Stereotypes: Broken.

Shon promised that I would write this post weeks upon weeks ago. I could blame my slowness on the proverbial pregnancy brain, but you might as well know the truth: I’ve been dragging my feet, because it’s hard for me to put this experience into adequate words.

A short reminder: this happened on our trip to Muscat.

Saturday morning we went to breakfast at our hotel, the Safeer Suites.  We parked our stuff at the only table available, and went to the buffet. When I returned with my full plate, I found our table occupied by 3 random people, my purse still sitting on the floor next to them, and Shon sharing another table with an Arabic couple.

The first several minutes passed in silence: we were by then accustomed to the fact that UAE locals had very (if any) little interest in us, expats, and knew better than to jump into a jovial American small talk. Well, as it turned out, our table mates were Saudis and we were going to have the most interesting breakfast ever.

Now, I like to think that we had somewhat fewer stereotypes about Muslims in general and Arabs in particular than many Americans do. After all, we have traveled to Muslim countries before, as have our friends, and we’ve been reading books and blogs about people living in the area. Saudi Arabia, though… Well, who doesn’t have stereotypes of the worst kind about that country? We sure did.

Our new acquaintances, Bedad and Medina, were very open and talkative. Like many Arab women from the GCC, Medina wore an abaya and shayla, but had her face uncovered. She had a small delicate face with laughing eyes and wore glasses.  Unlike a good number of the men in the UAE, Bedad wore pants and a t-shirt.  We told each other how we met (they were both medical students sent to Makkah on Haj duty, and on returning home Bedad told his mother he wanted to marry this particular girl). Surprised, we found out that both of them had real jobs: Bedad is a pharmacist, and Medina is a nurse at the pediatric ICU. We were also surprised to learn that, unlike most Emirati, they didn’t seem to have live-in help.

They told us stories about their kids, “four boys–they are hard to control;” and offered an anecdote about how the littlest one likes to imitate his mother.  “Even the Always,” Bedad said.

I thought I must have misunderstood him. “Excuse me?”

“You know Always?”  The maxi pads.  Yes.

“He put on his leg,” Medina said.

We all exploded in laughter. Bedad leaned over to Shon and told him to pray really hard that we have a girl rather than a boy.

At some point, when Shon went to get more food, Bedad told me we should come visit.

“I thought Americans were not exactly popular in Saudi Arabia,” I said cautiously.

“It is getting better now, but we have many crazy people there.”

“Well, there are crazy people wherever you go, aren’t there?” I offered with a smile, trying to be politically correct.

Bedad, however, was serious. “No,” he shook his head, “we have more.”

We didn’t raise serious issues during this breakfast that ended up lasting longer that we originally planned. We talked about things people all over the world talk about: children, families, traveling, work. It may not have been deep, but it was real, and fun, and normal.  As we finally left the table to head to the beach, we looked at each other, and Shon said, “Stereotypes broken.”

“Shattered,” I added.

P.S. No, we did not reverse our stereotypes. We don’t now think that all Saudis are like this. We do, however, have a different perspective.

P.P.S. If you would like to learn about life in Saudi Arabia in the 1960-1990’s, I would recommend reading “Princess” by Jean Sasson. While not a literary masterpiece, it does provide a very interesting account of a woman’s life in that country.

A Trip into Authenticity, Part I.

It’s Sunday.  This is the last day of Eid al Adha, the festival of sacrifice, a four-day holiday which honors Abraham’s submission to God in willingness to sacrifice his son.  If you know the Biblical story, God ends up staying Abraham’s hand and provides a ram to be sacrificed instead.  Anyway, the holiday itself is a time when there are tons of sheep (and other larger animals) that are slaughtered and feasted upon.  We saw many fine animals in the backs of trucks, destined, most likely, to end up on the dinner table.  Besides the large meal with their families, Muslims will share a large portion of the meat with the needy, too, making the festival about providing for others.

These sheep are headed for…well, probably nothing good, at least from their perspectives.

This bull probably also is not much longer for this world.

As I said, it’s a four-day holiday, Jenia and I have just returned from a mini-vacation.  For our break, we packed our camera and backpack into the newly purchased Kia and headed east.  East, across the border to the Sultanate of Oman, into territory which Jenia has visited ever so briefly (making one of the famous Al Ain ADEC teacher spouse’s “border runs”), and which I had hitherto gazed upon through the razor-wire topped fences which insulate the UAE from it’s friendly neighbor.

The Oman experience was a lovely one, by and large.  It busted up some of our preconceptions into tiny little pieces, and we enjoyed seeing a new part of the world.

First, let’s talk about the new part of the world and getting there: our destination was Muscat, some 4 1/2 hours away on the coast.  Our route there took us across the Mezyad border crossing.  We hit the border around 11:30, parked, went inside, paid 50 AED each for visas (just stamps in the passport), and purchased automobile insurance coverage good for Oman (which was only 80 AED for a week, the briefest amount of time they’d sell to us).  After spending a solid hour in there, we finally got out and headed on our way.  There was a lesson in this: on Eid, travel early to avoid crowds.

The scenery was nothing like we’d expected: instead of dunes and wide-open spaces, we paralleled a mountain range most of the way.  There were a few stretches where there were dunes, but there were plenty where the desert was barren, rocky, and flat, with little trees which bring pictures of the African bush to mind.

This stretch of desert was unusual for its dunes.

The Kia contemplates the stretch of 120kph highway ahead, wishing it could go faster.

We traveled along the flank of a range of mountains which look more or less like this.

The road signs leave a little to be desired, as do Google maps.  Fortunately, we only made a couple easily corrected mistakes along the way.  Nonetheless, by the time we arrived in Muscat, the sun was nearly set and it was impossible to see very much of the ruggedly beautiful landscape.

We grabbed a bite to eat at a local joint with outdoor seating where an Indian waiter beckoned, “Come, everyone happy!  Table right here,” and soon friends of ours from Al Ain who were also vacationing in Muscat joined us.  We all went to the Mutrah Souk, a traditional style Arabian market, which was a bustling mixture of sights, sounds, and scents.  The air was heavily perfumed by strong, oily fragrances, incense (frankincense, in particular), and other things, sometimes less savory.

Enjoying the souk with friends.  Textiles, silver, gold, kitsch, and more, it’s all available there.

On to preconceptions.  Here’s how at least one of those got smashed.  A beautiful abaya and shayla-clad Omani woman started talking to us at one point.  Her brother was inside the same stall that our friends Frank and Melissa were shopping at.  “I could get that [same item that your friends are looking at] for 1.5 [instead of 2],” she said, “Because I am Omani.”  She offered advice on which pieces matched best, and she watched Melissa bargaining with great interest.  The vendor wanted 5 riyals. “He’ll do it for 4,” she told me quietly, as Melissa low-balled away.  “4 is a good price.”  Sure enough, after a moment or two, Melissa struck a deal at 4.

Now, this was interesting because in Al Ain, Emirati women are friendly enough to Jenia, but they hardly speak to males, whereas this lady didn’t mind speaking to me at all–there seemed to not be the barrier between men and women that there often is erected here in the Emirates.

I asked the woman about her henna, which ornamented her fine hands in brown floral patterns.  “Is it for Eid?”  She smiled and told me, “Yes, for Eid.”  She told me where the girls could get it done, and told me that there are two kinds of henna.  “There’s black henna and red.  This is red,” she said, indicating hers.  “But we don’t do the black anymore, because it is bad for sensitive skin,” she said.  “Better the red.”  I think if we’d hung around, she would have happily talked to us about anything and everything for as long as she was able.

So, there went one preconception: that Arab culture is more or less the same in the Gulf states.  Evidently not.  Jenia’s going to be writing about another encounter we had that further altered our vantage points on people here, in a very good way.  But I’ll let her do that, and not get into it just yet.

The daylight revealed the rugged, rocky landscape that Muscat is built upon.  This shot is in the Mutrah area.  You’ll notice the fortress tower atop one rocky peak.

This post features the word authenticity.  Here’s why.  The city of Muscat manages to feel more genuine than Abu Dhabi or Dubai.  You must understand this might sound a little contradictory at first, because most of the people who were working in the stalls in the souk or at the restaurants were, just like in the UAE, from another country (usually India).  But I say it felt more authentic because Oman’s development feels less forced and artificial.  Muscat doesn’t feature a ton of high-rises, and it doesn’t have the world’s tallest this or the world’s biggest that.  It doesn’t appear to be in a contest to prove itself.  It feels content to be itself, and that self is more relaxed and less hectic than the UAE tends to be.

Jenia took this photo of the Mutrah area by night.

It’s hard to explain the final reason that I call our trip a journey into authenticity, but I’m trying: the people themselves seem warmer and more at ease with being themselves in public.  Or maybe it would be better to say they seem less guarded, more open.  Whatever the case, they seem a bit more natural to me.