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!