Monday, September 20, 2010

An IU Student Goes to Oman - Part II

There are plenty of difficult aspects to being an American in the Middle East, but I have never felt uncomfortable. Oman is a very peaceful country, there is no violent crime to be heard of and people generally seem to get along. The biggest change is coping with the cultural difference. As a foreigner, you lack perspective about what behavior is appropriate and when. One example of this would be showing proper deference to elders. While American style camaraderie might be acceptable to a younger generation of Omanis, it comes off as condescending to older Omanis. Given that Omanis are invariably polite, even a slightly adverse reaction from someone can feel like a rebuke. Talking with Omani women is another activity that requires tact. It is acceptable in settings that are considered ‘professional’ (e.g. in the classroom between students and teachers), but in other situations, less so. For example, Omani women generally do not interact with (non-related) men on the street.

Oman is a country that has seen rapid transformation, most of which has taken place in recent memory. Many facets of life are still being negotiated and this has presented considerable challenge at times. Many older Omanis can remember the days before cars, roads, telephones, air-conditioning and televisions. In almost all the smaller towns and villages, you can see mud-brick houses where Omanis used to live. Almost all of these have been abandoned in favor of larger, more modern residences. Yet despite the empty and time-worn appearance of these old houses, many of them were occupied as recently as 20 or 25 years ago.

Overall, Omanis are enthusiastic about modern life. They have seen dramatic improvements in the quality of their healthcare system, schools and economy in a relatively short amount of time. The harsh environment has become more livable and comfortable thanks to modern appliances and technology. Supporting over three million residents probably would not be possible without water desalinization and a system of dams and reservoirs that capture the run-off of what little rain Oman gets.

Omanis have much greater exposure to the outside world than previously, thanks to satellite television and internet. The kids in family I live with follow WWE wrestling, as do a large number of young Omanis I have met. Facebook is also gaining popularity with young Omanis, especially young men. Social networking allows them to meet people outside the normal circle of extended family and find people with similar interests. Because social networking is something new, appropriate behavior is open to interpretation and experimentation. For example, facebook accounts for women will often be completely devoid of personal information and photographs. Some women will still not open accounts because facebook allows people to send messages and photographs between each other privately.

While we increasingly worry about the cost of modernization in America, issues like environmental damage, immigration, economic sustainability have yet to fully register their impact in Oman. While the effects of development are visible in all these areas, the issues are so new that their consequences are not clear. One example of this is the large population of Indian and Pakistani migrants now working in Oman. They may constitute up to a fifth of the population and they represent the bulk of the labor that goes into building roads and infrastructure. Many migrants have come here to open businesses or to work in IT or other fields and have a vested interest in remaining in Oman. The government recognizes legal migrant workers as ‘residents,’ but it has yet to be seen whether they will receive rights comparable to those of citizens. Part of the equation rests on what the migrant workers demand for themselves. In Oman, they often have better access to employment and services than they do in their home countries. In theory, they receive equal rights in court. Yet the plight of illegal migrants is a more troubling issue. These migrants are generally the least skilled and educated and are more vulnerable to abuse. For example, Omani police officers may threaten undocumented workers with deportation unless they pay a bribe.

Right now I am living with a family of Omani-Zanzibari background. Until the early 1960’s, many Omanis lived in Zanzibar, and to some extent, colonized parts of Eastern Kenya and Tanzania. Overthrow of the Omani-dominated government in Zanzibar resulted in a sizable diaspora, with Omanis either resettling in Tanzania or returning to Oman. With them came a unique cultural heritage combining Omani and East African elements. At home, my family speaks Swahili, a blend of Arabic and East African languages. They are also fluent in Arabic and English. They have much in common with their compatriots; however Omani society remains fairly conservative and the family is more relaxed. Most Omani families would not probably take in an American student for an extended period. Guests are never expected to pay for themselves and gender-separation is also a serious impediment.

At home, there is a pretty clear division between what areas are public and private. As a guest, I’m expected to stay in the areas between my room, the living rooms, the kitchen and dining room. Fortunately, my room and the others are on the first floor, while the family lives on the second, so I can move freely between rooms without problems.

Cultural exchange is by no means a one-way street and as I better understand the values here, I have come to question assumptions I had. The biggest revelation has been that people in Oman are not cut off from the rest of the world nor is the society closed off to different influences. The country is not as Arab nor as Muslim as I had imagined, and it has peacefully incorporated large foreign communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and India. Omanis do not try to force their way of life on other people, rather they revel in diversity and bringing the best out of different cultures.

Over the next few weeks, I plan on writing more about my experience here and if you have any questions, please write to

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