Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Two Years Later

Published February 26, 2013 - Muscat Daily
February 25 marked the second anniversary of the eruption of Arab Spring protests in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman. Protests in Muscat, Sohar, and other areas of Oman started earlier, and by the end of the first quarter of 2011 almost every major town in Oman witnessed some form of demonstration or peaceful sit-in.
Compared to other Arab Spring countries, the Omani protesters had no interest in bringing down a regime. Their main concerns revolved around creating jobs, higher minimum wage, and better living conditions. Other demands included more freedom of speech, less government control over the media, political reforms and the removal of several key government officials.
Unlike other countries, authorities' initial reaction to the protests was to quietly receive the written demands, study them, and initiate immediate changes. Within weeks the cabinet of ministers was reshuffled, ministries were dissolved, several key officials were fired, 50,000 jobs were created, minimum wage increased, new legislative powers were granted to our version of parliament, and other major changes took place.
These instant reforms may not have solved the real underlying issues but they were a smart and quick solution to maintaining some form of stability within Oman as regimes collapsed around us and violent protests swept through the Arab world. The Omani protests continued for about four months.
Despite the quiet and peaceful nature of the majority of sit-ins, several of them ended rather violently with an army crackdown. In Dhofar the protests ended abruptly in May 2011 after the army moved in to the main sit-in area and arrested several hundred protesters over a period of two days. Some surrendered peacefully and others who clashed with army officers were subjected to tear gas and batons.
In Dhofar most of the protesters spent around nine days in prison whereas a handful of the main organisers spent over 50 days behind bars. Similar scenarios took place in other areas of Oman as well.
Looking back it really is quite remarkable to think that Oman went through a rough patch at all! Those difficult few months aren't really discussed in public anymore. Until 2011 Oman had been viewed internationally as a quiet and peaceful country. In fact, several international newspapers referred to Oman as a 'sleepy' nation.
Despite having gone back to a perceived semi-sleepy state, don't be fooled. The aftermath of the Arab Spring protests continues to affect Oman. Despite enjoying more freedom of speech after the protests, a major crackdown on bloggers, writers, and activists started last June. Charges included defamation, instigation, spreading of rumours, and lèse majesté . Many of them are currently serving one-year prison sentences, and nearly two dozen went into an organised hunger strike in prison that ended earlier this week.
Along with many other Omanis, I feel the arrests and exaggerated prison sentences may have come at a wrong time. Our old wounds have not yet healed. Furthermore, these recent events have caught the attention of major international human rights bodies.
In all cases, today's column isn't about the aftermath. I simply wanted to reflect on the events of 2011. It was an important time in the history of this country. Some remember it as a time of courage whereas others like to pretend it never happened. Some believe the protests were justified, and others feel Omanis were simply demanding more spoon-feeding from our paternalistic government. Some believe the excessive use of power to end the sit-ins was uncalled for, whereas others feel the protests had gone on for too long.
It was a difficult time for Oman, but nevertheless a learning experience for both authorities and citizens. The quick solutions didn't satisfy everyone. There remain concerns over succession, corruption, legislation and freedom of expression, but those discussions will take place sooner or later. Real change doesn't happen overnight.
On a final note it is worth pointing out that despite the problems, Omanis remain fiercely loyal to His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Even throughout the difficult months of protests, those demanding reform were very careful about criticising our beloved ruler in any way. This key element is what distinguished Oman from other countries that experienced the Arab Spring. With that behind us, what does the future hold?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Language Crisis

Published February 12, 2013 - Muscat Daily

Recently I was privileged to meet a foreign researcher who was in Salalah to learn the Dhofari mountain language more commonly known as Shahri or Jebbali. Chances are you never knew such a language existed in the south of Oman.

In fact, I’m willing to bet you had no idea that in addition to Arabic, four other languages are spoken in Dhofar. The four unwritten Southern Arabian languages are Shahri (Jebbali), Mehri, Hobyot and Batthari. There has also been debate as to whether a fifth South Arabian language known as Harsusi can be considered a Dhofar-based language.

Contrary to what our ever-so-useful Wikipedia says, general consensus seems to be that Shahri (Jebbali) is spoken by approximately 50,000 or more Dhofaris from mountain tribes as well as a large number of individuals from town tribes. Mahri is also spoken by a decent percentage of the Bedouin population of Dhofar. I apologise if I have confused you with the terms ‘mountain tribes’ or ‘town tribes’. The tribal system in the south of Oman is complex!

As for Hobyot and Batthari, it saddens me to say that fewer than 200 individuals speak these Dhofari languages and they will both become extinct within a generation. Although I have lived in Dhofar my entire life, I have never had the privilege of hearing Hobyot or Batthari being spoken.

Because I come from a mountain tribe, most of my family speak Shahri (Jebbali). I am ashamed to admit that although I understand a lot of it, I do not speak it very well. Many people from mountain tribes who live in the town of Salalah tend to simplify their Jebbali by mixing Jebbali phrases with Arabic words. When I am in town, I understand most of what is being said. The minute I head up into the mountains, the language gets harder and harder to understand.

Although both Mehri and Shahri (Jebbali) are widely spoken at the moment, they are both endangered and will soon become extinct as well. I say this namely because they are both unwritten, and because 90 per cent of all languages in our world are expected to become extinct within the next 100 years. Furthermore, modern life in post-renaissance Oman has forced Dhofaris to speak Arabic every day in addition to English.

Another reason these beautiful South Arabian languages will die quickly is because authorities in Oman have made no efforts to preserve them. Simple as that! I am ashamed to say this, but almost every effort to research and document our dying languages in the past few decades has come from Western researchers.

Many efforts by locals to document and promote these languages have been quietly ignored by authorities, particularly the Jebbali or Shahri language also known as the language of the rebels during the Dhofar Rebellion in the 1960s and 1970s. As you can guess, the language comes with a lot of baggage.

Several years ago a huge controversy took place in Dhofar after a very interesting book was published attempting to study the history and roots of the Shahri (Jebbali) language. In addition to a build-up of other factors, the book’s aftermath led to a governorate-wide controversial debate on the history of the language and what to name it. Without going into too much detail the situation became ugly, several people got arrested, and the book was banned from being published or sold in Oman.

Although the speakers of any unwritten language are mainly responsible for its preservation, I feel it is not enough in Oman. It is my humble opinion that the Omani government should at least openly acknowledge the existence of the nine or so unwritten languages in Oman and support those who speak them to preserve their identity. Our culture lies within the language. Preserving cultural artefacts will never be enough.

I will try to say this as gently as possible and I beg you to try your best not to misunderstand me. Occasionally it feels to me that in an effort to make Oman and Omanis as ‘Omani’ as possible, the powers that be may have intentionally overlooked the importance of the diverse sub-cultures that lie within Oman.

The mountain tribes in the south of Oman with their pride, unique language, beautiful poetry and strong traditions are not something to be weary of. The same goes for Luwati, Mehri, Kumzari, Swahili, Balochi, and all the other beautiful languages spoken within our borders with their fascinating cultures. We should be proud of our unique identities.

Public discussions concerning tribes, languages, and sub-cultures within Oman are not often welcomed by authorities due to historical baggage. I find this very sad and frustrating at times. Omanis are an incredibly diverse population spread out across 309,50sq km.

Nevertheless, we all speak one common language, wear the same clothes, work in the same establishments, pray in the same mosques, receive the same education, cheer for the same soccer team, and are loyal to the same wise leader. Surely this is proof enough that we are able to maintain our own unique cultures while embracing a common Omani identity. In diversity there is unity!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Changing perceptions towards higher education in Oman

Published January 29, 2013 - Muscat Daily.

While many of you spent the long weekend gallivanting in Dubai or just chilling on the beach, yours truly pulled an 81-hour marathon to produce the world’s most tedious post-graduate term paper.

Occasionally I ask myself why I am torturing myself with a post-graduate degree when I could easily be content with my bachelor’s degree. The answer is simple: I am part of a new generation of Omanis who have come to realise that in order to climb the professional ladder in life, our once-prized bachelor’ degrees will soon no longer be enough. The world is a tough and competitive place!

Just in the past few years Dhofar alone has witnessed hundreds of full-time employees enrolling in part-time undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes at local colleges and universities because they have come to realise (some the hard way) that in Oman the days of getting ahead in your career professionally and financially with a high school diploma are over. The new generation of English speaking college educated tech-savvy Omanis are getting all the good jobs … and the good salaries.

The minimum requirements for the simplest of jobs in Oman these days are a college diploma, some English, and good computer skills. Continuing undergraduate studies after high school is no longer an option anymore, but an expectation. Ten years ago I finished high school. A selected number of my top-performing classmates went off to college or university. The rest stayed at home, got a basic secretarial job or got married. In those days going to college was a privilege bestowed upon a lucky few. Now, things have changed drastically.

A few months ago I was speaking to a friend of mine who manages a large reputable company. He was complaining to me that he had been struggling for weeks to find a dozen high-school graduates who would be willing to work for him for decent pay. He had spread the word all over Salalah trying to find anyone interested, but apparently the number of high-school diploma holders is dwindling! Everyone he spoke to knew someone who had a diploma or bachelor’s degree. Shocking but true!

Why is it so shocking? Well, if you humour me while I spew forth a short Omani renaissance speech, I’ll tell you why. Do you realise that four decades ago there were only three schools in the whole country with an enrolment of less than a thousand male students? After His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said came to power in 1970, combating illiteracy and getting kids into school was at the top of his agenda. His leadership has been instrumental in introducing education reforms in Oman.

The combating illiteracy years are still fresh in my mind because several of my aunts and older relatives were enroled in the programme when I was in school not too long ago. Almost every Omani knows someone who learned to read and write as an adult. Now we have an adult literacy rate of over 80 per cent and there are more than half a million kids enroled in school and tens of thousands enroled in undergraduate and post-graduate degree programmes in the country. The statistics are nothing short of remarkable.

When I pull myself out of my little post-graduate term paper woes and think about how far Oman has come in educational development since the 1970s, I am humbled. Our educational system and higher education system is still very young and can do with a lot of improvement, but those soon to be filled gaps should not blind us to how far we've come as a nation. Until next fortnight….