The Middle East: A Year Later
As we approach the year mark of living in Oman, I’m stunned by how much time has passed, and how quickly this place has become “normal,” even routine. My initial fears of driving and getting lost (and never seeing my children again), are silly to me now. The sights and sounds—the constant battering of construction next door, the calls to prayer five times a day—have, for the most part, faded into the background of life.
But if you ask me, ‘Are you used to living in the Middle East?’ I’d answer ‘No, not really.’ There is still too much I can’t wrap my head around. Starting with where I live, on the northern shore of Oman in Muscat. It’s difficult to fathom that when I look out over the serene ocean, just across the cerulean blue waters, lies the country of Iran—one of a handful of countries without any formal U.S. diplomatic relations, and a notorious member of Trump’s travel ban. And if I wanted to, though I wouldn’t, I could drive to Iraq; it would be like driving from California to Utah, only different, of course. Yemen is closer still. Our neighbor. One border away. And yet, I can’t travel there either. For all intents and purposes I’m geo-politically land locked. It’s a form of isolation that’s hard to explain.
Lots of things are hard to explain, actually. Coming from a Western democracy, it’s hard to grasp a culture where religion and government are one and the same, where education is as much the responsibility of the minister of education, as it is the minister of religion, where social norms—everything from what you wear to how you eat—is dictated by your faith. It’s hard to comprehend even when it’s in front of your face.
We’re now in the holy month of Ramadan. I had no appreciation for what that meant, until I discovered that for 30 days, ALL restaurants, ALL cafés, ALL small road side swarma shops (that you wouldn’t even want to eat at) are closed until 7 pm. Starbucks is closed. McDonald’s is closed. My favorite smoothie shop, yes, closed. There’s nowhere to go if you want a quick lunch with friends or didn’t pack your lunch at work or if it’s the last day of school and you want to get ice cream to celebrate…you’ll have to wait until ‘Iftar Time,’ 7 pm. That’s when everyone prays (for the 4th time) and breaks their fast. It stands to reason, that with eating establishments closed, lots of shops are closed too. Not a lot of people are out and about when the entire country is fasting.
On the other hand, my husband comes home more for lunch, and the kids, having nowhere else to go, appreciate my increased efforts to create ‘restaurant worthy’ meals for the table. It’s taken my kitchen creativity to a whole new level, and in a small way, allowed us to see what life was like, before all of these alternatives to the family kitchen existed. I can see too, that this ritual brings comfort to the devout and faith to those who fast with real intent, honoring the meaning of Iftar, by sharing food with the poor and making each evening a special time for family and reflection.
But if you’d have told me that a government could dictate eating hours, or a man caught eating, a Muslim man, could be taken from his place of employment and put in prison for the night, I would not have believed you. I would not have thought fasting could go that far. But it happened, to an employee of a friend of ours, and though they are from the Middle East, they were shocked too.
I had to go to the grocery store, inside the mall, and pick up a few items this week. Micah came with me, the-ever-helpful-out-of-school-Senior-with-nothing-to-do (those were the days). As we passed from 111-degree heat outside, into the merciful cool air of the mall, a guard approached us with a grim face. He told us we needed to leave because my son was wearing shorts. Let me be clear, these were long shorts, half-way down his knee shorts, and he had on a nice t-shirt too. We were told that during Ramadan, women should have their arms and legs covered, but this was new information. I could only assume the guard was ‘hangry’ and overly cautious, so I thanked him and kindly explained we were on our way to H&M to buy the kid pants…he let us pass.
There are things I see and experience that are hard for me to understand, or put into context. Telling someone to leave the mall because they’re wearing shorts is one of them and grocery shopping is another. It’s not just that foods are different and sometimes I have to shop in two or three places to find the ingredients I need. That happens everywhere. It’s that the food comes from countries where, given the chance, I wouldn’t even be allowed to travel.
On my most recent grocery trip, I bought Mangos from Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. Every 10 minutes a child under five dies there from preventable causes, largely due to malnutrition! It’s a staggering statistic and equally as hard to come to grips with, is that 3.3 million Yemenis have fled their country, and of those who remain, more than half don’t have enough food and more than two-thirds don’t have access to safe drinking water. And I’m buying their mangoes. It feels wrong, but the sad truth is, they need to sell their produce so they can pay for other goods and services, so in a small way, I’m actually helping. I can’t wrap my brain around it.
So, to get back to my question, no, I’m not really used to living in the Middle East. I’m experiencing life here, day to day, but I’m in a constant state of mentally processing. Luckily, experience is a patient teacher, and at some point, I may be able to say, I understand how life in the Middle East works. But for now, I don’t. And I am sure, if this were all turned around, someone from the Middle East living the U.S. could find reasons to wonder about our own cultural conundrums.
Ultimately, whatever our cultural encounters may be, our experiences come down to this: how people treat you. And I can say, for the most part, I encounter kindness, generosity and welcome wherever I go. And that’s a good feeling. It’s not uncommon to be greeted publically, by a stranger, as ‘Sister.’ The title implies our connectedness, and no matter our differences, I believe at our core, we’re more the same than we realize. Here in Oman, I’ve met devout Muslims who inspired me with their consideration, hospitality, and family values. They often make me want to be a better Christian.
Recently, I was exiting my car to go to the kid’s school. I was carrying a heavy load and struggling to shut my car door, let alone hold everything. A woman saw me and came to my rescue. In the course of our walk up to school, she introduced herself, told me she was from Libya and confessed that she worried for her country and worried about going home and worried how they would survive. It was a reminder that though we may be different, we all worry about the same things—our children, the future, our safety. Given the recent attacks in London, it would be easy for ‘us’ to perceive ‘them,’ all Muslims, as the same. But that just isn’t true. And this caring stranger in a head scarf, is just one example of Muslims I know with beautiful hearts. She made me think of something Henry David Thoreau once said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
What do we see?
The world is complicated and there’s so much to ‘see.’ Maybe if we keep our eyes open wide, we can acknowledge our differences, while still making room for one another. We don’t need to be the same to find respect. More than anything, I appreciate when a person sees me in Oman for who I am, and gives me the space to be the Westerner, I can’t help but be. Our differences aren’t the problem, it’s how we see them. So for now, I’ll keep trying to ‘see’ the world, to keep processing and understanding, that’s what I can do.