Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Salalah Shuffle

Anyone who flies Oman Air regularly between Salalah and Muscat will immediately know what I’m talking about. Someone had to write about it eventually. It’s just too comical to ignore.

Last week I was in Muscat and on my last day I had to attend an all-day meeting then immediately head to the airport to catch my flight back to Salalah. By the end of the day, I was exhausted and looking forward to a smooth flight home.

I checked in early to make sure I was guaranteed a window-seat, and the woman at the business class counter cheerfully confirmed she had secured it for me. I thanked her profusely and headed off to the superb Oman Air business class lounge; one of the perks of being a loyal Sindbad Silver member.

If my air miles were credited to my account accurately, I’d probably be Gold by now, but I don’t mind. I’m a pretty content flyer as long as I get my window seat. Did I already mention that?

When I reached the designated gate for my flight, my heart began to sink. I counted at least 20 veiled women waiting at the gate. This could only mean one thing; The Salalah Shuffle was bound to happen. Despite my intense prayers as we boarded the flight, luck wasn’t on my side that night. A very large veiled woman was planted firmly in my seat when I arrived.

I sighed and handed the cabin crew member my boarding pass. Without batting an eye, she directed me to an aisle seat a few rows down. I told her I had specifically requested a window seat but she repeated again that I had to move to the aisle seat.

I gritted my teeth and settled down in the new seat. I didn’t bother putting my bags up in the overhead bins because I knew I’d be shuffled at least one more time before the flight took off.

Within a few minutes, a tired looking man arrived and informed me that I was sitting in his seat. I stood up and apologised, explaining my situation. He nodded and confirmed that he was familiar with the Salalah Shuffle.

After consulting a cabin crew member again, I was shifted to yet another seat. By this time, all hell had broken loose on the flight. There were stubborn women blocking the aisles because they refused to sit next to any strange man. Other women had simply taken over empty seats and refused to move, as was the case with my precious window seat.
Honourable men jumped up from their seats and swore they’d give them up for any woman. Frustrated tourists were trying to understand what was going on. Cabin crew members were frantically trying to seat and re-seat everyone so the flight could take off on time.

And that my friends, is the Salalah Shuffle.

After being moved three times, I was finally assigned a middle seat at the back of the plane between two annoying people who hogged the arm rests the entire flight. Boy was I glad to get home that night!

If you’re not familiar with the Salalah Shuffle and think I’m exaggerating, rest assured that I’m not. I have been on over 35 flights between Salalah and Muscat in the past twelve months. If I’m not qualified to write about this, then I don’t know who is. I am a survivor. With every flight from Muscat to Salalah I am prepared for the inevitable chaos that will surely ensue.

Sometimes I’ll be settled in my seat when a cabin crew member will approach me and beg me to change seats because a stubborn woman somewhere is refusing to sit next to a man and somehow I look like a friendly person who doesn’t mind switching seats.

Most of the time I’m happy to oblige because I feel sorry for the flight’s cabin crew. The Salalah Shuffle is a bigger nightmare for them than it is for people like me.

You may be thinking cabin crew should just be stricter with their arrangements. That’s true. However, when an elderly woman (or several!) has taken over someone else’s seat and refuses to move, how do you deal with a situation like that?

You can’t delay the flight or force her to move. It simply doesn’t work. Shuffling and re-shuffling passengers is extremely frustrating and a complete waste of time. Furthermore, for security reasons I assume it’s important to have people seated in their designated seats.

Why not look for a win-win situation? Society in Salalah is still very conservative and I fully understand women’s hesitation to sit next to a strange man. My humble suggestion to Oman Air at this point is to unofficially dedicate the back few rows of every flight between Salalah and Muscat to women. Surely that can’t be too hard, right?

Whenever a woman checks in, send her to the back. It’s the same as dedicating the first row to women with babies. There’s a logical solution to any problem, and as far as I’m concerned the Salalah Shuffle has gone from being deeply amusing to plain annoying. Makes you wonder how Saudi Arabian airlines function!

Published December 20, 2011 - Muscat Daily

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Monotonous Ribbons

PS (I wrote this immediately after the ridiculous women's event I attended. I was furious. And yes the guest of honor yet again was the Minister of State, HE Sheikh Mohammed Marhoon Al Mamari)

It all started when I was six years old. My first grade teacher would excitedly announce to the class that our school was having an event.

We would be forced to make posters and tidy up our classroom to impress a certain guest of honour who would be visiting our school. A makeshift stage would be set up, speeches would be written, and trash would frantically be collected from the school grounds.

Someone with wasta would contact Oman TV and beg them to send a cameraman to document 'the event'. Someone else would contact the newspapers and ask them to send reporters.

The guest of honour in most cases would be an Omani man, usually between forty to fifty-five years of age. He was almost always a senior government official, be it the Minister of State or the local municipality head.

He would arrive dressed in a crisp dishdasha, khanjar (dagger) and holding a fancy walking stick. The prettiest girl in class was usually chosen to hold the cushion on which lay a pair of shiny new scissors which His Excellency would use to cut the red ribbon at some student exhibition that was put together mostly by teachers.

He would nod and smile as students nervously explained the projects and posters their teachers had made to impress the guest of honour. After a quick tour and obligatory photographs, he would be rushed out by his entourage and it would all be over.

Did the event accomplish something? Was it organised? Not really. However, it didn't really matter as long as we made it to the second or third page of the newspaper the next day.

In college and high school, student clubs would snooze all year and then there would be a sudden burst of activity when the administration announced an 'event'. These events involved the usual red ribbons, long pointless speeches in flowery Arabic, tired dignitaries, and many exhibitions put together in a hurry to please the chosen guest of honour.

A few days later, an awards ceremony would be held to honour the students who participated in the frantic assembly of pointless exhibitions for the first event. The ceremony of course included the obligatory checklist of Omani red-ribbon protocol in addition to cheap gifts wrapped in shiny Christmas-theme wrapping paper.

Twenty years later, I'm still trying to figure out why we continue to organise such events. They involve no creativity or passion, and most certainly no humour at all. I mean, heaven forbid should we ever make our guest of honour laugh, right?

To me, these occasions fall under the category of 'Omani Red Ribbon Events' .i.e., events with lots of pomp and ceremony but very little content. Over the years, I'm pretty sure I have attended over one hundred events of similar nature, and on every single occasion I ask myself 'why am I here?' I know not all Omani events are as boring as my description, but almost 99 per cent of the ones I've attended were.

A couple of weeks ago on the occasion of National Day I was invited to attend an event honouring women from Dhofar. The invitation card stated that one hundred women from this part of the country would be honoured for their achievements and contributions to society.

I put on a fancy abaya, grabbed my notebook and pen and headed to the event. For the first time ever, I was actually excited to attend an Omani red-ribbon event.

I arrived at the venue and was immediately told I couldn't go in through the main door because women went in through the side entrance. I thought that was a little odd considering the fact that the event honoured powerful women.

Nevertheless, I didn't make a scene and quietly moved myself to the side entrance. In the gender-divided ballroom, I managed to find myself a seat with a good view of the stage and the audience.

As we waited for latecomers to arrive, I was able to survey my surroundings. Over a hundred male guest officials looking uncomfortable in their khanjars, tired looking cameramen, and the familiar table with a mountain of gifts wrapped in shiny gift-wrap.

Nearly an hour later, the guest of honour arrived with his entourage and took his seat in front of the stage. The first five-minute speech felt like an hour. The second speech felt like ten hours. People began to play with their phones and stare at the ceiling. I began to lose hope.

When the final speech ended, I clapped half-heartedly along with everyone else and waited for the exciting part. When the master of ceremonies finally appeared with a list of names and the guest of honour was invited onto the stage, I sat upright.

The first name was read, then the next, and people began to turn around and look at each other in confusion. It finally hit me that they were going to quickly read out a list of names without indicating who the women were and what they had done to deserve the award.

The names were being read so fast that at one point there were about ten women congregated in front of the tiny stage trying to figure out whose turn it was. After about eighty names, it was abruptly announced that the event organisers were handing the guest of honour a trophy.

Camera flashes went off and reporters gathered around the stage. Before the forgotten twenty women or so could object, dinner was announced and everyone stood up. One of the organisers unapologetically told our table that someone had lost the last page of names. Disappointed, I left the event.

Despite the event being wrong on so many levels, there was plenty of media coverage over the next few days as expected and the event was even featured on the news!

Till today, I have not been able to discover who those women were and what their contributions were to society. Perhaps I'll never know. What I do know is that the event was a replica of all the other pointless events I have attended over the years. If you want to renew my faith in Omani event management, invite me to something interesting. La fin.

Published December 6, 2011 - Muscat Daily