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!