Ibrahim Project, June 5: A diplomatic ascent in Nizwa

← Previous: Ibrahim Project, June 4 (Part 2): Politics & society in Oman

This is part of a series of posts on my participation in the Ibrahim Leadership and Dialogue Project during June 2012.

The University of Nizwa

After the concentrated, constant influx of information we’d received the previous day, our next excursion felt like the perfect repose. On our second day in Oman, we drove further into the interior to have lunch with some students and faculty at the University of Nizwa. The first non-profit university in Oman, the University of Nizwa is almost eight years old now. It was initially put in the place of an old school, but is currently building a new campus in a different location. Aesthetically, I think the original campus will do, but the plans for the new campus look amazing too.

We were greeted by some faculty members, Amanda and Brian, who took us to the place where we’d be eating lunch: the “male cafeteria.” It was a little surprising to see that there were two different cafeterias for men and women here—it’s probably not an unusual occurrence, but I had never considered eating arrangements in an Islamic context before. Later we noticed that in many rooms there were also separate entrances for men and women. I don’t know the reasons behind this design, but I’m inferring that it’s pretty representative of the people’s religiosity—measures like this probably reduce mingling, or, for the entrances, unnecessary physical contact. I wonder how strictly this separateness is observed (has anyone dared to sit in the wrong cafeteria, or do some people use whichever entrance is most convenient?), and it’s possible this just exists to respect the wishes of the people who are more strictly observant. But the select group of female students that we met, who sat in the male cafeteria with us, were clearly willing to talk and open up to the boys in our group. Also, men and women still sit together in classrooms at the school—though that situation may be viewed differently, as the classroom is primarily for learning, and having men and women in the same classes probably assures that they get the same quality of education. And that’s great—I think that’s a very realistic, moderate application of those values.

As the other students and I settled at the table, Maggie insisted that we all sit with at least one open chair in between us—so that the Omani students would be dispersed enough that we could all talk to someone new, rather than find ourselves at a table with Americans on one side and Omanis on the other (that sounds like typical diplomacy, though, doesn’t it?). The students—all females—arrived and sat down with us, immediately starting up conversations. When we introduced ourselves one-at-a-time later, I learned that most of the girls were studying English translation. One of the girls I spoke to wants to become a translator, though another wants to get her Master’s in Business Administration and will be studying in the U.S. soon—so even within the same area of study, these students often had acutely different ambitions for the future. The girls’ ages and backgrounds varied as well, some younger, some older, some already married, some not even considering the subject yet. What they all had in common, however, was their manifest intelligence, open-mindedness, and friendliness. As we told them how much we loved Oman and the people in it, they reinforced for us that very sentiment. Brian, a teacher at the school, even joked that “the tourism slogan for Oman should be that there are no tourists, just guests.”

 I enjoy learning about other countries, but it’s also fascinating to learn what people from other countries think of my own—and this was a recurring theme as we talked to the Omanis in Nizwa. One student who visited the U.S. said that Americans were very kind, different from what she saw in movies, and not as she expected. These sentiments were echoed by some of the others who had been to America. Even more interestingly, another student who, like all of the others, wears an abaya and hijab, was afraid that dressing this way would elicit stares and taunts from Americans—but she found that they actually treated her much better than she’d thought. I so was happy to hear how well these girls were received. It’s also worth noting that we’ve seen how Americans aren’t the only ones who depend on the media to learn about the rest of the world, causing huge misconceptions and stereotypes. Furthermore, actually visiting other places and meeting people yourself can be much more eye-opening than watching a movie or reading a book. There’s a reason the term “armchair anthropology” exists (while programs like the Ibrahim Project exist to combat that problem).

Later in the day, at a more formal roundtable discussion with some of the same students and a few other people, we met a professor named Houmid, who is an IIE Fulbright Scholar that studied at the University of Wisconsin. He said that he also expected the U.S. to be like it is in movies—full of parties, sex, and gangsters on the street—but during his time in the country, he also met people who were very kind, and he faced no racial issues. Houmid even got to meet Hillary Clinton—he told us, “I don’t really like her, but it was an honor to meet her” (I thought this was funny, because that’s exactly the type of thing I would say were I to meet a high-ranking official with whom I disagree). Of the other Americans he met, he said that many didn’t even know where in the world Oman is, but they were “eager to know more about that which they don’t know,” asking questions and actively trying to learn (which, as I wrote earlier, Jihan also noticed during her time in the U.S.). The discussion continued, and one thing Houmid said really struck me: “what we have in mind about Westerns is that they don’t have good relationships with each other.” Maybe he just knows about our high divorce rates, or maybe he’s spotted key cultural differences—our individualism at the sacrifice of our communal bonds, the impersonality of our personal exchanges, or perhaps our unsettled struggle toward achieving true tolerance. Upon comparing our culture to Houmid’s and that of others, there’s definitely truth to his statement.

The room where we held our roundtable meeting. It’s hard to find a room in Oman that doesn’t contain a picture of the Sultan. Or a plate of dates.

Houmid also told us that, in the U.S., he went to church with his friend every Sunday for four months. This prompted us to discuss Oman’s reputation for religious tolerance. We were told that there is no distinguishing between sects of Islam here—even when you have an imam in a mosque, you don’t know whether they are Sunni, Shi’a, or Ibadi. I don’t know if I really believe this statement—we did see a Shi’a mosque in Muttrah, which explicitly said only Shi’a Muslims could enter. And, in my understanding, Shi’as pray a little differently than Sunnis do (though I’m not sure if there are differences in Ibadi prayer), so I’m guessing a Shi’a imam would be rather distinguishable. The divides still exist here, visibly, although maybe not deeply. Shifting the discussion toward the politics of this unique country, one student noted that culture plays a significant role in politics, so “certain things that work in Oman couldn’t work elsewhere,” as there is much diversity among Arab countries. And on the subject of women, we were told that women can drive and go anywhere alone. The status of women in Oman is also indicated by the fact that the Omani ambassadors both to the U.S. and the UN are female.

Boxes full of frankincense at the University of Nizwa science labs.

We didn’t spend all of our time sitting and talking; we also toured the campus, checking out the different buildings and departments. We saw the science labs, where students were working on experiments related to frankincense, an aromatic substance that is widely used in Oman, and we looked through the library—which, to our awe, was full of textbooks and literature of every kind in both English and Arabic. After leaving the University, our group drove around the city of Nizwa for a bit. Much further into the interior than Muscat, we could see mountains all around us, and it was so beautiful.

The front of the Nizwa Fort, a massive castle that is the country’s most visited monument.
Near the Fort is a souq (market), where we saw many men and cattle hanging around.

On top of the world

We returned to the University and met up again with Amanda and Brian, who accompanied us up to the mountains. We had to transfer to special four-wheel drive vehicles to make the ascent, because it’s incredibly dangerous to drive up there unless your car is built for the job—apparently a family of 12 died as their car drove off the mountains earlier this year. Before going to our mountaintop hotel, we stopped at a beautiful area called “Diana’s Viewpoint,” overlooking the mountains that some refer to as “Grand Canyon of Oman.” I’d never been to any kind of mountains or mountain plateau before, so I felt overwhelmed and enthralled by this especially breathtaking view. It was one of those moments where I just snapped back into reality and found myself in disbelief of my location. It was perfect.

Unbelievable.

One thing I’ll note is that it’s (obviously) much cooler up in the mountains than it is elsewhere, making the evening weather not just tolerable, but enjoyable—another perk of our new surroundings.

A view from our lovely hotel.

After reveling in this beautiful view, we drove up to where we were staying that night, the Sahab Hotel—“sahab” is Arabic for “cloud,” which appropriately described our mountaintop location. We freshened up, the girls and I battled a (seriously) giant cockroach (don’t let that discourage you from using this hotel, though, the whole place is gorgeous—and the roach was quickly taken care of), then headed to the hotel restaurant for dinner. Ask and you shall receive: I finally—finally!—got to have Pakistani mangos, along with a great dinner (but that paled in comparison to the mangos, really). At dinner, we also had a great discussion about Oman, America, and our time together as a group. Jake M. described one part of our discussion quite well:

Tonight’s debrief centered on one main topic: where do you draw the line between asking questions you are really interested in learning about and ensuring that you are not offending anyone with your question? Often, we all feel compelled to discuss a certain topic but don’t quite know how best to approach the conversation with out hosts without sounding offensive. For example, Jake and I were both curious about their views on Judaism and Israel. Luckily, the girls I was talking with took the initiative to ask me about our time in Israel. This, however, only came after I had brought up my appreciation for Islam and Oman. But how do you approach sensitive issues like this? In Oman, the topic of succession and the Sultanate is a touchy subject, but one that we all, and especially Mark, want to know more about. But, as Brian said, the Sultan is so loved and respected that nobody really wants to think about or discuss a time when he is not in power. So how do you broach the subject? The answer is still unclear to us, but we all decided that it was incredibly important that we do ask these crucial questions, albeit in the most diplomatic way possible. If we don’t ask these critical questions and solicit responses from real people whose lives these issues effect, then we are shirking our responsibilities as Ibrahim Fellows and ambassadors of understanding and dialogue. Going forward, this is a challenge I think we are willing to take on. After all, it is in the pursuit of important knowledge.

I think Jake put that really well. Speaking of asking important questions…

In the midst of discussing the Clinton family (why it came up, I’m not sure), we expressed our opinions on Hillary Clinton’s time as Secretary of State (relevant, given what Houmid said earlier). Mark and both Jakes told us that they believe she’s doing a fabulous job. I felt a little differently—I do think Hillary’s done well, but I had a hard time falling in love with her given the hypocrisy that emerges when she criticizes the actions of other countries, when we do some similar (or, sometimes, worse) things ourselves—for example: drone strikes, anyone? Amanda nodded her head in agreement. But Jake G. noted that it’s not really her fault that many of these things happen, and there’s only so much she can do as the head of—not the military—diplomacy. I think that’s a good point, and I’ll add that Hillary, despite her power, is ultimately answerable to the president on this (though she does seem to support drones herself). But if even our head diplomat, in serving our state, isn’t in a real position to change policies that affect the countries she deals with, what kind of power is that? If I were asked to be the Secretary of State, or a envoy to Pakistan or Yemen, under a president that uses drones extensively (again, this is just an example), would I have to decline because I disagree with my supervisor? Would I even be asked to do this job when I disagree on such a major issue?  Or would I be able to tell the president, in this role as a diplomat and expert on foreign policy, that one of his policies is harming our relationships with other countries—perhaps getting him to change course? As a student “diplomat” in the Middle East, I think this discussion about formal diplomacy is relevant and important. In my career, I’d ultimately like to influence policy, using my understanding of other countries and their people to make sure we take the best positions we can—I don’t want the role of just expressing American “interests” in a diplomatic manner, without being able to advise on what are actually bad choices. And it is my belief that policies that positively affect other countries improve American prospects as well (part of my anti-drone position stems from my perception that drones are not helping America in any real way). It’s not a zero-sum game, and I know I can serve my country well without damaging the countries of others. Where this sentiment fits in with the broad scope of diplomatic efforts, I’m not sure. But part of our participation in the Ibrahim Project is an “Impact Plan”—where each of us outlined how we will use our experience to create change back home—and that’s the kind of diplomacy I appreciate. Some of the things I’ve expressed here, in this digression into my political views and aspirations, may be somewhat controversial (and I clearly am pretty confused, perhaps misinformed, about the role of American diplomats) but I think it’s important to share the thoughts evoked by this trip. If you’re reading this and have some thoughts of your own, I’d really appreciate if you left a comment.

Back to less serious matters: this, like all of our other dinners, was another moment of bonding for the group. Even a few hours earlier, as we drove up into the mountains, Aaron, Brian, Jake G., Dillon, and I conversed extensively, sharing about our families and even our love lives. At dinner, the boys expressed their amazement at how it’s only been five days since we first met. I think there’s something special about a group like ours, both in purpose—we were chosen because of our common interest in learning about other countries and understanding different people—and size—there’s only six of us, and it might have been harder to connect with everyone had we been in a larger, inevitably cliquey group—that made us connect so well. I feel so blessed and thankful for being able to travel like this, but also for being able to meet these amazing people. I don’t know how many times I’ve said that already in just five blog posts, but it really cannot be expressed enough.

From left to right: me, Dillon, Talene, Sundus, Jake M., and Jake G.

Note: if you didn’t catch on, there’s a specific reason I titled this post the way I did. There was our physical ascent into the mountains, yes—but more importantly, we had a real moment of diplomacy, as we students met other students, representatives of this country. And of course, there’s my whole aside on American diplomacy. I don’t think something as simple as describing a day at the University, or going to the mountains, or whatever, would have captured some of the complex themes of this reflection. 

Next: Ibrahim Project, June 6: Oman, from the mountains to the sea →

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