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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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!)

June 4, 2012: Muscat, Oman (Part 2)

After our incredible lunch at HE Sheikh Abdulla’s house, we returned to the hotel for a meeting with Ahmad Ali Al-Mukhaini, who I have a previously described as a liberal reformer and an expert on and consultant to the Omani government. Ahmad comes from a strong political background and is a very interesting man. He has served as a political advisor to American ambassador, previously headed Oman’s equivalent to the Congressional Research Service in the US, and current serves as an independent researcher for both the United Nations and various Omani organizations.

Ahmad’s discussion centered around three main topics, here listed in order of the depth in which he discussed them: the political institutions of Oman, the Arab Spring (or the “Omani Spring” as it will be referred to here), and Sharia Law. And so it is in my relaying of Ahmad’s lecture that I get to share you with an incredibly interesting crash course in Omani government (as promised!), just as we received in from him.

In Oman, the tribe is the only social organization structure in existence, as parties and interest groups do not exist. As a result, just how parties and interest groups are utilized in American governing, the Omani government uses the tribe as an important channel for governing and politics.

The Sultanate of Oman (the country’s full name) is a unitary Islamic absolute monarchy. At the head of Omani government is Sultan Qaboos al-Said bin-Said who, as I’ve already mentioned, is the prime minister, chief executive, head of state, and supreme ruler of Oman. In the end, all final decisions come back to the Sultan. However, there are two other bodies of government that provide the Sultan with guidance and advise him: the Council of Oman, which can be thought of as Oman’s legislative branch, and the Council of Ministers, which is equivalent to Oman’s executive branch.

The Council of Oman is bicameral with an upper house that is appointed, called the State Council or the Majlis A’Dawla, and a lower house that is elected, called the Majlis A’Shura. Members of the Council of Oman technically stand independently of one another, but often they represent the various tribes that I discussed above. In the past, tribal leaders accounted for almost the entire Council of Oman, but that is changing now as more independent politicians, including women, stand for elections. Legislative power technically lies with the Sultan, so the Council of Oman, specifically the Majlis A’Shura or lower house, is mainly advisor and represents consultation sand representation. The terms of both houses last for four years, but there is no limit to the number to the number of times a member can be reelected or reappointed. In the Majlis A’Shura, every district with a population of 30,000 or higher gets two members, and all the others receive one. Today, there are 84 members of the lower house, all of whom were either the highest vote getter or second highest vote getter in his or her district. In turn, the appointed chamber, or the State Council, must be smaller in membership than the lower chamber (which is why it currently has 83 members). There are significantly more women in the upper house (14 out of the 83 as compared to 1 out of 84 in the lower house). The State Council is not district oriented, meaning the Sultan can appoint anyone he chooses. As a result, the upper chamber has come to represent Oman’s “minorities” who might not be elected to the lower house, including women who are not being elected to the Majlis A’Shura despite standing for election. Since the Omani spring, the State Council, or the upper house, has become more powerful in reaction to the Omani Spring, often being called “the gateway to the Sultan.”

The Council of Ministers is the executive authority of Oman and can be compared to the Cabinet in the United States. They are responsible to the Sultan and the Sultan alone. There is no specific length for the terms of the members of the Council of Ministers, as they serve at the pleasure of the Sultan. There are 26 ministers in Oman, each with a specific domain such as Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, the Interior, etc. Recently, the Council of Ministers has become more transparent since the Omani Spring. Each of the ministers is supported a council or committee. For example, the Defense Council, which is entrusted with will of the Sultan to make suggestion for the defense of Oman, is headed up by the Sultan and the Minister of Defense, but also contains other advisory members who are not necessarily members of the Council of Ministers. Currently, the main concerns with the Council of Minister lie with the unlimited length of their terms and their relationship with business development in Oman.

Currently, the succession plan of the Sultan is a bit of a touchy subject in Oman. The naming of the Sultan’s successor technically follows a very strict set of rules. First, the Sultan must name his successor in his will. After his death, the name of the successor is revealed to the royal family, who has three days to make a decision on who will succeed the Sultan. In the past, if the royal family did not make a decision, the Defense Council was given the responsibility of choosing the new Sultan. Now, however, if the royal family fails to reach a decision, the Council of Oman must choose the next Sultan. Succession is such a hot-button issue right now because it is unclear whom the Sultan will name as his own successor as he has no children. On top of that, the Sultan is so well liked and revered in Oman that is difficult to imagine Oman without him. In addition, there has been a call for the creation of a true constitution of Oman (right now there are only basic laws), and if this were to happen, then the responsibilities of the Sultan might change as well. The adoption of the constitution could signal a shift from the current unitary Islamic absolute monarchy system in place to a constitutional monarchy with the Sultan as more of a figurehead, similar to the system in the United Kingdom with Queen Elizabeth. Theoretically, a Prime Minister would become the true head of government instead of the Sultan. But this is still a ways off. For now, the Sultan is firmly in power, although he consistently has been giving power to his advisors and the other branches of government recently, perhaps in response to the Omani Spring.

Which brings us to the Omani Spring! Why did the Omani Spring happen? According to Ahmad, it was a direct result of three main gaps in Omani governing: an institution gap, a hope/social justice gap, and a generational gap. The institution gap was caused by institutions such as the ministries that had no true power, and that individuals within the ministries and institutions had more control than the actual institution itself, which was causing alleged corruption. The hope/social justice gap is simply due to economic inequality; the rich in Oman are getting richer, and the media is compounding the issue even more. The generation gap is pretty self-explanatory: the Omani Spring really rested in the hands of the youth who demanded change.

On February 25, 2011, a man was killed during a riot in, causing a wave of discussion about inequality in Oman. More than anything, this event was a wake-up call that change was needed in Omani government. However, the reason the Omani Spring was different from the Arab Spring/Awakening in other Arab countries lies in whom the populace blamed. In other Arab countries, the dictator or ruler in charged was blamed for inequality and injustice. In Oman, however, where the Sultan is deeply revered, it was the ministers and not the Sultan who received the blame. The Sultan was incredible responsive to the demands and needs of his populace, taking note of everything that was said and demanded at the protests in the country and making according appropriate policy changes. The public has shifted from apathy to over-involvement, and people are getting a response from the Sultan and his government.

Ahmad’s discussion of Sharia law, or Islamic law, was pretty quick and very similar what we had heard already in the morning from Hafidh; In Oman, Sharia and civil law are two separate entities entirely. However, Ahmad also argued that there is currently an effort to put Sharia more in line with modern law and converge all schools and types of law into one stream or understanding of the law as a whole. It is unclear, though, if this is actually happening. Perhaps more importantly, though, is that the concept of consensus building in Oman comes from Sharia law. Now, this concept is influencing more parliamentary and civil law development as well.

After our whole talk with Ahmad was finished and we took all the needed pictures on our many cameras, we said goodbye and had an hour or so to relax before heading to the harbor in Muscat to walk around the area and see the Muttrah Souk, a large marketplace in Muscat. During our short break, Jake, Dillon, and I (the men of the group!) took a great walk along the beach behind our hotel and attempted to change over some American money to Omani Rials at the Intercontinental Muscat next door, but the bank in the building had just closed by the time we got there and we needed to head back to the hotel anyway to catch our baisa bus to the Muttrah Souk.

I nodded off a little on the ride to the Souk (I was so tired from our very long day already, so I figured a short power-nap couldn’t hurt at all), but by the time we actually arrived at the port I was ready to start moving again. Luckily, there was a monetary exchange place nearby that had a fantastic rate of 1 USD to 0.38 OMR. The Omani Rial is actually pegged to the dollar, so in theory the exchange rate shouldn’t change, but some places will try to rip you off. This rate was exactly what we were expecting though, so we were quite happy. By the time we got our money, we didn’t have much time left to wander around the Souk, so we’ll be returning in a couple of days.  I did see a couple of nice things though on our short walk around, so I’m excited to return and start shopping.

The reason we were in such a rush was that we had to get to a discussion at 7:30 with Professor Abdulla Daar at the Historical Association of Oman at the PDO (Petroleum Development Oman) Oil and Gas Exhibition Centre. Abdulla Daar is a doctor and public health researcher originally from Tanzania who then lived and worked in Oman and has since moved to Canada where he teaches and researches at the University of Toronto. Professor Daar spoke to us about his new book The Grandest Challenge: Taking Life-Saving Science from Lab to Village, which assesses inequities in Global Health including childbirth death, death of children, life expectancy, blindness, chronic non-communicable diseases, mental health, and lack of access to proper medical supplies. Along with the Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization, Professor Daar has helped to identity a series of priorities for researching and solving the “grand challenges” of global public health and global mental health through public-private partnership and funding through Grand Challenges Canada, an organization that he helped to found. The Oman connection comes in with the generosity and contribution of Oman to global health research, with the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Oman giving a large sum of money to fund the development of a low-cost Hepatitis B vaccine. With the help of the Omani government, an Indian biotech company was able to lower the price of the vaccine from $15 to fifty cents. Professor Daar is continuing to work today on addressing the many grand challenges of global public health, and his work is quite impressive. If you’re interested in this field of study, I would totally check out his book

After the talk, we headed back to the hotel and were all rather hungry because it was 9:00PM and we hadn’t eaten since our lunch at HE Sheikh Abdulla’s home (although none of us were too hungry for quite some time after leaving that impressive meal). The eight of us went out for dinner at the Italian restaurant around the corner from our hotel, O Solo Mio, and had an amazing time. We were all laughing until we were nearly crying telling funny and embarrassing stories. Mark is the winner for the funniest and most ridiculous tales I’ve ever heard in my life (apparently he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles?). I had a delicious pasta dish, and it was just a really fun evening. At the end of the night, we debriefed about our day and discussed how moved we all were by the openness and tolerance of everyone in Oman as well as some of the political issues that we talked about with Ahmed, the ex-pat community in Oman, and our visit to the Mosque. It’s always helpful to debrief at the end of a long day filled with a lot of different opinions and information. As I said in my earlier post, we were not very surprised that not many people have heard of Oman. It’s so calm and tolerant that there’s not much reason for it to be in the media. But after my first day, I really could say with confidence that more people should have the pleasure of experiencing Oman first hand. It truly is a remarkable country that could even be a model and example for the rest of the region in its tolerance and acceptance. Not to mention how beautiful it is.

Safe Travels! – Jake

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

June 2-3, 2012: Departing DC and Zurich, Switzerland!

Hallo aus Zürich! Dillon and I are sitting in Gate E of the lovely (but somewhat boring) Zurich Airport after our 8 hour flight from Dulles that left at around 6:00 PM EST (on June 2, 2012). Actually, the flight didn’t really feel that long, mostly because I was sitting with a lovely woman from Colorado who was telling me all about her upcoming travels in Zurich and her life as an educator traveling all around the United States and the world. I also got through a lot of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and watched “Beauty and the Beast,” which was being shown on the plane. I’ve got to say, watching it as a 19-year-old is really a whole different experience.

Anyway, we’re waiting in Zurich now on a four-hour layover before our flight to Muscat, Oman via Dubai. At least we get a little break before getting back on a plane for six more hours. Interestingly enough, the girls on the trip and Mark are on a totally different set of flights going through Frankfurt. We’re all meeting at the hotel in Oman this evening, where I’m sure we’re all going to collapse after a long day of travel. More to come on Oman once we land there, but things have been pretty uneventful today.

Saturday (June 2, 2012) in DC was pretty uneventful as well. Jake and I woke up around 9:00 AM, ran around the corner to grab some breakfast at a bakery, and then joined the group in the lobby of the hotel at 10:45 to start off our day. We met our hilarious cab driver shortly thereafter, a ridiculously funny man from Gaza who was able to drive with no hands (or as he said “Of course I can! I’m from Gaza!”) and kept us all laughing and kvelling over adorable pictures of his two little children the entire length of the trip to Georgetown for lunch at a cute French bistro.

At the restaurant, we had our first of what is sure to be many fascinating lectures from Mark. Today’s topic of choice: the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and a Two-State Solution (with some undertones of the Arab Spring/Awakening in there too). It was really great to hear his take on the conflict following the unique approach to the situation we heard from Akram only an afternoon earlier. By Mark’s count, there are four entities at play here: a recognized Jewish state of Israel in the pre-1967 UN borders, a “runaway proto-state” of Jews in the West Bank (or Judea/Samaria as these settlers refer to it), a Palestinian would-be state under the PA in the West Bank, and a second Palestinian would-be state in Gaza under Hamas. Following this thinking, this is not an issue of a single Israel vs. a single Palestine, but rather two Israels vs. two Palestines. An incredibly mind-boggling thought thats adds a whole new dimension to the conflict that I hadn’t previously considered. Contrary to Akram’s argument that Palestinian Nationalism was not born until 1987, Mark argued that 1987 was a culminating point in Palestinian Nationalism, in which an agreement could have been reached where 78% of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea would belong to a Jewish State of Israel, while the remaining 22% would comprise a newly recognized Palestinian state.

So the question is now this: how do you move from four entities to only two? How do you reunite the two Israels into one and the two Palestines into one? Well, that’s the golden question in the conflict. If I had an answer to that at this point, I’d have a Nobel Prize. Alas, I do not. If I figure it out, you’ll be the first to know.

Mark argued that for the Two-State Solution to be plausible at this point in time, there must be “addition through subtraction.” But how? Does the Israeli government take the Jewish settlers out of the West Bank (or their Judea/Samaria)  and give it to the Palestinians? Do they just give up Judea and Samaria, and its settlers along with it? A large minority of these settlers are already angry enough at the Israeli government for even considering “de-occupation of the West Bank.” To this large minority, these Jewish settlements in the West Bank should be part of a future, enlarged Jewish State of Israel that would take up more than the 78% land-block previously discussed. A small group of them (that Mark has labeled the “red” group) have moved past the civil disobedience and protesting against the government promulgated by their parents toward outright violence toward the Israeli government, which they refuse to recognize. Can the two Israels be unified?

How can Hamas and Fatah reconcile? Reunification of the “two Palestines,” between Hamas and Fatah, has been tried and failed twelve times already and the thirteenth try is in the works right now. An Electoral Commission that sits in Ramallah under the PA has just been agreed upon by the two, but now they need to get on the ground in Gaza to determine who can vote to actually create and ratify a Palestinian constitution. But even if this were to happen, can a unified Palestine achieve the 22% land-block as previously discussed?

Again, I don’t know the answers. Nobody does, really. But that’s what this trip is all about, isn’t it? Starting to uncover the answers. Starting to piece together the puzzle and figure out what the Middle East is all about. For now, I’m happy just asking questions and taking it all in. I’ll tell you one thing – in just about 10 hours, I can’t wait to start getting my hands dirty and hit the ground running in Oman.

Safe Travels! – Jake

June 1, 2012: Orientation in DC

What a day! It’s just after 9:00 PM here and I’m finally back in my hotel room after a very long and tiring but incredibly interesting day in DC. I can hardly wrap my head around the unbelievable conversations that the six fellows have had since orientation began at around 1:30 PM – and it’s only the first day and we’re still in the States!

Upon arriving at the IIE Headquarters, all of the fellows got a chance to meet one another for a few minutes before we started our first official conversation with Nancy Overholt, an Executive Director at the IIE, who challenged each of us to consider what part of this experience we thought would surprise or impact us most. We all had a few minutes to mull it over before sharing our thoughts aloud.

For me, I think what I am going to be most surprised at and most impacted by is learning about the other sides of the story in the Middle East that I was not taught growing up as a Reform Jew in metropolitan New York. Until I started my education Penn, I had only ever appreciated and understood one side of the Middle East story. By story, I mean anything directly related to the region including the Israel-Palestinian conflict, defense, foreign affairs, etc. I am only just beginning to understand the many intricacies and differing opinions and viewpoints that comprise the entire picture of the modern Middle East. For this reason, I am extremely excited (and maybe even a little anxious) to visit the West Bank in a couple of weeks. Having visited Israel twice, I feel comfortable with my knowledge of the Israeli and Jewish side of the story, but have never really been exposed to Palestinian opinions or politics. As I shared the answer out loud, however, Nancy Overholt pointed out a flaw in my response. I had unintentionally said that I had “learned one side of the story, but not the other.” Immediately, I understood what she was saying. There are not two sides to this story. There are many. Even within the Israeli “side” of the so-called “Arab-Israeli Conflict” or “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (more on that distinction later), there is not agreement. There is an entire spectrum of opinions and beliefs, all of which intertwine and interact to form just one small piece of the modern Middle East story. The same is true of the Palestinian “side.” I’m glad that she brought it up; it really makes you think about just how big the “Middle East question” is. Where do we even begin? If I find the answer to that one out, I’ll let you know.

Afterward, we had a phone call with our sponsor S.A. Ibrahim who wished us safe journeys and expressed his hope for our generation and leaders like the six of us who would help to restore prospects for peace and answer some of the difficult questions like the one that I just posed above. Hearing him speak about his trust in and belief in us really put this entire program in perspective for me. People like the six of us really can make a difference and bring about change. It’s experiences like this that will provide us with the proper tools to do it.

Next up was the always fun Insurance Briefing (glad we’re covered for basically anything medical or security related that could ever occur – thanks, IIE!), and afterwards we received a visit from Dr. Allan Goodman, President and CEO of the Institute of International Education. He had some amazing information for us about his upcoming trip to Iraq, his past work in the Middle East, and, what interested me most, his work in identifying and honoring cooperative action between Palestinians and Israelis. The IIE grants an award each year for an Israeli and a Palestinian who working together on achieving peace in the region. He told us the story of an Israeli military general and a Palestinian liberation fighter who created a textbook together that told both the Israeli and Palestinian versions of the history of Israel from 1947-present and allowed students to write their own understanding of the events as they read about each side. Truly amazing work.

Dr. Allan Goodman spoke with Mark Rosenblum, our faculty member, at length with us, and after leaving, Professor Rosenblum continued to talk with us about his own views on the region, albeit briefly as tomorrow we will be having an hourlong lecture from him to start off our journey. One of my favorite quotes from the day came from him at this point in the day: “Deeper political analysis does not lead to deeper political paralysis.” Great food for thought. By analyzing, studying, and learning experientially, we are not heading toward political gridlock. Rather, we are pushing toward the future and change.

Our last speaker of the day was Akram Elias, President of Capital Communications Group, Inc., who provided us with our Cultural Intelligence briefing (for Akram Elias’ full bio, visit http://www.capcomgroup.com/akram-r-elias/). Cultural intelligence is a deeply fascinating topic. As explained by Akram, it is the ability to process cultural information and develop the intelligence to know how to respond, analyze, and behave appropriately. It’s not enough to simply know about another culture; instead, you must gain the proper cultural intelligence to appreciate that culture and lifestyle completely. In only one hour, Akram was able to provide us with a basic understanding of the religious background to our visits in Oman and the UAE, including an analysis of the differences between the two major branches of Islam and how these differences affect the region politically, economically, ideologically, and religiously. He even discussed the Fatamids with us – a flashback to my Intro the Middle East class this past semester with Professor Paul M. Cobb! Jake (the other Penn student) and I were so thrilled when Akram mentioned the Fatimids that Akram noticed and asked why were so visibly excited. Jake took the same class that I did a year before me and so we both appreciated the flashback to that class (which both of us loved). In addition, he gave us some fun travel pointers to keep in mind (i.e. Israelis are loud and animated, don’t show the soles of your shoes in Oman or the UAE, etc.)!

Probably my favorite part of the briefing with Akram was his explanation of the Israeli-Palestine problem. His interpretation was extremely unique and I have never heard anything quite like it. According to Akram, the concept of Palestinian Nationalism is incredibly new, only coming to the forefront in 1987 with the rise of the Intifada. While some might argue that the birth of the PLO in 1964 was the first sign of Palestinian nationalism, Akram thinks otherwise (and I must say that I think his argument is pretty interesting). The PLO was an umbrella organization that was backed by other Arab government, and so the nationalism that was promulgated by it was not Palestinian but rather Arab Nationalism. Arab Nationalism, in turn, first began in the nineteenth century by not Muslim Arabs but rather Christian Arabs during the time of the Ottoman Empire in an effort to resist “Turkification” (or the creation of a distinct Turkish identity throughout the Ottoman Empire). Arab Nationalism, thus, was not specific to any one religion (interesting, right?). Anyway, by this logic, from 1947-1967, the conflict in Israel was not an Israeli-Palestinian Conflict but rather an Arab-Israeli Conflict. Not until 1987 and the Intifada did it become a true Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

After Akram left, Mark was quick to point out just how unique Akram’s interpretation of the Israel-Palestinian conflict was. Akram’s interpretation, Mark argued, ignored the power and importance of Jewish ultra-orthodoxy vs. secularism throughout the growth and development of Zionism in Israel. Most explanations of the conflict look to this as a key piece in the development of the conflict. After all, the State of Israel might not have ever actually become a realization unless David Ben-Gurion (you all knew I would manage to fit him in here at some point) struck a deal with the ultra-Orthodox regarding their right to oversee life cycle events, etc. This is just one small example of the many differing opinions and views that we are going to encounter on this trip.

After our briefing with Akram and some quick commentary from Mark, the seven of us (Mark included!) headed back to the hotel to get some down time before dinner (all of 45 minutes of downtime). We met at 6:45 in the hotel lobby to walk around the block (in the rain – I can’t wait to be in the sun of the Middle East!) to Bobby Van’s for a delicious final dinner in the States. We were joined by Rahilla Zafar, a board member at the Ibrahim Family Foundation and writer/blogger/student at Penn/world traveler (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rahilla-zafar/), and her sister Aqila, who works here in DC lobbying and is a graduate student at Hopkins. Dinner was a lot of fun! The six of us got some great bonding time with each other and with Mark and Aaron Mitich, a staffer at the IIE who will also be joining us on our trip. Lauren Cozzens, who also works for the IIE helped to arrange all the detail of our journey, also joined us for dinner (not to mention that she spent the entire day in orientation with us and the past two days dealing with me and my travel plans on the phone). We ate a lot (yummy gazpacho, amazing filet mignon, creamed spinach, mushrooms in truffle oil – the foodie in me was going absolutely nuts), laughed a lot, and I really enjoyed getting to know everyone a little more. I really loved spending time with Rahilla and Aqila, too. Rahilla told us all about her travels and writing, Aqila shared her experiences working in DC and studying at Hopkins, and we all laughed about ridiculous travel stories and encounters with immigration and customs officers. I’m looking forward to meeting again with Rahilla in the Fall once we’re back in Philly!

And that’s about it for Day 1. I’m absolutely exhausted, my head is still reeling, I’m completely full from dinner, and I couldn’t be more excited about what’s to come. Tomorrow’s a travel and prep day, but I’ll be sure to check in before I leave from DC for Oman! But for now, I’m heading to bed to get some much needed rest.

Safe Travels! – Jake

June 1, 2012: Washington, DC

Just arrived in Washington, DC after a brutally early morning of travel starting with a 5:00 AM wake-up to make my train on time from New York Penn Station. The train ride was pretty relaxing though, so no complaints there. I got a lot of reading done on the train (and even got a short nap in too), so I’m feeling great heading into my first day of orientation with the Ibrahim Fellows at the IIE offices.

I didn’t get much sleep last night; not from nerves, but rather because at 12:30 AM, I was still getting stuff together to pack. My entire evening of packing was delayed/took longer than I originally expected. Probably due to the fact that my four best friends (Samantha, Adam, Leah, and Julia) were over last night to see me before I headed out today. I don’t have much time back at home between my trip to the Middle East and heading up to camp for the rest of the summer, so last night was the last solid chunk of time we’ll get to spend together for a while.

But anyway, here I am in DC! I’m currently in my hotel room with Jake, the other Penn student that I’m traveling with, and we’re just laying low until we have to meet everyone in the lobby in two hours or so. After orientation, I’ll check back in again!

Safe Travels! – Jake