June 3-4, 2012: Muscat, Oman (Part 1)

Oh man, Oman! Today was absolutely wonderful, but before I jump into all the details, I’ll pick up right where I left you in Zurich. After our four hour layover in Zurich (which featured expensive duty-free shops, a fantastic encounter with an Orthodox Jewish man who needed somebody to explain where his flight was to him in Hebrew, and an MTV Behind the Music special on Missy Elliott), we finally boarded our Swiss flight to Oman via Dubai. I somehow managed to stay awake the entire flight in an effort to adjust early to Omani time, watched three somewhat mediocre yet entertaining movies, and finally, about 7 hours of travel later, we arrived in Muscat, Oman.

We walked off the plane in Muscat last night and were immediately confronted by the heat and humidity in the air. I knew it would be hot here, but I was in no way prepared for how 90+ degrees with near 100% humidity feels after spending 7 hours in a highly air-conditioned plane. We bought our visas upon arrival without issue, got through the tourist visa passport check in a matter of minutes, picked up our luggage, cleared customs, and walked outside to meet the woman who was picking us up. Maggie Jeans greeted us in the Muscat Airport at midnight with more energy than I think ever encountered from anybody at that time of day. A British ex-pat who has been in Oman for over 22 years now, Maggie shepherded us to her Land Rover to take us to our lovely hotel, the Al-Qurum Resort. By the time we actually got to our room and settled in, I was so exhausted from my lack of sleep over the past day of travel that I fell asleep almost immediately upon hitting the pillow. Hence the lack of arrival post when I got here yesterday.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Oman, the Sultanate of Oman is an Arab state in the southeast corner of the Arabian peninsula, just off the coast Arabia Sea and the Gulf of Oman. Muscat is Oman’s capital and largest city. Oman historically has been deeply influenced by the British (hence Maggie, our British “tour-guide” and contact here). The government of Oman is a “Unitary Islamic Absolute monarchy,” which has also been referred to as a “benevolent dictatorship,” with Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said (called “His Majesty” by every Omani I’ve met so far) as its monarch, prime minister, chief executive, and seat of power (more on the Omani government system later). The Sultan is deeply revered, respected, and loved by many in Oman. As I said in my introductory post, I was extremely excited that we’d be traveling to Oman because in my “Middle East Through Many Lenses” seminar with Professor Heather J. Sharkey, we read a wonderful book on Oman entitled In the Time of Oil by Mandana Limbert (I highly recommend it!).

Now that you have the necessary background information, on to my first day here! We all met for breakfast in the hotel restaurant at 9:30 despite some confusion with our “baisa bus” driver and Maggie, both of whom thought we’d be leaving at that time. (Note: a “baisa bus” is a kind of taxi van, so called because they are incredibly inexpensive and the “baisa” is the smallest denomination of Omani currency). After breakfast, we left for a tour of the Grand Mosque with Hattem Aal Abdul Salam, a volunteer at the mosque who graciously welcomed us all and showed us around.

The Grand Mosque is an incredible sight (pictures to come soon!). It is home to the world’s largest chandelier and carpet, both of which our housed in the main prayer room for men in the mosque. The Mosque, completed in 2001, took 6 years to build and understandably so; it is one of the most well-maintained, beautiful, impressive sights that I have ever seen. According to Maggie, the upkeep of the grounds is pretty typical of the Sultan’s opinion of the upkeep of Oman as a whole: it must be outwardly manicured, well-kept, and pleasing to the eye. Muslims come to the Mosque five times a day for prayers, but Friday at 12:00 PM is its busy time. Nearly 10,000 men are in the Mosque at that time, but when we were there, only a few men and women were walking around. (Speaking of women, there is a separate women’s prayer room with plasma TVs connected to the main room – how tech-savvy is that!). Our guide also explained to us the process of washing before entering the prayer rooms, starting with the hands (the most apt to carry germs – Mom would be so happy), then mouth, nose, face, hair, ears, arms, and finally feet.

What I was most struck by more than anything during our tour of the Mosque was how incredibly inviting and welcoming everyone at the Mosque was to us. Apparently, many tourists come through each day to see the magnificent sight, but I was really moved by how every man and woman we encountered made an effort to say “Salaam” and welcome us to their place of worship and refuge. In fact, that’s how I’m feeling right now about Oman as a nation: it’s incredibly low-key and welcoming. Everyone is just very laid-back and inviting here, which is really refreshing. Perhaps that’s why nobody really hears about Oman too often; things are just pretty calm here.

Anyway, after our tour of the Mosque we had a wonderful conversation with a volunteer at the Islamic Information Center there named Hafidh. We had a really fascinating and honest conversation with him about Islam as a religion and its depiction in the rest of the world. I’ll spare you all the little details, but a couple of things are important to understand if you are to also understand some of the underlying religious issues in the places we will be visiting throughout the trip, so I’ll relay them as explained to us by Hafidh today. Islam is rooted in two main sources: the Qur’an, or the revelation to the Prophet Muhammad which serves as a code of life for Muslims and contains all the previous messages of God (i.e. both the Old and New Testament), and the compilation of the traditions and teachings of the Prophet as reported by his disciples. Teachers and interpreters of these sources gain followers that in turn evolves into sects, which represent different schools of thought. The major school of thought/sect followed in Oman is Ibadism (for more information, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibadi), which cannot be classified as either Sunni or Shia. Sunni and Shia Islam, the two most well-known major branches of Islam, are divided due to concerns regarding the line of succession following the Prophet (Sunnis believe that Abu Bakr, a disciple of Muhammad, is the rightful successor, and Shias believe that Ali, his cousin, is the rightful successor). This division has become fairly political, but it is based mainly in an historical disagreement. While all branches and schools of thought follow the same Qur’an and traditions/teaching, the difference lies in the way these traditions and teachings are practiced. There are five main pillars of Islam, including the fast of Ramadan, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the obligation to give charity, the obligation to pray five times daily, and the belief that there is only one God and Muhammad is God’s Prophet.

Oman is an Islamic country that is run by both Islamic and Civil Law. Religious affairs and law deal with issues of family, inheritance, and practice, while anything having to do with government is handled by civil law. Both types of law have courts specific to them, and they parallel and complement each other. From what I understand, the lines are fairly blurred and there are gray space between the two.

What I most struck by in this discussion was the Islamic viewpoint on other religions and how that affects Oman’s view of non-Muslims. The Quran states that there is no compulsion in religion. What one believes is his or her own choice. To be at peace with God, you must follow the will of God and seek God through knowledge. Freedom of faith is guaranteed by Islam and the Quran has a very firm set of rights that are applicable to all people, regardless of their status as Muslims or non-Muslims. Islam requires the respect of other people living with Muslims who have different beliefs and vice versa. Islam is about faith. Oman is religiously tolerant in part because the Quran says it must be, and in part due to a need to seek opportunity and connection to other parts in the world with other viewpoints and beliefs (more on this later).

A last word on our meeting with Hafidh. We asked him why he believed Islam was misunderstood. His response was a really interesting one, albeit one that I somewhat expect. First, he said that a small group of extremists that wrongly promote violence in the name of Islam are giving Islam a bad name as a whole (see: Somalia). As Hafidh said, this is “our own fault” (referring to Muslims, perhaps?). Second, he said that he believes that the media portrayal of Islam is unfair and has led to Islam becoming a “scapegoat” for other issues. According to him, “Muslims should use the media to portray what Islam is all about.” Perhaps he is right. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what I feel about this issue, but I thought his points were well made.

We said goodbye to our hosts at the Mosque and left around 12:00 PM for what I believed was going to be a relatively simple lunch, albeit with notable guests HE Sheikh Abdulla Al-Rowas, former Minister of the Interior for Oman (i.e. head of infrastructure, land management, environment, etc.) and current member of the State Council (the upper branch of the bicameral Council of Oman, the state’s legislature), and Ambassador Richard Baltimore, former US ambassador to Oman. I was unbelievably wrong. The house we pulled up to for lunch was more like a palace than anything. We were greeted outside the huge front doors by HE Sheikh Abdullah, who welcomed us all graciously into his unbelievable home. We had fresh squeezed fruit juices in his first sitting room, a remarkable hall with a ridiculous number of beautiful gold couches and wood and glass tables, where we all introduced ourselves and broke off into small groups for discussion. Lucky for me and Jake, we were seated right next to Ambassador Richard Baltimore, who quite possibly might be the most interesting man I’ve ever met. Ambassador Baltimore, or just Richard, told us all about his life and time in the American foreign service. I COULD NOT have been happier to learn that he went to New Rochelle High School, my very own alma mater, and is a very proud graduate and alumni himself. He wanted to hear all about the school, the city, and my time at NRHS (he even asked about SUPA Forensics after reading about it in the news)! We had a true bonding experience. But actually. Richard, after graduating from NRHS, went to GW for International Relations and then Harvard Law School (not because he wanted to be a lawyer, but because he wanted a fallback in case he didn’t like the foreign service) before becoming a Political Officer at the Department of State originally stationed in Portugal. Despite being initially unexcited by this placement, within 10 months of his appointment there, Civil War broke out and he said it was the greatest place to be working. Richard was in South Africa during Apartheid (in 1976 during the Soweto uprising), in Egypt when Sadat was assassinated, worked in Hungary with dissidents, volunteered in Afghanistan, served under 3 different Secretaries of State (Vance, Muskie, and Hage), and ultimately served as US Ambassador to Oman. Oh my God, this man could possibly be my hero. He was charismatic, funny, extremely knowledgeable (when asked how many languages he spoke, he told us we didn’t even want to know, and over the course of the conversation spit out fluent Afrikaans and Arabic), and just an all-around fantastic guy. Currently, he works for Omran, an Omani government-owned company that focuses on the development of Oman’s tourism industry.

Lunch itself was amazing, featuring over seven main dishes including chicken, fish, lamb, and goat, at least three different kinds of rices, dates, bread, and salad. I don’t think I’ve seen that much to eat for only 13 people ever in my life. We were all stuffed and stunned at the incredibly hospitality that HE Sheikh Abdulla showed us. Not to mention the magnificent dining room we sat in with the gold-plated china in the cabinet or the marble bathroom just off the dining room where we washed our hands after the meal, complete with six sinks. It was all unbelievable. After lunch, we met in yet another sitting room that was the mirror image of the first, but in pink and peach tones rather than gold, for coffee, tea, cakes, and more schmoozing time with HE Sheikh Abdulla and Ambassador Baltimore. We were also joined by Jehad (Last name forthcoming once I get her card from Mark), an Omani news anchor and personality and a member of the Human Rights board in Oman, and her son, an adorable third-grader who sat with us for lunch, coffee, and tea. Jehad shared with us her views on Omani news, putting the needs of the country before her own needs as a television personality in deciding what to write about and report on, and being an advocate for women’s rights despite some pushback from so-called “feminist” groups in Oman who she felt weren’t doing enough to support women and spoke out against them. After traditional Arabic coffee, tea, and desert, we took some final group pictures, said goodbye to our guests and the magnificent home, and went on our way back to the hotel for a meeting with Ahmad Ali M. Al-Mukhaini, a liberal reformer in Oman who consults the government and an expert on Omani government.

Right now, though, its 2:30 AM and we have another long day ahead of us, so I need to head to bed. Tomorrow, I’ll finish up our first day in Oman (sneak peak: it involves an Italian dinner!), provide you with a quick crash course in Omani government and the Omani Spring, and tell you, of course, about everything we do tomorrow. For now, it’s time to get some rest.

Safe Travels! – Jake


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