June 6, 2012: Nizwa, Oman, Muscat, Oman, and Dubai, UAE

Hello from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, a city incredibly different from the country and cities we just left in Oman (but more on that later)! These past two days have been rather quiet for us, mostly in preparation for a busy several days ahead of us in the UAE and Israel. It’s around 10:00 PM here in Dubai and we only arrived at about 4:00 PM, so we’re still getting adjusted to the change in scenery. Tomorrow we have a busy day ahead of us with a day trip to Abu Dhabi, but for now we’re just relaxing in the hotel. But anyway, let’s rewind a little bit to the morning of June 6, 2012…

We woke up at 8:30 AM (per usual at this point), but I didn’t get too much sleep because I was up so late blogging and then thinking about the blog and writing after I finished. I probably got a little under five hours of sleep, but like I said earlier, the lack of sleep doesn’t really bother me and I keep pushing through our busy days no matter what because of how much I love and enjoy what we’re doing. We met the rest of the group, including Amanda and Brian of course, in the hotel lobby for a nice breakfast at 9:00 AM with our backpacks in tow for the trip back down the mountain to Muscat via Nizwa. I had my standard mix omelette for breakfast (pretty much everyday they’ve offered us the same choice of eggs and the mix omelette is always the best with tomatoes, peppers, and onions) with a cup of coffee from the french press and a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. I’ve got to say – I really have loved having so much fresh food and that all the juices here are fresh squeezed. Yum. Breakfast was filled per usual with laughter, Mark and Aaron’s typical kidding around with each other and making all of us laugh until we nearly cry, and side conversations with Mark about Israel and Palestine and with Brian about Afghanistan (where he used to do some work with the Marines) and, of course, Oman.

Once we had finished breakfast, Amanda prepped us all for our tour around the small, beautiful villages of Jabal Akhdar. We left our backpacks in the car taking nothing but our sunglasses and cameras (and unfortunately leaving behind out water bottles), and we were off! We spent the next two (or slightly more) hours taking in the beautiful scenery of the Oman mountainside which was absolutely spectacular. I talked about our drive up to Nizwa and the mountains already as taking my breath away with its sheer natural beauty, but looking down into what is referred to as the “Omani Grand Canyon” was an entirely new level of beautiful.

Not to mention how fantastic it was to walk around and even into some of the small villages perched high in the mountains, such as Al Aqr and Al Ayn. The villages weren’t big or impressive; in fact, they were quite the opposite. But there was immense beauty in their simplicity. It was hard to believe that in a country as oppressively hot as Oman (where we experienced daily high temperatures of near 42˚C), such amazing greenery and flora could be present. Granted, the mountains are almost always over ten degrees cooler than Muscat this time of year, but still there were beautiful grape vines, walnut trees, corn stalks, and grass. You would hardly believe that you were in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula. But there we were, surrounded by the sound of goats and laughing with each other over the ridiculousness of the entire situation: here we were, hiking in dress shoes (seriously though, I was wearing khakis and loafers) in the middle of Oman. It doesn’t get more random or more fantastic than that.

Several times throughout our walk we encountered some of the people who live in these small villages. While our meetings were brief, they always involved a quick smile between everyone, rapid-fire exchanges of “Salaam Alaykum,” and an overwhelming feeling that no matter where we went, we’d be safe. We even had to cross through one man’s gate to get through a village, and he let us right through without hesitation or concern. I’m not sure if this would happen in anywhere but a place like Oman, but I can say that it was really refreshing to see how trusting everyone seemed to be. For much of our hike, we walked along an old “falaj” or an irrigation system built right into the side of the mountain to bring water to the small villages. At one point, we followed it all the way to a beautiful hidden pond with brilliant blue water. Only a few moments later, we encountered a girl washing some clothing in a portion of the falaj designated for this activity. It was quite amazing to see how they lived up here, so far away, it seemed, from the city life of Oman.

After about two hours, we were out of the small amount of water we had and simply exhausted from the long hike. Luckily, we were only about a 15-minute walk away from our hotel, so we just continued trekking on until we got back to the Sahab Hotel in Jabal Akhdar at around 1:00 PM. We quickly shoveled some lunch down our throats (more lemon-mint frosted juice for me with the “Mickey’s Munchies” lunch special – chicken nuggets and fries; I know it’s uncharacteristic but I was craving them!) before our 1:30 ride back down the mountain. We divvied back up into our two cars but switched around a bit; this time, I rode down with Mark, Talene, and Sundus with Amanda driving.

Right as we started getting into the car, Talene, Sundus, and I started talking about Judaism and my background as a Reform Jew. I shared with them the story of my Jewish journey and why Reform Judaism was so important to me. I explained my belief in “Choice Through Knowledge,” as promulgated by the Reform movement – that it is my responsibility as a Reform Jew to learn as much as I can about my religion and only then can I make informed choices about how I will live my individual life Jewishly. I explained that this concept is the basis for why I choose not to keep kosher but why I also feel such a strong connection to Jewish education and youth engagement. Talene, an Armenian Orthodox Christian, was curious about messianic Jews as well and how they fit into the equation of it all. It was at that point that Mark suggested that I discuss conversion, who counts as Jew, and my thoughts on Israel as a Reform Jew as a context for discussing some of Talene’s questions. I explained as much as I could about who counts as a Jew in my eyes and how that differs for the state of Israel, what that means for use of the Right of Return in Israel, and how my Reform Judaism has shaped my views on Israel.

I believe that a conversion to Judaism, performed by a Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, or Reconstructionist clergy member should count as full and acceptable conversion regardless of the denomination of Judaism of which the convert chooses to be a part. A person’s Judaism is just that: their OWN personal Judaism. If they are making the commitment to the religion to convert, then nobody should tell them that they are not Jewish. But this is what’s happening to some extent in Israel, where Orthodox conversions are the only ones viewed as valid and acceptable for a convert to Judaism to be considered Jewish. Thus, only someone who is converted by Orthodox clergy can take advantage of the Right of Return, or the right to claim citizenship in Israel. This simply runs counter to my beliefs as a Reform Jew. And this doesn’t even begin to address the question of matrilineal and patrilineal descent of Judaism (in case you were wondering or couldn’t figure it out from the views I just expressed, I believe that both should count as valid ways of “receiving” your Judaism).

In terms of Israel, I grew up learning and developing a love for and appreciation of the modern State of Israel. My support of Israel is core to my identity as a Reform Jew. I never was told that I should not support a Palestinian state in Israel. I was never told that it didn’t have a right to exist. It just wasn’t really addressed. The Palestinians were, of course, acknowledged as a people who play in important role in the developmental trajectory and politics of Israel, but never was I told what to believe about them. In my Reform Jewish education, I learned about Judaism and the State of Israel as they pertained to my life at the time. But I also learned that as a Reform Jew, it is my responsibility to learn as much as I can and only then make an educated decision about my views and beliefs. And so when I started studying the Middle East, I did so with an open mind, hoping to learn the parts of the story that I didn’t know before (not because these parts of the story were shielded from me, but rather because they simply weren’t really in the curriculum). I’m still forming my beliefs today, because I can’t definitively say that I know everything I can to reach a decision on my views. I know that I believe that the Palestinians are a people who have a claim to the land just as the Israelis do. I think that a two-state solution can work. I have to believe that to have hope for the future of the State of Israel which I have grown to love and appreciate since I was a small kid. I believe that we can find peace some day. At least I hope that we can. And I still don’t have the answers. And I don’t know when I will. But I’m on the road to figuring it out. I know that along the way, I’ll be able to pick up the right knowledge to come to the right decision on my views. But for now I’m happy learning as much as I can and mending and shifting my views regularly.

I didn’t really know enough about messianic Jews to be able to answer Talene’s questions, but Mark was able to help me out a little there. I told Talene that I wanted to talk to her about Armenian Orthodox Christianity at some point over the next few days too because I don’t really know anything about it all. But I’m glad we had the conversation. It’s a starting point. And Talene (and Sundus!) couldn’t have been more accepting and open-minded about my views and opinions. I’m excited to hear theirs over the next few days too.

We finally got back to Nizwa, said our goodbyes to Amanda and Brian, and hopped back in our Baisa Bus for the ride back down to Muscat. This bus ride was much more lighthearted than my previous one (although both definitely were fantastic and I’m glad that they happened), sharing popcorn, telling our life stories, and just laughing together, per usual. Great bonding time. Once we got back to Al-Qurum Resort and checked back into our hotel rooms at around 5:30 PM, we had about an hour and a half of free time before our dinner plans. All six of us had been dying to spend some time on the beach behind our hotel, and so we quickly threw on bathing suits (first time outside in clothing that wasn’t khakis and a button-down!), grabbed hats, towels, and cameras, and ran outside in the blazing sun and heat to the beach. We could not get into the beautiful water fast enough – and it was fantastic! Perfectly warm, gentle waves, and a lot of fun splashing around and swimming out to sea.

Talene and I couldn’t get over how crazy the whole thing was. Here was a group of six college students who had hardly met each other only five days earlier, and now we were swimming together and laughing like six people who had known each other for years in the middle of the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Sea. I repeat: we were swimming in the Gulf of Oman in the Arabian Sea! When’s the next time I’m going to get to say that one? It was just a fantastic experience.

Our time in the ocean, albeit fantastically fun, was short-lived because we needed to go back upstairs and change in time for our dinner plans. None of us really knew what we were doing for dinner except that Maggie had arranged for her friends Professor and Mrs. Nick Woodhouse to take us out to their beach club for the evening and to dress “smart casual.” We got dressed, headed down to the lobby to meet up with Maggie and her husband Bill, and were confronted with a small issue: our Baisa Bus driver was caught in horrible traffic and wouldn’t be able to get us in time to get to the club. Maggie had her car, but only half of us could fit there. None of it seemed to faze Maggie, though, who (as if it were no big deal at all) flagged down two Omani men who were driving around in an SUV and asked if they wouldn’t mind taking a few people in the group over to the club. That’s Oman for you; you can pretty much just trust to random Omani men in a white SUV with your life. The group split up (I went with Maggie and Bill), and we all converged at the club right on the beach. The club turned out to be a sort of invitation-only government club, so it was quite beautiful. They had a fantastic spread of salads and kebabs that we could get barbecued fresh. After a fantastic place of assorted Middle Eastern salads, I had unbelievable kofta, a kind of minced lamb kebab, and some prawns and saffron chicken. Yum! We owe Professor Nick Woodhouse and his wife Cheryl a debt of gratitude for their kindness and hospitality toward all of us. It truly was an interesting and fun evening.

Professor Nick Woodhouse is a professor of endocrinology and medicine at the Sultan Qaboos University who has been in the country with his wife, Cheryl, for almost as long as Maggie and Bill. We chatted a bit about American politics (our views on universal healthcare, including both the Obama and Clinton plans – I knew that reading Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton would come in handy some day!), talked about endocrinology (he was fascinated to hear that I was so familiar with the specialty; I guess it’s hard not to be when you’ve seen an endocrinologist regularly since you were eight years old), and talked about our time in Oman, our love of the country, and the role of British involvement there.

Which brings me to a rather interesting issue: the role of ex-pats in Omani society. There is quite a sizable population of ex-pats in Oman, many of whom are British. The country is definitely influenced by British thinking and its past involvement with the UK (see: Omani history), so it’s amazing to see what an active role in the community the ex-pats still have. In some ways, you might say that British involvement within the country is still strong, but from an extremely different angle. The ex-pats are proud to live in Oman and are clearly very active in the politics and elite social scene of Oman. Of those I had the pleasure of meeting, they are some of the most well-connected people I’ve ever encountered, especially Maggie, who joked (but were half-serious) knew everybody in the entire Sultanate of Oman! And one thing’s for sure: our trip to Oman would have been completely different, if not non-existent, without the help and support of the ex-pats there. It is because of this that I think it is important to note (partially from an academic perspective) that many of our opinions of Oman and how we viewed the country were shaped by the many ex-pats we met. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all, just something to note: in many ways we were experiencing Oman through the lens of the ex-pat community. Of course, when we were in Nizwa, we had the chance to speak with true Omanis who had grown up in the country and were, for the most part, representative of the country’s population at large. We met with amazing government officials and speakers who were Omani to the core and could also, in their own way, represent the country. And of course, I think that the ex-pats are an extremely valuable part of Omani society and I am eternally grateful to them for showing us such hospitality, especially to Maggie for helping to make this experience so meaningful and memorable. It’s just something to keep in mind as you read all of this.

Maggie and I chatted a bit about Omani history as well and both agree that it’s trajectory is definitely a unique one. At some point, perhaps I’ll post a book review I wrote for my Middle East Through Many Lenses class on Mandana Limbert’s In the Time of Oil to give you a better sense of Omani history as seen from a very specific angle. We also talked about the Omani succession crisis that I’ve already mentioned and how we thought it might pan out over the next several years. I’m really unsure of what Oman’s future will look like exactly (as I think many people are), but Maggie and I both agreed that Sultan was ahead of his people in terms of the developmental trajectory of the nation. I’ve already discussed how the Sultan is helping to shift the country’s political culture more and more every day, perhaps even toward an eventual Constitutional Monarchy. I think that Sultan might be more ready than his people are to see that happen. Like I said, I really don’t know how it will pan out, but it’s certainly fascinating to think about.

At the end of dinner, we still didn’t have a way back to the hotel, so Maggie managed to talk three Jordanian men at the club to talk half of us back, and this time Mark, Jake, and I all volunteered to take the guest ride. In fact, Maggie thought it would be a good idea for the three of us to be able to spend a little time with them – and I definitely agree! We had a lovely ride back to the Al-Qurum Resort with the men who talked to us about their jobs at an airline, their lives in Oman and Jordan, and asked us about our time and where we were from as well. It was definitely quite an experience, one that I probably never would have in the States!

When we got back to the hotel, Jake, Dillon, and I just relaxed a bit in the room and packed up our bags to get ready to depart from Oman. Shereen (on of the three girls from Hopkins) came over for a bit to talk about our dinner and the ex-pats in Oman. Because we were all so tired from the long day of hiking and talking, we went to bed right away after finishing our packing.

We had to be up early this morning (June 7, 2012) for a breakfast meeting at 9:00 AM that had been rescheduled from the day before. We met over coffee, croissants, and eggs with Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Salmi. Dr. Al-Salmi works for the Ministry of Affairs in Oman and is a leading expert on Muslim-Christian relations in the Middle East. In many ways, meeting with Dr. Al-Salmi at the end of our stay in Oman was a perfect bookend for our time in the country; our first visit in the country was to the Grand Mosque where we also talked about Islam and tolerance of others faiths.

Dr. Al-Salmi had some very interesting things to say about diversity of religion and interfaith dialogue and discussion in Oman. He told us that even within the small country of Oman, there is diversity within Islam with Ibadis, Sunnis, and Shias all represented in the population. Interestingly enough, during the medieval period, when Oman’s Port Souhar served as an important “Gate to the Oriental,” there were even Jews in the country (although there aren’t really any in the country any longer).

In my opinion, there is an overwhelming sensitivity to religious tolerance and openness here in Oman. In 1997, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs was renamed the Ministry of Religious Affairs to illustrate this tolerance and understanding and be more understanding. Currently, Dr. Al-Salmi’s big project is a quarterly journal sponsored by the government to discuss interfaith issues and promote interfaith dialogue. Dr. Al-Salmi and the journal seek to present a variety of diverse views and opinions in the many studies and articles in the journal as a means of promoting awareness of other religions. According to him, the mission of the journal is to talk about the relationship between citizenship, diversity, tolerance, tribes, and many other issues in Omani society. I think that journal is a fantastic symbol of Oman’s commitment to tolerance and openness, and I know that I am looking forward to reading it when the next issue is released.

In terms of Islam and Christianity, Dr. Al-Salmi pointed out two major similarities. Both provide their followers with a universal message in their life, and both require a reconciliation between the state and the religion. According to Dr. Al-Salmi, in Middle East countries in particular, many governments and states were afraid of religion in the beginning and so they placed it within government as a way of getting people to support the government rather than speak against it for abandoning religion. Despite this, he said that in his opinion the state is the most important institution (more than religion) because it protects civil rights and the ability to practice religion. In his words, “Justice allows equality and human dignity.” Dr. Al-Salmi was a really kind, fascinating man, and he definitely appealed to my interest in and passion for religion. I’m glad we were able to spend time with him this morning.

After our meeting with Dr. Al-Salmi ended at around 10:30 AM, we headed over to the shopping mall right next door to our hotel to check out their small crafts stores for some Omani trinkets and gifts. I picked up a few cool items (but I won’t reveal what gifts I got and for who!), including a handmade traditional Omani cap that almost all of the Omani men wear! I also made sure to look out for postcards of Oman and ended up buying two – one of the Grand Mosque during the day and one of the Grand Mosque at night. Postcards, as I learned in Professor Sharkey’s class, can be an important illustrations of national symbols and messages, and so I found it very fitting that the two cards I was most drawn to feature Sultan Qaboos’ Grand Mosque, a symbol of both the national religion and the Sultan’s power and wealth. While at the mall, we actually ran into Jane, HE Sheikh Abdulla’s English teacher who we had the incredible lunch with on our first day in Oman! We have been told over and over again throughout our visit that Oman was a very small country, but this accidental run-in proved just how small it really is!

After we were done with shopping, we headed to the Muscat International Airport and said goodbye to Maggie. Again, all the thanks in the world to you, Maggie, for helping to arrange this incredible tour and showing us what a beautiful country Oman is. We checked in for our forty minute flight on Oman Air from Muscat to Dubai and had a bit of time to spare before boarding. Dillon, Shereen and I grabbed a quick lunch at a Dairy Queen/Grill and Chill in the airport (because, come on, how many times can you say you’ve had DQ in Oman?!), where Dillon and Shereen taught me how to read Arabic because I had been desperately trying to figure it out all week. Needless to say, I am now obsessed with going around to every sign in Arabic (which is most signs) and trying to decipher what they say. Of course, I have no idea what it means, but I guess when I start Arabic in the Fall I’ll figure it all out. This is fun in the meantime though!

The flight from Oman to Dubai was even shorter than I expected it to be, so by the time we took off and I started listening to my iPod, we had already practically begun our descent into the Dubai area. The flight wasn’t long, but the American passport control line was painfully slow. They have all different lines in the passport control area: one for GCC Nationals (people who live within the Gulf Cooperation Council territories), one for Americans, one for Diplomats, one for people with “Fast Track” access, and one for other nationalities. The line next to us was filled with people who looked like the easily could’ve been Saudi royalty. I was immediately struck by the wealth that I was seeing around me. A woman completely covered in a black Abaya was carrying a Valentino purse (Talene actually pointed that out to me, in case you were wondering). The thobes that the Arab men were wearing came complete with gorgeous cufflinks. I could tell from the get-go that Dubai was going to be very different from the low-key Oman that we had just experienced.

Once we got through passport control and got everything stamped, we grabbed our luggage and met our bus driver outside who took us to our new home for the next three days – the Sheraton Creek Dubai. Pulling out of the airport, it was amazing how different Dubai looked from Muscat. In Oman, there is a limit to how high the buildings can be (it’s about eight floors, I believe). Here, the limit is the literally the sky. The Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, dominates the skyline (although when we first started driving to the hotel, it wasn’t exactly visible over the other building – but that was just our vantage point) which is packed with other glamorous skyscrapers and advertisements. It’s hard to believe that all of this was built up within the last fifty years, but you can’t help but be in awe at how unbelievable the city is. We checked into our hotel, which is completely with three different restaurant (including an award-winning Indian restaurant) and a fountain that pours into a pool that sits right next to the Dubai Creek where yachts and other boats float through and park along the water. Dillon, Jake, and I went up to the room to relax a little before dinner and were in awe at the incredible view of the water and the skyline from our room. You can see the Burj Khalifa, the entire skyline across the creek, and the magnificent boats perfectly right outside our window.

We met up at 6:30 PM to make dinner plans and celebrate Dillon’s birthday with a chocolate cake (I forgot to mention this earlier, but it’s Dillon’s 20th today! Happy birthday, Dillon!). It took us forever to decide where we wanted to go (I guess that’s what happens when you put six high-achieving students who have strong opinions together and tell them to reach a consensus), but finally we decided on a restaurant called “boulvard” that was a short walk a way in the Radisson Hotel down the street. We ate a delicious meal from the international buffet that they were featuring tonight, including sushi, fresh made naan, roast veal tenderloin, salads, potatoes, chicken, you name it. They also had an incredible desert selection, not to mention the huge chocolate cake that they brought out for Dillon’s birthday! I was stuffed by the end of dinner.

Afterward, we just came back to the hotel to wind down and catch up on our writing. Sundus, Dillion, and Talene went around the neighborhood exploring for a little, but I wanted to get back to blog and get in some down time. We’re all still pretty tired from our busy couple of days in Oman, so we didn’t have anything major planned for this evening. The eight of us did all meet up at around 11:00 though to talk about our plan for tomorrow and just about our experiences going forward. Tomorrow we’ll be reviewing our time in Oman and Mark will be giving us a lecture on the Arab Spring, which I’m really excited for. We all decided that for at least the time being we would all make an effort to avoid talking about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and focus on other issues in the Arab world, as we have talked so much about it already over the past few days. We’ll come back to it when we get a little closer to our trip to Israel thats forthcoming, but for now we have a lot of important other things to discuss.

Tomorrow we’re headed to Abu Dhabi for the day and I’m looking forward to having a chance to see somewhere in the UAE that’s not Dubai. I’m not entirely sure what we’re doing yet as our itinerary here is pretty flexible, but you can bet that I’ll check back in again tomorrow and tell you how it all is. But for now, it’s 2:30 AM and I am going to bed. It’s been a long day of journeying.

Safe Travels! – Jake


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