Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Maniacs on the Road

Published December 22, 2009 - Muscat Daily
A colleague of mine bought the car of his dreams a few weeks ago, and I saw him driving down the highway without his seatbelt on. I was horrified so I asked him the next day at work what the heck he thought he was doing speeding around town without wearing it? His answer was 'I spent 25,000 Rials on this car. You want me to drive around Salalah looking like a 2-year-old strapped to a child's car seat?' Yes, those were his exact words.

Speaking of car seats for kids, Salalah has yet to discover the benefits of using them. I cannot speak for other parts of Oman because I haven't left Salalah for a while, but here you will often see young children on the driver's lap or hanging out of the window or standing on the seats in a speeding car on a major highway. Parents seem to think their children are protected by some magic voodoo.
Is it just me or do others agree that a large percentage of drivers in Oman seem to have acquired their driver's licenses out of a Cheerios box? Whenever I'm on the road, I'm always on the lookout for old men from the mountains in ancient pickup trucks who think the highways are a free-for-all and who seem to exist in a parallel traffic universe, or the young men in expensive sports cars who overtake any vehicle in front of them that isn't going at 120 km/hr on a highway with a speed limit of 100 km/hr. What about the underage boys secretly driving their fathers' land cruisers who are too cool to indicate when switching lanes?
Why can't drivers judge distances and the speed of oncoming cars when they pull out? Why would you even consider overtaking on the left of a vehicle that is turning left? Need I mention the terrible habit of men who proceed to put their turbans on while driving during morning rush hour? They seem to control the steering wheel using their knees (while driving at 100 km/hr on the highway).
Last but not least, what in the world makes people in this country addicted to using their mobile phones while driving? I know that people all over the world do this but people in my town seem to wait until they get into the car to start making important phone calls. It's completely insane. They're not only endangering their own lives, but others' lives as well. The obvious complete absence of a sense of responsibility is extraordinary.
I was shocked to read the latest road accident statistics for the first ten months of this year. Almost 800 lives lost on the road and almost 8,000 injured in 5,895 accidents. Why did all those people have to die? Is it so difficult to drive carefully? We all know that using the phone while driving, speeding, being distracted, etc, is dangerous, but must we really wait until we are in a vehicle collision to fully comprehend what it all means?
I'm pleased with the fact that police officers seem to be spending more time on the road looking for offenders. Several people I know have been given a ticket during the past few weeks for even holding their phone in a small alleyway or for not wearing their seatbelts. I've also recently come to notice the new huge signs around town with messages practically begging people to be more careful. Kudos to the ROP for being more strict, and a salute to His Majesty for appealing to citizens to show restraint on the roads during his Meet-The-People Royal Tour last month.
I hope Oman introduces a new driving school program where not only are they required to complete at least 60 hours of training, but where new drivers are forced to watch lifelike videos on the results of texting while driving and which show in detail what actually goes on in a car during a collision. There are some really good and rather graphic videos available on YouTube and other sites. Please make an effort to drive carefully and avoid taking chances on the road. Don't wait for a tragedy to teach you the value of life.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

How Was Eid?

Published December 7, 2009 - Muscat Daily
My alarm clock went off at 6:00 a.m on Saturday morning. I cursed and begged for another day of holiday. Just another day! But no such luck. It just kept on ringing until I was forced to get up and go to work. Don't get me wrong. I love my job, but I really enjoyed Eid and those precious nine days of holiday. I'm figuring you all cursed your alarm clocks too.
Basic Eid rituals are similar throughout the Muslim world, but each society also has its own unique traditions to celebrate this religious event. Also known as the 'Festival of the Sacrifice', Eid Al-Adha is a holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God. It is also about spending time with family and enjoying the simple blessings that life has to offer. The first day of Eid occurs the day after the pilgrims conducting Hajj descend from Mount Arafa in Saudi Arabia.
This Eid is a major social event in Dhofar. The build-up alone is an event! During the week before Eid, it is nearly impossible to move in town. The streets are filled with frantic shoppers trying to do last-minute Eid shopping. Old men bargain with carpet sellers by the side of the road, children beg their parents for new toys, and women carefully select the colours and patterns on the traditional Dhofari 'thobes' that they wear for Eid. Meanwhile, cows and camels are transported around town in old pick-up trucks, on unsteady legs, unknowingly headed for sacrifice.
On the day before Eid, also known as 'Yom Arafa', most adults fast and prepare their houses for visitors while keeping an eye on their television sets which broadcast the live descent of the pilgrims from Mount Arafa in Saudi Arabia. Some are even lucky enough to spot someone they know waving at the camera through the crowd.
At dawn on the first day of Eid, mothers prepare food and burn frankincense while fathers and sons dress in their finest for Eid prayers at the mosque. After prayers, the males head off with their relatives to slaughter. In Dhofar, brothers often get together to buy a cow or camel. They then distribute the meat among their families and the poor.
By mid morning, the men are back from slaughter, and the women begin to cut up and cook the meat. Dhofar's favourite Eid dish is 'ma'ajeen', small pieces of boneless beef cooked in beef fat. It remains tasty (and sterile!) for months if kept in a sealed container. Many families also make ‘makadot’, or camel meat dried in strips.
Children put on their new clothes, meet up with friends and visit houses in the neighbourhood to eat sweets, giggle and collect ‘Eidia’ (small change). Usually men do their visiting in the afternoon and women in the evening. When I say 'visiting' I basically mean making an effort to visit every relative in the immediate and extended family as well as all the neighbours. This can take days.
Every visit is almost identical. Guests are greeted in the family majlis with the usual 'Eid Mubarak! How are you? And your family? Your health? Come and eat meat!' Every majlis offers exactly the same things; Omani halwa, Arabic coffee, nuts, sweets, orange flavoured Tang, fruit, and the required bowl of ma'ajeen. It can become a little overwhelming once you've reached house number ten! Some large families choose to have a tribal picnic on the third or fourth day of Eid to avoid visiting houses individually.
Eid is all about being social and 'doing your duty' by visiting family and neighbours. Most people in Dhofar would never be seen in shops or at tourist spots during Eid. They're too busy visiting the 1,000 relatives on their Eid list! Looking back, I know I ate enough dried camel meat to last me a lifetime, and I probably discovered at least 10 new relatives whom I never knew existed, but it was a great holiday and a time to touch base with people I don't see very often. Until next year!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Arranged Marriages

Published November 24, 2009 - Muscat Daily
I remember the night five years ago when I received a frantic call from my best friend telling me that her father and uncles had summoned her into the family room that afternoon to inform her that she would be marrying her cousin, nine years her senior. She had three months to get ready. I remember listening to her saying 'I can't believe this is happening to me. I can't believe it'. We were both devastated. She was looking forward to starting college and making a life for herself. Meanwhile, her family informed her bluntly that high school was enough, and that having an unmarried 19-year-old daughter in the house was a burden. In the end after a lot of pressure from her father she was forced to agree. She never saw or spoke to the man who was to become her husband until the night of their wedding. Now, five years later, she shares a house with her in-laws, has two very young children, and a husband who does not love her, and who will not allow her to study or work or even leave the house without his permission.
Are you surprised? This happens in Oman all the time. Arranged marriages are in full force, especially here in Dhofar. I'm against such marriages, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they don’t work out. I've seen some positive examples of beautiful relationships that started off as an arranged marriage. However, I believe that it's a matter of luck and that those couples simply hit the jackpot. I know for a fact that most of the time it doesn't work out. With all due respect to conservative thinkers around the country, arranged marriages cause a lot of pain, trauma, and sadness.
In Oman, arranged marriages usually occur between cousins, preferably paternal ones. As far as I know, the reasoning behind marrying cousins comes from families wanting to keep the family blood 'pure' and their wealth within the family. Distribution of inheritance is of extreme importance in our culture. Arranged marriages become more like a contract between families and not individuals where both parties feel responsible if it doesn't work out. I remember almost blowing up at a colleague who casually mentioned that he was proud of his tribe because all the girls married their first cousins, and that he would do the same for his daughters to maintain this beautiful tradition. I wanted to shout at him, "Who gives you the right to determine the fate of your unborn daughters?!" You cannot force two mature adults onto each other and expect them to build a happy life together. You cannot 'arrange' love and successful relationships. Life doesn't work that way. Not nowadays. Oman is a modern country! Marriage expectations among young people are very different than they were some years ago. As far as I'm concerned, young men and women have the right to choose whom they are to marry. They also have the right to get to know one another, and then decide whether it's right to take that big step. Marriage is not a game. It's not something fathers can decide on the spur of the moment in the family majlis over a cup of tea. Not any more.
I've discussed this topic with many male colleagues who argue that arranged marriages do not end in divorce and are therefore more successful. The reason they do not end in divorce is due to family pressure. Most of the time, the couple are miserable but are too nervous about telling their families that they want to end the marriage.
On a more positive note, over the past three or four years I've seen many families in Dhofar who are allowing their daughters to talk to their fiancés over the phone before the wedding in order to get to know each other a bit more. Often the couples are allowed to end the engagement if they feel it's not going to work out. Furthermore, many young people are defying tradition by choosing their own partners. I salute the open-minded parents who support their kids in making their own decisions when it concerns marriage, and I encourage other parents to give advice, love, support, and to simply let it be.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dining in Dhofar

Published November 17, 2009 - Muscat Daily

'Where can we find elegant restaurants in this town?' asked the young American couple that had just moved to Salalah. 'The Hilton? Crowne Plaza?' I answered sheepishly, while racking my brain for more ideas. They looked at one another, disappointed. 'Muscat is only an hour and a half away by plane!' I added cheerfully.
Truth be told, we only have a handful of half-decent sit-down restaurants in Salalah where you can take your family for dinner. And by a handful, I basically mean two Chinese restaurants where they never get your order right, a couple of Lebanese/Turkish restaurants, and the one and only Pizza Hut! Anyone reading this in Muscat should count their lucky stars for places like Biella, Mumtaz Mahal, and Chili's to name a few.
I'm not saying we lack food. We most certainly do not. Salalah is studded with hundreds and hundreds of tiny window coffee shop/juicers that serve hamburgers and shawarmas with too much hot sauce and fresh juices (but no coffee). The type of place where you drive up, honk your horn, and wait like a king (or queen) until a waiter comes up to your window to take your order. You then drive away with a plastic bag filled with junk food packed in neat little styrofoam boxes that will take 500 years to disintegrate, causing even more damage to the environment (I'm serious about the styrofoam. Look it up on Google).
Visitors must wonder why Oman's most popular tourist destination has no decent restaurants. With hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, you would figure we'd have more restaurants than Muscat! It's a mystery; even to those of us living here.
The café situation is even worse. We have one decent café with a lovely family section that serves many kinds of instant coffee with fancy names disguised as real coffee. It's the only place in town where you can have a cup of coffee with a friend. Need I remind you that Salalah is the second largest city in Oman? Perhaps we deserve a little more than one café?
Without even having to study the market, there's obviously a need in Salalah for decent franchise restaurants and cafes. Hanging out in cafes is a trend in Dhofar, as many of you know. Anyone would make a fortune by opening up a Costa or Second Cup in Salalah. A fortune! Why not an Italian restaurant on the beach or Darcy's Kitchen in a coconut grove with a cute family section? A little creativity could go a long way. All we want, really, are nice venues with decent food, good service, and a family section. In a conservative society like Salalah where women aren't generally keen on eating in front of strange men, catering to the locals isn't as difficult as it seems. Smart restaurant owners should provide private family areas where women can remove their face veils and enjoy a relaxing dinner with their friends and families. Locals and tourists from the GCC are definitely willing to pay. Wake up businessmen of Oman! You're missing out on huge opportunities here!
On a more positive note, our new commercial tourist complex 'Salalah World' will be opening up in the near future. Rumor has it that in addition to the cinema and bowling alley, there will be a franchise café that serves real coffee. Keep your fingers crossed, everyone!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Great Divide: Bridging the Generational Gap

Published: October 27, 2009 - Muscat Daily

My neighbors are one of the nicest couples I've known. The mother and father grew up in the enchanting mountains of Dhofar. They both moved down to the town when they were adults and both did not complete their education. In fact, they still raise animals in the mountains during the monsoon and speak the local mountain dialect at home. They know about the hard way of life and they appreciate life's small pleasures like electricity and running water.
Their youngest child is 14 years old. She has 2 cell phones, a television and a laptop in her bedroom. In her spare time she watches American sitcoms, MTV and Dr. Phil. At least three hours of her day are dedicated to internet forums and chatrooms. She also swears a lot…. in English.

Is it just me or has something struck you as 'not quite right' up there? I call it 'The Great Divide'. I should have said 'their youngest granddaughter is 14'. Needless to say, her parents barely know how to use a cell phone, let alone a computer. She, of course, takes full advantage of their ignorance. They think she's on the computer 'studying' when she's actually chatting to guys twice her age online. You shouldn't be surprised; this is happening in Dhofar and all over Oman, whether parents are aware of it or not. Watching these rapid changes is scary, even for me! (I was a teenager no more than four years ago). I used to read, sew, paint, play Monopoly and hang out with friends at the park. These activities are considered so 'not-cool' among teens today. I'm not saying the gap is a bad thing. I'm just saying perhaps it happened too fast, and it should be tackled properly in order to prevent it from affecting our society and getting out of control.

Digital media, computers, mobile phones and the internet have been a taken-for-granted part of most young people's upbringing and environment. Many rely on technology not just to keep in touch, but as a way of developing their identities and socializing. Technology can play a positive, productive and creative part of young people's activities, development and social participation. It can also cause serious problems starting with the fact that most teens may be living in a virtual unrealistic world, and are forgetting what it's like to be normal human beings. They're not interested in local traditions, family, religion, etc, which is sad. Are we going to allow Omani and Islamic values to be lost with this generation?

Forgive me if I'm being too harsh, but I don't like fast change. I know it happens all over the world, but I find it exceptionally disturbing in Oman. Computer savvy kids freak me out. Period. I don't want a nine-year-old teaching me how to switch languages on my blackberry, nor do I want to see 16 year-old Omani girls worrying about the dating scene on 'Friends', a juvenile American sitcom.

Most parents in Oman do not understand computers, let alone the dangers the internet imposes on their kids. It's confusing enough growing up in our world, especially for young people. It's even harder when your parents have no idea what you're going through.

Get those television sets and laptops out of your children's bedrooms. Not understanding the internet does not justify neglecting to monitor what they're doing online and what they're being exposed to. Pay attention to what your kids are doing/watching. Become involved in their lives. Keep tabs on them. Figure out fun activities that don't involve being glued to a monitor. Wake up!

Oman is such an amazing country. I believe that if we work hard to tame the current generation of young people, they'll grow up to be intelligent individuals who are able to find the perfect balance between the traditional and the modern ways of life.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why Don't Young Omanis Read?

Published: October 13, 2009 - Muscat Daily
Last week I was sitting in my car in front of a tailor in the middle of Salalah waiting for my sister when a car pulled up beside me (a shiny blue Lexus if you really must know). Several women got out and set off in different directions. The driver was a young Omani man, perhaps in his early twenties. I thought to my self, ‘Oh boy, he’s going to spend the next half hour staring at me’, but lo and behold, he turned around, bent over into the backseat, and picked up a novel. He was already halfway through the book. I was so stunned that I ended up doing the starting instead. Why was I so surprised? It shouldn’t be uncommon for someone to read a book during long waits in the car, right? Wrong. In Oman, it is very uncommon. Most Omanis have not quite grasped the concept of reading for pleasure.
I’ve always wondered why Omanis in general aren’t interested in books. Obviously one of the reasons would be that the older generation in Oman (i.e. most parents) are either illiterate or did not complete their education, and thus most young Omanis have grown up without a tradition of reading at home. Furthermore, our educational system in Oman does not encourage independent thinking & creativity, nor does it encourage reading. Books are also not easily available in Oman and are not marketed properly. Finally, I tend to believe that Omani writers do not receive enough support, but that’s my personal opinion.
People who read in English are blessed with Borders bookstore in Muscat, but what about the rest of Oman? Our bookstores in Salalah host an insufficient selection of reference books, tourist books, and occasionally a novel or two. There are hundreds of excellent writers in our world whose books have been translated into Arabic. Take Chilean author Isabel Allende for example; I’ve met several Omanis who have read her translated books in Arabic. I tend to immediately ask where they found her books and inevitably their answer will be Dubai or Lebanon. Why not Oman? Sometimes we can’t even find books by Omani authors.
We live in an age where technological toys such as television and the internet entertain us on a 24/7 basis. Books require dedication and discipline, two words that are not popular in our leisure-loving society. Most young Omanis waste a lot of their time on Facebook, chat rooms and internet forums. I cannot deny the fact that internet forums host excellent discussions a lot of the time, but is that even considered reading? The internet can never replace books.
Reading involves greater levels of concentration. It increases our hunger for knowledge and encourages us to think, feel, analyze, and wonder. I won’t even start discussing the impact reading has on language skills. The habit can become a healthy addiction. Research has shown that avid readers have higher IQs and tend to do better in school and in their careers. Need I say more? People who do not read regularly are missing out on so much.
I’ve seen the reading issue discussed endlessly among young people and on the internet in Oman, but instead of criticizing and complaining, why not think of a proactive approach to get young Omanis to read more? In Western countries kids usually read entire novels at home as part of their English class requirements. Why not start up a campaign in schools to get kids to read more? If you’ve got kids at home, for heaven’s sake read to them. It is very important to inculcate the habit of reading and the love for books from an early age. You can get kids into the habit of reading bedtime stories. Be creative. It will make them better analyzers and problem solvers. They will do better in school and it will help them later on in life. Guaranteed.