After class

Today the female students linger, instead of rushing out the door as soon as class is dismissed like they usually do (the men never stay longer than necessary). Then only one remains. She is smaller and quieter than many others, rarely speaking with her friends even after the boys have left. During independent work times, she has tried to teach me Chinese – words and phrases I can no longer remember; I am horrible with learning new languages, making my love for travel somewhat at odds with my talents. I let her know how impressed I am that she is mastering not only three languages, but three different alphabets.

Now she writes a message in Arabic on the board I have just erased. The blue marker she uses has seen better days.

“What does it say?” I ask.

“It is poetry. I write poetry sometimes. I like it.”

“So what is this poem?”

“I am not sure how to say properly.” She struggles to translate the symbols she has written into something I can understand, tracing the writing as she goes.

“I see the sad color in your eyes. I wish it will go away.”

My student looks back at me, seeking approval of her translation. Or her writing. Or something.

“Beautiful. Thank you for sharing what you wrote.”

She smiled, looked down, and left to find her friends.

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I found the real Dubai

I look down and see the whole world below me. Traditional clothing spanning many continents. Workers pushing carpeted-covered carts full of bags of rice. Women pushing strollers. Tourists carrying backpacks and cameras. Shop owners standing outside scanning for customers. Cars honk and move slowly.

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View from my hotel balcony during the day. I love the brick sidewalk

Across the way, balconies house dilapidated furniture, air-con units, and drying laundry. Pigeons, the universal sign of city life, perch temporarily before finding more suitable resting spots.

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The apartments across the way

Call to prayer from at least three different mosques fills the air, creating a chaotic round of song. The underlay resembles a swarm of bees; the notes on top, a Gregorian chant. No one below seems to pay any mind.

I feel at peace among the buzz.

At night Deira becomes even more alive. The streets are packed. Several languages are spoken. Sellers increase their aggressiveness and try to lure you in to buy their textiles, cell phones, animated toys, and watches. Stores restock. Most of the women disappear, leaving men to dominate the streets. People continue to work. Restaurants — Pakistani, Senegalese, Egyptian, are all open late. This is a side of Dubai I enjoy  — a far cry from the last time I was here. Now I understand why people want to live in this city.

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I’m not sure why I find this setting so comforting. It’s so easy to get lost in the moments here. It reminds me of Toronto in its vibrant diversity. There’s a rhythm about it that is soothing and energetic. I imagine the people down there living full lives. Difficult, possibly simple, but full.

Alison’s Rule

My office mate has worked at the college for over ten years. When I first arrived, she was quick to offer words of comfort and advice about how to navigate this new culture. One of the first rules she told me was, “Only expect to get one thing done each day. That way, if something else happens, it will be a pleasant surprise.” I thought she was being a little extreme, but I soon realized how literal she was.

Yesterday, I finalized my class schedule and with that, I should have called it a day: I got something accomplished! But no, I pushed my luck – got greedy, even. Later, we tried to get a spare key made. There is one place in Rustaq that provides this service and it’s over the mountain, in the old part of town. “By the bank,” several people said, “You will see it.” We kept asking people where to get a key made, because we couldn’t believe there was only one place, despite the presence of several hardware stores and even more auto shops of various kinds. Yet, the answer was consistent enough and our own efforts to track another location down were, of course, fruitless. So, up over the mountain we went. True enough, we found the place easily enough but were met with the unexpected: It was going to take ten days to get a new key made. The key shop ran out of keys.

Alison is right: Only try to get one thing done every day. So choose wisely.

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Seeing this street sign makes me laugh every time I see it. I think Oman is trying to tell me something.

 

Tourism in Oman

As part of the Sultan Qaboos’s plan for Omanization of his nation, the leader wishes to have less of Oman’s GNP be dependent on oil, and more on other industries, especially tourism. I have been lucky to have had the chance to be a tourist in many countries, and it’s interesting to see this industry in its true infancy. When I have gone to different places, I bring a certain set of expectations when going to a tourist site – there will be information to help me find a place; there will be more information (signs, guides, books, pamphlets, etc.) so that I learn what makes the place so important; attempts to preserve historic relics will be made, and; there will be tacky souvenir stores hawking plastic memories I can buy to remind me of where I have been. Though other places I have visited lack some of these things, here in Oman it’s a case of none of the above.

First, signage here is horrible. Want to go to that famous fort or castle? Good luck finding it! There may be a sign at some point in your journey, but not a follow-up one. Oh, and the famous site may be called several different things spelled in different ways, so be prepared to know all variation of what you are looking for.

Congratulations! Despite all odds, you make it to a tourist spot in Oman! Want some educational/historical information to go with that? Ooooo – sorry. No can do. There were no informational guides/pamphlets/maps available at any of the following places we have been: Rustaq Fort, Job’s Tomb, The Grand Mosque. You better read up on these sites on the interwebs if you want to know what you are visiting and its historical significance. There aren’t even any signs telling you what you are looking at, when it was built, etc.

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This is the only sign to let you know you are looking at some cool, historical stuff.

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And here it is! Wish I could tell you more, but I can’t.

History is not only hidden through lack of information, it is also covered up through over-restoration. For example, Al Hazm’s Castle looks like this now — it was built in the 12th Century, from the little information I can find out about it online.

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Brand-spanking new and overly polished! Note: The flag is half-mast to honor Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who had just died.

Meanwhile, right around it are ruins of the old village it stood to protect. Nothing is being done to preserve (note: I did not say restore) these remnants of old buildings – and no, the buildings are not labeled. They just surround the place. Luckily, it seems acceptable to have an amble around on one’s own.

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Ruins behind Al Hazm Castle. I have no idea how old they are, or anything else relevant. But note the mud bricks and straw door/roof.

Finally, if you want to remember your visit here in Oman, please take your camera. You can get a tacky T-shirt in a hypermarket, but good luck finding a snow-globe, magnet, or even a postcard. Yes, souvenirs are easily gotten in a souk, but not at tourist sites in general. But speaking of souks, they sell little that is truly Omani. It seems that little of the heritage of this country has been preserved such that one can bring home something that is unique to this place. There are some exceptions such as frankincense, weavings, and khanjars, but overall, it’s hard to materialize memories here.

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Khanjars (traditional Omani knives) at Muttrah Souk

Maybe the more materialistic aspect of tourism isn’t something that Oman should change. But if this country wants to become a true tourist destination, and help its national economy, it’s going to have to clue us into what’s going on around here — and make more magnets.

Author’s note: This is an incomplete post, but I am having trouble articulating everything that I want to say well. I truly could go on and on about this, but felt like I just wanted to get my initial thoughts out there and perhaps revisit this topic later.

The Killing Fields

The first time it rained we were walking around the lake. Our audio guide piped in the stories of those who survived the era. The headphones had long since lost their padding and hurt my ears. I heard tales of death, rape, hope, torture, survival, pain. We sat in a small pagoda to seek shelter as the audio tour switched to a requiem written in honor of the Killing Fields.

As we were waiting out the storm, a young girl rode up on her bike; her father (or some older man) was with her. They pulled in and he began to do some small repairs on her bike as she sat across from us and looked out onto the water, first shyly smiling our way. I listened to the music, and then to more firsthand accounts of the genocide that was responsible for the lives of one in four Cambodians during the 1970s. I looked at the girl. I would have been her age – between 7 and 11 years old – when Khmer Rouge kidnapped its people and brought them here for their final moments of life.

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How much did she know about her history, where she was? I looked at her father – what did he survive? How many family members did he lose? What does he remember? What brings them both to this place, which houses the memories of an error of complete terror for their entire nation? It’s possible they live on the grounds; I had seen primitive shelters around – home to those who serve beverages to tourists and otherwise work onsite.

The rain stops and we continue on the tour, stopping dutifully at the designated stations to listen to more history. I see bones sticking out of the ground as the audio describes how the mass graves have yet to be completely dug up. I cynically wonder whether those were placed there on purpose, then I decide it doesn’t matter.  Chickens run across the mass graves despite signs instructing otherwise.

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The tour ends at the monument where 17 levels of skulls and bones are on display. Each human remain has a color code on it to describe how the person died – axe, bamboo, having their throat cut with a palm frond. Bullets were rarely used because they were a precious resource not to be wasted on the death of these men, women, and children. Dave and I take off our shoes and buy some flowers from a vendor to place near the monument/resting place. The audio says tourists are allowed to take pictures inside, but it doesn’t feel right to me. Not that anything does. I settle for taking a couple of pictures when I leave the temple.

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The second time it rained was when we were inside the museum, watching a documentary about Khmer Rouge, Pul Pot, and the decimation of an entire nation.  I wanted to see this second storm as a form of cleansing for my soul so I could be freed of the heaviness of what I learned. I sort of tricked myself into thinking this way for a little while.