Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Iftar on the Peace Boat

Published August 31, 2010
Last week one of my friends called me up at work and shouted excitedly into the receiver 'Do you want to have Iftar on a Japanese ship at Salalah Port?' Not one to turn down such an interesting opportunity, I immediately agreed without asking for any more details. As it turned out, I had been invited as part of a group of young Omanis from Salalah who would be meeting a delegation of Japanese intellectuals on the internationally renowned 'Peace Boat', a cruise ship known for its round-the-world voyages to support global peace and human rights. As a tribute to the Sultanate's reputation as a peaceful nation, Salalah is the only port where the ship made a stop in the Arabian Gulf. It left Japan during early August and will be visiting ports in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Latin America before its return to Japan in October.
On Friday, August 20th, the selected group of Omani representatives (mostly Dhofar University students) congregated at the University, nervously awaiting the arrival of our Japanese guests, and hungry after many hours of fasting. We had several hours to go before breaking the fast at sunset and we stood around worrying that we wouldn't be fully 'compos mentis' during the exchange! Just then, a huge bus pulled up in front of the University gates.

The first thing I noticed is how neatly the Japanese descended from the bus, one by one, each nattily dressed, and each one with a backpack and camera in hand. Many of them were already sporting Omani turbans, caps, and dishdashas, even though they had only been in the port for a short time. They bowed in greeting. Unsure of how to respond we bowed too; then everyone burst out laughing. And that was the beginning of a very intense cultural exchange between Oman and Japan! During the next few hours (and despite the language barriers), we were privileged to meet Hiroshima survivors, listen to them tell us about what had happened on that fateful day and feel the effect of their tragic tales. They then patiently taught us how to make 'origami', or beautiful paper cutouts, and how to wear kimonos (traditional Japanese dress), and we observed Japanese dances and rituals.

It was absolutely fascinating. In exchange, we explained in detail about what Ramadhan means to us, and told them about Omani dress, our culture, Islam, our food, etc. The Omani males in our group taught them some traditional dances and we burnt frankincense for them and taught them some simple Arabic words (while we were all learning as much Japanese as we could at the same time!).
After the planned activities, including a tour of the new Dhofar University campus, we all piled into buses and headed for the famous Peace Boat, where we were taken on a tour and shown how it all works. To our surprise, we were informed that there were one thousand Japanese onboard, ranging in age from 3 to 93 years old! The Iftar itself (the breaking of the fast) was even more interesting. Never in my life had I expected to break the fast with chopsticks! We were able to experience several Japanese dishes, including seaweed!
Everything about the whole exchange exceeded our expectations. Every minute of our five-hour trip was planned so carefully. Since we Omanis are known for our inability to be punctual, it was charming to see how particular our Japanese friends were about following the exact timetable they had put together for us, weeks before. Truly, it was a wonderful experience, and I'm sure several of my fellow Omani delegates are eager to visit Japan in the very near future. I know I am!

1 comment:

  1. What a nice experience and quite a contrast, lucky you. I’ve never managed chopsticks and with their trains running to the second (or else public apologies over the train station speakers) couldn’t attempt to deal with their tight scheduling. I hope they came away with a bit of Oman in their heart.