How to dance like an Omani


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.


The courts at Sultan Kaboos Grand Mosque


Inside a prayer room.


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.


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



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.

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Shift: Three men of Oman

A young Omani boy sits between his father and grandfather taking a break before the family returns to Souk's circle of selling.

The boy sat in the middle, kicking his legs just enough for his white disdasha to sway. His grandfather sat to his right as he watched their cattle.

If the boy’s father weren’t scrolling through his cell phone the scene’s date wouldn’t be recognizable.

When the boy leaned over his father’s shoulder to peer at the screen I suddenly realized I am a witness to a shift in Oman.

I’ve felt it when hanging out with Omani friends over shisha as the World Cup played on a projector – I knew some would have to hide they’re socializing with western girls who don’t wear the hijab from their parents.

When I began this blog a year ago in a University of Montana classroom it was with the hopes of pushing through my mental roadblocks.

Though that was initially directed toward my illogical fear of technology, it shifted to every challenge that taunts me to exchange a life of seeking out other cultures for something that resembles satisfaction within the safety of routine.

Arabic has been my most recent challenge. Surprisingly, it’s been difficult to learn the ancient language in an over 90 percent white population in the mountains of Montana, where “diversity” consists of a revolving door of international students, barefoot Frisbee players and non-bra wearing women.

So I decided to move to Oman for the summer, almost without stopping to analyze what I would encounter.

It was the last Friday before Ramadan and the Nizwa Animal Souk pulsed with the rapid pace of buying and selling. Ironically, this was where my mind stopped racing.

For the first timeI forgot the fact I should be making plans when I entered the colorful chaos of the Animal Souk. I became just another moving piece within the crowd.

I was finally in the Middle East

A buyer watches the trail of goats parade throughout the Nizwa Animal Souk.

I watched the boy’s father put his phone away, pick up a goat and join the market’s circle while shouting out a price in Arabic. He set aside technology for a moment to step back into a position his father had taught him and a job he was teaching his son.

If done right, the goat would be sold for about 50 rial and killed by sunset.

The dirt spotted animals were a stark contrast to the rotating men who moved like a unit – the few blue and brown dishdashas blurred into the white majority. The patterns were only broken when a man stopped to bargain with a potential customer.

Men discuss a fair price on the final Friday before Ramadan.

While the borders of generational change are still visible within the routine of the Animal Market of Nizwa, my attention was caught by the family aspect. The Animal Souk resembled a school for tradition even while the rest of Oman seems to be developing a stark change from fathers to sons.

Maybe I’ll eventually be able to put into words the shift I feel like I’m living within or the beautiful people and culture I get to explore.

For now, as sleep is limited and words are hard, I will settle with snapshots of the life within one of the oldest markets in Oman.


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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
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.


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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.