The cultural leap from my last trip (a vacation to Cuba) to this teaching tour in Oman could hardly be greater: from mojitos, skimpy spandex, and ubiquitous live music, to tea, abayas, and rarely even recorded music heard anywhere – although in similarly hot climates, on different oceans, at exactly the same latitude!
I was in Oman a couple years ago through the US Embassy to teach English teachers techniques in arts integration using puppetry. The relationship between the Oman government and the US Embassy at that time did not allow me access to the schools, so the workshops were all held in the embassy building. However, I was put in contact with the National Ministry of Education, and my wonderful contact, and now friend, got the funding for me to tour the Teacher Training Centers all around the country. So I’m here giving eleven five hour workshops – and seeing a lot of the country in the process: from sea, to desert, to desert mountains, ancient castles, even more ancient tombs, lively souks, and, of course, camels!
But, the most interesting to me are conversations with people – particularly the women. The people here are warm, friendly, and open. Not, of course, like in New Orleans, where strangers greet each other on the street, but the English teachers and education supervisors I meet are all eager to make connection and share thoughts and ideas.
Following are a few impressions, some typed in from notes I made while riding hours from one city to another.
A warm and generous teacher supervisor in Sohar spent an hour with me, driving me around the city, to the giant Lulu Hypermarket (a lot like Walmart) for something I needed, and to get a delicious avocado blended drink with fruit on top. In conversation, she told me that women must have higher grades than men for college acceptance. Beyond that, however, she said job opportunities and pay rates are equal. However, she indicated a cultural issue in that men feel they do not have to work that hard – that opportunities may come more easily to them without the effort women must give.
She also spoke of Islam, saying that women have a degree of freedom. She said covering of the face and hands is optional unless – she mentioned in an aside – the woman is particularly beautiful. She did speak with envy of the comfort of the men’s traditional long, white dishdasha and sandals, as opposed to the women’s black abaya. The only men allowed to see a woman without her abaya are her husband, sons, father, and brothers.
I was told by someone else that the Sultan is actually not strict about women’s attire – that it is the families who are choosing to do this. And that there is almost a competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran about who better upholds Islamic traditions, and Omanis may be somehow influenced by this.
Lunch another day with two other female supervisors in Buraimi. (They invited my driver to eat with us, but he refused – certainly because of the gender separation issues.) They were very candid as we sat in a private, curtained booth upstairs – separated from the open table area for men downstairs. One of the women partially covered the lower part of her face with her scarf when we passed through the downstairs room to the stairway. The few men ignored us.
We discussed education and job opportunities for women, which they said was equal. I decided to ask if it was indeed true that men could marry more than one wife. They looked at each other in maybe chagrin and said yes. They said they thought it was a bad idea, but a wife has no say in this. When we discussed children, I asked if they had any. They both said no, they were not married. One added she does not trust men and the other nodded in agreement. They had been working for a number of years, first as teachers, now as supervisors and I would guess they were in their mid to late 30’s. They had both been to the US for study, one as a Fulbright Scholar. I felt that they were in no hurry to risk losing independence.
One mentioned going to movies and theater in the US and enjoying these (not available here). She said people in the US asked her what she did at home for fun and she could not think of anything. She said she thinks a major problem of her culture is that people do not know how to have fun.
Theater is not a part of the culture
Mishmish invited me to the stunning National Opera House to see a touring Monaco based production of Romeo and Juliet, which was lovely. She told me that opera, musicals, orchestral concerts, and ballet, are presented in that theater, but no plays. Why story along with music in an opera or musical is acceptable, but theater alone is not, she did not know.
However, the teachers are loving working with the puppets as they create stories, make shadow puppets, and present their work in performance. Almost all classes are all female. Society here is extremely divided by gender. In the one class in which four male supervisors chose to participate (with great enthusiasm), at first some women expressed nervousness about presenting in front of the men, but they all did it and the men responded well.
I am also showing them some other simple puppet building techniques using easily available materials – including free scraps from the local tailors. One teacher was inspired by a scrap of traditional male wedding attire fabric to make a groom. When the puppet was finished, he chose a bride among the other puppets (I was told actually his mother would do this). Then he chose another bride. I asked if it was indeed true that a man could marry more than one wife. “Oh, yes, but not on the same day,” was the answer. Silly puppet.
Since these are all English teachers – some with better command than others of English themselves – I am suggesting they build stories around a simple vocabulary list. Most are more comfortable telling folk tales, favorites being Little Red Riding Hood, The Billy Goats Gruff (with a bear next to the bridge), and the Three Rabbits (rather than Pigs).
Evidence of ancient cultures everywhere
From tombs dating to 3000 BC, to fortified castles built by various peoples to defend against various marauders, I observed the gamut from beautiful and informative displays, to unmarked and unsecured ancient ruins.