First Impressions of Oman
As the news buzzes with controversy over “burkinis” on French beaches, I’m surrounded by burka clad women in shopping malls, grocery stores and the hotel where we’re staying. Living in European and US cities I’ve, of course, seen women wearing burkas and head scarves, but it’s another thing entirely to be in the minority, to be the only one NOT wearing the traditional religious symbols of Islamic dress.
Today as Maggie and I ventured to the mall attached to our hotel, we passed by a Dunkin Donuts, Gymboree and Children’s Place, as well as kiosks selling head scarves and stores displaying black burkas on mannequins. I watched Maggie, gauging her reaction, and to my surprise, she seemed unfazed by the newness of it all. I thought maybe I’d need to tell her not to stare, but I didn’t; somehow she knew this was our new “normal.” I suspect it helped that we found a Baskin Robins and got scoops of Rainbow Sherbet. And we did go into several toy stores, (for “birthday” market research). But admittedly, I was the one who felt strange and out of place to see so many women covered up, maybe as strange as it is for them to see me uncovered.
I’m still formulating first impressions and being careful to refrain from making snap judgements or assumptions, but it’s difficult to remember MY way is not the only way, or the best way. Even as I’m immersed in Omani life, it’s hard to grasp THIS is how things are done.
Men are everywhere and comfortably visible. They run everything at the hotel–the front desk, housekeeping, the café. It is a man who brings me extra toilet paper or fresh towels when I call. And the hotel has a separate WOMEN ONLY workout gym and pool. It’s fabulous, but admittedly, strange to see ONLY women.
Perhaps the most striking contrast for me has been our day at the beach. Our Embassy sponsors (and “insta-friends”), were kind enough to take us. I knew a strong dose of sunshine and a dip in the Omani gulf would be good for our jet lag. We packed our sunscreen, snacks and towels. Maggie and I wore our modest tankinis under cover-ups, the boys had on their usual swim trunks, t-shirts and flip-flops just like any other beach day, but when we arrived I could see it wasn’t going to be just like any other beach day.
Yes, the waters were lovely. The sun was enough to coax you into the sea without being unbearable. It wasn’t crowded but again…men everywhere. Men wearing shorts without shirts, wraparound skirts, wet sarongs tied at their waist (very visible I tell you!), swimming, gathering, talking easily with friends. But where were the women? When I scanned the beach more carefully, I did see a few, but no one was wearing a swimsuit and certainly nothing in the color fuchsia pink like mine! They were dressed in muted colors, wearing headscarves and dresses or skirts that flowed past ankles onto the sand.
I was so grateful to meet our new friend’s wife and their three small children playing in the water. She was wearing a swimsuit, but with a t-shirt over top. (I felt like the gal in the office who “didn’t get the memo.”) But amongst friends, I was fine. Still, if I’m being honest, I was self-conscience in my swimsuit. Not in an, “Oh no, I have cellulite,” kind of way, (I know that feeling), but like one of those dreams where you arrive somewhere and you’re still in your underwear. (You’ve had that one, right?)
Despite the shallow depth of the water, I bent my knees till my body was covered and remained that way for the greater part of an hour. We had fun and the sun felt amaaaaazing. But when it was time to get out, there was my self-consciousness again, me in my bright fuchsia pink swimsuit. Lovely. It only occurred to me just now, maybe this is how women in France feel wearing burkinis. Hmmm…
While quickly wrapping my towel securely around me, I noticed a young girl walking into the water, maybe 10 or 11 years old, wearing a pretty pink tunic, (something I’d buy for Maggie), only hers was paired with matching leggings and a swim cap. Literally a swim “suit.” My American friend told me then, “I’m considering buying yoga pants to wear to the beach.” I told her I thought it was a good idea.
We moved onto the grass and showered sand off of our legs. The call to prayer sounded in the distance. Chanting. The calls happen 5 times a day, the first one starting at 4 am. I’m told it has an added line, “Prayer is better than sleep.”
At that moment, all I could think about was sleep. My body was heavy with jet lag when my son leaned over and asked, “What are we going to eat for dinner?” Luckily our new American friend, who introduced us to another new American friend, (that’s how it works in the expat world), said, “How ‘bout I drive you to Papa John’s for take-out.”
Talk about an answer to prayer! He picked us up two large pizzas and a round of diet Coke’s and drove us back to our hotel. We showered and sat down to a hot meal and Netflix. I know this place isn’t “home” yet, not even close, but I’m sensing the possibilities. I’m also sensing there’s a lot more I need to learn and I’m willing to believe first impressions don’t give the whole story. This is only just the beginning, but at least we got Papa John’s.