Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Salalah Shuffle

Anyone who flies Oman Air regularly between Salalah and Muscat will immediately know what I’m talking about. Someone had to write about it eventually. It’s just too comical to ignore.

Last week I was in Muscat and on my last day I had to attend an all-day meeting then immediately head to the airport to catch my flight back to Salalah. By the end of the day, I was exhausted and looking forward to a smooth flight home.

I checked in early to make sure I was guaranteed a window-seat, and the woman at the business class counter cheerfully confirmed she had secured it for me. I thanked her profusely and headed off to the superb Oman Air business class lounge; one of the perks of being a loyal Sindbad Silver member.

If my air miles were credited to my account accurately, I’d probably be Gold by now, but I don’t mind. I’m a pretty content flyer as long as I get my window seat. Did I already mention that?

When I reached the designated gate for my flight, my heart began to sink. I counted at least 20 veiled women waiting at the gate. This could only mean one thing; The Salalah Shuffle was bound to happen. Despite my intense prayers as we boarded the flight, luck wasn’t on my side that night. A very large veiled woman was planted firmly in my seat when I arrived.

I sighed and handed the cabin crew member my boarding pass. Without batting an eye, she directed me to an aisle seat a few rows down. I told her I had specifically requested a window seat but she repeated again that I had to move to the aisle seat.

I gritted my teeth and settled down in the new seat. I didn’t bother putting my bags up in the overhead bins because I knew I’d be shuffled at least one more time before the flight took off.

Within a few minutes, a tired looking man arrived and informed me that I was sitting in his seat. I stood up and apologised, explaining my situation. He nodded and confirmed that he was familiar with the Salalah Shuffle.

After consulting a cabin crew member again, I was shifted to yet another seat. By this time, all hell had broken loose on the flight. There were stubborn women blocking the aisles because they refused to sit next to any strange man. Other women had simply taken over empty seats and refused to move, as was the case with my precious window seat.
Honourable men jumped up from their seats and swore they’d give them up for any woman. Frustrated tourists were trying to understand what was going on. Cabin crew members were frantically trying to seat and re-seat everyone so the flight could take off on time.

And that my friends, is the Salalah Shuffle.

After being moved three times, I was finally assigned a middle seat at the back of the plane between two annoying people who hogged the arm rests the entire flight. Boy was I glad to get home that night!

If you’re not familiar with the Salalah Shuffle and think I’m exaggerating, rest assured that I’m not. I have been on over 35 flights between Salalah and Muscat in the past twelve months. If I’m not qualified to write about this, then I don’t know who is. I am a survivor. With every flight from Muscat to Salalah I am prepared for the inevitable chaos that will surely ensue.

Sometimes I’ll be settled in my seat when a cabin crew member will approach me and beg me to change seats because a stubborn woman somewhere is refusing to sit next to a man and somehow I look like a friendly person who doesn’t mind switching seats.

Most of the time I’m happy to oblige because I feel sorry for the flight’s cabin crew. The Salalah Shuffle is a bigger nightmare for them than it is for people like me.

You may be thinking cabin crew should just be stricter with their arrangements. That’s true. However, when an elderly woman (or several!) has taken over someone else’s seat and refuses to move, how do you deal with a situation like that?

You can’t delay the flight or force her to move. It simply doesn’t work. Shuffling and re-shuffling passengers is extremely frustrating and a complete waste of time. Furthermore, for security reasons I assume it’s important to have people seated in their designated seats.

Why not look for a win-win situation? Society in Salalah is still very conservative and I fully understand women’s hesitation to sit next to a strange man. My humble suggestion to Oman Air at this point is to unofficially dedicate the back few rows of every flight between Salalah and Muscat to women. Surely that can’t be too hard, right?

Whenever a woman checks in, send her to the back. It’s the same as dedicating the first row to women with babies. There’s a logical solution to any problem, and as far as I’m concerned the Salalah Shuffle has gone from being deeply amusing to plain annoying. Makes you wonder how Saudi Arabian airlines function!

Published December 20, 2011 - Muscat Daily

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Monotonous Ribbons

PS (I wrote this immediately after the ridiculous women's event I attended. I was furious. And yes the guest of honor yet again was the Minister of State, HE Sheikh Mohammed Marhoon Al Mamari)

It all started when I was six years old. My first grade teacher would excitedly announce to the class that our school was having an event.

We would be forced to make posters and tidy up our classroom to impress a certain guest of honour who would be visiting our school. A makeshift stage would be set up, speeches would be written, and trash would frantically be collected from the school grounds.

Someone with wasta would contact Oman TV and beg them to send a cameraman to document 'the event'. Someone else would contact the newspapers and ask them to send reporters.

The guest of honour in most cases would be an Omani man, usually between forty to fifty-five years of age. He was almost always a senior government official, be it the Minister of State or the local municipality head.

He would arrive dressed in a crisp dishdasha, khanjar (dagger) and holding a fancy walking stick. The prettiest girl in class was usually chosen to hold the cushion on which lay a pair of shiny new scissors which His Excellency would use to cut the red ribbon at some student exhibition that was put together mostly by teachers.

He would nod and smile as students nervously explained the projects and posters their teachers had made to impress the guest of honour. After a quick tour and obligatory photographs, he would be rushed out by his entourage and it would all be over.

Did the event accomplish something? Was it organised? Not really. However, it didn't really matter as long as we made it to the second or third page of the newspaper the next day.

In college and high school, student clubs would snooze all year and then there would be a sudden burst of activity when the administration announced an 'event'. These events involved the usual red ribbons, long pointless speeches in flowery Arabic, tired dignitaries, and many exhibitions put together in a hurry to please the chosen guest of honour.

A few days later, an awards ceremony would be held to honour the students who participated in the frantic assembly of pointless exhibitions for the first event. The ceremony of course included the obligatory checklist of Omani red-ribbon protocol in addition to cheap gifts wrapped in shiny Christmas-theme wrapping paper.

Twenty years later, I'm still trying to figure out why we continue to organise such events. They involve no creativity or passion, and most certainly no humour at all. I mean, heaven forbid should we ever make our guest of honour laugh, right?

To me, these occasions fall under the category of 'Omani Red Ribbon Events' .i.e., events with lots of pomp and ceremony but very little content. Over the years, I'm pretty sure I have attended over one hundred events of similar nature, and on every single occasion I ask myself 'why am I here?' I know not all Omani events are as boring as my description, but almost 99 per cent of the ones I've attended were.

A couple of weeks ago on the occasion of National Day I was invited to attend an event honouring women from Dhofar. The invitation card stated that one hundred women from this part of the country would be honoured for their achievements and contributions to society.

I put on a fancy abaya, grabbed my notebook and pen and headed to the event. For the first time ever, I was actually excited to attend an Omani red-ribbon event.

I arrived at the venue and was immediately told I couldn't go in through the main door because women went in through the side entrance. I thought that was a little odd considering the fact that the event honoured powerful women.

Nevertheless, I didn't make a scene and quietly moved myself to the side entrance. In the gender-divided ballroom, I managed to find myself a seat with a good view of the stage and the audience.

As we waited for latecomers to arrive, I was able to survey my surroundings. Over a hundred male guest officials looking uncomfortable in their khanjars, tired looking cameramen, and the familiar table with a mountain of gifts wrapped in shiny gift-wrap.

Nearly an hour later, the guest of honour arrived with his entourage and took his seat in front of the stage. The first five-minute speech felt like an hour. The second speech felt like ten hours. People began to play with their phones and stare at the ceiling. I began to lose hope.

When the final speech ended, I clapped half-heartedly along with everyone else and waited for the exciting part. When the master of ceremonies finally appeared with a list of names and the guest of honour was invited onto the stage, I sat upright.

The first name was read, then the next, and people began to turn around and look at each other in confusion. It finally hit me that they were going to quickly read out a list of names without indicating who the women were and what they had done to deserve the award.

The names were being read so fast that at one point there were about ten women congregated in front of the tiny stage trying to figure out whose turn it was. After about eighty names, it was abruptly announced that the event organisers were handing the guest of honour a trophy.

Camera flashes went off and reporters gathered around the stage. Before the forgotten twenty women or so could object, dinner was announced and everyone stood up. One of the organisers unapologetically told our table that someone had lost the last page of names. Disappointed, I left the event.

Despite the event being wrong on so many levels, there was plenty of media coverage over the next few days as expected and the event was even featured on the news!

Till today, I have not been able to discover who those women were and what their contributions were to society. Perhaps I'll never know. What I do know is that the event was a replica of all the other pointless events I have attended over the years. If you want to renew my faith in Omani event management, invite me to something interesting. La fin.

Published December 6, 2011 - Muscat Daily

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Oman's Pride: The Royal Opera House

Think you’ve read enough Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM) reviews these past few weeks? Well, here’s one more. Rest assured that this will probably be the only opera house column from my end of the country this year.

In 2001, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said - a lover of classical music - ordered the building of an opera house in Oman. At the time, it all seemed like a farfetched dream. Ten years later, his vision became a reality.

Before I elaborate further, keep in mind that I'm a devotee of classical music and arts as well. Just a few months ago I thought I was beyond privileged to see Swan Lake at the Royal Opera House in London.

Little did I know that before the novelty could wear off, I would be in possession of tickets to Swan Lake here in Oman, performed by none other than the famed Russian Mariinsky Ballet! In my own country! Only one hour by plane from my home in Salalah. That’s only 12 hours by bus, ten by car or nine days by camel, depending on your preferred method of travel. It’s a dream come true.

During my visits to Muscat in the past three years or so, I'd drive by the ROHM construction site and my heart would skip a beat from sheer excitement. The day the tickets went on sale in September and it was revealed that world-renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli would be performing, I went online and almost had a nervous breakdown because the payment page didn't appear to be working. I couldn't just stroll into the box office because I live at the other end of the country.

I frantically tried the hotline and e-mail address provided on the ROHM website, but received no answer. They were overwhelmed with requests. I finally begged a friend living in Muscat to buy the tickets for me and after he posted them safely in the mail, he was promised they'd arrive within three days. Three weeks went by and my mailbox remained empty.

Oman Post had lost my tickets to the sold-out Bocelli concert (and you thought Najma al Zidjaly was the only Muscat Daily columnist with a Bocelli sob story?). My friend had to go back to the box office and get the tickets re-printed. Two weeks after I received the newly printed and couriered tickets, the old ones arrived in the mail. Do the math. It took over five weeks for a small envelope to reach Salalah from Muscat.

My story didn't end at that. The day of the performance just happened to coincide with tropical cyclone warnings. My mother, brother and I were scheduled to fly up to Muscat on the day of the performance. As we drove towards Salalah airport, the palm trees lining the highway were bent backwards from the force of the wind and I started getting calls from people warning me that flights may be cancelled due to bad weather. With the performance only a few hours away, we began to lose hope.

Our flight finally took off and we landed in Muscat only to discover that the bad weather had followed us up north. It was pouring and we were stuck in the world's worst traffic jam. Despite the drama, we reached our destination on time. All I can say is that the venue was incredible, the atmosphere was surreal and the performance was mind-blowing. Not only did Bocelli come back for several encores, but also received seven standing ovations. The whole experience was everything I'd hoped for, and more.

All in all, I am so proud of the progress Oman has made over the past few decades and the balanced choices we continue to make when it comes to development. Some people I know who were involved in the protests and sit-ins earlier this year claim they're boycotting the opera house because they believe the money spent on the project could have been used to fulfil more of their demands.

To me, that is ridiculous. First of all, most of their major demands were fulfilled almost immediately. The remaining demands were either irrelevant or need more time to be studied. Furthermore, the ROHM project was launched in 2001, and it would be insane to stop in the final stages because a group of guys protesting on a roundabout want their debts cancelled. As harsh as my words may seem, that's the reality of it.

As far as I'm concerned, the opera house will take tourism in Oman to a whole new level, thus boosting our economy and providing more jobs to Omanis. Isn't that what we want?

Furthermore, Omanis will be introduced to the best of the world's classical arts, and hopefully the world will also be introduced to the very best of Oman. As an Omani, I'd rather have an opera house here than mega shopping malls and skyscrapers.

ROHM is going to put Oman on the map in a completely different and very positive way. Just in the few weeks since the launch of the opera house, we've made it to Lonely Planet's top ten places to visit in 2012, as well as National Geographic Traveller's top 20 destinations for next year. And that's just the beginning!

The inaugurating season features world class talents like Andrea Bocelli, Renee Fleming, Placido Domingo and the Mariinsky Ballet. According to recent articles, the ROHM also promises to nurture and cultivate local talents.

If that's true, then it will become a centre for bridging cultures and fostering understanding. Music and arts have the potential to unite people regardless of their nationality or religion. There are no boundaries with the arts. It’s something most people on this planet can relate to. To sum things up, the ROHM is truly an inspiration, and I'm looking forward to the second part of the season!

Published November 22, 2011 - Muscat Daily

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Maniacs Galore

A couple of days ago I was driving through downtown Salalah as usual, on my way home from work. As I neared a major intersection, a 25 seater bus passed me dangerously on the left in order to speed through the intersection before the lights changed.

I could tell from a mile off that there was no way either of us would make it and as I predicted the bus braked suddenly at the lights and slowed down. When I drove up, I noticed the bus was full of small children in school uniform. Some had their arms and heads hanging out of the huge open windows and others were hanging out of the door.

I thought I must be hallucinating, so when the light turned green I followed the bus through town until it slowed down to let a couple of kids off. To my utter astonishment and horror, the idiot behind the wheel was driving with the bus door wide open. A child who looked no more than six years old was sitting on the fold-out chair right in front of the door.

One tiny accident or even an encounter with a rough speed bump and that child would have been tossed out of the bus. I felt nauseated, so I pulled over but the bus sped off just as I was taking down its details. I called the emergency hotline and the efficient ROP officer who answered after the first ring told me to write down the licence plate number and file a complaint at the nearest police station.

I have seen thousands of maniacs on the road in my short four years as a driver, but that school bus driver takes the cake for utter recklessness and stupidity. After consulting with family members, I decided to first find out which school the bus belongs to. Salalah is a decent-sized town but I'm pretty sure I'll be able to locate the bus. Once I find out, I will pay the school principal a visit and then report the driver to the police depending on the outcome of my visit. I won't let this rest until I make sure those innocent children's safety is addressed.

Do you think I'm over-reacting? Unfortunately, I have seen enough car accidents and corpses these past few years to last me a lifetime. A couple of years ago I was in Muscat for a photography workshop. Just after sunrise, I was standing at my hotel room window trying to get a shot of the mountains when I noticed through my viewfinder a little blue car going at an insane speed down the road.

The car hit the kerb, flipped over six times and crashed a few metres away from my window. The body of a young man flew out of the car and landed in a heap on the sidewalk. Clearly hadn’t bothered fastening his seatbelt that morning. As people ran out of nearby shops and restaurants to help, I just stood there feeling numb and continued pressing the shutter button. It was all I could do.

For an hour, I stood there taking shot after shot. I watched as the restaurant owner checked for a pulse and shook his head. I watched as the police and ambulance arrived. I watched as they loaded the corpse into the ambulance and as the father of the young man arrived and identified the body. I watched as he stumbled out of the ambulance and covered his face with both his hands, sobbing.

The police officer touched his shoulder gently and offered condolences. I watched as the ambulance drove off and as he gathered his son's things from the car. I watched him leave just as the tow truck was arriving to take what remained of the car away. The last shot I took was of the municipality cleaner in orange uniform sweeping up the shards of broken glass from the sidewalk. All it took was an hour and life on that street went back to normal…except for me. All I could feel was a deep emptiness. I had watched someone die.

Since that day, my driving has never been the same. Every time I leave the house, I prepare to die. Pessimist? Not really. I'm just being realistic. I'm a very careful driver and I never speed, but apparently that doesn't matter here. No matter how careful you are in Oman, there are enough maniacs on the road to ensure your chances of getting killed on your way to work are high.

I see a car accident at least twice a week during rush hour. I also spot at least five or six people talking on the phone while out driving at any given time. As for speeding, I won't even begin to count the number of speed-crazed delinquents who cross my path every day. The number of road accidents in Oman has been increasing at an alarming rate. Every year hundreds of people die in car accidents, but people just don’t seem to get it.

When are Omanis going to wake up and realise how many lives they endanger every day with their reckless driving? We need higher fines and a strict point system where drivers lose their driving licence temporarily or permanently depending on the number of points in their traffic offence record. Road safety is a collective responsibility. From time to time I look at those photos to remind myself of the fragility of life. I’ve had my wakeup call. What about you?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Enchanting Mirbat

A couple of weeks ago a seminar titled ‘Mirbat Throughout History’ was held at Marriott Resort just outside of the town of Mirbat in Dhofar. The town and its surrounding valleys and villages can almost be referred to as Dhofar’s forgotten treasure. I’m pleased the seminar took place, though I don’t feel it received nearly enough media attention. None of my colleagues had even heard about it. I would have gone, but the town lies 80km east of Salalah and I wasn’t able to get time off work.

Mirbat has intrigued me and thousands of others I’m sure over the years. With its rich history, hidden mysteries and diverse geography, it deserves more attention than it actually gets. The wilayat of Mirbat is a haven for explorers, campers, hikers, fishermen, and divers. It is home to some of the most beautiful unspoiled white-sand beaches in the country and the bays are home to an incredible variety of marine life.

The caves of Mirbat with their pre-Islamic writings are fascinating and the Tawi Attir sinkhole and bird sanctuary which lies deep in the mountains behind the town is 112m deep and was featured a few years ago in National Geographic magazine. Every month during the full moon, hundreds of locals from Salalah head to Mirbat to camp on the beaches and enjoy the timeless feeling of the area.

The pre-Islamic archaeological site of Sumhuram (Khor Ruri) west of the town of Mirbat dates back to 4000BC. Inscriptions rec-ord that it was established by LL’ad Yalut to control the Dhofari frankincense trade. According to history, Indian seamen who brought cotton cloth, corn, and oil in exchange for incense over winter, waited for the favourable monsoon winds to take them home. The site has been open to the public for a few years and as of this year has its own little museum. On site are two temples and several locations where you can see ancient inscriptions in a language that appears to have branched from the Proto-Sinaitic alphabet in the ninth century BC.

In addition to frankincense trees, the mountains behind Mirbat gravity point are also home to a mysterious valley of rare and ancient baobab trees. Some baobabs are reputed to be many thousands of years old, which is difficult to verify, as the wood does not produce annual growth rings.

While driving through the mountains you are likely to come across camels, mountain goats, deer, wolves, and even the occasional hyena or two. I’ve seen strange creatures in those mountains that I have yet to identify!
The actual town of Mirbat is home to many crumbling yet still-inhabited buildings and old abandoned Yemeni-style mud-brick structures. 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta spoke of the town of Al Baleed being famous for the export of horses to India though in fact the horses were exported from Mirbat.

Bedouins brought their beautiful Arabian horses overland on ancient trade routes through the Empty Quarter to the coast. A statue of an Arab horse at full gallop is placed on each side of the road at the entrance to the town to commemorate its past. The word ‘Mirbat’ in Arabic means the place where horses are tethered.

The Battle of Mirbat - which took place in the monsoon of 1972 - was the beginning of the end of the Dhofar Rebellion. If you’re interested in more details, the battle has its own page on Wikipedia. According to historical texts, the town of Mirbat was also the first Islamic capital in Dhofar.

You can still find old Islamic graveyards on the outskirts of the town and shrines belonging to Islamic scholars from hundreds of years ago. Believe it or not, these shrines draw religious worshippers of different nationalities on a regular basis. I’ve always found grave ceremonies and sacrifices a little unsettling. If you've been to the tombs of Job or Bin Ali (both in Dhofar) on a Friday morning before prayers, you’ll know why!

Mirbat may seem like a magical timeless place right now, but don’t be fooled. The area as we know it is coming to an end. If you’ve been to the elegant Marriott Hotel just outside of the town of Mirbat, a quick scan of the humungous model in the middle of the lobby will give you goose bumps. The future of Mirbat lies in that plastic model. An RO1bn project covering 2mn sq m. The project includes hundreds of expensive villas, pools, five-star hotels, theme parks, clubs and a golf course. That is the future of Mirbat.

I have mixed feelings about westernised tourist resorts, especially when they land on a place as beautiful as Mirbat. Such developments may be catastrophic to the area. We’ve also been hearing rumours of a possible navy dock. Yet another project to take over what’s left of Dhofar’s natural beaches.

Since Oman is working so hard to promote tourism it seems totally insane to destroy the very things that make the country so beautiful and attractive. What Mirbat needs is a decent museum, a renovated souq, clear exploration paths and a little cultural regeneration ... not a nine-hole golf course!

If you plan to visit Salalah, take the time out to drive to Mirbat. Take a walk through the old houses and marina, and up to Mirbat Fort. Sit on the beautiful smooth rocks by the water with the seagulls and admire the clear blue ocean and the wooden dhows moored in the Arabian Sea. Try to capture the essence of this beautiful old town as we know it, for the winds of change are blowing our way!

Published October 11, 2011 - Muscat Daily

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The World of Shura

I'm an independent Omani female in my mid-twenties. I work with hundreds of people, I read the newspaper everyday and follow local news on Facebook and Twitter. I keep tabs on anything and everything interesting that goes on in Dhofar, and last but not the least, I'm a registered voter.

During the past few weeks, huge bulletin boards have been popping up around town at every major intersection and highway. All of them show photoshopped sullen looking Dhofari men in expensive turbans. If you get close enough, you'll see the person's name and about half a sentence about them. Majlis A'Shura elections are coming up in a few weeks and I will be casting my vote, but the question is...for whom? I only recognise three of the candidates!

Over the weekend, I decided to take my vote seriously and do a little research about those mysterious men on the bulletin boards. Who are they and what do they stand for? First of all, I found the Shura elections website through the Ministry of Interior. Most of the tabs on the website are inactive, but I could click on the final list of candidates. Lo and behold, there are over one thousand people running for Majlis A'Shura in Oman this year; and 32 of them are from Salalah! Is it just me, or is there something fundamentally wrong with having 32 final candidates running for two seats in a town as small as Salalah?

Next to the name and photo of each candidate, there's a link to their biographies, but clicking on it takes you to a blank error page. It's hard to believe that no one has bothered to upload candidates' resumes onto the website yet. On the same website, I found campaigning regulations, voting rules and other interesting information. I also discovered that pretty much anyone over the age of 30 can run for Majlis A'Shura if they're a sane Omani with a good reputation. (how the heck does one measure reputation?!)

After noting down the names of the candidates, I started searching online in Arabic and English for any information on them. Three hours and 17 candidates later, I gave up. Out of the 17, three had actually posted easy to find information online. One of them had a website, as well as accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Obviously, he'd done his campaigning homework before signing up.

What about the rest of them, though? After discussing it with several people, I've come to the conclusion that the remaining candidates are simply not interested in attracting strangers' votes. They're counting on their tribes to endorse them. I'm not sure how prevalent tribal power is in the North of Oman during Shura elections, but it's definitely the force behind elections down South. Believe it or not, in 2007, when the last elections were held, I didn't even bother finding out who all the candidates were. The men in my tribe held meetings with men from sister tribes, and after months of arguing, they all decided to endorse one candidate. I was driven to the election centre and told to vote for a certain individual. I did what I was told because I was a naive 21 year old. Today, I'm ashamed of myself for not even bothering to find out who I was voting for.

The only semi-valid excuse I can come up with in my defence is that Majlis A'Shura didn't mean much to many of us in the past because it served as a consultative authority only. However, after Oman's version of the Arab Spring earlier this year, things changed. When His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said reshuffled the cabinet of ministers, he appointed former Shura members as new ministers. Then came Royal Decree 39/2011 granting Majlis A'Shura legislative powers.

This council is the closest we will ever get to having a parliament in Oman, so it's time to take our votes seriously. First of all, shouldn't the long list of candidates be filtered before election day? I'm pretty sure there are candidates out there who should never have stepped forward in the first place.

I met one of the candidates this week and asked him how his campaign was going. He proceeded to lecture me on how he was running for office to protect our land and our tribe from the enemy. I stared blankly at him until he finished, then politely nodded and changed the subject.

As noble as his cause may be, it has nothing to do with the future of this country. Sadly, he's not the only candidate out there who has stepped forward for all the wrong reasons. These elections should be more than just a fight for tribal power. Candidates should be astute politicians who are able to think about where the economy is headed and what they can do to improve education, health, and job opportunities for Omanis. They should be addressing demographic issues, corruption, and so forth. Dare I suggest that the purpose of this election should be to have a public debate to discuss the future of Oman? In the wake of the recent protests, Omanis want more from our candidates. They also want more from Majlis A'Shura. People should be publicly discussing the new powers that the council is supposed to have possessed after Decree 39/2011.

Most of my peers are boycotting the elections simply because they don't believe in Majlis A'Shura. In a way, I don't blame them. How does one convince independent young Omanis to vote for an establishment that has no clear powers and its members seen as incompetent middle aged males picked by their tribes for all the wrong reasons? We have a long way to go before tribes stop controlling elections, but I’m optimistic about the future. Come mid-October, I'll be casting my vote and may the best man win!

Published September 27, 2011 - Muscat Daily

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Customer Services Woes

I like to think of myself as the ideal customer. I'm easygoing and I always make sure to thank all customer service representatives with a smile. When they're being rude or seem irritated, I assume they're probably having a bad day and I go out of my way to be even nicer. In supermarkets I smile at the employees who stock the shelves, I package my own bags, I thank the cashier, I wheel my groceries to the car, and I return the basket to the basket rack.
If a helpful employee insists on carrying my bags to the car, I tip them generously and make sure to thank them at least three times. If someone puts me on hold or keeps me waiting for a long time, I do not tap my fingers on the counter or complain loudly. I look outside and admire the clouds. I believe in the Golden Rule.
Every once in a while I come across a customer service representative or a cashier in Salalah who actually takes a second out of their time to smile back or say 'you're welcome' when I thank them. When such an incident occurs, quite often I'm so surprised it takes me a few seconds to react. Remember, this isn't Europe or North America where clerks usually want to chat about the weather.
I go out of my way to be extra polite to people every single time I walk into a store in Salalah. However, 99 per cent of the time I never get a response. I'm fine with that. I just continue doing what I'm doing hoping perhaps that one day, someone will smile back. Last week, however, I reached the end of my tether for a few moments. I debated whether to write about this, but the situation was so ridiculous that I decided I had to.
I walked into one of Salalah's major supermarkets after work last Monday, grabbed a basket at the door and proceeded to tick items off my shopping list. During my 8.5 minutes of shopping, an employee who was stocking shelves dropped a tin of hummus on my foot without apologising. I bit my tongue, picked it up, smiled at him, and placed it back on the shelf. At the vegetable counter, I thanked the person who priced my vegetables. No response. At the cashier, I let an irritated older man go first because I could see he was in a bad mood. The female cashier literally tossed my items at me as I packed my bags then she threw my receipt and change at me without looking. I thanked her but she ignored me. There was no one else in line, so she could have tilted her head just a little bit and responded, right? Wrong. She just had to go back to gossiping with her colleagues.
I placed my bags neatly in my basket and began wheeling it towards the door when I heard someone shouting loudly ‘Stop! Where are you going with the basket?' Along with several other people nearby, I stopped dead in my tracks and turned around. An Omani male employee wearing the store's uniform was marching towards me shouting that I am not allowed to take the basket one step further. I asked him patiently how he expected me to get my groceries to the car. He said 'this is the store's property. You are not allowed to take it out'.
I began to feel my blood pressure rising, so I informed him politely that I would wheel my groceries to my car, and then return the basket to the place I picked it up from. Seeing how irritated I had become, he tried to convince me that he was joking. By then a crowd had gathered to watch the argument, so I just wanted to get out of there. He tried to take the bags out of the basket and help me carry them but I just grabbed them and left. I haven't felt that angry in ages. What on earth was he thinking? Every single major supermarket on the planet lets you wheel your shopping basket out to the car, right? I don't care if he was serious or joking. All that matters is that he shouted at me in front of at least fifty people and accused me of doing something illegal.
I can handle crappy customer service most of the time, but as a human I'm allowed to complain every once in a while. Everyone knows that Oman is lagging far behind in the field of customer service. I know it’s not part of the culture to be friendly and nice to random people, but that has got to change. Banks, post offices and other service providers in Oman deserve an entire column of their own.
To be fair, not all of them are as bad as the guy at the supermarket. If I were a typical customer, I'd probably report him to his managers, tell my male relatives, and use all the wasta I can sum up to make sure he loses his job. Lucky for him, I’m not that difficult. I'll just stick to this column! If you deal with customers regularly, please go out of your way to be nice to them, and if you're a customer, please go out of your way to do the same to the cashier at your local supermarket. We're all human beings who need to be appreciated.
Note: my shopping cart story took place at Lulu Hypermarket Salalah, but I did not add that detail to my newspaper column. 
Published - Muscat Daily - September 13, 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Free Omani Journalist?

Interesting article on the cover of Muscat Daily this morning. 
Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has appealed to Oman to release a journalist on trial over an article he wrote alleging corruption in the Ministry of Justice.

RSF said it 'has written to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos (bin Said)... expressing deep concern at tomorrow's (Sunday's) trial of Yousef al Haj, a journalist with the Muscat-based daily Al Zaman, as a result of a complaint by the Minister of Justice Sheikh Mohammed al Hinai about (an) article published on 14 May’.

Haj was charged with 'insulting the Ministry of Justice, insulting the Minister and his Undersecretary, trying to create divisions within Omani society, violating article 60 of the civil code (the publications law) and working as a journalist without a permit', RSF said.

I know he was banned from writing, but I had no idea he was in jail (releasing him means he's arrested, right?).  I don't believe in openly accusing someone without all the facts, ... but also I am disappointed in the government's reaction to Yousef's column. If anyone has a link to the article he published on May 14, please pass it along.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ramadhan Kareem!

Published August 2, 2011 - Muscat Daily

On Sunday night, many Omanis settled down in front of Oman TV and waited for the moon-sighting committee’s verdict on whether Monday would mark the first day of the holy month of fasting or not. A little after 8pm, Ramadan was announced and thousands of congratulatory text messages flew back and forth between family members, colleagues and friends.

While astronomers can accurately confirm when the new crescent moon will be visible, Muslims prefer to be guided by a committee of Muslim scholars. The committee predicts when and where the crescent will be sighted, but the holy month of Ramadan only begins once the new moon has been spotted by the naked eye.

In time for Ramadan, the annual Salalah Tourism Festival ended a few days ago with a bang, and the last of the lavish local weddings took place on Thursday. Monsoon rains continue to fall as temperatures hover between 24 and 27°C.

Population-wise, it looks like many of the tourists aren’t going anywhere during Ramadan. According to an article I read recently, thousands of tourists from the GCC have booked their hotels and apartments in Salalah for Ramadan.

I suppose it makes a lot of sense to fast here this year. The days are shorter and unlike the rest of the GCC, the weather in Salalah is beautiful at this time of year.

Meanwhile on the local front, the classic mountains of Ramadan food are on display at all the major supermarkets to accommodate the needs of families who tend to eat exactly the same things year after year. Women spend hours in the kitchen everyday preparing an endless array of dishes to break the fast at sunset, most of which will be tossed out at the end of the night. Believe it or not, many people end up gaining weight during Ramadan, even though they fast for nearly 14 hours every day.

Ramadan is supposed to be a month of religious reflection, self-restraint and charity. However, for many Omanis, the holy month of fasting has become a month of sleeping all day, watching television and eating all night to avoid feeling any discomfort while fasting.

Many smokers I know take annual leave during Ramadan and sleep all day as well, to avoid the effects of nicotine withdrawal. Again, this totally contradicts the true spirit of the month. Sure, we pray, read the Q'uran and go to Taraweeh prayers at the mosque every night, but that doesn’t make up for all the unhealthy habits we maintain and all the time and food we waste.

I visited the Oman Charitable Organisation (OCO) donation camp in Salalah with my sister a couple of nights ago. As most of you know, the UN officially declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia a little under two weeks ago. This is the first time a famine has been declared by the UN in nearly 30 years.

Tens of thousands of people have died in the past few weeks, and humanitarian response to the crisis has been delayed by severe lack of funding. Of the nearly US$2bn that has been requested by humanitarian organisations, barely US$1bn has been committed.

The aim of the OCO campaign is to help in any way they can by providing food and funding for victims of the famine. The camp set up next to Aqeel Mosque in eastern Salalah – will remain open throughout the month of Ramadan.

They accept dry goods such as rice, noodles and milk powder for babies. Blankets, sheets and clothes that are in good condition are also accepted.

Instead of wasting time and food during Ramadan, get in touch with the organisation’s headquarters in Muscat or their camp in Salalah and see how you can help. Getting involved with something like that would truly bring out the spirit of Ramadan, don’t you think? Ramadan Kareem!

NOTE: Donations for Somalia will be accepted at the tent next to Aqeel Mosque in Eastern Salalah (off Al Montazah Road) throughout the month of Ramadan. For more information call: 
Ahmed 99492845

Mohammed 99492966
Abdullah 99696333
Said 99493100
Musallam 92334207
Mohammed 97187778
Ali 99283030

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Omani Journalist Banned from Writing. Really Oman?!

Can someone explain this to me please?

Human rights defender and journalist Mr Yousif Al-Haj is the subject of a criminal investigation and has been banned from writing or publishing articles by the Minister of Information since 8 July 2011.

The ban on writing stems from the publication of an article in which Yousif Al-Haj exposes the Minister of Justice and his Undersecretary for refusing to increase the salary and grade of a civil servant who has worked for the Omani State for a number of years. Yousif Al-Haj is a journalist with the Al-Zaman newspaper, and writes extensively on politics and social issues in Oman.

It is believed that the Public Prosecutor's Office advised the Minister for Information to issue the ban following the interrogation of Yousif Al-Haj on 5 July 2011. The ban is allegedly linked to the publication of an article on 14 May 2011 in which Yousif Al-Haj discusses the case of a civil servant who was refused an increase in his salary and grade by the Minister of Justice and his Undersecretary.

On 5 July 2011, Yousif Al-Haj received a phone call from the Public Prosecutor's Office ordering that he present himself immediately for questioning at the office regarding the publication of the aforementioned article. Because of such short notice, Yousif Al-Haj did not have sufficient time to call his lawyer, therefore there was no legal professional present during the interrogation.

Following the interrogation, Yousif Al-Haj was charged with: (1) Abusing the Minister of Justice and his Undersecretary; (2) Attempting to create a division in society; (3) Abusing the judiciary in Oman; (4) Violating the Publications and Publishing Law (Article 60); (5) Practicing a profession without a permit from the Ministry of Information. Yousif Al-Haj was not arrested, however he remains the subject of a criminal investigation. It is reported that during his interrogation, Yousif Al-Haj was threatened that he would be imprisoned because of the aforementioned article.

Yousif Al-Haj has been interrogated on three separate occasions in the past regarding other articles he has written, however this is the first time that a ban has been placed on him, prohibiting him from writing in future.

The designer of the Al-Zaman newspaper was also interrogated. When he stated that he was acting under orders given to him by the editor-in-chief, he was allowed to leave.

Front Line believes that the criminal investigation launched against, as well as the ban placed on, Yousif Al-Haj is solely a result of his legitimate work in the defence of human rights, in particular. his publication of articles that are critical of the Government.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Venturing Into The Unknown

                                                   (photo taken at Darhariz BeachFebruary 2011)
Published July 19, 2011 - Muscat Daily

On July 15, I lined up with hundreds of loyal Harry Potter fans outside a movie theatre complex in a faraway land waiting to watch the final Harry Potter movie on the day of its release.

I admit I have a soft spot for the best-selling book series, which brought joy and magic to millions and instilled a love of reading in children worldwide. For 14 years we read, we watched, we wondered and we waited for more.

As I stood in line, a young woman in a headscarf standing behind me asked where I was from. After hearing that I was from Salalah, she said she was Kuwaiti and that many of her friends had been to Salalah during the Khareef, but her family refused to go because Oman was famous for witchcraft and black magic.
It took me a few moments to fully comprehend what she had said before I could respond. Judging by the distance between our spot in line and the entrance to the theatre, I had about three minutes to clear my country's name.
First of all, Oman is not 'famous' for witchcraft. Yes, some Omanis from Bahla and Dhofar especially have been known to dwell in the dark arts, but in no way do they represent the rest of us. Many ignorant people out there tend to lump all our old healing traditions and superstitions under one label: Magic.
Can a woman who collects herbs and plants from the mountains of Dhofar to create traditional medicine be called a witch? No. The same applies to local healers who perform branding on sick people and bloodletting on local divers before abalone season. These ancient practices can be categorised as traditional medicine and are in no way linked to magic.
Moving on to local superstitions, I recently watched an interesting video on YouTube. The person filming was obviously hiding, and despite the low quality of the video, it was clear that an old woman was standing on Al Haffa Beach in Salalah chanting to the crashing waves of the ocean while her 'helper' was down on his knees in the water slaughtering a goat.
I did not find the video surprising at all. For thousands of years, people have been making sacrifices to the sea when it gets rough. In Salalah, many people continue to make such sacrifices when the monsoon starts in order to protect the town and our fishermen.
It's pure superstition, not black magic. It's also a dying tradition, performed only by members of the older generation who are afraid of what will happen if they stop.
Superstitious people from the mountains of Dhofar also make sacrifices to water springs when they dry up in hopes of hearing the sound of gushing water again.
Many Omani families burn frankincense at sunrise and sunset in order to ward off evil spirits, black eyeliner is often applied to new-borns to protect them from the evil eye, and naturally, black cats are believed to be associated with demons. Oman is full of superstitions – that's for sure – even though there is no place for superstitions in Islam.
As for witchcraft, people tell me there are witches in Salalah who can put spells on people and perform hexes, but I have yet to meet one. I'm told they lie low and avoid mingling with the public because everyone knows playing around with magic is forbidden in Islam.
Several years ago when I was taking driving lessons, my instructor forbade me from driving into a small neighbourhood nicknamed Salt Alley on the outskirts of Salalah because he claimed witches and bad spirits lived there. The reason it's called Salt Alley is that families throw salt in front of their doors to protect their homes from witchcraft.
The valley of Khor Ruri east of Salalah is known to locals as the valley of the witches, and I'd say 99 per cent of the people I know won't go anywhere near there. Again, that could be pure superstition.
I know of several people who travel to Bahla and Kenya in order to find experts who can break spells performed by local witches or sorcerers, but I've never actually followed up with anyone to see if it actually worked.
Quite often in Salalah, you hear of stories involving little bundles of animals' bones and verses written backwards found under newlyweds' beds, or the occasional unwound cassette tape surrounding someone's house, but such cases are rare.
Hexes may be true, but in many cases people can't distinguish between conditions like epilepsy and a curse. I knew a girl in school who was epileptic, and her parents took her to India in order to have an exorcism performed when all she needed was proper medical attention!
The aim of this week's column was not to judge or come to any conclusions on this subject, because there are no conclusions. I just felt the need to gently clarify some of our local traditions.
Personally, I think if you truly believe in the power of elements such as black magic, then you open yourself up to things that are best kept at bay. Stay away and you should be fine!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

ESO in Dhofar!

I'm sharing this from Dhofar Eco Bug because it's definitely worth spreading. The Environment Society of Oman are holding a meeting in Salalah next week. At the moment I'm out of the country, otherwise I'd go myself. If you're in Salalah next week, you should consider going. If you're teaching at one of the colleges or the university  in Salalah (H & E?) it may be  good to go in order to pick up some ideas on how to involve students.
"I am delighted to announce that ESO (Environment Society of Oman) are holding a meeting in Salalah for their Dhofar members. The meeting will take place on Monday 11th July from 5 - 7pm at the Port of Salalah Auditorium. I would strongly encourage all ESO members to attend and, if you're not already a member, why not come along anyway and join up that evening? Please confirm attendance by contacting Omar Al Riyami (ESO volunteering/membership manager)

I think this represents a great opportunity for us to get involved and hopefully create an active local group. There is often a tendency for all activity to be based in and around Muscat. Let's turn up in large numbers and show that Dhofar is committed to the environmental cause!"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


Published July 5, 2011 - Muscat Daily  (Photo from September 2010 - Darbat Valley)
Khareef is here at last. As the rest of Oman and the GCC melt in the soaring summer heat, the Dhofar region experiences something quite different.The first grey cloud appeared over Salalah in mid-June and as expected the heavy drizzle began on June 21, marking the beginning of the monsoon (khareef) season in Dhofar.

The heavy mist, gushing springs and emerald green mountains may look like tropical East Asia or even Scotland until you spot the first herd of camels grazing happily in a valley of wild flowers and butterflies. Sometimes it’s too good to be true, and it’s unbelievable to think that just a few hundred kilometres away lie the rolling sand dunes of the Empty Quarter.To others around the world the monsoon may seem like a mere change of seasons, but to the people of Dhofar it can mean a variety of things. For us locals khareef is the time of year…

- When an overwhelming number of tourists from other parts of Oman and the GCC take over our town and our roads, causing some of the worst traffic jams Salalah has ever seen.

- When our cars are permanently dirty, our floor-mats are permanently muddy and most windshield wipers need to be replaced.

- When we make tonnes of money renting out RO200 a month apartments to desperate tourists for RO150 a day because all hotels are fully booked.

- When every third car on the road boasts a UAE licence plate.

- When most local families rent land on the 'Garbeeb', (the flat plain at the base of the mountains) to set up monsoon camps complete with huge tents, flat-screen television screens, volleyball nets and portable toilets.

- When the number of car accidents increases because many foolish drivers have yet to realise that rain and speeding are mutually exclusive.

- When the price of coconuts and bananas quadruples.

- When it is wise to put away sandals in favour of plastic monsoon-friendly Crocs.

- When most locals either take annual leave or find any excuse to leave work early in order to go out and enjoy the weather. Example: 'I have to go. My wife needs tomatoes or she can't cook lunch'.

- When weddings are held on every day of the week.

- When every tailor, dress rental, hair salon, makeup and henna artist in town is fully booked in order to accommodate all the brides, their sisters, and several hundred cousins.

- When yours truly flees Oman in order to avoid the overwhelming number of weddings.

- When your normal five-minute drive to work takes half an hour.

- When every cow, camel and goat in Dhofar is happy because there is enough grass to feed an army.

- When supermarkets run out of basic commodities like milk and bread on a regular basis.

- When we take pleasure in watching naïve tourists set up their picnics in lush picture-perfect valleys only to frantically pack up and leave a few minutes later because they have been attacked by monsoon bugs.

- When barbecue equipment is available 24/7 in the trunk of every local's car.

- When locals won't risk leaving Salalah because there's a good chance they may not find a plane ticket back home until the monsoon is over. (I kid you not)

- When too many children OD on cotton candy.

- When flying kites is cool, even for adults.

- When we complain endlessly about the tourism festival but then end up going at least twice a week anyway.

On a more serious note, the tourism festival – normally a two-month event - was cut short this year because of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. Since Ramadan will fall during the monsoon for the next seven or eight years, I'm sure the tourism industry will be affected.I wonder if Oman would consider developing Salalah into a place where Muslims from around the world might come to enjoy Ramadan. In my humble opinion, I think Salalah would be the perfect place for a spiritual retreat.The Ministry of Awqaf & Religious Affairs could collaborate with the Ministry of Tourism to organise and promote a series of lectures, workshops and other Islam-themed events that would draw Muslims from around the world to our town.The cool temperatures and shorter days would certainly make fasting easier. Food for thought….

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Salalah Meets Washington

Published June 28, 2011 - Muscat Daily

( I wrote this while in transit at Frankfurt Airport last week. Humour me, will you?)

It's 5am in Frankfurt and I have not slept for two days. After combing the airport for nearly an hour in search of decent coffee, I finally found this café. There is a lot of bustle and activity despite the early hour, and the huge monitor above my head tells me my plane doesn't take off for another four hours.

I'm on my way home after spending an incredible week on the US Foreign Press Centre Tour on blogging/writing for social and political change that took place in Washington DC and Minneapolis. In other words, and despite severe caffeine deprivation, life is great and all is well in my world.

A couple of months ago I was contacted by the US Embassy in Muscat asking if I would be interested in participating in the tour, based on my work for this column. Candidates were selected from countries that are currently struggling with social and/or political tension. Never one to turn down an interesting opportunity, I agreed immediately.

Upon receiving the final list of selected participants in May, I knew it wasn't going to be an ordinary tour. The 19 people who would be joining me represented China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan,Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Portugal, Germany, Morocco, Bahrain, Jerusalem, Iraq, Bahrain, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and Kenya. When I first saw the list, I couldn't believe I would be spending an entire week with such a wide mix of nationalities. Their impressive biographies were intimidating, but once I got to know them, I knew I'd made friends for life.

Our Washington leg of the tour involved meetings with officials at the State Department, employees at the Foreign Press Centre, NGO representatives, bloggers, journalists and activists in Washington. We then moved on to Minneapolis where we were invited to meet with professors and students at the University of Minnesota's Journalism Centre. We also took part in Netroots Nation, a political convention for American progressive political activists.Being involved in the world of American politics, if only for a few days, was quite the experience, especially for those of us who come from countries where political activism is almost non-existent. The theme at most of our meetings was the use of social media in invoking political and social change.

All the roundtable discussions gave us the chance to see things from the Americans' point of view, in addition to hearing what my fellow participants had to say on the current situation in their respective countries. Our understanding of US government policy regarding civil society initiatives, democratic reform, and Internet freedom has definitely increased.

Our tour was jam-packed with meetings and appointments, with barely enough time for sleep, let alone sightseeing! However, I have nothing to complain about. The FPC were wonderful hosts, and we met some incredible people from all walks of life over the course of those five days, starting with very senior officials at the State Department and ending with homeless musicians and Amish vendors at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market. If you've never heard of the Amish people, I advise you to look them up online immediately, if not sooner.

Apart from writing about the recent political unrest in Salalah, my interests have always leaned more towards social issues and women's issues in Oman. However, after the tour and with the Oman Shura Council elections coming up, I confess I find myself intrigued by the world of politics.

Social media has forever changed the face of politics in the US, and I'm sure, in the years to come, the same will be true for Oman. Judith McHale, the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, said something to us on our first day that kept coming up again and again in our official and private discussions for the remainder of the tour. She said, “The days of one-to-one government relations are over.”

Thinking about it now, what she said was very true. With online social media tools and websites like WikiLeaks available to hundreds of millions of people around the world, it will become increasingly difficult for governments to withhold information from their people.

Politics and social media aside, I think the most valuable lesson I learned from this tour was to sit back and listen to the world speak, literally. We often get so absorbed in what is happening in our own countries that we neglect to take an interest in world affairs. Our tour brought together activists and writers from 20 countries with nothing in common but an Internet connection and a passion for creating positive change.

After listening to first-hand accounts of the horrors that face my fellow participants in places like China, Zimbabwe, and even our neighbour Bahrain, I was truly humbled.

Overall, the tour was an eye-opener for me and I am bursting with new ideas. Oman may not seem like the most democratic of nations, but we are pretty stable and are definitely on the right track. We have more freedom of speech than we think and we have much to be thankful for. I left the US feeling inspired, empowered, and extremely proud of my country. I honestly feel blessed to be living in Oman. You should be too.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Washington D.C

                                             (photo taken on steps of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C)
In April, I received an email from the US Embassy (Muscat) asking if I'd like to participate in a Foreign Press Centre (State Department) sponsored tour for writers/bloggers in Washington D.C in June. Never one to turn down an interesting opportunity, I agreed and a few weeks later heard I'd be accepted into the program along with 19 amazing writers and activists from around the world. I spent the whole of May doing background reading and researching every possible related topic and finally I packed my bags and boarded that Oman Air flight out of Salalah on June 11th. The tour was I.N.C.R.E.D.I.B.L.E and I will be writing a lot about what I learned once I get over the jet-lag (believe me, you do not want to see my face after 55 hours of travel and no sleep). Nevertheless, I thought you should know that I will no longer limit this blog to my newspaper columns and articles. After the intense intellectual stimulation of the past week, I've decided to blog more regularly. I'm literally bursting with ideas. Thank you Department of State and US Embassy Muscat!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Dhofar: The Woman with the Frankincense Burner

Published  June 7, 2011 - Muscat Daily

A few days ago I was at Sultan Qaboos Hospital in Salalah visiting a friend who had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl.

There were several other women there when I arrived, and we all took turns holding the baby and marveling (naturally) at how perfect she was. When the baby was in my arms, I heard someone whispering ‘Come on, Susan. We have to leave’.

I looked up and saw an odd-looking older woman standing at the foot of the bed with what looked like a toiletries bag and a large frankincense burner. I must have had a confused look on my face because the woman standing next to me whispered into my ear again, “We have to go. She’s going to do it.”

The mother of the baby looked distressed and helpless but her mother-in-law seemed to be in control of the situation. I was herded out of the ward along with the other women, and only then did I realise the old woman with the frankincense burner had come to circumcise the child.

Shocking, isn’t it? To think that we live in the 21st century and such primitive practices still take place behind closed doors and secretly in hospital corridors. Almost all girls over the age of about 15 in Salalah have been circumcised. I thought the practice had died down over the past decade and was no longer prevalent in Salalah but evidently I am mistaken. I decided to make a few enquiries regarding the woman with the frankincense burner.

According to my sources, she has been at the hospital for as long as they can remember. She roams the maternity wards all day and makes herself available to anyone who wishes to mutilate their newborn daughters’ genitals.

Obviously she does not work for the hospital, and I have no idea how she supports herself because evidently she does it for free. All I know is that people demand her services because they truly believe it’s the right thing to do.

Many women in Salalah and in other parts of the Middle East claim it is obligatory in Islam and they refuse to discuss it any further.

Al Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, the highest religious authority in Egypt, issued a statement saying female genital mutilation (FGM) has no basis in core Islamic law or any of its partial provisions and that it is harmful and should not be practiced.

I have no idea how prevalent the practice is in other parts of Oman and how much brutality is involved, but I know for a fact that it is widely practiced in Dhofar. If they tell you everyone carries it out ‘lightly’ like a small paper-cut, that’s a complete lie.

It may be true for a handful of families, but after speaking with several women I know, they confirmed that traditionally the whole clitoris is removed and the area burned to ensure that all nerves are dead, hence the frankincense burner. There are also several local clinics in Oman that can do it. Is it even legal?

What baffles me is that many men are not aware that this practice still exists in Dhofar. The problem with FGM is that it is performed by and defended by women, and is considered one of Dhofar’s best-kept secrets. In most cases, women do not ask the permission of the father before performing FGM on a newborn. I wonder how our men feel about that.

Education seems to be the only answer and change won’t happen overnight. The first step is to bring it out into the open without fear or shame. This should not be a taboo subject. The Ministry of Health (MoH) should start an awareness campaign explaining the health risks. There should be posters up in the maternity wards at all hospitals.

People still practice FGM because they think it’s healthy and they’re afraid of what will happen to their daughters if they aren’t circumcised. Many believe that by putting their daughters through this they are protecting them. From what, I wonder?

At times like these people need to distinguish between Islam and culture. Because the practice holds much cultural and marital significance, FGM opponents recognise that ending it requires that they work closely with local communities in order to spread awareness of the profound social, sexual and medical consequences of this practice. This tradition is kept alive by the lack of dialogue. This is where MoH should come in.

I could go on about this forever. The practice is considered a violation of the basic rights of women, and since it is mostly carried out on newborn girls, it is also considered a violation of children’s rights. Now, what can you, as an individual, do about this? You can start by spreading the word. Speak to the women in your family and help bring this issue out into the open. Change begins at home! 

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Let's help 'them' build something!

Hi everyone! No, this is not my regular column. I was doing a little tour of the blogosphere this morning and found Dan & Jillian's latest post from Sohar. They both teach at Al Batinah International School and are hoping to take a group of kids from the school to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in October to help build a home for a homeless family in Sri Lanka. They're collecting donations for the project. ANything from $10 up. Any small amount will make a difference. Payment is safe via PayPayl (I tried it this morning!). Please make a small donation if you can. It'll take you less than one minute and you'll feel really good afterwards, trust me. Here's more from their blog: .
Dear readers,
I'm proud to tell you that in October Jillian and I are leading a team of secondary students to Sri Lanka to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. During our 11-day trip we will help build a house for a family in need of a home. In a country devastated by natural disasters and where the average income is around $40 (15 OMR) per month, many families cannot afford even the most basic accommodation.
Our students will make a real difference.
Here's where you come in: we need to raise money to make this possible. A large portion of the money we raise goes directly into the house in the form of building supplies (concrete, rubble, wood, etc). The rest of the money will simply get our team to Sri Lanka and provide us with minimal lodging and food while we work.
During their IT class the students have created a webpage to provide more information and to collect donations (we collect credit card donations via Paypal, so the transactions are very safe). I encourage you to at least check out the website and watch the'll meet the members of this awesome student team! Click here for the website. If you can, please donate, even if only a small amount..
Our kids are about to get the experience of a lifetime and help someone in need. Be a part of it!
For more information on Habitat for Humanity, click here and here.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The End of a Chapter

Published: May 24, 2011 - Muscat Daily
The past two weeks have been extremely puzzling for those of us living in Salalah. On the evening of May 12, I hit the runway at exactly 8pm after a relaxing couple of days in Muscat and the first thing I noticed was that I had no phone reception. It dawned upon me that something was horribly wrong when I stepped out of the airport and saw helicopters hovering over central Salalah.
I knew immediately it had something to do with the peaceful sit-in that had started in February. The main highway was blocked by ROP officers and the whole centre of town seemed to be surrounded by armed forces. I was stuck in traffic for over an hour and unable to contact anyone in my family.
Once the phone network was up two full hours later, there was a burst of phone activity as people called each other to report what they had seen and heard. It was later revealed through the grapevine that several hundred protesters had been arrested at the sit-in area and that several key speakers had been plucked out of the square via helicopter and taken to goodness knows where up north.
More people were arrested the following morning, and finally the group was taken to a prison facility just outside Salalah, where they remained for nine days.
As a young woman who wasn’t necessarily with or against the protests, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On one hand, I felt the sit-in had gone on for too long. I’m not denying the fact that without these men, none of the huge changes would have materialised in Oman. Without the protests that had taken place all over the country since February, over 50,000 people would still be without jobs, and families on welfare would still be living on next to nothing.
We’ve seen so many Royal Decrees and positive changes in this country lately, and we have our young men to thank for speaking up, and His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said most of all to thank, for listening.
I think the remaining demands on their long list require more time and I honestly believe the protesters should have ended the sit-in voluntarily towards the end of March.
On the other hand, I also have mixed feelings about the army intervention plan. For ten weeks, I had been watching the sit-in from my office window, and I honestly still do not understand why it was brought to an end with such excessive use of power. Detaining several hundred people without charges for nine days doesn’t speak well for Oman’s justice system.
It’s been nearly two weeks, and the armed forces are still occupying the square where the sit-in had taken place. For the first week after the arrests, there were army tanks lining the main road, and soldiers at every corner. I had to go through three checkpoints in order to get to my office, which is conveniently located right next to the square.
I kept on hearing the same sentence again and again from my friends and colleagues, “There was no need for all this.” I tend to agree, because as far as I’m concerned, bringing hundreds of soldiers, tanks and weapons into Salalah for a bunch of guys sitting in a tent in a parking lot drinking tea and talking about a ‘different’ Oman was uncalled for.
I’m saying this because the sit-in remained completely peaceful for almost three months. Zero violence. However, let’s assume for a moment that I’m wrong. Let’s assume they were committing a crime against this country. If those men in the governor’s parking lot really were a threat to security, then surely it’s our right to know why?
If there were clear justifications for all the arrests, I think the people of this beautiful country want to hear them. We want to know what the charges were. I believe the sit-in would have died down eventually had the government given them a little more time. The numbers were already dwindling by the time the army came.
Furthermore, the secrecy involving the arrests and release of all the prisoners baffles me. The fact that I had to read the Los Angeles Times and Gulf News in order to find out what was going on in my own town is ridiculous. Why wasn’t there enough local media coverage of the recent events in Salalah? Several times over the past two weeks, I’ve had to knock myself on the head to remind myself that this is happening in Oman.
I’m horrified at the recent turn of events, as I’m sure many of you are. I hope the armed forces move out of Salalah soon, simply because their presence makes the quiet residents of Salalah nervous, and I pray that the release of all detained protesters from the local prison two nights ago will mark the end of a bitter and embarrassing chapter in the history of this town.
.I’d like to think what happened was a huge misunderstanding and I hope our men give up on the idea of sit-ins for the time being. There are a million other ways to make positive changes, and it all starts from within. God bless our wise leader and God bless the Sultanate of Oman. La fin.