Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Lest We Forget : Anniversary of the Dhofar Protests

Published February 28, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article on the website.

This week, the people of Dhofar are quietly observing the first anniversary of the protests that erupted in Salalah on February 25, 2011. It's hard to believe that a year has gone by since the day protesters marched through the centre of town with banners demanding reform.

They set up huge tents and a stage in the Minister of State's parking lot in central Salalah, where they remained for 77 days. The parking lot – nicknamed 'Freedom Square' – became the centre of attention during those months. Hundreds of people from all walks of life visited the sit-in on a daily basis to talk about a new Oman.

On Fridays, thousands flocked to the square to listen to the widely anticipated Friday sermons. Temporary food kiosks and water facilities were set up to cater to the needs of protesters, and donations were pouring in on a daily basis to help provide meals.

Dhofar wasn't the only province that suffered from Arab Spring fever. Despite very little media coverage in most local newspapers, protests were erupting all over Oman.

After negotiations took place between sit-in organisers in different parts of Oman, a final list of demands was delivered to the palace and then printed on a large banner and fastened to the Minister of State's main gate in Salalah.

The long list included demands for better economic conditions, more jobs for Omanis, freedom of speech and an end to government corruption. During those difficult few months, the government worked through the list in a remarkable and efficient manner.

Royal Decrees were issued on a semi-daily basis announcing jobs, benefits, a new public university, legislative powers for Majlis A'Shura (the closest thing our politically immature nation has to a parliament) and many other major changes.

Unfortunately, the sit-in didn't end peacefully in Dhofar. By the end of April, many satisfied protesters had gone home, but a couple of hundred who were hoping for more change continued with the sit-in. By then most of the major demands had been fulfilled, and the rest were either unrealistic or required more time.

On the evening of May 12, all hell broke loose in Salalah when the army arrived and aggressively took over the square. All communication services were shut down in Dhofar during the raid and several hundred men who happened to be in the square at that time were arrested and taken to the local prison.

Nearly a dozen key speakers and activists were plucked out of the square by helicopter and taken to a prison facility up north, where they remained for over 50 days.

Unfortunately, I was near the square at the time and had my precious Nikon D90 confiscated by the ROP after foolishly trying to get a shot of locals clashing with the army at the entrance to the square. After being interrogated and forced to wait in my car for nearly two hours, my camera was finally returned to me and I was allowed to leave.

The next morning, supporters flocked to the square and formed another quiet sit-in to demand the release of their friends and relatives from prison. A friend of mine managed to get onto the roof of a nearby building and snap photos of the army during their second raid.

Sometimes I look back at those photos and think to myself, “Did this really happen? How very un-Omani.” For weeks afterwards, the army presence remained strong in central Salalah. They finally withdrew just as our busy monsoon tourist season was starting.

To this very day, most locals frown upon the excessive use of power that ended the peaceful sit-in in Salalah. After all, it really was nothing more than a large communal debate in a parking lot over thousands of cups of tea.

Regardless of what happened, I think the Omani version of the Arab Spring is something to be proud of. Our uprising was a good example of how a nation can work together to create positive change…peacefully. It was liberating and very healthy for us.

At the height of the Arab Spring drama in the Middle East, several renowned international media publications had the audacity to compare the situation in Oman to places like Egypt and Libya. Only those of us living here knew how ridiculous these allegations were.

The situation here was completely different. People wanted economic reform. There was no rebel party and no one was trying to bring down a regime. Omanis wanted to voice their opinions and be heard.

Looking back now, I think one of the main lessons we learned as a nation is that public dialogue is not a crime. Standing up against corruption is not a crime. Challenging the status quo is not a crime.

During the past year we've broken boundaries that many of us never knew existed. The fact that I can discuss this in a local newspaper is quite something! I'm proud of the protesters for speaking up on behalf of all of us. Without them, tens of thousands of people would still be without jobs and none of these incredible changes would have taken place.

I'm also proud of how the government and His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said handled the messy situation. Excluding those few days of chaos in Sohar, the Omani uprising was peaceful.

Looking forward, one thing is clear to me; with freedom comes responsibility. We can no longer be referred to as a 'sleepy nation.' The only way forward is hard work and dedication.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Muscat Beckons

Published February 14, 2012 - Muscat Daily. Click here to view article.

Every summer tens of thousands of Omanis from northern Oman head to the south for their annual Khareef migration. Dhofar's lush monsoon is the perfect getaway from the soaring summer temperatures in Muscat and the interior.Local newspapers bring up the migration on a regular basis throughout the monsoon season and the Ministry of Tourism posts teams at airports to record the number of visitors going into Salalah. It's a big deal.

However, has anyone noticed the annual exodus of Dhofaris to Muscat during the cooler months of the year? I have. Last weekend I treated myself to the spectacular South African ballet performance at the Royal Opera House with a good friend.

My weekend involved the usual shopping, a mandatory coffee at Shatti al Qurm and a brief visit to Muscat Festival at Qurum Park. The difference with this trip is that I spotted people from Dhofar wherever I went.

Muscat Festival and the major shopping malls were packed with Dhofari women on shopping sprees. Dhofari men could be seen lounging in all the cafes on the beach enjoying Muscat's beautiful February weather.

You may be wondering how I can pick out a Dhofari in a crowd. Trust me, it's easy. Dhofari women can be easily identified from the face veil with the eye slits, glittery abayas and their clip-on hair pieces the size of large melons.

The men are even easier to identify from the way they walk and – for lack of a better word – their swagger. Their dishdashas are usually quite long and sometimes even touch the ground. Their kummas' (caps) are usually tipped slightly to one side and often they have a tasseled turban thrown over one shoulder or draped casually over their heads. The Dhofari accent is also very easy to identify.

So why have Dhofaris chosen Muscat as their top holiday destination? First of all families in the south can be quite large. It's convenient to pack the whole family into a couple of cars and drive up to Muscat to spend a week or two in a rented apartment. Salalah is pretty deprived when it comes to shopping malls, cafés, restaurants, cinemas and entertainment, hence the fascination with Muscat. The capital area is a very nice place to be in during the winter.

Whenever I'm in Muscat, I use my time to catch up with friends, meet new people, stock up on treats, and pretty much indulge myself in every way possible. There's always something interesting going on, and the newly opened Royal Opera House has given me even more reason to fly up regularly. I have been to four performances already and look forward to many more in the coming years.

As a Dhofari woman, Muscat also allows me to be anonymous if only for a few days. I relish the freedom of cozying up in a café and working on my laptop without worrying about being stared at or recognised by members of the tribe (female…. face exposed …spotted at café… chaperone-less…must report!) I'm exaggerating a bit, but you know what I mean.

Dhofar is pretty conservative when it comes to women. I know Muscat and Salalah are only a 1,000km apart but they might as well be two different countries.

I do enjoy my brief jaunts to Muscat, but I'm always ready to come home when they're over. The hustle and bustle of the big city is fine for a weekend, but I can't imagine spending more than a week in Muscat. When the pilot announces the beginning of the descent to Salalah on the flight home, I put my book down and look out of the window to admire the view. I can never get enough of it. The moment the desert turns into smooth hills and I see the green banana plantations, palm trees and pristine beaches, my heart skips a beat. Muscat has its charms, but home is where the heart is!