Learning to live like an expat

The same lounge act was tucked in the corner of the hotel bar when we walked in for the third night this week. Two ridiculously petite Asian singers dressed identically – this time in tight, short red dresses with large yellow cummerbunds. They were accompanied by an averaged-sized Asian man in blue jeans and a solid blue T-shirt. The lead was belting out a rendition of Anne Murray’s “You Needed Me” that was even sappier than the original. The smaller of the two would occasionally sing harmony. On rarer occasions she sang lead.

I can’t decide if the band is talented or not. The keyboards are pretty basic. The singing, for the most part, is on key though high notes challenge my ears if I listen too carefully. For me the biggest issue is that I can’t decide if they are even singing or just lip-synching to the random covers spanning five decades of American and British music. While the vocals are consistent and adlibbing seems to occur every so often, the lead is able to vary the positioning of microphone as far as her tiny arms will let her and the volume and clarity of the lyrics never seem to change. That makes me wonder. I also can’t imagine that one person is able to memorize the words to so many songs. Personally, I’m thankful for karaoke machines.

Not surprisingly, we see some teachers and join them. The lounge act has now moved to a number from Les Miz. Despite the distance we travelled (about 50km), this is the closest bar to our college. Many teachers have taken up residence in this ocean town and I wonder how many have because of this, as opposed to getting that much closer to Muscat or the desire to be on the coast. A handful of them seem to be here constantly. Given that a pint of beer or watered down cocktail runs about $8.00, I can see why some have mentioned being short on cash.

Yet here were are again as well. We know that bonding and accepting invitations early is important so people keep us in mind once the semester actually starts. That means coming to this hotel bar three nights out of four on the edge of nowhere. What else are we going to do on a Friday night (think Saturday night, given that our weekend runs Friday-Saturday)? There are far worse ways to spend time. So far, everyone we’ve met is really nice and the company is welcome; some of our colleagues have been in Oman for over ten years – some even more than fifteen. Eleven years ago, Rustaq (where we live) didn’t even have electricity. I listen in amazement at how much this country has changed and  continue to contemplate the authenticity of the musical entertainment.

We aren’t the only ones with nothing to do on a Friday night. In addition to the expats – not just us teachers but also some from the American Army and Navy – several Omanis in their traditional white dishdashas are here now that mosque is over. Fridays, the main holy day, is closed down (except for large shopping malls where all the non-Muslims hide in the AC) until about 5PM and then the country becomes alive again. Most of these men (no Omani women would be here) are drinking, which of course is forbidden; enough so that one needs an alcohol permit to purchase booze, and that can only be obtained if you get a special release form from your employer. Not that this hotel bar cares one way or another. This is a place for escape for everyone and everyone is served.

The level of drunkenness is apparent. Lots of loud voices without conversation partners babble in the small space. Though the music has something to do with the decibel level, the intensity is really all about the lack of sobriety among the Omanis. These guys are either rich or have a tolerance akin to a junior high student in order to be this intoxicated.

The first sign of trouble came from a non-Muslim woman yelling about the Sultan in Arabic. At first she did this from the comfort of her chair, surrounded by Omani men who paid attention to varying degrees. As she stood up, I could see she wore a conservative pullover sweater paired with leggings way too warm for the climate and a jean micro-mini. The outfit screamed 90s Western, but I couldn’t tell her nationality. The helpless security guard came in – he isn’t allowed to touch women and so he called in for backup: the hotel desk clerk who smiled and held out her hands as if to draw the drunken woman into an embrace. Intoxicated or no, she wasn’t buying it. Everyone stopped to watch as the banter grew louder (everyone that is, except for the lounge act who was now attempting an Adele cover). The customer won out as the clerk and guard left and the woman slumped back down into her chair, spilling her drink all over herself. Eventually she left and didn’t return; a server wiped down the orange pleather chair. I assume it was she who left the soju flower (or whatever the Middle Eastern equivalent is) in the first bathroom stall.

As the night continued two more incidents happened. This time the culprits were men, so the security guard was able to do his job, escorting one man out by holding his hand and walking out into the lounge, and shoving the other out into the night through the back. Fighting didn’t seem to be on anyone’s agenda, but this place is deemed a four-star hotel so such ruckus isn’t really tolerated. I wondered how often expats got tossed – were they too poor to get that wasted or perhaps they were given special treatment in order to maintain the reputation of the hotel?

Dave and I left just before the midnight closing; the expats were gone and the staff started to look more and more nervous as the Omanis showed no signs of leaving. The music had stopped a while back (not sure if it was a typical or especially early ending) Our plan is to come here less frequently once classes start – once a week tops – and limit ourselves to one drink. If we’re successful, we’ll have to find some other forms of socializing and entertainment. This may or may not be possible.

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