Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Abayas Behind The Wheel

Published December 21, 2010

I had an insane conversation recently with a male colleague of mine who claimed all traffic problems in Dhofar are caused by women. He insisted that Salalah's traffic jams would wane if women stayed at home and played housewife. He also swore that most men in Oman shared his point of view.
I thought it was pretty amusing but later on that day I decided to Google women and driving in Oman out of curiosity to see what would come up in the search. Lo and behold, in the Arabic results I ended up with several links to online forums where men were debating endlessly the issue of women and driving. Frankly, I didn't know we were an issue in the first place!
The arguments in these online forums were hilarious. Some claimed women weren't strong enough to handle the steering wheel while others believe women were hogging all the road space in Oman or that we were the main cause of all road accidents in this country. One of my favorites was an argument that women shouldn't drive because in the unlikely event of a flat tire it would lead to – God forbid – unsupervised contact with the unrelated males who would come to the rescue. The more conservative chaps believed that giving women the freedom to drive without supervision would lead to a life of moral corruption. And finally, the open minded ones thought women should be 'allowed' to drive if they had a valid reason to do so.
After the hilarity of the responses had worn off, I began to feel slightly offended. Tolerance soon turned to outrage. Why on earth were all these Omani men discussing whether women should be 'allowed' to drive? I thought we'd moved on from the dark ages. Oman prides itself in trying to maintain a healthy balance between tradition, religion and modernity. I think we're doing pretty well too!
Thanks to our supportive government and the wise leadership of His Majesty, women in Oman have been able to expand their working horizons and improve their professional lives without a huge struggle, unlike countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran where being a woman isn't easy Women in Oman can work, study, own property, vote, start their own businesses and join almost every professional field out there, so why the whining about driving?
Back in the late 1970s to early 1980s rumor had it that there was one female rebel in the mountains of Dhofar who drove an ancient pickup truck. Locals still speak of her with awe. Here we are today, almost thirty years later and it seems to me that every tenth car in Salalah is driven by a woman. We've come a long way, and as positive as it may seem, it saddens me to know that almost all those women behind wheels struggled to gain approval from their families. Everyday women around Oman petition to their fathers, husbands, and brothers asking to be allowed to drive. I think its amazing how some men still think they can make decisions like that for the women in their lives. Driving is a basic skill that every man and woman should acquire, especially in a country like Oman where there is no proper public transportation system. There should be no question about it. And anyway, what's the harm in having a little freedom to drive yourself to work and run your own errands?
In this country we have female ministers, female ambassadors, doctors, engineers, and even female taxi drivers (you heard me right!), so why are all you men out there so uptight about seeing us behind wheels? It's time to let go of the notion that women need to be protected and sheltered from the world. We are much stronger and more capable than you think. Have a little faith in us. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the number of female drivers in Oman is going to double if not triple in the next few years. We're on the road and here to stay!

PS (I've disappeared for a while because - lucky for me - while I was on leave, every date set for my articles happened to be a public holiday, and Muscat Daily isn't printed during holidays)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Remembering Abdullah

Published November 02, 2010
Over twelve years ago Salalah witnessed a horrible car accident involving a group of teenage boys driving at an insane speed without seatbelts. Abdullah, one of the accident's survivors, ended up spending six months on a wooden board at the hospital in a failed attempt to heal his crushed spine. When he was finally released in a wheelchair, he knew he would never walk again. After many months of depressed isolation, he rallied, and finished his high school diploma at home. Then he decided he was going to university. He was discouraged by almost everyone, but he chose to fight and went up to Muscat to apply for a scholarship. A senior official at the Ministry told him to give up, claiming someone paralyzed from the neck down would never make it through college. Never one to give up, he kept fighting.

He was finally granted a scholarship to study at Dhofar University. I remember the first day his personal helper, Babu, wheeled him through the campus gates, and most students stopped to stare like it was some sort of freak show. Abdullah held his head up high and started attending classes. During those first few weeks, most students avoided Abdullah because, at the time, Dhofaris had no idea how to deal with physically or mentally challenged people. Any person with special needs was kept 'hidden' at home and away from society. The first time I met Abdullah was during registration week at the University. Babu pushed his wheelchair up to a bench where I was sitting and he asked me cheerfully if he could be 'parked' next to me until Babu returned with registration forms. We ended up chatting for an hour, and that was the beginning of several years of friendship.
University life was not easy for Abdullah. It took a while for students to get used to seeing him around campus, but after the first few weeks, his classmates started talking to him and once they realized he was a completely normal person, his circle of friends began to grow. He decided to study management information systems since he was able to use a laptop despite the fact that his fingers had been crushed in the accident. He had a pencil with a small rubber attached to one end. He would hook the pencil into his only good finger and use the piece of rubber to hit the keyboard.
Abdullah was extremely bright and spent many hours a week tutoring other students. He also became involved in social work and charity campaigns at the University, many of which he himself had initiated! He excelled in his studies and made the Honors List semester after semester even though he had to spend weeks at a time in the hospital every year.
He had a charming personality and a wicked sense of humor. His close friends at the University knew how much physical pain he was in even though he rarely showed it. Only he knew what it was like to wake up in the morning and feel completely helpless and paralyzed. To overcome his frustration, he spent his time and energy reaching out to others. When someone passed away, Abdullah was the first at the funeral. When someone was in trouble, he was the first to offer help. Even when my own mother was undergoing surgery in Muscat (at the other end of the country!), he somehow managed to appear out of the blue in the surgical ward with a bouquet of flowers on his wheelchair table and a smile on his face. On our graduation night in 2007, when he was wheeled out on stage to receive his degree, the applause was deafening and every single person in that auditorium was on their feet (many with tears streaming down their faces).
Abdullah passed away two years ago today, and even though he is no longer with us, his friends I have vowed to keep his memory alive. He had no idea how much he inspired people, and we all feel blessed to have had someone like him in our lives. He told me once that his dream was to set up a rehabilitation centre in Salalah for people like him. He wanted young men and women with special abilities and needs to have a choice. He took it upon himself to make a difference. After graduation, he spent most of his time trying to make his dream come true.
Despite Abdullah's and many other people's efforts, there are still thousands of children and adults with special needs hidden behind locked doors in Dhofar.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

New Campus, New Dreams

Published October 19, 2010
It's finally happening! After six years of planning and building, the new Dhofar University campus in Salalah is ready at last. In fact, I heard through the infamous Salalah grapevine that the Vice Chancellor himself moved in over the weekend. This small piece of news may not seem too exciting to readers in other parts of Oman. However, I guarantee that anyone who has been involved in the growth of the university from the early days is openly proud, if not thrilled. I'm dying to go and visit the new campus once it's been brought to life by its two thousand or more students over the course of the next few weeks!

Back in the summer of 2004, I was a fresh high school graduate trying to make a decision on where to further my education. I wasn't too keen on leaving home just yet, and while reluctantly considering a few colleges in Muscat, a friend called me up and told me to buy the newspaper. Lo and behold, a small article on page two announced that the American University of Beirut had signed an agreement to academically oversee the establishment of what is now Dhofar University. We both applied the next day, and that was the beginning of four very active years at DU.
When I first joined, the university consisted of basically three rented villas and a banana plantation on the outskirts of town. Despite the fact that females and males studied in the same classrooms, the environment remained almost entirely gender segregated. During their free time, female students hid in the library or the prayer room, and during lectures they sat at the back of the classroom in silence. Neither male nor female students were enrolled in any extracurricular activities and they didn't bother participating in anything that wasn't directly related to their course material. By 4 p.m. every day, the campus was a dead zone. Most students didn't know what to make of university life!
Coming from a conservative society, the first year was a struggle for me and anyone who was trying to push the existing boundaries to build something new. At the time, I was one of the five females only who did not wear the face veil, and I was criticized constantly for it. I was the only female in my year who dared to enroll in business, a male dominated major at the time. I joined several extracurricular activities with a group of liberal and active friends despite protests from other females on campus, and in some cases, families claiming it was taboo.
Slowly, things began to improve and it was exciting being a part of it. I can't remember exactly when the changes became noticeable, but I know for sure that the law banning face veils on campus (thank you, Ministry of Higher Education!) played a huge role in empowering the females and altering the general feel of the university altogether! Anyone who has been there from the very beginning knows very well just how far the university has come. Nowadays students take their university years more seriously. The level of proficiency in English among students is much higher than it was five years ago. A large percentage of students are enrolled in at least one extracurricular activity and are keen on attending additional workshops and seminars. Males and females work on group projects together and if you drive by the campus at night these days, you might spot the lights on in one or two of the buildings, while the interior architects work on their projects, the graphic designers slave over their movie clips, or a handful of aspiring engineers test their latest robotic creations out in the courtyard. (I've seen everything from robot spiders to potato cannons!)
The University has some way to go before becoming a fully accredited and internationally recognized university, but I believe it's on the right path. Despite constant criticism over the years from locals claiming the tuition fees are too high, students claiming it's too difficult, and faculty claiming students aren't serious enough, I know DU has brought many positive changes to Dhofar (and to many of our students from the north of Oman too), and it will continue to do so.
With this new campus and the much larger facilities I look forward to seeing DU move on from the 'starting up phase' to playing a larger role in the community. I hope it starts hosting community programs, talks, exhibitions, conferences, campaigns, etc. on a regular basis. I also look forward to seeing the Salalah community actively support the University. It has to be a 'give and take' relationship. What DU needs right now is positive people who really want to make a difference and who believe in the students. With the right attitude from students, faculty, administration and the local community, anything is possible, and we're on the way

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Beggars in Dhofar

Published October 5, 2010

A couple of days ago I was driving around Salalah looking for a functioning bank deposit machine, so I could put a small amount of money into a relative's account. At the first stop, I got out of my car and stood in line waiting for my turn. It was busier than usual since it was payday for most people. As I waited, I noticed a woman standing next to the machine. At first I thought she was waiting for a brother or her husband, but as the line grew shorter, she still hadn't moved. She was a begging, and to my surprise, I noticed she was wearing three gold bracelets. (This is not a smart move when you're trying to convince people you need money!)
When the gentleman in front of me reached the front of the line she watched him swipe his ATM card at the machine. She snatched the opportunity and said, 'Uncle, can you spare some change?' I noticed she did not have an Omani accent. As he fumbled for his wallet, he tried withdrawing the card simultaneously, but it go stuck in the machine. He hit the machine hard a couple of times, and then left in frustration since it was no longer working, shoving a couple of rial notes into her hand as he strode away. I gave her some change and headed back to my car.
That wasn't the end of it. Ten minutes later I managed to find another deposit machine. I parked my car, delighted to be the only person in sight. As I proceeded to take my wallet out of my purse I felt something tug at my abaya. Lo and behold, it was a little boy, probably six or seven years of age. He was well dressed and wearing what looked like brand new shoes. 'Give me a rial!' he demanded. I asked him where he lived. He ignored my question and again said 'Give me a rial!' I gave him half a rial and walked away, deciding to go and search for yet another bank machine to do my banking in peace. He followed me to the car, 'I saw you have money in your wallet! Give me five rials!' I rolled up the window and turned the car on.

As I drove away he picked up a small rock and threw it at me, missing my car by a few inches. I headed to the third and final deposit machine I know in my area of town, and as I looked for a parking space, I noticed a woman sitting on the ground next to the ATM. She had a piece of cloth spread out neatly in front of her with some small change scattered on it…yet another beggar. I honestly couldn't face another one at that point, and drove away without stopping.
Sadly, this trend isn't anything new to me. Just last week a woman wearing an expensive abaya strolled into my office at work and demanded money. When my colleague gave her a rial she became agitated and demanded more. We had to call the guards to come and ask her to leave the building. How she got past them in the first place beats me!
I first noticed an increase in the number of beggars around Salalah about a year ago. The original and more genuine toothless beggars (whom everyone in town knew) used to beg near supermarkets. They were grateful for whatever was given to them, be it five rials, or five hundred baisa. However, this new category of aggressive beggars who corner you wherever they feel like it is certainly a cause for alarm. They are almost always well dressed and sporting expensive phones, watches, etc. It's not surprising, since begging seems to be a thriving business in Oman! During Ramadhan this year I must have come across over fifty beggars!
As far as I'm concerned, I've just about had it with the women wearing gold and aggressive children who claim they are desperately in need. Since Omanis are known for their generosity and since begging is a relatively new trend in Oman, quite often it's hard to distinguish between genuine beggars and fakes. I recently read that the Ministry of Social Development is going to implement a new law to crack down on begging. I hope this happens soon, before the situation in Salalah gets out of control. Otherwise, this aggressive begging is going to develop into something even worse like violence and robbery!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Eid Al Fitr in Salalah

Published September 21, 2010
To be honest, I find it hard to believe that Ramadhan is over. Once you get into the routine of quiet fasting, the shock of the Eid is quite hard to handle. Despite the fact that we did not eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset for an entire month, I have to admit that fasting was much easier this year in Dhofar due to the cool weather and monsoon rains. In fact, many people claim it has been the easiest Ramadhan in over three decades!

For most of us, last week was a blur of fasting, cleaning, shopping, baking, and preparing for the Eid. During the few days before the Eid, shops were open until the wee hours of the morning to accommodate the needs of the thousands of last minute frantic shoppers. On Thursday evening, everyone ate their Iftar with eyes glued to Oman TV waiting for the big announcement about whether or not we were fasting one more day, or celebrating the Eid the next morning. An hour after sunset the crescent moon had been sighted, marking the end of the Holy Month of Ramadhan and the beginning of Eid. I'm sad that Ramadhan is over but at the same time happy that I can eat and drink again at regular times! My morning cups of freshly brewed coffee at work were sorely missed!
The morning of Eid al Fitr is always awkward. We have all readjusted our bodily clocks, and have made new habits. Many may find they are wide awake at four thirty in the morning thinking they must get up and eat the pre-dawn meal (also known as Suhoor). After a couple of hours more of sleep, everyone wakes up and heads guiltily to the kitchen to eat their first breakfast in a month. Eating in broad daylight can take some getting used to, that's for sure! As the men head to the mosque for early morning Eid prayers, the women hurriedly prepare the majlis for guests. Each house has a spread of sweets, fruit, drinks, Omani coffee, and halwa, a traditional Omani sweet. By nine o'clock in the morning, children have already started visiting every house in their neighborhood dressed in their new clothes, and soon their pockets are bulging with candy and Eidia (small change given out to children during the Eid). By the end of the morning, they're all on a sugar high (adults included) and head home to rest before their second round of visits in the afternoon.
The next few days are dedicated solely to visiting family and relatives. In Salalah, women usually stay at home and receive children and male relatives on the first day of the Eid and do most of their visiting on the second or third day, or even after that. Over the past 72 hours I'm pretty sure I received and visited at least one hundred relatives. Each conversation blended into the next so I am finding it hard to remember everyone's news. It can be quite overwhelming, and it doesn't help knowing I have yet another four days of visiting to do before heading back to work on Saturday! In Salalah, visiting isn't confined to the first three or four days of the Eid like most of the rest of Oman. It can go on for well over a week. I suppose this might be related to the fact that families in the south of Oman are larger than in other areas of the Sultanate.
The Eid in Salalah feels special this year due to the unusually prolonged monsoon rains, the beautiful green mountains just beginning to appear out of the mist, and the presence of tourists from the GCC and other parts of Oman who have come to Salalah just for the Eid holiday. The presence of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos in Dhofar for Ramadhan and Eid this year made it even more special. Everyone was cheerful just by knowing His Majesty is in town and that he performed Eid al Fitr prayers at Al Hisn Mosque on the ocean.
At the same time, however, the Eid marks the end of the three month 'slump' that Oman gets into with the summer holidays, Ramadhan, and in Salalah's case, the monsoon. On Saturday, Oman can wake up from its very long nap and hopefully begin to get some real work done. Children and college students head back to school, work timings go back to normal and everything becomes a blur of activity again. It's about time! But..... we are already looking forward to next Ramadhan.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Iftar on the Peace Boat

Published August 31, 2010
Last week one of my friends called me up at work and shouted excitedly into the receiver 'Do you want to have Iftar on a Japanese ship at Salalah Port?' Not one to turn down such an interesting opportunity, I immediately agreed without asking for any more details. As it turned out, I had been invited as part of a group of young Omanis from Salalah who would be meeting a delegation of Japanese intellectuals on the internationally renowned 'Peace Boat', a cruise ship known for its round-the-world voyages to support global peace and human rights. As a tribute to the Sultanate's reputation as a peaceful nation, Salalah is the only port where the ship made a stop in the Arabian Gulf. It left Japan during early August and will be visiting ports in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and Latin America before its return to Japan in October.
On Friday, August 20th, the selected group of Omani representatives (mostly Dhofar University students) congregated at the University, nervously awaiting the arrival of our Japanese guests, and hungry after many hours of fasting. We had several hours to go before breaking the fast at sunset and we stood around worrying that we wouldn't be fully 'compos mentis' during the exchange! Just then, a huge bus pulled up in front of the University gates.

The first thing I noticed is how neatly the Japanese descended from the bus, one by one, each nattily dressed, and each one with a backpack and camera in hand. Many of them were already sporting Omani turbans, caps, and dishdashas, even though they had only been in the port for a short time. They bowed in greeting. Unsure of how to respond we bowed too; then everyone burst out laughing. And that was the beginning of a very intense cultural exchange between Oman and Japan! During the next few hours (and despite the language barriers), we were privileged to meet Hiroshima survivors, listen to them tell us about what had happened on that fateful day and feel the effect of their tragic tales. They then patiently taught us how to make 'origami', or beautiful paper cutouts, and how to wear kimonos (traditional Japanese dress), and we observed Japanese dances and rituals.

It was absolutely fascinating. In exchange, we explained in detail about what Ramadhan means to us, and told them about Omani dress, our culture, Islam, our food, etc. The Omani males in our group taught them some traditional dances and we burnt frankincense for them and taught them some simple Arabic words (while we were all learning as much Japanese as we could at the same time!).
After the planned activities, including a tour of the new Dhofar University campus, we all piled into buses and headed for the famous Peace Boat, where we were taken on a tour and shown how it all works. To our surprise, we were informed that there were one thousand Japanese onboard, ranging in age from 3 to 93 years old! The Iftar itself (the breaking of the fast) was even more interesting. Never in my life had I expected to break the fast with chopsticks! We were able to experience several Japanese dishes, including seaweed!
Everything about the whole exchange exceeded our expectations. Every minute of our five-hour trip was planned so carefully. Since we Omanis are known for our inability to be punctual, it was charming to see how particular our Japanese friends were about following the exact timetable they had put together for us, weeks before. Truly, it was a wonderful experience, and I'm sure several of my fellow Omani delegates are eager to visit Japan in the very near future. I know I am!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ramadhan & Food

Published August 17, 2010
There are very few things in my life that I consider to be a living nightmare. Among them are 8-hour transits at Dubai airport, running out of cooking gas just before your guests arrive, and inching through traffic on payday. However, at the very top of my nightmare list is going to any supermarket in Salalah the week before Ramadhan.
Before I start my spiel about supermarkets and food, I'd like to highlight the fact that, in addition to focusing on religion, one of the main purposes of fasting is to teach Muslims about patience, humility, and empathy for those who are less fortunate. We are supposed to 'feel' hunger and count our blessings, thus becoming more charitable and willing to give to the poor.
Many Omanis on the other hand seem to be doing the complete opposite. Yes, we survive without food or water from sunrise to sunset, but then too much emphasis is placed on the preparation and consumption of the food with which we break the fast. In fact, most of my acquaintances end up gaining weight in Ramadhan despite the fact that they fast for most of the day!
I needed to pick up a couple of urgent food items at one of Salalah's major supermarkets a couple of days before Ramadhan started last week. It was just after three o'clock in the afternoon and I thought I'd be able to run in quickly before the Ramadhan shoppers arrived. No such luck! It took me twenty minutes to find a parking space and then I had to fight my way in through a sea of frantic shoppers at the entrance only to find there were no shopping carts or baskets left. The huge Ramadhan displays at the front of the supermarket would baffle any person unfamiliar with our Ramadhan cuisine. All you see are pyramids of tins of Captain Oats, creme caramel mixes, dumpling mixes, and of course the largest collection of Vimto bottles this person has ever seen.

Everywhere I looked, people were crammed together in the impenetrable aisles with their enormous shopping carts overflowing with the exact same items for their predictable Ramadhan menus. I started feeling slightly claustrophobic. By the time I made it to the front of the store with my sad little collection of items and took one look at the cashier lineups, I had had enough. I dumped my items on the nearest mountain of creme caramel and left. I haven't been into a supermarket since and have been avoiding them at all costs.
Why the obsession with food, you may wonder? Most families in Dhofar send their women into the kitchen four or five hours before sunset to start preparing for Iftar, the sunset meal. I'm inclined to say that 90% of households in Dhofar serve the exact same dishes every day for the entire month of Ramadan. The basics are sweet dumplings (luqaymat), greasy samoosas, oat soup, thareed (local dry bread soaked in a meat sauce), Arabic coffee, dates, jugs of Vimto, creme caramel, jello, watermelon, and anything deep-fried. All this food is laid out on a long plastic mat across the family living room or majlis and when the call to prayer is heard, everyone dives into the display of fifteen or more dishes. They spend the next hour or so eating non-stop, only taking a few minutes out to pray the sunset prayer. Imagine what mixing samoosas, spicy soup, meat, sweets, coffee, and watermelon every day can do to your stomach.
By the time everyone is finished eating, they've only consumed half of what was on display. What happens to the rest of the food? Many people keep leftovers for the sunrise meal, known as suhoor; however, most of it gets thrown out (to the benefit of stray neighborhood cats). It's a complete waste and completely defies the purpose of fasting. I read a report somewhere saying Arabs spend more money on food during Ramadhan than at any other time of the year. If that's true, then there's something very wrong with our understanding of Ramadhan. Perhaps as people in Oman become more health-conscious (and money conscious), these terrible eating habits will slowly be replaced by more sensible Ramadhan menus.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Salalah Tourism Festival 2010

Published August 3, 2010
Back in 1996, the first monsoon festival initiative started out as a group of tents and a small wooden makeshift stage at the base of the majestic green mountains of Dhofar. They named it 'Festival of Dhofar Municipality's Friends'. Fourteen years and a few million visitors later, the festival (now called 'Salalah Tourism Festival') covers several acres of land and has become the second largest attraction in Dhofar during July and August, after the incredible weather.
I'm not much of a festival person and I usually try to avoid crowded places at all costs, but I admit to faithfully visiting the festival at least once or twice every year since it began. It's pretty hard to avoid, given that it's where all the action is! Any family with children is bound to go at least five times during the festival's six weeks. The grounds are very child-friendly with a decent sized amusement park, good games, activities, contests, and even their own little children's stage.
One of the huge festival highlights (for me, anyway) is the Heritage Village. I always end up buying handicrafts and frankincense from the local artisans. Also, I never get tired of watching the traditional dances from every corner of Oman. If you arrive at the right time, you may stumble upon a poetry gathering in one of the Bedouin tents or even be given the opportunity to ride a camel. I've always been tempted to get on a camel, but given the rides' awkward location right in the center of the festival grounds I don't think I'll ever be brave enough. (Furthermore, abayas aren't very camel-friendly!) Those small details aside, there's always something interesting going on in the Heritage Village and it's a great place to take tourists or friends from abroad.
Another highlight for tourists and locals alike is the annual book fair. Ten years ago the selection of books was nothing to be proud of, with too many books on Arab politics, cooking, and romance novels with eyebrow raising covers. However, nowadays you can find everything from high quality reference books to translations of great world literature. A couple of years ago, I was even able to pick up both English and Arabic copies of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'.
The photography and art exhibitions are always worth a visit. In fact, it's probably the only opportunity to really appreciate the considerable talents of our local photographers and artists. Furthermore, the festival's concert series have been a major attraction over the years, with artists from every corner of the Arab world coming to perform here in Salalah, to only what can be described as overly emotional and enthusiastic crowds. We've had some pretty big names come to our town, including Kazem El Saher, Mohammed Abdo, and Nancy Ajram.
A huge highlight for the female population of Dhofar is the shopping pavilion with hundreds of stalls hosting vendors from the subcontinent and Far East. A lot of the things being sold are cheap Chinese products and suspicious cosmetics. Also, I always tend to get accosted by overly made-up Arab women claiming that their products will make me whiter, thinner, or more fertile. Despite being put off by this, I must admit, I always end up leaving with a treasure or two, be it exotic Yemeni spices, beautifully carved Pakistani furniture, hand painted Palestinian ceramics or fake designer bags from China!
In addition to numerous additional exhibitions, some of the other festival highlights include various sports activities, a wide selection of outdoor restaurants, daily fireworks and lots more. It's pretty safe and I haven't heard of any accidents involving kids falling off roller coasters or horrible cases of food poisoning for some years. We've also progressed from embarrassing freak shows involving half-animal, half human creatures to more civilized forms of entertainment. All in all, I salute the officials at the Dhofar Municipality for their achievements. The festival has come a long way and it's a great place to spend an afternoon or an evening. Every visitor is guaranteed to find something of interest!

Forever White

Published July 20, 2010
If you’ve ever been to Salalah you may have noticed an unusual number of stores claiming to sell ‘women’s necessities’. If you’ve actually been into one of these shops, you will observe that at least one large section of the shop is dedicated to whitening products, and another even larger section to an extraordinary selection of makeup. The complexion of the female cashier ringing up your items at the front of the store is a pale greyish white. It seems a little odd to you. As she fumbles to give you the right change, you notice that her hands are the colour of coffee beans. You look up again at her face and try not to gasp. Surprised? Don’t be. She is only one among thousands of female victims in Salalah who were brainwashed into thinking at an early age that in order to be considered beautiful, you must be white.
It’s no secret that Dhofari women are obsessed with being white. In fact, we seem to be quite famous for it! There are several women in Salalah who are well-known for their secret whitening ‘mixes’. They mix three or four whitening products with bleach and sell them for a high price in glass jars, catering mostly to young women and especially to brides-to-be. I’ve known girls who removed several layers of skin from their faces (using one of the mixes) in a feeble attempt to look white. Despite the fact that they end up looking like burn victims, many of them are satisfied. They seem to think it will make them more presentable ... more worthy (of what?). It’s very sad.
Our weddings are even worse. Somehow, over the past twenty years or so, Dhofari women have developed strict wedding makeup standards that no woman, in my opinion, should ever feel the need to comply with. Women spend months trying to book a makeup artist for any wedding they plan to attend, even if they are only distantly related to the family of the bride. In order to hide the natural colour of the girl’s skin, the female makeup artist applies several layers of unnaturally white makeup to the face, neck, back, chest, and any other visible part of skin (sometimes even legs!).

She then pulls out a pallet with an unidentifiable white substance on it that has the consistency of Vaseline and uses a paintbrush to apply it to the eyebrows, covering them completely in order to draw fake stick eyebrows an inch above their natural place. She then spends at least a couple of hours working on the eye makeup and lips. The girl ends up leaving the makeup artist’s house or salon several hours later (and fifty to a hundred rials poorer) looking like something between a geisha and a Goth. The look is bizarre. And then they proceed to the wedding, where they join hundreds of other unrecognizable women who are all equally plastered in white.
And if you thought that getting Dhofari makeup on was a struggle, wait until you hear how it is removed! My friends and relatives claim that dish detergent and a spoon for scraping is the only successful method. After an hour of scrubbing, scraping, and washing, the expected result is a sore but clean face.
I was at a wedding recently where the woman sitting next to me looked at my simple makeup with sad eyes and said ‘You are lucky to have enough confidence to come here looking like that.’ Looking like what? Myself? What is so shameful about that? I wanted to scream at all the women around me and tell them they are stunningly beautiful as they are.
Despite being educated and aware of all the health warnings, they continue to think white is more beautiful. All the shops continue to stock up on whitening products to support this local obsession. High school girls think that by smearing poison on their faces that they will live a happier life. I understand that this problem happens in many places in the world, but I tend to believe that it’s more visible in Dhofar. Most females here are unable to see that their dark-skinned beauty is something to be proud of! How beautiful we are, in all our shades and hues taken from the very earth we walk upon. Time to wake up and see beyond colour!

It's here!

Published July 06, 2010
On the 21st of June of every year, Omanis and expats alike pour over local newspapers in search of one simple headline announcing to the public that the Khareef (the monsoon season) in Dhofar has officially started. It doesn’t mean that rain will magically fall on the morning of the 21st, though, even though the older generation expect it to. Thanks to cell phones, the social grapevine and Facebook, for that matter), all of us locals know, literally within hours, when the first monsoon cloud appears, and rejoice accordingly, but for some reason the little headline makes everyone even happier, simply because it’s official. This year, the rain and fog arrived early, but even so the newspaper announcement provided some sort of reassurance. It also meant our fellow-citizens in the sweltering northern parts of Oman could start packing and move down here for the summer to enjoy the cooler temperatures in Dhofar.
The start of a rainy season can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people but to Dhofaris it can only mean one thing: the three-month party has begun! Not only is it wedding season, but the monsoon also means that around a quarter of a million (I kid you not) tourists from northern Oman, the GCC and other countries visit Salalah during July and August. Salalah goes into ‘party mode’ with concerts, plays, exhibitions, late-night barbecues in the mountains, and the famed Salalah Tourist Festival. However, the overall reason for the celebratory mood is the rain. If you’re visiting Salalah for the first time during the Khareef, you may have to rub your eyes and knock yourself on the head a couple of times while driving through the region. The heavy mist, gushing springs and brilliant green mountains may look like tropical East Asia or a South American rainforest…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 kilometers away lie the rolling sand dunes of the Empty Quarter!
However, every rose has its thorn, and the monsoon season comes with its own set of disadvantages. Humor me for a moment and try to imagine nearly a quarter of a million tourists landing on a town of perhaps190,000 people over a period of eight weeks. Not a pleasant thought, considering the fact that we have narrow roads and only one highway. During July and August I simply avoid going anywhere unnecessary, since the idea of inching through traffic for hours and trying to protect myself from crazy speeding UAE drivers in their brand new four wheel drives doesn’t appeal to me. Getting a table in a restaurant becomes impossible. Shopping for anything is a nightmare, unless you have the patience of Job and all the time in the world. Also, I dare not forget to mention the famous monsoon tiny flying insects (named ‘khanyoot’ by locals) that can eat you alive if you sit too close to trees or bushes anywhere near the mountains. The monsoon also means that everything from your car to your shoes is covered in a fine layer of mud, your laundry doesn’t dry, and unless you pack away your shoes and clothes, they go moldy. We also keep our AC’s on to dry out the air and stop the curtains and furniture from also going moldy.
Despite all of that, the list of virtues is definitely longer, and Dhofar remains breath-taking and simply magical. If you’ve just about had it with the 50-degree weather in Muscat anytime between now and September, pack your bags. Come and spend the weekend, your holidays, or even the whole of Ramadhan in drizzly, foggy, deliriously happy Salalah. It will definitely be something to remember!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Premarital Screening, Anyone?

Published June 22, 2010
As Oman observes World Sickle Cell Day this week for the first time (June 19th), and as wedding season starts with pomp and grandeur in Dhofar, I feel obliged to shed light on the issues of hereditary blood disorders and premarital testing. It is no secret that hereditary blood disorders are as common as your regular flu in Oman. The three main inherited disorders are Sickle Cell Disease (over 6% of Omanis carry it), Thalassemia (2% of the population), and finally, according to the Oman Hereditary Blood Disorders Association, 25% of Omani males and 10% of females are G6PD patients. Carriers of these three disorders tend to be more clustered up North but these disorders also exist in Dhofar due to intermarriage. And that isn't all! I won't go into the horrific local statistics on children with disabilities and birth defects.
In Oman, where marriage between first cousins is the norm and where over 58% of the population carry hereditary blood disorders, it's simply logical that premarital screening should be mandatory. Yet despite the disturbing statistics, it still isn't! Many people I've spoken to around Salalah have never even heard of premarital screening or tend to falsely believe the tests are needed simply to determine whether one of the concerned parties is HIV positive or infertile. Naturally, they aren't keen on having such tests done for fear of public shame and embarrassment. Furthermore, a large percentage of Omanis aren't aware of the fact that disorders such as Sickle Cell Disease are hereditary. Little do they know!
Pre-marital screening is a group of tests for couples who plan to get married. Though not advertised at all, to the best of my knowledge these tests can be done easily at any one of Oman's major hospitals. Many couples may both look and feel healthy, but are actually silent carriers of infectious or hereditary diseases. For couples considering marriage (especially when they are relatives!), pre-marital screening is imperative in identifying potential health problems and risks for themselves and their future children. Couples in a consanguineous marriage run the risk of having children with genetic birth defects such as Down’s syndrome and autism. This can be prevented! It is vital for these couples to be screened in order to help them to understand their genetic background and, if necessary, take precautions or needed treatment.
However, many of you know as well as I do that getting young people to undergo pre-marital screening is going to be a hell of a struggle. In most cases, the couple haven't really spent time discussing marriage together since many marriages are arranged. Furthermore, testing is a sensitive topic. Many men are too proud and the tribal system doesn't really support the idea. In fact, many families think that it's taboo and tend to believe that marriage is made in heaven and no test is going to break up a marriage simply because both parties are Thalassemia carriers! Also, any couple who are madly in love and want to get married aren't going to appreciate it when a doctor informs them that there are blood issues involved and it would be wise to think again. However, as far as I'm concerned, and as far as children are concerned, love does not prevail in these cases. Nor does tribalism or pride!
Our children need to be educated about these issues in school, and the health officials, we hope, will conduct vigorous campaigns encouraging citizens to undergo premarital screening and promote better health. In the end, it's worth it. It is of utmost importance that local media publications highlight these issues and urge Omanis and expats alike to take hereditary disorders more seriously. Premarital testing can prevent 60 percent of birth defects and nearly 100 percent of commonly inherited blood disorders like Thalassemia and sickle cell anaemia.
If you know someone with a blood disorder then you will agree with me that there's nothing worse than seeing a five year old child hospitalized, in pain and on morphine while trying to get through a sickle cell crisis. Whoever is in favor of making premarital tests mandatory in Oman raise your hand! Both mine are up!

Monday, June 14, 2010

And The Chaos Begins ...

Published June 8,  2010
Driving through the streets of Salalah during the month of June can be a nightmare. Traffic jams at all times of the day and night in addition to occasional foot cramps and strained ankles due to hours of inching up and down the town's main streets can only mean one thing. The sight may be rather alarming to any newcomer, but all us locals know exactly what this means: preparations for the wedding season have only just begun!
The shopping scene is utter chaos. It's almost impossible to drive anywhere near the fabric shops, the tailors, the beauty salons, and the shops dominated by females. Quite often, you have to park several blocks away from your goal and make your way on foot through tightly parked lineups of cars. They are all, to a fault, inhabited by sulky husbands with one or more babies on their laps, waiting patiently (or not) for their wives and daughters to emerge from the shops, tripping along in their high heels, laden with wedding accessories.
If you find room to force your way in to any of the many 'women's necessities' shops (each one an absolute no man's land), what you'll see may well scar you for life. A pushy crowd of inhabited black abayas crammed together like tinned olives in an attempt to get a look at the latest fake Swarovski crystal beads. Or perhaps a six person deep lineup of women at the hair extension counters fingering the latest honey blonde wigs (an ugly but very popular current trend in Dhofari wedding fashion). Dare I forget to mention the exhausted Asian shopkeepers rolling out interminable yards of cloth, while individually counting out the hundreds of tiny beads that will be sewn into elaborate decorations on the traditional velvet wedding dresses?
Of course, the underlying purpose of all this fuss is that mothers must view prospective brides for their sons at the wedding parties, and their daughters must view each other and fight for the position of the most beautiful girl, or the most talented dancer. This wedding fiasco starts in May with people trying to set their wedding dates so they don't clash with other tribal weddings. The scheduling also depends on whether they can rent a 'wedding house' or either one of Salalah's two hotel ballrooms for the proposed date. Women fight for invitations, even to the weddings from outside their tribes. The topic of discussion at work and social gatherings revolves around 'How many weddings will you be attending this July and August?' The answer can range anywhere from five to ten or more, I kid you not! (And for the men, it's many more, sometimes up to ten a week, but that's another story!)
Once the women have established which weddings they will attend, they go into something of a frenzy trying to book separate henna, hair, and makeup appointments for each one of those weddings. Let me tell you from experience, this is not an easy process. Try to imagine the permutations! We are talking about many thousands of women here, and it's not that big a town. The next step is figuring out what to wear. Obviously, for most women, it's too expensive to produce a new dress for each wedding; however, it's also unthinkable in Dhofar to even consider wearing the same dress to two weddings. The women therefore must go to great lengths to find fashionable dresses to wear, either by adjusting old dresses, tailoring new ones, borrowing from relatives, or heading to any one of Salalah's numerous dress-rental shops. It's such big business now, women even run businesses from their homes, exchanging exotic dresses for a fee.
Preparing for wedding season in Dhofar is an exhausting and stressful process for all the women involved, from the bride, to both the families of the bride and the groom, as well as all the female wedding guests. Despite the fact that most women here deem such extraordinary preparations to be necessary, I pray that all this madness becomes a dying trend in the years to come. I look forward to the day when simplicity is introduced to Dhofari weddings and when men don't have to go into debt any more to financially support the demands of the female members of their families. However, in the meantime, the chaos continues …

Thursday, May 27, 2010

World Cup Mania ... Dhofari Style

Published May 25, 2010 - Muscat Daily
Brace yourselves everyone! The excitement is building up. On June 11, the world's attention will be shifted to Johannesburg, South Africa, for the start of the most watched sporting competition in the world. One of my soccer-fanatic colleagues has a chart on the wall in his office. Every day he stares at his chart with a glazed look and ticks off yet another day. Then he turns to me and enthusiastically proclaims 'Only 'x' more days till the World Cup'! I often wonder what reaction he expects from me. Usually he gets a blank stare. You can't blame me. I'm a woman.
I can almost understand soccer mania when Oman is involved. The crazy happiness Omanis felt when our national soccer team won the 19th Gulf Cup last year was phenomenal. We felt united. Traffic stopped for hours. Hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets celebrating in all corners of Oman. It made me feel proud and it all made sense. Hey, we even we got a national holiday. Another cause for celebration!
However, as a young woman who is not a huge soccer fan, I fail to understand why so many would be so obsessed with an event happening so far away, which should have no effect whatsoever on Oman. I've seen men get into serious fights over which team to support. Will it be Brazil? Italy? Spain? Will Algeria, the only Arab country participating, survive? People I know are already starting up support groups on Facebook, and I'm pretty sure I heard a shopkeeper this afternoon singing 'Waving Flag', one of the more catchy World Cup 2010 songs.
My brother and his friends have clubbed together to rent a piece of land near the mountains, set up a tent, and buy a generator. One of them is bringing his flat-screen TV, another is bringing a receiver and the bunch of them are going to basically camp out on the plain for a whole month until the World Cup is over. They've been planning this for weeks, in detail. Why a tent, you may wonder? Well, evidently they are sure that the shisha cafes that usually host soccer matches are going to be overflowing with soccer fans. Getting a seat will be impossible. Anyone in the restaurant business with a huge outdoor screen is going to be making a lot of money next month in Salalah. No doubt about that!
The male population of Dhofar has always been into soccer. I supposed it's because the idea of children having 'toys' is still a relatively new concept here. From around the time boys are toddlers, they start playing with a ball. When I was young, the neighborhood boys my age used to spend every afternoon outside playing soccer barefoot, in the dirt. They never got bored and never gave up. To this very day, the same groups of boys still play soccer on a daily basis. And of course the new generation is out there now too. If you cruise around Salalah in the late afternoon, you are bound to spot a heated soccer match, complete with a crowd of dusty spectators, almost every time you turn a corner. And these matches hardly ever take place on proper soccer fields. Most Dhofari boys and men play in paved parking lots, on empty plots of land, or on the beach. Hardly any other sport is practiced at this end of the country. They're just very passionate about soccer. (Mind you, there isn't much else to do, so it's great to see how much they enjoy their game!
So, back to World Cup mania. The men in my life have been trying to enlighten me but I still don't fully understand why someone would actually (yes, really!) postpone their wedding to avoid clashes with the World Cup schedule. Nor do I understand why someone would save up their holidays and take the entire month off to watch the matches. To me it seems like a waste of precious annual leave.
However, despite my ignorance, I guess I'm going to have to keep track of who wins what match, and when, in order to avoid going out onto the streets at the wrong time and being engulfed by cavalcades of crazed boys singing and beeping their horns while hanging out of the windows of their cars and pick-up trucks. I'll also have to make sure I don't say the wrong thing to a colleague the morning after. I'm going to have to congratulate the soccer fanatics around me and offer condolences when needed. I can't run away from it, and neither can you. Oh well, come to think of it, I guess I'll be supporting Brazil!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Diving into Debt

Published  May 11, 2010 - Muscat Daily

A few weeks ago, I received a frantic call from one of my colleagues asking me to come and pick her up at her bank immediately. Without asking any questions, I got into my car and drove to her rescue. She came out of the bank clutching a large envelope, got into my car and asked me to take her home. I asked her what was in the envelope and she opened it to show me bundles of 50 rial notes! I must have fainted momentarily, because she tapped me on the side of the head and said 'Drive!' And this is how I drove across Salalah with thirty thousand rials in my car. I felt like I'd just robbed a bank.
You may be wondering what the money was for. Well, so was I! Evidently, she had decided out of the blue to buy her dream car. She got the cash without any complications, through a personal bank loan, since she is too young to get that much through a car loan program. This girl is a recent college graduate, is in her very early twenties and has only been working for some months. It's going to take her ten years to pay off that loan. Is it just me, or do you also find that frightening?
 It's no secret that a large percentage of young Omanis, now both male and female, in their twenties and early thirties are living way beyond their means and are refusing to accept a standard of living that suits their income level. Many take loans to support their families, but a large percentage of them (like my happy or perhaps hapless colleague) decide to go into debt for a car. Car loans, bank loans, personal loans, misuse of credit cards. What next? Among the factors contributing to this phenomenon are the rise of consumerism in Oman, an increase in the cost of living, and the need to keep up 'appearances', especially in Salalah. With mobile phones and cars emerging as fashion statements and lifestyle necessities in the Gulf, the pressure to spend is on.
A recent survey revealed that the spending habits of youth in the GCC are such that more than a quarter of the respondents admitted that they were in debt. More shocking were the figures from Oman. Evidently, thirty five percent of youth between the ages of 18 - 24 in Oman claimed to have loans. Thirty one percent of them had personal non-business related loans. The culture of credit cards shoulders much of the blame. The survey found that the main concern among young people is the rising cost of living in the region. To keep up their lifestyles, they have to spend more money, and in turn, take on more debt.
The concept of living within one's means and earning something after hard work is lost to many young people (and older people obviously) in Oman. Most of my friends are buying cars on credit. And these aren't just any cars. The majority cost between 16,000-30,000 rials. How is a person in their mid-twenties going to come up with that kind of money? What makes them think they need that kind of car when they haven't earned it? The only thing worth going into debt for, in my opinion, is higher education. Anything else can pretty much wait.
 Whatever happened to the concept of starting small and working towards your materialistic goals slowly? Young Omanis should be able to see the fine line between what's 'necessary', and what's 'luxury'. This is not how we humans are meant to live. Banks shouldn't make it so easy for young people to be given loans on a silver platter. Unfortunately, though, we can't blame only the banks. With debt becoming an increasingly significant and not so positive issue in Oman, due to changing lifestyles, I don't think it's going to get any better in the near future unless people become more aware of the dangers of living beyond their means. Someone please start a campaign to educate our children on the dangers of debt before they even leave school! If we can scare them into not smoking, surely we can convince them that getting into debt is equally, if not more dangerous.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Change is Coming

Published April 28, 2010 - Muscat Daily

Less than a week ago the female population of Dhofar witnessed their first (and hopefully not their last) meeting with Oman's Minister of Social Development, Her Excellency Dr. Sharifa Khalfan Al Yahyai. The aim of the meeting was to discuss women's issues in Dhofar. In my opinion, this was a positive step taken by the Ministry to address some of the issues we face here in the South. We tend to feel a little neglected sometimes.
To my secret delight, the meeting was informal, a little discreet, and with barely any media coverage at all (I approve) and the buildup to it was a little hush-hush at first too. The names of the attendees were selected very carefully and invitations were sent out quietly. I was privileged enough to be among them. Most of the attendees were females in high positions in the government sector and private sectors.
There were about 90 females present from every corner of Dhofar, and quite an eclectic mix, too. Doctors, school headmistresses, volunteers, managers, social workers, writers, poets, researchers, businesswomen, etc. Seeing all these women in one place together moved me. It was, to say the least, empowering. For other women in Oman it may seem completely normal and unimportant, but for Dhofar this was new. We've become accustomed to seeing each other at weddings and other social occasions, but rarely are we privileged enough to see such a large group with their work diaries and car keys!
One of Her Excellency's first remarks as she looked at the congregation of women was "You have come a long way and you have overcome so many obstacles. There is nothing stopping you from achieving your goals and being active members of society." She spoke the truth. Ten or even five years ago it would have been strange to spot a young woman driving a car. Men would still feel nervous about speaking to a female cashier at a bank. There were very few women in high positions in the government and private sector. There were no women from Dhofar in the media. Most women still wore the face veil. There were very few women in Dhofar completing their higher studies, and you could forget about seeing any female executives at this end of the country!
Look at Salalah now! So much has changed, but we still have a lot more to do. I know we're blessed to be living in a such a peaceful country, but that doesn't mean we don't face any difficulties. Women in Dhofar have to deal with a lot. Society in Salalah is extremely conservative. A large percentage of women still suffer from huge social pressure, polygamy, lack of personal freedom as well as privacy. It's not easy.
Her Excellency touched upon several topics concerning women. One of the main ideas she was trying to communicate to us was that the educated and working women of Dhofar should become more active in volunteer work programs and in the women's associations in the province (there are about eight of them). I totally agree. If we use our brains to do good, change can happen more quickly. Women are more mobile now and definitely more flexible.
It was an informal discussion, and I thank her for taking the time out to come down to Salalah and exchange ideas and thoughts with us. I believe that change has to start from within. We can't wait for the government or some other authority to pave the way for us. Change can happen if we create it. To all the women out there who are nervous about what people will think as they break out of their shells, take one step; take it straight ahead, and others will follow. Throw a pebble in the water and watch the hundreds of ripples begin to form. Change is coming.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What if?

Published April 13, 2010 - Muscat Daily
A few days ago people gathered in thousands of cities around the globe to celebrate World Health Day. In Salalah, and unlike most years, the event did not go by unnoticed. Omanis and expats gathered for a walkathon to participate in the global urban health initiative '1000 Cities, 1000 Lives'. Sadly, the event was not advertised very well, so very few people knew about it beforehand. The only reason I found out about it was because of a flyer I found under my car in a parking lot two days before the event. I spent those precious 48 hours harassing my friends to join the walk, but very few were enthusiastic enough about change to make time for such an initiative.

Furthermore, most of them were women, so they didn't think it was 'appropriate' to walk in public with so many men! I was disappointed, but I decided to go anyway, with a couple of willing colleagues. I applied sunscreen, put on my sneakers and sunglasses and prepared myself for an afternoon dedicated to a healthier Salalah.
On my way to the meeting point, I wasn't expecting to see more than a hundred people, but to my great surprise and delight, I think over a thousand people showed up! I was blown away by the energy and enthusiasm. It was one of those rare non-tribal occasions where men, women, and children gathered together informally, and for a good cause. If it had been advertised properly, I'm sure hundreds more people would have joined, if not thousands
When I got out of my car, I could literally feel the excitement in the air.Children and adults were throwing on the campaign t-shirts over whatever they were wearing (that included the black abayas and face veils! It was definitely a sight to remember). A man with a microphone lost in the crowd shouted out for everyone to line up behind the senior government and private sector dignitaries at the starting line. The sound of a gunshot marked the beginning of the walk. During the next couple of hours, I overheard several people saying they hadn't felt this excited and 'united' since Oman won the Gulf Cup in 2009!
Although walkathons and other such events are a relatively new concept to Omanis, I know they're creating positive change in our community. Through the '1000 Cities, 1000 Lives' initiative, people are encouraged to create debate among leaders and individuals to take action to improve local policies and attitudes in the face of some of the more negative aspects associated with urbanization. This includes everything from living and working conditions to pollution, physical health, and mental health. Programs like this help engage the community through volunteerism, providing people with the opportunity to give back to their own community.
There is a need in our day and time for people to become more environmentally aware. Our lifestyle determines our health and our environment. Instead of building a completely independent eco-friendly city like Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, why can't we in Oman re-design the way our towns operate to make them more energy efficient and eco-friendly?
Humor me for a moment… what if, during the next 20 to 50 years, Salalah were able to slowly turn itself into an eco-friendly 'green' city? What if someone today had the right vision and inspired others to work towards that goal? What if Dhofar were to host Oman's first proper recycling plant? What if all schoolbooks for public schools were printed on recycled paper? What if children were taught in school how to become ecologically and socially conscious individuals? What if we were to start a campaign to encourage citizens to eat a lot more local produce? What if we were to introduce Oman's first fuel efficient public transport system? Solar power, anyone?
What if college students had to complete 100 hours of community service in order to graduate? Imagine what they could accomplish if we had a youth centre to channel their energy. They could organize beach clean ups, help tutor kids with learning difficulties, plant trees, help children develop hobbies, practice more sports, work with people with special abilities and needs, start after-school programs for youngsters, etc. What if Dhofar were to introduce the concept of eco-tourism? We get hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. It just might work.
My ideas may seem a little far fetched but don't tell me they're impossible. We need to consider how all of us as citizens can work together to create positive change and to build a better world for ourselves and our children. Food for thought ….

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Females & Fitness

Published March 30, 2010 - Muscat Daily
Before I elaborate any further, I hope all men reading this column at present are thanking their lucky stars and counting their blessings for being able to simply throw on a pair of shorts and go for a jog or play soccer everyday barefoot on the beach at sunset. Women can only dream of being so privileged.
If I were to describe the history of female physical activity in Dhofar it would be something like the following.

Thirty to forty years ago women worked hard in their homes or mountain huts, or with their animals. They were active, fit and strong. Then the first change came with the sudden introduction of the fashion of having a male cook from India in each house. The next step came with the introduction, around twenty five years ago, of Asian housemaids and lives were transformed forever. After the housemaids, satellite dish television was soon to follow, and women started spending too many hours in front of their magic boxes, slowly putting on the pounds.

 Ten years ago, after a frightening increase in obesity among women, several of the clever ones started walking (in full veil) during the evenings to try and lose some weight and stay healthy. They were limited to walking along the airport road or exercising in their own bedrooms because the idea of a young woman working out anywhere else was still unspeakable. Five years ago a new trend was introduced: all-female health clubs. Very few actually worked out at these clubs because the idea of shedding the abaya and headscarf in a public place and doing pushups with other women was simply too weird for most women, let alone the male members of their families. Finally, over the past year or so, enrollment at local health clubs has reached the point where some clubs are running four or five aerobics classes a day to accommodate all the eager women who want to work out, and new clubs are opening regularly.
After visiting one of the more popular health clubs at the centre of town with one of my friends recently, I was pleasantly surprised. At the front of the building was a reception area where one of the club's employees stood guard to ensure no male accidentally entered the all-female territory. At the back were changing rooms as well as a spacious room lined with treadmills and every possible exercise machine you can imagine. Finally the main attraction was the huge workout room lined with mirrors from floor to ceiling. There were over 20 women warming up in their sweatpants and t-shirts, getting ready to dive into an intense session of aerobics.

The instructor switched on a rather amusing workout CD made up of a mixture of Western techno-remixes and Middle Eastern belly dancing music. The women got to work following instructions from their tough trainer. They worked their muscles, faithfully did their pushups, and even did a little weightlifting, for a whole hour without a break. After the class the women filed into the changing rooms and put on their layers of black, getting ready to leave. Once they were out of the building, you would never have been able to guess where they'd been unless you had spotted the Nike sneakers under the abayas. I was impressed.
Despite being banned in places like Saudi Arabia, all-female health clubs are certainly one of the more positive trends I've noticed in Salalah lately. Although the idea still raises eyebrows quite often, it's not as taboo as before. The reservations that some people have about all-female health clubs can be rather amusing sometimes! Please rest assured that these are not 'shady' places and there are no suspicious activities going on behind the closed doors!
Overall, I can definitely say people in Salalah are becoming more health conscious for a variety of reasons. The most obvious reason is a rapid increase in obesity, heart problems, and diabetes among locals. Furthermore, instead of 'fattening the bride' for weddings, men now find slimmer women more attractive. Times are changing … for the better! Women are more confident, healthy, and energetic. These health clubs are simply places where women can shed the layers of black and do some real exercise with other like-minded females. I salute all the weight-lifting, muscle crunching, mat-working women who aren't afraid of being healthy. Now if we could only work on their eating habits....

Monday, March 22, 2010

Tackling Cancer

Published March 16, 2010 - Muscat Daily

It's no big secret that the number of people diagnosed with cancer nowadays in Oman and worldwide is increasing on a frighteningly rapid basis. According to the World Health Organization, cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide with over 8 million deaths in 2007 alone. That doesn't even count living patients and new cases. Most people I know have a relative or two or even more with cancer, and I'm sure you know a few people yourself.

Despite it being so common, people here in the South of Oman still have a hard time discussing it openly and some cannot even pronounce the word 'cancer' out loud. Furthermore, many are so overcome with fear that they end up refusing to undergo surgery or chemotherapy. Yes, Salalah is still very conservative and many people believe it’s a ‘shame’ for others to know they have cancer. It’s most certainly nothing to be ashamed of! Whether it's breast cancer you're dealing with, colon cancer, stomach cancer, or liver cancer, in the end it all boils down to how you and the doctors deal with it and… what you eat.
The first mistake cancer patients and their network of acquaintances make is to adopt a negative attitude and immediately assume they're dying. In Salalah I've seen women go into mourning simply because a relative was diagnosed with a mild case of colon cancer. Yes, it's a horrible illness, but putting on a sad face and acting helpless isn't going to help those who are sick. Cancer patients need non-stop positive support from family and friends throughout the months, or years of battling.
The second mistake they make is to expect surgery and chemotherapy alone will save those with cancer. The first thing any patient or caregiver must do is spend time doing research on that particular kind of cancer. Understanding the disease, studying nutrition, and going the extra mile to help oneself and others can make a huge difference.
The third mistake is to believe that they have to immediately go abroad to places like Thailand or Germany (and now, even China!), assuming that Oman doesn't have the doctors or the facilities to treat cancer properly. If you believe this, then you are very wrong. Out of experience, I can confirm that hospitals in Muscat have wonderful teams of experienced oncologists and surgeons.
The fourth and last mistake is to underestimate the power of food. You are what you eat, and when undergoing cancer treatments and chemotherapy the most effective method of keeping yourself and your immune system strong is through proper nutrition. Let's face it; Oman in general and Dhofar in particular have some of the world's worst eating habits. Our diet (too much sugar, fat, meat, white flour) feeds cancer cells, and there is no place in Salalah where cancer patients can go to get information on nutrition. A branch of the National Association for Cancer Awareness is very much needed in Dhofar. Patients need information, support, and advice.
I cannot fit all that I have to say on this subject into one column, and I am in no way an expert. However, I have spent hundreds of hours at local and other hospitals supporting others through their battle with this ugly disease, so I know one thing for sure; so much of it is about your attitude. If you know someone with cancer, give them your full support and if you feel they're struggling, help them to understand their illness and what they can do to help themselves. Do whatever you can. It will mean the world to them. And meanwhile, spread awareness about what people (who don’t have cancer) can do through nutrition, a positive attitude and good living habits to lower the odds that they themselves will ever suffer from this horrible disease.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Is Facebook Changing Oman?

Published March 2, 2010 - Muscat Daily

The title of my article may sound a little dramatic but I know this topic has been discussed endlessly by adults and young people alike all over the world. Since its launch in 2006, this online social networking site has been gaining popularity like nothing we've ever seen before. With over 400 million users (120,000 of them in Oman), Facebook is now available in over 70 languages and the average user spends about an hour on the website everyday. The factsheet statistics on the website are overwhelming.
I've noticed a huge increase in the number of Facebook users in Dhofar since the site became available in Arabic a few months ago. In fact, lately I've been getting at least 10 friend requests a week from people I knew back in university or school here in Salalah. Although I joined Facebook four years ago, my friend list has never exceeded 70 people; most of whom are close family and friends living abroad. I know I've offended many people by ignoring their friend requests, but what else am I supposed to do? I don't particularly feel the need for semi-strangers to be given a window into my life. On the other hand, some of my friends have up to 500 friends on Facebook, and despite this huge number of people who have access to their private lives, they still post personal information and hundreds of photos. This is something I will never understand.
Lately I've been thinking about how this whole phenomena is changing the way young people interact in Oman, and Dhofar in particular. Salalah is definitely still very conservative and it is almost impossible for members of the opposite sex to get to know one another in 'real' life....but what if social networking sites like Facebook end up revolutionizing the whole concept of gender mixing in such a society? You can forget about ever trying to explain the idea of online social networking to anyone over the age of about 40 in this town, so that leaves our techie-savvy young people free to pretty much do what they want online. It's exciting, rebellious, and slightly taboo. Facebook is extremely popular among university and college students in Salalah. Girls who are bored at home for most of the day often register under a pseudonym or tacky nickname like 'Princess of the South' or 'Cute Gal Salalah'. For a profile picture they'll usually select a provocative photograph of some Lebanese pop-star. The only real piece of information they provide is usually the college they're studying at. Once they've set up their profiles, they get to work finding boys and girls studying at the same college or in neighboring colleges. The next step is to start scanning other people's 'friend' lists in Salalah and send out hundreds of 'friend' requests. A whole new world is opened to them. The guys are more daring. They post real photographs of themselves, which makes the game all the more exciting. Let us not forget that Salalah itself is one big social network. Our close family and tribal connections make it very hard for anyone to be anonymous in this town. Even with a nickname like 'Lioness Salalah', you are never fully anonymous. Someone is going to end up knowing who you are and which family you come from.
Sites like Facebook can either make you or break you, depending on how you use them. Once the identity of a girl from Salalah has been exposed on Facebook, she may be questioned by her family and relatives. She may even have trouble finding a husband. If the average user spends at least an hour or two a day on Facebook, imagine how much useless information his/her brain is soaking in. Being involved in the small details of other people's lives every day can backfire. Some people I know have had breakdowns and ended up deleting their accounts on Facebook because they couldn't control their own time anymore. They became obsessed with other people's lives. Extremely unhealthy.
For those of us who can exercise self-control, Facebook can be a true blessing. I keep in touch with friends and family living abroad and I'm up to date on what goes on in their lives. Furthermore, I let them know what's going on in my life. It's all about balance. If you're going to use Facebook, take my advice and never spend more than half an hour a day online. Never. Only add people you know, and for heaven's sake, if you find yourself drowning in other people's lives on your screen, remember there's a 'real life' out there waiting for you!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Preparing for the Big Day in Salalah

Published February 16, 2010 - Muscat Daily

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

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sugar Shortage Shock: A Good Thing!

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

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Shisha Café Scene

Published January 19, 2010 - Muscat Daily

Anyone who visits Salalah is bound to drive along Haffa beach in the old souk area, or what we locals call 'The Corniche'. It used to be a quiet area where you would often see families sitting at their doorsteps chatting or fishermen mending their nets on the sidewalk under the coconut trees. Sadly, now all you see on that long stretch of beach are white plastic tables and chairs belonging to the cheap restaurants or ' cafés ' that basically serve tea and shisha (commonly known as hookah), and very little else.

 If you drive along the beach any evening of the week, between 5 p.m and 2 a.m, you'll see hundreds of Dhofari men in small groups at these tables smoking shisha and drinking tea. Not only is it popular here among local young men, but it seems to be very popular with the tourists. Shisha restaurants don't exist only on the beach, but can be found practically anywhere in town, in hidden alleyways, in farm plantations, and now even extending up into the mountains. Is Salalah slowly turning into the shisha hub of Oman? Do we want that kind of publicity?

Looking back, I am guessing that this unhealthy habit appeared in Salalah back in the mid 1990's. However, nowadays it has become a social trend that is well integrated into the daily routines of men in Dhofar. Most of the men who hang out at these restaurants are between the ages of 20 and 40. Dare I compare them to pubs in England? Both are male hangouts. Both provide the opportunity to socialize. Both are places where you can watch sports on television. Both may or may not employ attractive female waitresses. Last but not least, both serve an addictive substance.
It amuses me to see that men tend to believe that spending hours smoking shisha adds to their social status & sense of prestige. I asked a number of people I know why they find shisha so attractive, and their answers were very similar. They all agreed that shisha makes them high, kills all the spare time they have on their hands, and provides an atmosphere for socializing. As a person who suffers from allergies, I have no respect for people who smoke. What's so great about filling your lungs and the air around you with smoke? Does it make you feel good about yourself in the long run? I doubt it.
Sadly, there are several places in Salalah now where even women can get their dose of tobacco. Personally, I think it's an extremely unpleasant and unhealthy habit and I will never understand why men do it, let alone women.
I've come to notice that many users here believe that shisha smoke is significantly less dangerous than that from cigarettes. The moisture induced by hookas makes it less irritating and thus may trick the smoker into thinking it's the healthier option. Studies by the World Health Organization have confirmed that use of shisha is as harmful to a person's health as smoking cigarettes, if not more. In a one-hour shisha session, users consume about 200 times the smoke and about 70 times the nicotine as they do in one cigarette. People who smoke shisha have five times the risk of lung cancer as non-smokers. Why do it?
Several shisha smokers I know claim that if they had something more interesting to do, they'd probably quit. Perhaps Salalah needs more sports facilities, useful entertainment centers, bowling alleys, bookstores, cinemas, and more decent places to kill time? More activities for young people? Sounds like a topic for one of my future articles!