The Sultan of Oman
We meandered over to ladies’ night about an hour after it began, and it was much busier than usual. We did not know anyone there, but that was fine. We felt like relaxing and talking to each other that night. There was only one table with two open seats. A couple around our ages sat on the one end and a rowdy group of already drunken teachers was firmly rooted at the table adjacent to it. We asked the couple already seated if we could have the open spots and they obliged.
Rob went to the bar to order us drinks. I people watched which is always fun on drunken teacher night. I listened to the teachers next to me speak about their students, bosses and colleagues with such bravado. It did occur to me that these very teachers might just be complaining and laughing about my children. I have only seen one or two of my daughters’ many teachers. I tried not to think about that. All the teachers are very young here. By day, the ones that I have met are serious, very professional and kind. By night, they are a completely different animal! This does not bother me though. I was once a young traveler. Live and let live.
Map of Oman, for anyone else who did not really know where it is.
Rob returned with our drinks. We talked amongst ourselves for a bit, until somehow we struck up a conversation with the 40 somethings beside us. The man beside me was an Omani, and his girlfriend beside Rob was an English woman. They live in Muscat and were visiting Abu Dhabi for the weekend. It is so exciting for me to find myself sitting beside someone from Muscat—a place that, I have to admit, was not even really on my radar until we landed here a few weeks’ ago. So, we settled into a lively conversation with them. The Omani turned out to be a UW grad and had lived in Seattle for many years. What a coincidence! We had just left a town about an hour south of Seattle. As a result of his time abroad, he was very westernized, western friendly and had travelled a lot. He spoke with such passion about how breathtakingly scenic his country is. We had planned to visit it at some point, as it is very close, but it was low on our list. It just got bumped up. We cannot wait to visit Muscat, Salalah (a desert seaside town: one of only a handful of places where the frankincense tree grows) and the many other places we learned about from them.
The Omani, let’s call him the “sultan”* because he was very stately and fashionable in that uniquely middle eastern way–that a rare few master in any country, and I could not pronounce his name without sounding stupid.
Think Karzai!! Always well-dressed!
How many can wear that hat?
NOT Gadaffi–too flamboyant!
Gadaffi or Carlos Santana?
The Sultan was dressed to the nines with very expensive shades perched on his head intentionally even though it was 9 or 10 at night. He carried himself in a cool and collected manner, barely breaking a sweat on this balmy 90-degree night, while the rest of took great strain in the heat. We were a stark contrast to him dressed casually; my hair matted down to my neck drenched in sweat looking as though I had just been to the gym. He smoked long, thin cigarettes while sipping red wine. He spoke wistfully of his homeland: the mountains of Muscat, spice souks, and shishshas in between drags. His descriptions were something straight out of the 1,001 Arabian Nights, as were his mannerisms and linguistic anachronisms. He spoke English as though he had learned it from a late nineteenth century textbook—free of slang with purposeful, mostly archaic words.
I found this moment a unique opportunity to ask him the many questions that may have been inappropriate to ask of just any middle eastern person–let alone one that I might have to see again. I figured this guy had had a couple glasses of wine, and he’s lived in the states. He was the ideal candidate to ask a few straight forward questions, right?!
So, I embarked upon a quest to ask all my burning questions about this region. Rob gave me that look that he always gives me when he just knows that I am about to ruin a light evening out with a series of VERY serious questions, and, of course, I did! You probably get that this is kind of a habit with me. I think it is rooted in the best of intentions. I am just so curious about people. I want to know what they believe, what makes them tick, their politics, their religion, et al. In short, I want to know everything!! I try to be tactful about it, but sometimes I get too excited–like that night. I have so many questions about why things are the way they are here, and this poor man had the misfortune of allowing us to sit with them.
Let me preface this by saying that this night out was at the end of last week, right when things appeared to be cooling off with the US – Syria conflict. When the war drums started beating, I worried that it might escalate into a global conflict, and we would have to leave our new home. I also worried a bit for our safety since 3/4 of my family members are American. I reject this war-mongering wholeheartedly. Perhaps I want people to know my politics outright and to know that I am not “that sort of American?” I am sure I over compensate out of insecurity, because I am an American in the Middle East. I was certain that everyone who is native to the Middle East must resent anyone who is American for all our conquest here, but I wanted to know for sure.
And I asked. He uncrossed his legs, turned his whole seated body towards me looking aghast. He threw downs his arms dramatically palms up. He looked amazed that I could possibly think—for even a second—that he would not love and welcome any American, any anybody here? “Why?” He asked again shaking his head a little melodramatically. “How could I dislike you? You are here visiting my peninsula, my neighbors. You must have thought it worthy of a visit? We are very welcoming people. Can you not see this?” I told him that, of course, I feel very welcome here, and how excited I was to not just visit this place but to make this my home for possibly 10 years! He seemed to be very excited at this prospect, but he still did not understand why I would think he could hate me simply for being an American. He said, “You cannot help where you are born. You do not make these wars. You are simply who you are, not only where you are from. This is how everyone thinks everywhere, no?” He not only searched the eyes of everyone at the table for support. He implored it, but the English girlfriend sheepishly only gave him an uneasy half smile. She concurred that it is not an easy time to be an American or a European in the Middle East probably. I imagine this is a bit like slavery guilt. Half of my family was not even in the USA before slavery was abolished, but I feel guilty about it. I want people to know that I am not racist in the same way that I am not for American imperialism. But I did not stop there, I asked him many more questions about women’s rights, world and regional politics, religion & war, and the one question that every expat wants to know here: Why do people drive so badly in the roundabouts? He thought they were quite orderly. Of course he did ;).
In general, he was a good sport. There were more than a few very uncomfortable moments–mostly for Rob who thinks I am too nosey, and he’s right. I am. My round of questioning raised some uneasy moments in their budding relationship, e.g., the things they had yet to talk about to one another alone were now aired out for 4 of us. That night, I learned and I do believe it’s true that we are not measured only by the place of our birth or our nationality. We are measured by our openness and willingness to fully immerse ourselves in another culture with an open mind whether you travel to the next county or country. I do not think that the sultan, for one moment, had any disdain for me because I was an American. I think he felt honored that we were so excited to learn about his country, language, culture, and that of the entire Arabic peninsula for that matter. I think that I am going to stop feeling so bad about being an American. Sure, we do a lot of questionable things internationally, and the USA is in quite a state of disrepair, but it’s my homeland. From now on, I shall sit back and refer to it wistfully as he does: talk about its beauty and its wonderful people (there are so many that I miss terribly everyday!). I am very fortunate to be from there, able to return there if I so choose, and able to leave it to visit wonderful places like this. Sure the US has blemishes, bad people and contradictions that I am not too happy about right now, but MAN OH MAN!, people sure know how to drive in roundabouts politely. How I miss that! I will honor my country the way he does his. Though I am more than just my nationality, I am a representing my country whether I wish to be or not; I am a real life ambassador.
The Real Sultan of Oman
*The real “Sultan of Oman” is this man, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. If you would like to know about him, here’s some information. He’s loaded, apparently beloved and, I would place him in the Karzai category of fashion personally. I did not mean to offend anyone using the term the way I did. I fully respect his highness and his fashion choices. I hear his country is amazing, and I cannot wait to visit it! I think you all should visit Oman as well, if you are ever nearby.