Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Lunch That Never Was

Published January 31, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view article.

Today you must bear with me. I will be complaining about an attitude that a large percentage of my Omani family, friends and colleagues suffer from. Foreigners living in Oman joke about it online and behind closed doors. Even Omanis sheepishly admit it's a problem. Before you read any further, keep in mind that I suffer from mild Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It's the small details that drive me crazy. I'm going to give you a list of scenarios that I had to live through in the past fortnight, and you help me pinpoint the problem.

Scenario One: Last week I arranged a workshop for 40 Omanis to attend. I booked the venue, arranged the menu, and sent out invitations. I also called all participants the day before the event to confirm their attendance. They all knew attending was mandatory.

On the day of the event, 25 people showed up on time and another five strolled in an hour late. When I called the missing ten their excuses were as follows: three forgot, two went to the wrong venue, four never bothered to come, and one was busy at the fish market. None of them bothered to let me know they weren’t coming.

Scenario Two: Last weekend a relative of mine got married. The bride's family announced they were slaughtering a goat and having a low-key wedding lunch. I was asked to make a wedding cake and 100 cupcakes as a favour. Never one to turn down an opportunity to bake, I happily agreed.

The day before the wedding I spent six hours in the kitchen making the cakes. On the morning of the wedding I woke up bright and early and spent another six hours decorating the cakes. I was proud of my work.

An hour and a half before lunchtime, the freshly cooked goat and rice arrived early from the catering company. The family decided that having fresh hot rice and meat was more important than the wedding luncheon, so they sent around trays of rice to all the invitees' houses instead of having them over. Lunch never happened. I never got an explanation or an apology.

Scenario Three: A college student who requested an internship in my office refused to start this week. Her excuse? She needs to catch up on sleep because a five-day break between the last day of exams and the first day of her internship just wasn’t enough.

Another student showed up on the first day, then never came back again and won't answer her phone. A third student had the audacity to ask if he could just skip the internship altogether but receive a certificate of attendance anyway in order to graduate.

I can think of endless other incidents of a similar nature that I witnessed in the past few weeks alone. Sometimes I find the attitude charming and try to convince myself that Oman is one of the very last nations on earth where people are still laid back, and that I should appreciate it while it lasts.

Occasionally I find it deeply amusing. Lately, however, I've been finding this lack of urgency and accountability simply irritating.

I questioned several Omanis about this recently and their only explanation was, “It's part of our culture.” I couldn't agree more. It is part of our culture and has been since the 1970s when modern life was handed to us on a silver platter. However, do we really want it to remain part of the culture? Are we proud of it? I'm certainly not.

There may be plenty of productive and professional Omanis out there, but they remain a shining minority. A large percentage of Omanis my age really do not understand the importance of proper work ethics, commitment, and most importantly the value of others' time and their own. It may be unintentional, but that doesn't justify a thing.

On a final note, in case you were wondering what happened to all the cupcakes from Scenario Two, rest assured that I made two neighbourhood soccer teams very very happy that afternoon.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

My Take on Polygamy

I come from a polygamist family. My father currently has three wives and fifteen children. Do you find that incredibly weird? I must confess, occasionally I do too. Most of the time, however, I never really stop to think about it.

A few months ago, I was on a training programme with young citizen journalists from different parts of the world. On our first day I spent my lunch break with a Muslim girl from Europe. Halfway through our meal, she asked the inevitable question, “How many siblings do you have?”

After I answered her, she was silent for a few moments, and then whispered, “I've never met anyone from a polygamist family before.” She spent the remainder of the programme questioning me about what it was like. To be honest, she made me feel like I'd just landed from outer space. I've been thinking about it ever since. Is it really that unusual?

Polygamy has been practised in different cultures around the world throughout history and is still legal in most Muslim countries, with the exception of Tunisia and Turkey. Even though it is legal, I know it’s not widely practised outside the GCC.

In Oman, polygamy may have died out in most areas up north, but the tradition is alive and well here in Dhofar. I assume the reasons behind this are somewhat related to the stronger tribal ties at this end of the country.

Why do men in Dhofar choose to take on another wife? Islam allows up to four wives under certain circumstances and conditions.

Despite this, I believe very few men in Dhofar these days remarry for religious reasons. I hate to sound negative, but most polygamists I know (the number isn't small) remarried for entirely selfish reasons.

In many cases men take on a second or third wife to show off their wealth or to produce more sons who will carry on the family name. Some men who are unhappy with their first wives but can't divorce them due to family pressure choose to remarry. A large number of polygamists marry women half their age to help the men feel 'young' again. That seems to be the most common reason.

There are also a small percentage of men who take on a second wife for semi-acceptable reasons. For example, a former neighbour of ours took on his deceased brother's wife as a second spouse in order to take care of her and keep the kids in the family. I can't say it made sense to me, but it seemed to work for them.

Some men whose wives are infertile will marry other women to bear children while keeping their first wives. Divorced or widowed women also tend to end up being second or third wives since most single men here wouldn't consider them for marriage. Most polygamists take on a second wife after they hit 40 or 50 and realise they're not getting any younger. Having two wives isn’t uncommon in Dhofar. Three or four is rare.

The big question is, does polygamy really work? In my opinion the answer is a big no. A few years ago I was involved in a research project here in Dhofar on polygamy. After hundreds of interviews and months of work, it became obvious that women are victims when it comes to polygamy.

None of the women we interviewed were happy in their marriages. On the other hand, the men seemed to be fine and most had remarried for entirely selfish reasons. It was truly heartbreaking.

Polygamy may have worked for many centuries and it probably made sense in many cases. However, in this day and age I think it causes more heartache than happiness and I'm confident that no man is able to love and care for two women equally, let alone four! Furthermore, no woman in her right mind wants to share her husband with another woman. Men may fantasise about being the perfect husband who loves and treats his wives equally, but who are they kidding?

People may argue that I'm generalising and that they know a happy polygamist family. But are they really happy? When two wives live under the same roof, they are under enormous pressure to appear to live harmoniously, regardless of their feelings. I'm sure there are a handful of really decent polygamists out there who treat their wives equally and who manage happy homes, but I have yet to meet one!

Naturally, the law in Oman doesn’t protect women when it comes to polygamy. A man can remarry without even informing his first wife. That doesn't speak well for women's rights in Oman, but I'll save that rant for another week.

Many non-Arabs may wonder why the first wife simply doesn't ask for a divorce if her husband comes home with a young wife. If only it were that simple! Most women above the age of 40 are not educated. They have no means of supporting themselves and probably have at least five children. Where do they go? Do they head back to their father's house if he's still alive? Camp out in their siblings' spare bedroom forever? They have no choice but to stay with their husbands and endure the pain.

If you think polygamy will die out with the current generation of middle-aged men, think twice. I can think of three men I know under the age of 40 who have two wives. I also know two young women around my age who became second and fourth wives respectively in the past 12 months.

In fact, just a few months ago, a married man asked for my hand in marriage. I wasn't planning on sharing that piece of information with the world, but seriously…how could I not? Someone in this day and age assumed a young independent woman like me would be okay with being a second wife! Fortunately, I'm not. As much as I love my family and all my stepmothers and step-siblings, I am against the practice.

On a final note, a couple of years ago I read an article that suggested polygamy contributes to lower divorce rates in Oman. Whoever assumed that probably hadn’t had their morning cup of coffee. Polygamy will die out sooner or later. Until then, please say a prayer for all the women who've suffered through this bizarre tradition. And if you have a positive polygamy story to tell, do share....

Monday, January 16, 2012

Indian Gray Mongoose

I know this sounds nerdy, but I'm terribly excited about coming across a 34 inch (around 90 cm) mongoose on my way home the other night in Salalah. It was heading towards the Dahareez banana plantations. I've never seen one before even though they do live in Dhofar. More on these cobra-killing creatures here.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Things We Don't Talk About

There is a young Nepalese housemaid who works at a house down the street. Every morning she’s outside scrubbing the cars of the lazy young men who live in the house. At noon she’s outside hanging laundry. In the evening she’s dragging garbage bags to the communal garbage bins. She always looks tired. I’ve been watching her for over a year.

Last week, one of the young men in the family drove up to the house with a carload of groceries. He lit a cigarette and settled down onto the front steps to supervise her as she carried heavy bags and boxes of bottled water into the house. On her fourth or fifth trip, she tripped and dropped a sack of onions on the steps. He shoved her and shouted something at her. She nodded, picked up the stray onions, and carried the sack in.

Like many of her South Asian, Southeast Asian and Ethiopian counterparts in Oman, she probably works over twelve hours a day doing all the housework and taking cake of the family children. She earns a mere RO30 or RO40 Omani riyal a month. At the most, she’ll earn  RO 60. Sometimes her employer won’t pay her salary for months at a time.

She is probably verbally abused regularly and in some cases physically and sexually abused as well. Her employer is guaranteed to have her passport locked away, even though it is now illegal in Oman (What’s the point though when there’s no penalty?)

She was probably deceived into coming here by a greedy agent who had her sign a phony contract promising double or triple what she’s making now. Her employer won’t let her leave until she’s paid back her employment visa charges. Assuming she earns 50 OMR a month, it’ll take her over a year to pay the amount back in order to regain her freedom again.

The whole scenario above has ‘Human Trafficking’ written all over it. Unfortunately, many Omanis don’t see it that way. In fact, I don’t think most of them have ever heard the term ‘human trafficking’ before and have no idea how serious it is.

I am a proud Omani, but the general attitude among locals here towards South Asians & Southeast Asians makes me sick. I’m using housemaids as an example only. The same applies to construction workers who have built this country block by block (literally) and other low-skilled laborers. Whenever I try to discuss this with colleagues or friends, they claim that the abuse of migrant laborers is worse in other GCC countries and that laborers are better off in Oman. As if that justifies ill-treating another human being!

In 2007 the US State Department's Annual Trafficking in Persons Report pushed Oman down to Tier 3, the lowest rating on the human trafficking index. This embarrassing rating wasn't because the situation here was terrible but rather because we didn't appear to be doing anything about it.

Furthermore, international human rights monitor groups weren’t able to operate in Oman to the best of my knowledge, and that didn't look too good for us either. After it became apparent that Oman was still down in Tier 3 in 2008, the government publicly rejected the report then hastily set up a National Committee for Combating Human Trafficking (NCCHT) as well as the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). This placed us back in Tier 2 during 2009, 2010 and 2011. Tier 2 basically means we're not complying fully with minimum standards to eliminate human trafficking; however, we're making significant efforts to do so.

The NCCHT's website is informative and it provides hotline numbers for reporting cases of human trafficking. The site also enables you to download the National Plan for Combating Human Trafficking in Oman. That’s a good step in the right direction, but what about spreading awareness among Omanis? Employment agencies aren’t the only culprits in this battle.

The aim of this column isn't to criticize government policies, per se, but rather to address the issue from a human perspective. Nearly sixty years ago my father’s family lived in a cave in the mountains of Dhofar. My grandmother was out with the animals from sunrise to sunset. Like most Dhofaris living in the mountains at the time, every day was a struggle to find food and water. Today, almost every single Omani household has one or two maids whom they treat with very little respect. What went wrong along the way and when did we stop being humble?

Something I find quite interesting is that Oman was one of the very last nations on earth to abolish slavery in 1970. It's incredible to think that people who actually owned slaves are still alive today. I mention this because perhaps in some way this is linked to how many Omanis view and treat their domestic help, and why they feel the need to have them in the first place. Naturally, slavery is a taboo subject that no one discusses in public here.

I know it’s not fair to generalize because there are plenty of really great employers who treat their labourers as humans. By employing help Omani families are indirectly supporting immediate and extended family members in their employees' respective countries. However, that does not by any means justify low wages, forced labour, threats, blackmail and confiscation of passports..

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and the situation is far more complicated than anything I can fit into one column. Oman has made great progress in the past 41 years, but most Omanis remain uninformed about issues related to human rights.

As a young Omani who cares very much for her country, I'd like to see more awareness campaigns in public schools about human rights. Kids need to learn from a young age how to treat people of all backgrounds with dignity and respect. I'm tired of seeing neighborhood kids throw rocks at the municipality workers who collect garbage from our streets.

Just yesterday, it was announced that His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said has advised the Ministry of Education to increase the number of Islamic studies classes in schools. Since basic human rights are extremely relevant to the peaceful message of Islam, perhaps the new curriculum can include more basic human rights teachings. This country needs it. Food for thought….
Published January 3, 2012 - Muscat Daily

PS (due to some nasty comments, let me clarify one thing: my family does not employ a housemaid. We do our own housework and take our own garbage out ..... pretty scandalous, huh?)