Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Yesterday was incredible; admittedly today was a bit more difficult. 15-year-old Ahmed (Maliha’s genius son/boy genius who hacks into iPhone hundreds of kilometers away and/or government databases when he’s bored and is a world champion at an apparently very-big-deal video game called “League of Legends”) got dropped off at our house around 6:30am this morning, and came in to wake me up (twice) between 6:30 I actually hauled myself out of bed successfully at 8:45 (having fallen asleep around 3am). Today the plan was to go to the university (Sultan Qaboos University, SQU, or, as I like to call it, Sultan Q U), do some preliminary figuring out of my elusive “host affiliation” status and have Ahmed drive around with me and show me the important spots in Muscat. (He’s home-schooled because he skipped two grades, and his summer vacation has another two weeks, so he’s pretty free.)
However, as it turned out one of the company cars got a flat tire, so Ahmed and I were enlisted to bring his grandmother to her eye appointment at SQU Hospital. We drove from Bausher, where my/Saumen/Maliha/Susanna’s house is to Qurum, where Ahmed and his little brother Akmal live with their grandmother (Maliha’s mom). While Bausher is a new, developing neighborhood (and pretty quiet), Qurum is much closer to Matrah, the old city and/or downtown of Muscat. Located on a ridge looking down upon the highway and valley, it is the one of the fancier neighborhoods in Muscat (some HM Sultan Q’s relatives live there, a number of ministers and many “sheikhly” families, which I guess is kind of the Omani-lineage equivalent of the gentry). As it turns out, Maliha’s mother’s house is the oldest in all of Qurum (she moved there 40 years ago, just after HM Sultan Q deposed his father in 1970), and very centrally located.
Maliha’s family is itself a sheikhly lineage – although not in an ostentatious way at all and very humble/modest in their lifestyle and values. They’re Zanzibari Omanis, who tend to be among the upper class here. Before HM Sultan Q came to power, Oman was part of a British Protectorate that also contained the colonies of Zanzibar and Tanganyika (which joined to form the single state of Tanzania in 1964). As a result, generations back many Omanis moved to Zanzibar to facilitate the spice trade (cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves) there for the British. These Omanis were typically of mixed Arab and African descent, often educated in the best schools of British East Africa (and sometimes Europe). When HMSQ came to power in 1970, he called for a reverse brain drain (basically) of Zanzibari Omanis to come back to Oman, which many did, including Maliha’s family.
The result is that in our house not only am I constantly exposed to spoken English (ok this is literally everyone), Hindi/Bengali (this is Saumen, Maliha’s right-hand man/first mate/partner-in-crime/CEO/CFO/associate as well as Muhaddeen, a butler-of sorts who lives with us, and the considerable number of Indian employees of the company, many of whom are from Calcutta like Saumen) and Arabic (Maliha often speaks to me in Arabic so I can practice, and sometimes Ahmed too), but also Swahili (!!!), which is SWEET because I really haven’t practiced mine in about…two years…yikes!
So anyways we picked up Ahmed’s grandma at her house, I remembered most of the appropriate Swahili greetings etc., which I was happy about, then picked up her sister – who promised to accompany her to the appointment – and drove 35 minutes into the desert towards (the surprisingly remote) Sultan Qaboos University.
At SQU, we dropped the ladies off at the hospital and then searched for nearly an hour around the huge sand-colored complex to find the College of Arts and Social Sciences. Inside, Ahmed and I randomly sauntered in to the office of a random professor in the Department of Mass Communications, who turned out to be one of the individuals with whom I’d been in contact last year about setting up my research fellowship affiliation! He is Djebbali (sort of the Omani equivalent of Amazigh in Morocco), from southern Oman’s famous oasis city of Salalah. Turns out, he is a good friend of the father of one of my host affiliations here, Muscat Daily Columnist Susan Al-Shahri (also from Salalah). Small world! Anyways, Dr. Ahmed Ali Al Mashaikhi invited me and Ahmed to come with him to his home in Salalah next week – it’s the monsoon season there and extremely green and fertile – which, despite being perhaps just the “standard” Arab courtesy that Omanis seem to expect, I found very generous!
In any case, I agreed to come back to SQU on Sunday at 8am (the weekend is Friday and Saturday here, so Sunday, or eom al-ahed, meaning literally “the first day” in Arabic is the thematic equivalent of the western Monday) to meet the other professors of the department and try to secure my formal host affiliation and student visa.