Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Preparing for the Big Day in Salalah

Published February 16, 2010 - Muscat Daily

Every town in Oman has its own set of characteristics that makes it unique. Living in Salalah has its charms but I think it's safe to say that weddings are probably the most stressful aspect of life here. In fact, they're so stressful that I'm going to have to dedicate this entire article to wedding preparations alone.
A couple of days ago I was talking to a friend whom I hadn't spoken to since she graduated from university six months ago. I asked her if she'd found a job yet and her response was 'I can't look for a job.. My brothers are getting married in August'. No, you don't have to check your calendar. It is indeed February 16th. So why do people need to spend a year preparing? Aren't weddings supposed to be simple, happy occasions? Not in Salalah!
I think we've reached the highest peak of wedding insanity in this town. After securing a bride, young men (regardless of whether they have a good salary or even a job) are expected to pay anywhere from five thousand to fifty thousand rials as a dowry to the bride and her family. Some families demand gold in addition to the dowry. Once the dowry part is over, the groom spends long weeks and months worrying about preparing the bridal suite - normally a five-star bedroom and bathroom in his family's house. Many families refurnish their entire house for the celebration. The women in the groom's family will often take over the whole process of selecting the best tiles, the most expensive carpets, glittery gypsum, curtains, and furniture. The man is left to pay the accumulated bills. The main purpose of all this is simply to impress relatives and guests. Quite often both the bride and the groom end up hating the décor in their bedroom (over which they've had no say). 
Meanwhile, as the women work on the suite, the man is busy trying to figure out how many cows or camels need to be slaughtered for the men's and women's separate celebrations (usually held over a period of two days), which restaurant will cook the food, which hotel or wedding house will host the women's part of the wedding, how many people will attend, and how much it'll all cost. Overall, if we add up the dowry and wedding costs, I'm guessing a young man can spend up to 50,000 rials just to get married.
The bride's side of the story is even more bizarre. As soon as the wedding date is set, most young women go into a 'beautifying' frenzy. This can involve months of whitening, softening, fattening and other preparations. Salalah still believes in the concept of 'fattening the bride for marriage'. A common trick is to drink a potion made containing ghee, brown sugar, cinnamon and milk three times a day. A bride spends months buying 'necessary' items for her trousseau - thousands of rials worth of velvet, silk, abayas, lingerie, makeup, perfumes, frankincense, watches, bags and shoes. Most brides are kept in hiding at home for at least a month before the wedding because being 'seen' at that point is still taboo for many families. Just before the wedding, many families invite relatives to view the bride's trousseau, which is laid out in the majlis to impress guests.
When did this all become the norm? These aren't 'our' wedding traditions from the past. They just aren't. What they are is a reflection of how we as a society have adapted to the modern world. Since when was marriage about getting into terrible debt and spending your life's savings (if you have any) just to impress people? What happened to the idea of opening a new page with your spouse and starting a new life, young and free? Weddings are so stressful and expensive that families have started marrying off two or three (or even more) sons on the same day to cut costs. Smart move.
Don't get me wrong here. Not every family is falling into this societal trap. I know some people who are trying to break away from these materialistic insanities, and I salute them for trying. But have many succeeded? Not really. After having observed the results of too many ostentatious weddings, I encourage couples to start out simple. You won't regret it. In the end, nobody's going to remember the how many perfumes you had on display or how much you spent on the bathroom tiles!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sugar Shortage Shock: A Good Thing!

Published February 2, 2010 - Muscat Daily
We often walk into our local supermarket and find that a certain item we're looking for like creamy peanut butter or soy milk is missing. We grumble, get the rest of our groceries, and leave while making a mental note to buy that item the next time we're in town. A couple of days ago I walked into one of the main supermarkets in Salalah and heard a lot of commotion at the back. I moved closer to hear what all the fuss was about. Turns out the store was out of sugar. Not a surprise considering the fact that there is a global sugar shortage due to bad weather affecting production in Asia.
There were several very upset customers. There was shouting and lots of complaining. I left the store thinking about why the lack of sugar would cause such an uproar. I could live without sugar, but for most people down here in the South, sugar is a staple. In fact, if I were to summarize the diet of most locals here it would consist of mainly sugary red tea, milk, rice, ghee, meat, chicken, fish, white bread, and Mountain Dew. It's no secret that people here aren't big on fresh fruit, vegetables, or any other type of healthy food. In fact, it's no secret at all that we probably have the worst eating habits in the whole of Oman. Every family I know has at least one or two people suffering from obesity, diabetes, blood pressure, and/or heart disease. I hate to think about the statistics.
Why don't we pay more attention to our health? Doctors have been preaching for years, children are taught about healthy habits in school, TV programs broadcast it every day. It's a mystery why locals refuse to listen. Our schools continue to sell salty potato chips, sugary drinks, and chocolate bars to our children. Hospital food continues to be basically less than healthy. New fast food restaurants are opening up on a frighteningly regular basis. Last, but not least, locals continue to eat rice, ghee, and animal protein at least once a day. This is bad food combining. The level of consumption of fruit and vegetables is so minimal per person, it is not really worth mentioning.
Not so long ago (but definitely before the 1970's), people in the South used to work from sunrise to sunset with their animals, or they would have been out fishing or working on their plantations. Red meat was a rare commodity (slaughtering took place on special occasions only), and so was sugar. They ate what they could get: beans, fish, milk, vegetables and fruit grown locally, etc. They were slim and very strong. The moment living conditions improved, eating habits changed. Rice and meat became available on a regular basis. So did sugar, tea, bread, cheese, white flour and other simple commodities. People started moving into town, driving cars, hiring servants, getting sedentary jobs and worst of all, setting up the satellite dish television as the focal point of interest in the house.
Somehow, over the past 30 years we developed an unhealthy lifestyle and the eating habits to go with it. Somehow, it became acceptable to have rice and meat dripping in ghee twice a day. The really bizarre thing is that, somehow, after all these years during which we could have changed our habits, slaughtering, or at least eating meat is still the main activity on special occasions. And now, it's not just the special' occasions, it's basically all occasions. No picnic is complete without meat, no family visit is possible without meat. For a group of men (all suffering from at least one each of the terrible health conditions I mentioned above) to go on a 3 or 4 day 'picnic' and take anything other than red meat as their staple, along with their bag of sugar for their tea would be unthinkable, and in fact, embarrassing.

I take hope in the fact that there are a few (yes, and I hope the number grows fast) people who are realizing that the game is up. They have watched close members of their family suffer through years of diabetes or repeated heart operations, and somewhere in the backs of their minds, they are aware of the repeated chorus from doctors, well meaning people and television: "brown bread, vegetables, fruit, no fat, no sugar, no red meat". I pray that the shock of many families as they search for and don't find sugar will force them to see that maybe they don't need it, and in fact feel a lot better without it. And from there, they might just begin to listen to those who know better and who are desperate to help before it's too late.