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!