After oil, the Middle East’s greatest export is stereotypes. In fact, there is virtually no limit to the kinds of stereotypes about the region, its politics, or its people. It’s cliché to say the media, both professional and social, perpetuate and frame the Middle East in black and white caricatures of what an Arab or a Muslim is or isn’t, but cliché does not mean passé. It is important to address these stereotypes, because without knowing which ones have some basis in fact, and which ones are based on prejudice, any discussion of the Middle East breaks down into disagreements over half-truths. I’m not trying to say that my time along the shores of the Persian Gulf has made me an expert on everything Arab, but I am trying to share my experiences as a way to help explain some of those stereotypes. I’m also not implying that any story I share explains everything about every Arab or Muslim, but I lived what I lived.
Before I begin, I feel like I must give this whole blog a caveat. The way in which I experienced Omani and Qatari culture was only allowed because of my gender. As a man, I was able to move about the country freely without concerns for my safety. My gender also gave me access to the portion of each country’s population that had the most people out on the street: the men. I was able to interact with locals within their cultural norms. Omani men would spend hours talking with me because I was male. I am able to go to mosques, clubs, prayers, iftars, and homes, because, in the Arab culture, it is acceptable for men to do so. If I was a woman, my access to the “Arab street” would be restricted to different interactions. I was once sitting in my hotel lobby eating dates and drinking coffee with an Emirati man who was also staying in my hotel. I was trying to talk to him in Arabic about where I was from, when one of the women from the program I was in sat down and joined us. As soon as she sat down, my Omani friend got up and explained that he had to go. He later told me that he was not comfortable interacting with the woman, which has been a theme during my stay in this region. On the point of gender relations, I found the region to be a little more conservative than I anticipated.
Said’s house. The Majlis is the door on the left. Said’s house. The Majlis is the door on the left.
One of the most dominant features of the Middle East, and therefore one of the largest sources of stereotypes, is religion. The Persian Gulf’s dominant religion is Islam. By dominant I don’t just mean that a majority of the people adhere to it, I mean that the religion dominants the societies of the region. The stereotype of Islam is usually that it is strict in its rules, restrictive on its followers, and monolithic. I found this to only be half true, at best. The rules are strict, but largely voluntary. Followers participate, but the methods vary. On a personal level, religion seems to occupy the same place as it does in the US. In Oman and Qatar, participation in religion is a personal choice. No one goes to mosque because they have to, they go because they want to. There are men here who pray five times each day, even getting up at 4:00am to make the first one, and there are others who don’t pray all five prayers, but follow the other tenets of the religion. On almost any given street in Oman you can find men with long beards, long robes, and prayer beads next to women covered from head to toe in black abayas. However, on the very same street, you can find guys in blue jeans and Nike t-shirts alongside women in colorful outfits, exposing both face and hair.
Another stereotype that was broken down on my trip was how Islam is used to frame the role of women in society. In Oman there is public debate about the role of religion in the country’s modernization in regards to women’s rights. It used to be fashionable for men to take more than one wife, and for the wives to stay home and raise the children, but that is changing. Young men in Oman now seem to want only one wife and expressed a desire for the woman to be educated and be able to work. It’s an interesting shift that seems to be best expressed through the label of a “generational gap.”
Main minaret of the Grand Mosque Main minaret of the Grand Mosque
A young Omani man named Said that I met in Muscat invited me to his home for dinner. I ate dinner with the men in the sitting room, or Majlis. This is a room specifically designed for entertaining guests and, at least in Oman, is generally as far as most male guests get into another’s home. Said and I were joined by his father and grandfather. Now Said’s grandfather was a polygamist, and at one point had four wives, but due to death only one wife remains. When Grandpa was telling me his life story, he seemed defensive and justified his multiple wives by saying that the Quran allows polygamy. Said’s dad, on the other hand, only had one wife and told me that he would not take any more wives because the Quran also says to treat all yours wives equally and he said he loved his wife too much to love anyone else. Said, whose family is already busy helping him find a wife, said he wanted to marry a woman from his university and that he wanted her to work. He too framed his decision in his religion, explaining that to me that Islam calls for everyone to “seek knowledge” and to treat all his wives equally, therefore he would marry once and she would have the liberty to work.
Now, I don’t want to paint Oman as a place where only men have a public space. Women have a very prominent role in Omani society, and that is one of the Sultan’s main points in his economic plan – to increase the number of women in the workforce. In fact, when I landed in Muscat, the very first government employee I met, who processed my visa, was a woman. A teacher in my Arabic program is a woman. Women can be seen managing shops, running errands, or just shopping in any of the markets. There is actually a gender quota for the main university in Oman that helps increase the number of men in attendance because so many women were being accepted to the university that the men needed a mechanism to discriminate in their favor. The point of these anecdotes is to demonstrate how the view of Islam as uncompromising and unchanging is incorrect and the religion is now being used as a vehicle for social change. Religion in Oman is what the people choose to make of it. While some choose to use it to perpetuate traditional roles and rights for men and women in society, some choose to use it to shape Omani society into an Islamic version of a more “globalist” or “Western” society.
One stereotype that was confirmed, however, was that of the proselytizing Muslim, almost to the point of insult. Religion is a large part of the identities of Qataris and Omanis, although as I explained earlier, the degree to which this defines an individual varies. Many times the first questions I would be asked when an Omani or Qatari met me was “Are you Muslim?” I once had a conversation with a young taxi driver who asked as soon as I got in his cab. He explained, “It is easy. You go to Mosque. You pray. You need to make the right choice before it is too late.” When I went to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat I received much the same treatment. In fact, on the tour of the mosque, I was stopped by one of the professional converters that the Omani state hires to work the mosque. He grabbed my arm while his partner blocked the door and explained that, “This life is not a game. You must make the right choice now. There is no compulsion in religion, but you are playing with fire.” Ironic words as he twisted my arm. I was only rescued by my teacher who noticed my absence from the tour group and came back to fetch me. At the same time, though, the desire to share their religion with me encouraged some Omanis to be incredibly hospitable.
Ramadan Dinner on hilltop overlooking Muscat Ramadan Dinner on hilltop overlooking Muscat
During Ramadan, the month of fasting between dawn and dusk, I was invited to participate in a number of festivities. One group of Omani men invited me to join them to break the fast. I was taken 20 minutes outside of Muscat to a hilltop where we set up a small picnic area and waited for dusk. When sunset came, the Omani men performed one of the evening prayers with me watching. It was very moving. With the sun setting over the city, and my friends speaking the poetic Arabic of the prayers, I felt a rather romantic connection to the religion and its history. Arab hospitality also demonstrated itself outside of any religious context. Once, when I could not find the local ice cream shop, I asked an Omani man coming out of a dry cleaner where it was located. He told me it was 1 km away and offered to take me in his car. I accepted his invitation and he drove me around the neighborhood looking for this place. When he couldn’t find the shop, he offered to take me to the nearest mall. So he and I, after just meeting, ended up going to a mall where he bought me an ice cream and we saw a movie together. All-in-all it was a pretty nice date and he dropped me back off where he found me about 4 hours later. That’s just plain nice. This happened frequently throughout my stay in this region. Accidental meetings turn into hours long tea or dinners. The Arab people that I’ve met are extremely happy to share their culture with me. Taxis drivers, upon hearing that I was new to town, would drive me by local historical sites and eagerly explain the location’s past.
Myself posing with Arab children Myself posing with Arab children
While in Oman, I would sometimes wear the traditional Omani outfit of a “dishdasha.” It is a long white robe that is worn with either a small hat, called a “kuma” or a turban. I did this for two reasons. First, I thought it would be fun, and I was right. Second, I felt that if I showed an eagerness about the Arab culture, then hopefully they would be equally eager in showing it to me. Again, I was right. I didn’t always wear dress, in fact some of the stories I’ve shared happened while I was wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt. On this occasion, however, I was in full Omani dress – Dishdasha, turban, sandals, and I even purchased myself a traditional Omani walking stick. I visited Jabal Ahkdar, or Green Mountain, which is the tallest mountain in Oman. It was the site of an anti-Sultan insurgency in the 1970’s and is now a major tourist attraction in Oman. During my visit, I stopped and ate at a small café near the top. As I came out, there was a large Omani family going into the café who saw me in all of my Omani glory. They asked where I was from and, after I explained (in broken Arabic) that I was a student from America in Oman to learn about Arab culture, they wanted to take pictures with me. They were excited to see me and wanted to know who “showed me how to tie [my] turban.” After some group photographs, one woman, without saying a word to me, handed me her baby and took a picture of me holding it. They got a kick out of me and I like to think that they appreciated my attempt to participate in their culture. I was warned when I first landed in Muscat, by some people with years of experience in the region, to not wear the dishdasha. I ignored them. I feel like that decision gave me opportunities to meet Omanis in a way that few other foreigners were able to experience.
If you take away nothing from this extremely long post except the following point, that’s fine, because this last point is the most important. Each story here, even the ones that seem to tell opposite stories about the same subject, have the truth buried within them. The truth is that the Middle East, its people, and its people’s religion are complicated. Contrary to the mirage of the area with which the media presents us, the people of the Gulf are just like us. Some are inviting, some are defensive, some are progressive, and some are traditional. This place is different from home, but it’s also different than what we think it to be.