The previous post not withstanding, I think a fruitful subject for me to explore honestly at this juncture is that of loneliness. It is not that I do not like Oman, nor, I think, that Oman does not like me; we are simply creatures of divergent (or perhaps uncomfortably similar?) temperaments. And while I have listed a number of individuals – friends? – here whose company I enjoy, I do not know any of them well.
I do not think it occurred to me that I could actually be unhappy in a place until last night, when I was driving my car to the gym for the first time since my concussion nearly three weeks ago. I was reflecting on how I would ideally spend my “leisure” time during the Eid al-Adha holiday (commemorating when the prophet Ibrahim nearly killed, and then spared, his son Ismail) from Oct 13-20. Saumen and Maliha will be working, more or less, and don’t like to go out to dinner or go drinking because Maliha doesn’t like crowds and Saumen prefers to drink at home (admittedly they are older than I). Ahmed and Akmal will be visiting family, much as I might at Thanksgiving, and however unusually inclusive the Al-Kharusi family has been to me, there are limits to the intrusions that are appropriate. Similarly, Mohammed (Maliha’s brother who lives with us) will be at his mother’s house. All of the bars and nightclubs will be closed – no alcohol can be sold on Eid, obviously – and most people stay at home with their families, so restaurants and coffee shops will be closed too.
I was very fortunate in Burundi to, through beach volleyball, quickly develop of a circle of friends with whom I could hang out, take weekend trips, go out to dinner, party and generally commiserate. The expat circles that I have heretofore somewhat disdained did, in many ways, save my experience in Burundi from being one of consuming loneliness. And I think that reality is an unfortunate trade off that I have yet to successfully negotiate here. I have met Nasser (Zanzibari) and his Spanish Embassy/AIESEC friends, who are cool (although Nasser is in high school and I am more comfortable/used to hanging out with older people, but no matter), I have met Fernando and a few of his dance friends, but not really hung out with them (they are late 20s), I have met Danny’s group, the more traditional early 30s expat crowd, and then there is Saumen-Maliha-Mohammed-Zuzana (although Zuzana’s husband is visiting for Eid from Slovakia so she won’t be free).
On the bright side, the expats here seem less dangerous than in Burundi. By that I mean that most are either Petrol engineers or English teachers, rather than a strange and semi-hostile (but simultaneously co-dependent) amalgam of NGO workers, UN bureaucrats, Embassy party-boys, legitimate businesspeople (restaurant owners, pharmacists etc) and less legitimate businesspeople (i.e. mineral/mining profiteers and/or poachers, glossed as “I do import-export”). In Burundi, expat parties often felt like congregations of bloodhounds: everyone barking and scratching and devouring the same small animals together, but nevertheless on edge, circling, sniffing out the falseness in one another. Judging from an admittedly limited number of interactions, expats here do not seem to have such sharp edges.
But I digress. So Saumen initially suggested that I use the Eid holiday to roadtrip around Oman and become familiar with all the cities and the countryside. This, to me, sounds great. But alone? A white woman cannot really just wander around alone in Oman. Where would I stay? I certainly wouldn’t have anyone to talk to. Could Ahmed come with me? (That would be a blast, I thought, only blushing a little that my best friend here is a 15-year-old boy) But no, Ahmed is with family for Eid. Saumen suggested that Anu, our Bengali housemaid, could come, but she and I have only a little linguistic overlap, in Arabic, and I’m not sure either of us would feel very comfortable. (Also neither of us knows how to get around.)
In any case, I was driving to the gym and I caught myself actually considering the possibility of going home. Which was astonishing! I never feel that way! Oman is modern and developed and every amenity I need is here, more or less (internet access is a problem but whatever), so I suppose I hadn’t noticed any kind of discomfort or culture shock. But in fact Oman is a VERY different country than the U.S. I have met no Americans (except for the one evening I spent in a group with Kristy) and I am constantly stared at – but not in the validating-my-ego-awe-filled way that I often got in Burundi, but rather in a distainful “you-don’t-belong-here” and “we-are-not-at-all-impressed-by-your-whiteness-and-you-are-not-one-of-us” kind of way (colorism is still prominent here, but among/between Omanis). Undoubtedly, this is a learning experience, some small chipping away at the edifice of my self-satisfaction and assumptions of white privilege. However, I must admit, I do feel lonely.
“It is impossible to say just what I mean!” said T.S. Eliot, and I confess I am struggling to explain just how I feel. (I memorized the Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock last week – from which that line is drawn – as a present to recite to my parents at Thanksgiving, and also because I am determined to persuade myself that I can be completely content, despite my predilection for extraversion, dwelling within the chambers of my own mind.)
One central problem, I suppose, is that I am skeptical of these expat circles, so I have not really tried to become part of any of them. On an intellectual level, expat culture confounds and repels me. I have a tendency to be self-righteous and disdain it, to say “I want to only speak Arabic and only have Omani friends and to do otherwise is just to indulge oneself in the comforts of ‘Little America’ and not engage with the local culture” (see Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s excellent book about the history of American involvement in Afghanistan). However, at least to a large degree, I simply do not have the option of actually doing this. I am not fluent in Arabic. I am white. I am a woman. I am not veiled/Muslim. I am not Omani. Ergo, I do not have access to conventional Omani social circles.
Admittedly, part of this feeling of isolation derives from my own cowardice. Example: I was studying Arabic conjugations of irregular doubled-root-consonant verbs for the four dual tenses (when you are only talking about two people, men or women, in 2nd or 3rd person) yesterday in the Food Court of Muscat Grand Mall (more to come on the Middle East Mall Culture and my ferocious love/hate relationship with Muscat Grand Mall), and against all odds an Omani women about my age (you know a woman is Omani if she wears the full black ‘abaya, whereas foreigners, even Muslims, do not) addressed me in Arabic. The woman was thrilled to see I was learning Arabic, agreed that it was very hard, and was impressed that I could speak in [albeit stilted] fus-Ha (classical Arabic). She and the friend she was with (who didn’t say anything the whole time) even offered to help me if I had any questions. By any measure, this was an extremely unusual interaction. It was the first time, in nearly a month here, that an Omani (not counting Zanzibaris) has actually initiated a conversation with me. And an Omani woman at that! Unfortunately, as we sat there and the two women finished their lunch, speaking rapidly in the Omani dialect and laughing (surely in some proportion at me), I did not have the courage to ask the one that had addressed me for her number. Could we actually be friends? What would we talk about if we “hung out”? Would we use my broken Arabic or her broken English? I suppose since I hadn’t been previously confronted with such a direct opportunity for interaction with an Omani, I was taken aback, but also surprised at how distant I felt, as if the black silks represented a more formidable barrier than just the visual one, than just of nationality and religion, a wider cultural chasm than I had previously been willing to admit.
The woman got up. I did not internally gather the courage to ask her for her mobile number in time. I have no idea when the next such opportunity will come.
Perhaps the answer resides in the way in which culture – in an earnest, non-ironic way – is emphasized here. Family, religion, traditions, visiting one’s relatives, clothing (i.e. ‘abaya and dishdasha): these things are really, deeply important in Oman. And so if you do not share them, they represent considerable social barriers. Omani men ALWAYS wear dishdashas when they go out. This is not some sort of ‘primitive’ tradition – if anyone should be so callous as to interpret it as such. It is because Oman is not enchanted by “being Western” or “being American” in the same way that so many other countries I have been to are, at least in some degree.
To put it another way, there is no embarrassment, no self-consciousness about being really Omani in front of expats (totally opposite to the controversies among Indian politicians since Nehru over whether to adopt Western-style dress and British mannerisms). The feelings of self-scrutiny and cultural humiliation that I have often been aware of among locals in post-colonial contexts are reversed. Here I am definitively the outsider (whereas white people in Africa, despite being foreign, by their mere presence risk othering the actual locals). Here, the upper class status projected immediately by my language and skin color makes me distant and imposing, rather than a peer, to the majority of expats (from southeast Asia). Yet accept for Zanzibaris, my Americanness is not something cool, to be potentially emulated, or a reason to seek out my friendship. When I roll down my car windows and at moderate volume play the Tupac CDs I burned my first week here, and inappropriately dangle my arm out of the window and tap to the beat with my fingers on the side of the car, it is not cool. It is self-indulgent, attention-seeking and obnoxious. Until yesterday, I did not fully realize that for all my politically correct lip service, I have a huge dollop of the quintessentially American personal egoism (politely called individualism), exceptionalism, desire for attention (But you have to look at ME, world!).
Whereas here, nobody cares that you’re (I’m) American! Even Maliha and Mohammed don’t “hate” Obama for his drone strikes or “like” him for giving universal healthcare. They have no opinion on Obama. They can’t be bothered. America, in Oman, elicits neither envy and imitation nor contempt and criticism (nor all four, as in France, for instance).
In Oman, America is a shrug. And even if saying I’m from New York City (hilariously? only 20% true at best!) still stimulates a small conversational pulse of the awe-prestige-caché I apparently have become habituated to, I’m going to have to get used to that.