Sunday, September 16, 2013
After leaving the airport on Sunday, I had literally no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I was staying with a woman named Maliha, who I knew next to nothing about. After driving about ten minutes we arrived at what appeared to be a car shop – I was afraid that this was where I was staying – and walked in, rolling my two duffels, to the kitchen of what appeared to be a very large Indian restaurant. Now thoroughly confused (and all the cooks staring at me), I rolled my way through the kitchen into the restaurant, where I was greeted by a cute, thin little kid in a dishdasha (Ahmed), a middle-aged Indian from Calcutta (Saumen), and an Omani woman, evidently Ahmed’s mom, named Maliha. Turns out Maliha and Saumen are business partners, and own a huge company including the Indian restaurant (which opened for the first time on Sept. 18 to the public), two coffee shops they just bought from their previous owners, a water distribution company, a tourism company, a car rental operation and for all I know some other stuff.
When I got “affiliated” with Maliha, all it consisted of was the following: a random woman from Cincinnati whose email I found on the website of the American Women’s Group Muscat (AWG). I emailed her about my grant project, and she just-so-happened to have invited an Omani woman entrepreneur, by the name of Maliha (probably best to forgo last names for a variety of reasons) over to her house for tea that afternoon. Having received my email inquiry that morning, Carol mentioned me to Maliha, who passed along her email. I contacted her, she wrote a letter on my behalf, that was basically it.
So here I am over a year later in Maliha’s restaurant – who knew there was a restaurant involved! – and the moment I sit down (having not slept a wink the night before in Dubai airport), Saumen starts talking to me, telling me about the company: how he and Maliha started with only 15 rials and a dream four years ago and built it from the ground up. As he speaks, I’m pretty dazed/fatigued but smart enough to realize he’s interviewing me. What are your goals for while you’re here in Oman? You’re here to study women entrepreneurs, you have one of the most successful ones in the country right here. What have you done in the past? In addition to studying Arabic, what kind of work experience are you hoping to get? You want to be a woman entrepreneur yourself one day, potentially in the Middle East? And start restaurants or coffee shops much like we have? Tell me more about these ambitions.
I was overwhelmed, but could tell I was in the presence of some VERY wise, thoughtful, successful people. And as far as I could tell, even though I hadn’t realized that I really wanted it, they were sniffing me out, seeing if I was worthy of being offered a job in the company. Everything I said – about my skills, past work experience, interests and particularly what I wanted to do while in Oman – all of it mattered. A lot. And while it was overwhelming to process all at once, I realized two things. 1) I need to figure out in real time what it is EXACTLY that I want out of my nine months here and then start molding my end of this conversation to reflect that and 2) Saumen and Maliha are two people I REALLY need on my side, especially Saumen, who seems less forgiving, less likely to give me the benefit of the doubt. So I did my best to turn on my focused, professional attitude, to answer his questions about money (and other awkward subjects) gracefully but directly – the deflective femininity thing women get indoctrinated with in the U.S. was absolutely NOT a winning strategy – and finally to listen to what he had to say (which was rather a lot) respectfully and intently. After 36 hours of travel and no sleep, being lectured to at top speed and preventing your eyes from glazing over is not easy, for the record.
What kinds of skills set have you been developing that brought you here? Oh, you worked for an NGO in Burundi? That’s interesting Maliha’s sister-in-law is Burundian, although Ahmed doesn’t get along with her too well. What’s your wish list for your time in Oman? Have you written it down? Can you show it to me? I need to see it on paper. You want to be an entrepreneur yourself one day in the Middle East? Interesting. I can say confidently that there is nowhere harder in the world than here in Oman to do business. (I struggled not to narrow my eyes at this comment.) Particularly as a woman. The second you start being successful, people try to pull you down, other women especially. (It seemed like S was M’s mouthpiece, in a way, during this conversation, saying things she thought but was too diplomatic to actually give utterance to.) You have a creative idea for free dinner coupons at your restaurant? They copy you. They bad mouth you. Scorpions. They’re scorpions. They see your success as a threat to theirs. They see you climbing up they jump and pull you down. It’s not like in the U.S. where there’s enough demand for hundreds and hundreds of banks, restaurants, coffee shops, whatever, to be successful all at once. Have you heard of wasta? It means who you know, what connections you can pull. People tote around slogans like “I don’t do wasta.” But everyone does wasta. It’s not a matter of not doing wasta, but of trying not to use it if you can help it. Trying to do things by your own merit as much as possible.
Saumen (pronounced show-min, btw) began giving me all the options – work in a breast cancer clinic for rural women with this guy, have a meeting with these women entrepreneurs of all different sized companies from handicrafts to banks – when I hesitated between all the options, he gave his opinions. His first advice was to get wickedly lost as soon as I got my car the next day; That’s the only way you learn. When I had my appendicitis after the operation the doctor made me drive 300 miles on a motorcycle to get the money to pay him. And this is 300 miles on roads in the 70s in India, it’s not like here where it takes you ten minutes to get to Muscat Grand Mall on the highway. It takes days to go that far, cows, goats in the road, who knows. When I finally got back to the doctor with the money I was red, I mean completely red, with blood – all over my body. But let me tell you something. I learned more from that man than from anyone, any teacher any wise person in my whole life. It was crazy but you know what? That man, he knows how to push…
…So you want to study Arabic and work part time? But you don’t have a work visa, only a tourist visa. Do you think you could get a proper student visa through your school with the grant you have? Then working wouldn’t be a problem. If you were to work part time, what kind of hours would you be thinking? Evenings? Interesting. And what kind of remuneration would you be looking for? Is your primary motive to make some extra cash? Or to work directly with a woman entrepreneur to enhance your first-hand research experience? Or to work in an Arabic speaking language environment? Don’t worry, I know you’re tired. Tell your mother you’re in good hands. Tell her to rest assured, there are two great mothers in the world, Mother Teresa and Mama Maliha…
That night Saumen and I stayed up late talking, debating about the ethics of the modern non-profit industrial complex in Africa (aka your friendly neighborhood NGO), (neo-) colonialism, whether it is possible – particularly for governments – to preserve culture in the face of globalization (he said no, I said yes). I sat with him on the steps of the house while he smoked, and suggested the example of a saffron cooperative in Morocco as an instance of the government reinforcing, publicizing, and celebrating a heritage crop, lifestyle and the related production method in order to preserve the cultural infrastructure surrounding that crop rather than letting a western company come in and industrially harvest it [saffron] (as opposed to individuals picking it by hand) more cheaply, but at the expense of an entire sociocultural ecosystem. S was intrigued by this perspective, and conceded that I had described a strikingly effective example to demonstrate my point. And what he had to say – for instance that India would be better off if the British were still running things – I did not frequently agree with, but found fascinating nonetheless, and made sure to listen attentively. For better or for worse, I felt that I passed Interview Day One.