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!