the aisle in true Omani time.

Also, follow my travels at katherynhoughton@wordpress.com or check out my Twitter, @UMHoughton

 

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