University of Iowa

Rubbing elbows with sheikhs

July 30th, 2018

The Nizwa Market: almost every photo I took here contains about as much drama as a renaissance painting. It was also a heavily male-dominated space (peep the only woman in the top left wearing an Omani burqa).

The Nizwa Market: almost every photo I took here contains about as much drama as a Renaissance painting. It was also a heavily male-dominated space (peep the only woman in the top left wearing an Omani burqa).  


Alex Bare is a rising senior (international relations and Spanish) and 2018 recipient of the Critical Language Scholarship, an intensive overseas language and cultural immersion program for American students funded by the U.S. Department of State. Views posted herein do not represent those of the Department of State, American Councils for International Education, or the CLS Program.


The last couple weeks have consisted of listening to lots of Yemeni and Saudi music (Oman doesn’t have much of a popular music scene) and studying in Ibri. I truly do some deep studying here—what else can you do truly when it’s 115°F out every day and you have no car and no public transit?


As time goes on, I’ve also picked up the distinction as The Person Who Everything Weird Happens To in the program. I mean, WEIRD. Yesterday night alone deserves an entire blog on its own.


Down the street from the institute, there’s a nifty pizza place run by a Syrian guy that, as it turns out, seems to be a favorite pit stop for local political figures. The last time I went there, I struck up a conversation with someone who turned out to be a city council member who invited me to email him with any concerns or questions. Omanis tend to be like that: helpful and VERY trusting. I have even had a taxi driver tell my friend and me to not worrying about paying because “you can pay when you call me to pick you up for your return trip.”


Anyways, last night surpassed by far any of the bizarre things to happen yet. I’ve started to recognize important sheikhs in Ibri by the way they style their beards (never trimmed) and the overtly formal canes they carry with them everywhere. Just as my friend and I had ordered our food, two such men walked in. We were the only other people in the restaurant, so, in typical Omani fashion, a greeting was necessary. After greeting us and commenting on how nice it was to see me wearing a dishdasha, one of the men turned to my friend and asked her where her Omani clothes were (a.k.a. abaya). A classic. He introduced himself as an Islamic teacher at a local school, but I suspected something more.


After disappearing for a second, he reappeared and ushered us into the family section at the back of the restaurant, closing the divider behind us (Omani men sitting with women in the main part of the restaurant is considered indecent). Pretty soon one of the men whips out his business cards to let us know who he is, and he turns out to be Ibri’s elected representative in the Majlis Al-Shura, an 84-member legislative body which is basically Oman’s version of the U.S. House of Representatives (except with limited power since the Sultan’s word is the supreme authority). My Arabic skills were showing major cracks and this revelation did not help.


Over a round of fresh orange juice, we talked about Oman, the study program, America, and so much more. Every once in a while the sheikh switched the television set between the Islamic channel with readings from the Qur’an and the news. A news flash about Saudi Arabia came on, which prompted us into a rollercoaster of a political discussion. Like I said, Omanis do not like talking about politics, so this was a rare opportunity. Let alone to hear it from the mouth of a respected political representative.


After he shared some choice words about Saudi Arabia’s dealings in the Gulf, I asked him about his job. With hardly a word, he slid his phone across the table and showed me his Twitter account with 174k followers. We were in this deep. Next, we moved on to Iran. In a similar fashion, he casually flipped through photos of himself with the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, taken earlier this year in Tehran. Keep in mind this was just two days after Donald Trump’s fiery row with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on Twitter.


45 minutes later and my friend and I were walking out of that restaurant with about 7 rials ($18) worth of food, in addition to the meal we’d just shared—all on the sheikh’s dime. To top it off, we’d also been invited to visit him in Salalah (a popular summer touristic city 20 minutes from the Yemeni border), “if only we had more time in Oman.” Back at the institute, our friends asked us how much we owed them for food. We just smiled and said with an air of mystery, “I dunno, we didn’t pay.” My Omani friends had a good laugh about it later.


Talk about a way to kick off my last week in Ibri. I’ve seen and heard some wild things in this country, but this…you can’t top this.


As for the person who asked me on Instagram about domestic politics of Oman, the government is constantly trying to work to apply “Omanization” policies, such as how many visas to give out to foreign “expatriate workers,” who make up perhaps 40% of the country. Youth unemployment is a big issue that many young people groan about, but at the end of the day, college is free for citizens and government housing for poor Omanis is like miniature castles. Oil money talks.


The only Omani friend I have who will talk at length about politics summed up the domestic political geography bluntly: Omani law prohibits speech that offends the government or disrupts societal cohesion, but no one knows the law’s limits. In contrast to the gloom of Western media, most of the domestic news stories here are positive or congratulatory in nature. Just head over to Times of Oman website to see what I mean. In essence, no one wants to stir up a controversy that could land them in jail. 


In all seriousness, being perceived as a representative of your country abroad can be…a lot—especially when that country is the United States. I’m not kidding when I say people in Oman have phone cases of Saddam Hussein. But I always say that stressful and bizarre situations are my favorite foreign language teachers. What better way to learn a new language than to be on the ground, immersed in the most intense of discussions with some of the people most equipped to have them? (What can I say, I’m an international relations major!)


Oh yeah, and to whoever asked me about whether frankincense is sold in markets in Oman, let’s just say my entire life is permanently steeped in frankincense and bukhoor (it’s a staple, that is). Catch you in a short seven days, America.


My language partner took me to visit a mountain in the Al Batinah South Governorate the other weekend. The four-hour hike was worth it


On my way home on the lonely road from Muscat to Ibri