A curious caravanserai of notoriety and nonsense, poetry and prophecy.

“Minor Tribulations” – a diary account from my first week in Oman

I don’t think the woman who wrote this would recognize the woman in this photo.

(Note: I think I did not post this at the time of writing because I was embarrassed that my feelings of discomfort and exclusion were unfairly prejudiced and self-indulgent. Having read it over just now for the first time since September, I choose to post it as a glimpse into the state of mind in which I began this great mental and emotional journey.)


September 26, 2013

Today I went to SQU – a sprawling desert fortress (with lovely green gardens which I suppose are maintained by some beneficient and very powerful djinn) a 45-minute drive to the west of Muscat – to try to figure out where my host affiliation has disappeared to.

A little background: I first contacted Sultan Qaboos University, both individual professors and the Office of External Collaboration which grants the formal “Visiting Researcher” status, in June 2012. I submitted my paperwork (lots of personal forms plus my research proposal/C.V. etc) in October 2012.  I sent them again in May 2013, after being vaguely in contact but not hearing anything concrete. SQU is one of the few bodies that can grant me a student visa.  This is essential, because otherwise I am required to pay probably hundreds of dollars every thirty days (for the next nine-ten months) entering, exciting and buying a new tourist visa to Oman (currently 30 OMR, or $80).

So I decided to go to SQU (I went once before during my first week here, and the professor in question was on holiday) with Muwinideen (I really need to figure out the correct spelling here), Saumen and Maliha’s Bangledeshi employee/assistant who lives with us and generally facilitates all sorts of things. Muwinideen helped me find SQU, as it’s quite a hike, and I don’t have good memory of details from last week (see previous post).  It was quite different arriving this time, as the campus was filled with students, whereas last week it had been nearly empty.  Today must’ve been one of the very first days of classes.

SQU is, for lack of a better term, a bastion of Omani nationalism.  That is to say, it’s the university named for His Majesty, the country’s only public university, and is the most prestigious school in the country accordingly.  I’ve been spending the vast majority of my time with Maliha’s family (unusually Western linguistically and culturally, perhaps because they are Zanzibari Omanis) and a lot of Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi ex-pats.  That’s not to say I haven’t been experiencing the “real” Oman – I would argue my experience has been very authentically Omani, in a way.  The point is, I don’t think I’ve met more than one or two Arab Omanis since I’ve been here, and culturally it is a huge difference.

First of all, “traditional” Omani society is culturally quite conservative and insular, in part due to the strong tribal divisions and allegiances, as well as due to the slow, methodical oil-propelled development that HM Sultan Q has managed since 1970, unlike, for example, the financial explosion that has since taken place in Qatar, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi.  Thus the family I am living with is unusual both to welcome a random foreigner into their home and to speak primarily in English.

So basically visiting SQU today was overwhelming.  Firstly, I went inside and the Professor I had hoped so dearly to meet was not there, although it was 9am (we left the house at 7:30am, stuff starts early here and stops between 1-4pm because of the heat) [he told me to come between 8-9:30].  The corridors were filled with students – women in flowing black abayas and men in starched white dishdashas and kuma hats – separated rigidly by gender and speaking in rapid, Gulf-accented Arabic which I couldn’t easily understand. I felt foolish and selfish asking for directions in English, but even though I could have asked in Lebanese Arabic how to get to the Office of External Collaboration (very far away, I soon learned), I was ashamed to do so: not only because I still figured that everyone’s English would be better than my Arabic, but also because the Arabic I was hearing – despite being tricky to understand – was clearly very high quality, almost Qur’anic Arabic (comparatively rare in Beirut) and I was horrified at the thought of uttering my colloquial, improper nonsense. Islam is enshrined in the Arabic language because it is the language of Qur’anic revelation.  Thus in such a context of high-quality (is there a word for “nationalistic” that refers to religion?) Arabic, the thought of speaking my…dialect felt almost heretical.

I didn’t want to offend anyone for any of these reasons, and also I was just deeply embarrassed. The hallways were thick with incense smoke (smelled exactly like Church on Easter), as all the male students had heavily perfumed the tassels of their dishdashas for the formal occasion (education).  Whether because of my concussion or not, this made me quite dizzy, not to mention feeling that I myself smelt comparatively bad, or at least negligently bland. Despite having worn my most conservative long-sleeve floor-length dress (and ALHAMDULLILEH for that), everyone stared/balked at my uncovered hair (although I am confident wearing a hijab would have been received rather worse).

Anyways, then amidst all the students (from whom I literally just wanted to hide I was so embarrassed), Muwinideen and I got separated. He does not have a phone.  That was bad. I figured he’d probably convene at the car within 20 minutes or so, so in the meantime I popped over to the Administration building to see if I could make headway with the Office of External Collaboration.  (Muwinideen turned out to be lost for about another two hours.)  The immense white building had a huge, ornately carved Zanzibari wood door (12 feet tall, six feet wide) for the entrance.  Inside was all carved mahogany, with stained-glass windows and sweeping arches that exposed ornate prayer rooms made of colorful marble.  That is to say, it was fancy. People continued staring at me and I tried my best not to look like a deer in the headlights. Finally someone pointed me to the correct floor. I blushed violet through my freckles.

Inside the Office of External Collaboration, eyes narrowed at me as I entered. A young woman behind a desk asked, “Are you a Fulbright Scholar?” “No.” (Serious ouch on that one.) “Oh. Well in that case…we have received your application to be a Visiting Researcher. It will be at least a few more months until it is processed. I will let you know by phone in a few weeks how long we expect the decision to take. What are you doing in Oman other than that research?” “That is my primary objective for coming to Oman.” “Really? Why did you come before we sent you a letter of approval? I think your request may not even BE approved, impossible to say! You are supposed to wait to come to Oman until you have approval!”  “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that. No one from your office was responding to my emails, that’s why I decided to come here in person. Plus I didn’t have an indefinitely flexible timeline anyway, that’s why I sent everything in a year ago.” “Well. I cannot help you then. Where are you living? Who are you living with? What have you been doing since you got here, if not any research?” “Um…I live in Bausher…”  “Bausher??! WHO told you to live there! What a strange place to live, you must hate it!  Well anyway, you should go now, I have your application here on my screen. I will call you in a few weeks to let you know how long the confirmation or denial will take! Goodbye now.”

I left the office, humiliated and looking for the women’s bathroom to have a quick breakdown in before I went to find Muwinideen and go home. I accidentally walked past the Men’s Bathroom in the direction of the University Vice Chancellor’s office. “What. Are you doing here?” (A middle-aged man in a dishdasha appeared around a corner abruptly and hissed at me, frowning and enunciating the “wh.”)  “So sorry. Just looking for the women’s restroom.”  He grabbed my hand and led me down the corridor in the other direction, away from the important people. Finally I found the bathroom, got out some productive stress-tears and left the building as quickly as possible, in search of Muwinideen and the exit to the fortress.

2 Responses to ““Minor Tribulations” – a diary account from my first week in Oman”

  1. pjtray

    Whoa! Hard situation. The lostness/negative wonderment aspect reminds me of walking around clueless, unaccompanied and unwelcome at Thomas O. Larkin Middle School in 1965. Only worse. In my case, I could go “home” after awhile, although actually no one had told me where I lived except “up in the Presidio”. Still less distressing, I imagine, than your SQU un-adventure. I am proud for your persistence and survival. Have you been back there?

  2. pjtray

    Also, probably better, all in all, than having a mass political murder a couple blocks away in Bujimbura your first week.


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