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….