June 5, 2012: Nizwa, Oman

Good evening from Jabal Akhdar, Oman, a beautiful mountaintop village about two hours or so away from Muscat! I finished blogging last night super late at around 2:30, so by the time I was ready to go to bed I fell asleep immediately (not to mention I was completely exhausted from our day of dialogue and traveling around). Jake, Dillon, and I woke up at 8:30 AM and had half an hour to pack up all of our stuff to checkout of our first hotel and meet in the restaurant downstairs for breakfast. Although we’re returning to our hotel tomorrow night, we needed to pack up all of our stuff because we traveled to the mountains today and are actually staying at a different resort up here (more on that in a little while).

At around 10:00 AM (a little bit behind schedule partly due to our baisa bus driver who was nowhere to be found), we departed for the University of Nizwa, a private not-for-profit university about an hour and a half away from Muscat. The ride up to Nizwa was actually really beautiful; as we headed away from the city and deeper into the country, we were all struck by the incredible landscape that surrounded us. Beautiful mountains surrounded us on every side as we made the trek to the University, and we spent the entire ride laughing per usual. Jake was still exhausted from the night before (more on our absurd schedule later) that he kept falling in and out of half-sleep on my knee (cue the cameras for adorable yet slightly absurd pictures of the scene).

When we arrived at the University, we were greeted by Amanda and Gus, two ex-pats from Philadelphia who both teach there and are friends of Maggie. Amanda teaches Spanish and English while her husband Gus teaches literature and communication studies. They brought us to the “Male Cafeteria” (a little off-putting to see two different cafeterias for men and women, but as we toured around the university more it became apparent that there women’s and men’s entrances to libraries and other building as well; only classrooms, interesting enough, held men and women students together) where we were to have lunch with a group of students from the University.

And what a fantastic lunch it was! The six of us decided not to sit next to each other at Maggie’s suggestion so that all of the students from Nizwa would have a chance to intersperse themselves throughout our group to ensure maximum discussion and interaction between the Americans and Omanis. The students who met us for lunch were some of the brightest, kindest, most open-minded people I’ve met (pretty fitting for students in a country as tolerant as Oman). All of them were studying some form of English, be it translation or English education, except one who studied physics. Over an impressive meal of multiple types of meats, chicken, and finish, hummus (yay!), rice, salad, and juices, we all talked about what were studying, our interests, where were from, and the differences and similarities between our universities. The students were extremely excited and glad to hear about how much we all loved Oman, and I was excited to share with them my thoughts on this fantastic country and how thrilled I was to see how welcoming and open everyone here has been. I had a particularly great conversation with a graduating student named Manal who studied English education and had been to the United States once before with Amanda. She wanted to know about how students in the United States pay for their education (she was thrilled to hear about financial aid, work study, and the availability of scholarships) and was even interested in whether or not I knew of any strong masters programs in linguistics in the States because she might want to earn her degree abroad!

Quite possibly my favorite part of lunch was when three of the girls asked me about our forthcoming travel to Israel. I had not fully introduced myself as a Jew, although I had been implying it throughout our conversation and the six of us were introduced as representing the three major Abrahamic faiths, so clearly two of us were Jewish (and it doesn’t take three guesses to figure out which two of us it is). However, I was really excited to discuss Israel with them and relate my time in Oman to our forthcoming visit in Israel. Although they approached the topic somewhat tentatively, they were thrilled to hear how excited I was to translate my experience with the immense tolerance and hospitality in Oman into a useful tool for dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and perhaps assessing ways that Israel, Palestine, and the many other interests in play in the area can adopt more tolerant and accepting dialogue into their negotiations. I explained that as a Jewish guy from New York, I was looking forward to experiencing not only the Israeli and Jewish sides of the discussion, but also learning about Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim views on the conflict and maintaining an open attitude and mind throughout these discussions. They all seemed really excited and happy that I shared these opinions and responses with them, and I’m really glad that we were able to have an open dialogue about Israel (although it was pretty one-sided with just me sharing my views).

After lunch was over, we got a quick tour around the University. First we visited the library, which, again, had separate entrances for men and women. They had a great collection of English books (including Shakespeare, my favorite!) and even the same Macroeconomics textbook that I used this past semester! Jake and I were both kind of surprised to see that in their periodicals section they didn’t have any current international publications like TIME, only those issues from 2011. The girls didn’t seem particularly fazed by it, though. After the library, we visited the science laboratories where we got to see an active chemistry lab studying the decomposition of frankincense, a kind of crystallized sap found on indigenous trees here in Oman, to isolate its component parts using chromatography. The chemistry nerd in me was really excited by this short stop, which kind of made me laugh considering I have sort of given up in chemistry in favor of Middle East Studies, but here we were in the heart of the Middle East in the chemistry lab. As Amy Gutmann might say, it’s all about integrating knowledge! We then visited the English Writing Center where many of the girls worked as tutors before heading to a round-table discussion with all of the students and some of the faculty and administration at Nizwa.

The round-table discussion was a little bit more formal than I would have liked, which I think kind of inhibited our ability to have a completely open and relaxed conversation like the ones we had at lunch. The meeting started with Dr. Talib, Assistant to the Chancellor of the University for External Affairs and Relations, welcoming us to the University of Nizwa and Mark and Aaron explaining who we were, how we were chosen, and why we were all here. We then individually introduced ourselves with our names, hometowns, fields of study and university attended, the part of our trip that most interested us thus far, and what we were most excited about in the coming weeks. After sharing my biographical information, I talked about, once again, how thrilled I was with the tolerance of Oman and how moved I was by its hospitality and welcoming nature, and then shared that I am most excited to return to the States and share more about Oman, a relatively unknown country, with my friends and peers. I strongly feel that Oman is underappreciated and not well known simply because it is not infamous for any reason and it is so peaceful. There is no pressing reason to share information about Oman in the newsreels in the States. I am excited, thus, to teach everyone I can about this beautiful country and share my experiences.

The students then introduced themselves and shared their thoughts on America and their experiences with the States. A common theme among almost all the students was that the media is completely shaping their view of America and in many cases the view that is created is a negative one. They all felt that only experience and time on the ground in the United States could actually provide substantive and correct information, although the thought of traveling abroad to the States is a scary one in some cases because of the negative light in which the States are portrayed in the media. It was really fascinating to hear the Middle Eastern student take on America as gained from the media because in many ways it echoes our thoughts as American students on the Middle East. We both feel that the media is shaping our views on each others’ homes, countries, and regions, and in many cases this view is fear-inspiring, and often wrongfully so. This whole experience with the Ibrahim Project is proof enough that it is experience that matters most.

Almost all of the students and faculty at Nizwa who had traveled to the United States (and there were actually several of them) also mentioned that, “America is not like it is in the movies.” It really struck me how influential Hollywood and film were on the views that these students have about America. It made me think about how I might view America if I only knew about it from the movies and television: the South is exactly like Tara in Gone with the Wind, New York City is just how its pictured in King Kong, Friends, or Maid in Manhattan (credits to Dillon for that one). It’s definitely not the most accurate source of information, and in many ways is a complete exaggeration of American culture, but it’s definitely something interesting to think about.

The University was a fascinating place with over forty-two nationalities represented and a clear pervasive feeling of tolerance throughout the school. Women have immense freedom at Nizwa and in Oman has a whole, as evidenced by the fact that women compose the majority of students at Nizwa and even more so by the fact that the Omani Ambassadors to both the US and the United Nations are women. Despite the reigning opinion on America that comes from the media, Houmid, a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee who now teaches at Nizwa, said that was “an advocate of United States education” and that he believed that “Americans want to learn something new and ask questions.” Interestingly though, he also felt that Westerners don’t have relationships with each other the same way that Omanis do. Perhaps this is because of the immense emphasis on community here in Oman that one might not find in the States. Another student who had traveled to the United States shared that felt that her time there was “a beautiful experience.” I’ve got to say, just as the Omani students were anxious to hear about how we liked Oman and were so excited to hear that we did, it was nice to hear that the students at Nizwa appreciated the United States as well, so much so that study abroad to the States is incredibly prevalent in the student body.

Houmid also asked about how we would be translating these experiences to our friends, families, peers, and colleagues at home and what we would be doing with the knowledge that we’ll acquire on this program. Mark spoke a bit about the Impact Plans that all six of us submitted as part of our application and that we all made a commitment to the Ibrahim Family Foundation that we would share our time as ambassadors in the Middle East with everyone we possibly could back home to encourage positive dialogue and discussion about the region. Mark then asked me to talk a little about my blogging and how I felt it would be an important means of sharing my experience. Writing like this is a “first draft of history.” I get to write about history, politics, and culture as I experience it first hand. I hope that each of you reading this is enjoying it as much as I love writing and sharing with all of you. I hope more than anything that you are learning something, too, and that perhaps this blog will encourage you to start a conversation with your own friends and peers about the Middle East. This place is so much more than what you see in the media. It’s culture. It’s experiences. It’s real life. And I’m so glad that you’re coming along for the journey with me.

After our round table discussion, the boys headed off with Gus and the girls with Dr. Talib to sightsee a little bit around the town of Nizwa. We walked around the Nizwa Souk a bit, but unfortunately everything was closed because it was so hot out! Around 120˚F! Luckily, because we were no longer right on the water like in Muscat, the humidity wasn’t horrendous and it didn’t feel quite as bad, but it was still incredibly hot. We saw the outside of the Nizwa Fort, which to be honest I don’t know much about at all (when I get more information on that, I’ll be sure to relay it to you!), and walked some of the streets and alleyways of the town before heading back to the University. We met back up with girls, Amanda, and Brian, Dr. Talib’s son-in-law who also spent the day with us and is a faculty member at the University. Amanda and Brian divvied us up into two SUVs to make the trek up the incredible mountains of Oman to where we are tonight in Jabal Akhdar. As we drove higher and higher up the steep mountainside, the temperature steadily dropped from about 42˚C to 28˚C, which is absolutely the perfect temperature here in Oman.

Right before reaching our hotel, we stopped the car at a beautiful lookout called Diana’s Viewpoint. We parked the car and hiked out on rocks to the most stunning cliff overlooking the mountains, which are sometimes referred to as the “Grand Canyon of Oman.” It truly was a breathtaking sight, and I could not have been more in awe of the beauty, wonder, and natural diversity of this place. We have experienced two shockingly different environments, from the seashore to the mountains, with two very different temperature zones and different vegetation and surroundings. And every inch of it has been beautiful. Of course, this short stop turned into a fifteen-minute long picture-taking session (don’t worry – I promise that pictures will be up soon once I have a little more time!).

Once we finished with that, we drove around the corner to the Sahab Hotel where we are currently staying tonight. We arrived at 7:30 PM, took an hour to just relax and lay low for a little, and then all met up for dinner at the hotel at 8:30 PM. I ate quite possibly the most incredible lamb chops I’ve ever eaten and drank a delicious lemon-mint frosted juice that Brian recommended to me. It was really nice to have Brian with us at dinner who was able to share his experiences in Oman with us about his Omani wife, his time at the University, and his aspirations to join the American foreign service. I’m really rooting for him!  He was able to provide us with a lot of context about the University during our debriefing discussions tonight. Of course, dinner was filled with all the typical laughter that usually accompanies every meal. Jake, Dillon, and I were talking about how amazing it is that we’ve all only known each other for five days. It feels like years. I really love and appreciate everyone that I am traveling with and feel so blessed and lucky to call them friends.

Tonight’s debrief centered on one main topic: where do you draw the line between asking questions you are really interested in learning about and ensuring that you are not offending anyone with your question? Often, we all feel compelled to discuss a certain topic but don’t quite know how best to approach the conversation with out hosts without sounding offensive. For example, Jake and I were both curious about their views on Judaism and Israel. Luckily, the girls I was talking with took the initiative to ask me about our time in Israel. This, however, only came after I had brought up my appreciation for Islam and Oman. But how do you approach sensitive issues like this? In Oman, the topic of succession and the Sultanate is a touchy subject, but one that we all, and especially Mark, want to know more about. But, as Brian said, the Sultan is so loved and respected that nobody really wants to think about or discuss a time when he is not in power. So how do you broach the subject? The answer is still unclear to us, but we all decided that it was incredibly important that we do ask these crucial questions, albeit in the most diplomatic way possible. If we don’t ask these critical questions and solicit responses from real people whose lives these issues effect, then we are shirking our responsibilities as Ibrahim Fellows and ambassadors of understanding and dialogue. Going forward, this is a challenge I think we are willing to take on. After all, it is in the pursuit of important knowledge.

Well, it’s now 3:15 AM. Jake and I were just saying before how absolutely ridiculous our schedule is at any given point in time. We wake up at 8:30 in the morning to start our days, are in back to back meetings and tours all day, don’t end up having dinner until around 9:00 PM and then end up talking as a group until midnight. But even that isn’t the end of the day as Jake, Dillon, and I have ended every single night with at least a two hour writing session. For me tonight, it’s been over three hours just because I had so much to say. But the thing is, despite how crazy our schedule is we are all so deeply exhilarated and passionate about the work we are doing and the experiences that we are having that we are hardly fazed by our busy days. So what if we nod off a little on a car ride in between stops? I just love soaking up every second of this incredible opportunity. I hope you’re enjoying coming along for the ride.

Safe Travels! – Jake

(P.S. Happy birthday to my best friend Adam! I’m sorry I can’t be with you to celebrate, but I’m thinking of you today – June 6, 2012!)

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