Below is an entry submitted by a participant on AMIDEAST’s first Intensive Arabic Program in Muscat, Oman. A student at Loyola University Chicago focusing on International Studies and Arabic Language and Culture, Sam Nelson-Mann reflects on his summer spent in the Sultanate in 2014.
I hate to be overly-predictable, but the first thing I noticed upon leaving the airport in Muscat, Oman was the heat. It can be… oppressive. I stepped outside to a crowd of Bengalis, Indians, Omanis, Indonesians – a truly global mixture, and a good indicator of what I would experience throughout my month-long stay in the Gulf country. I came to study Arabic for four weeks, and that I accomplished. However, what surprised me the most about my time there was what I learned about the greater plurality of the Arab world as a whole.
I had spent time in a host of other Arab/Middle Eastern countries in the past, but had never before visited the Gulf. What I discovered, contrary to the politically-volatile situations in Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt and Algeria, was a peaceful, stable, and relatively happy country, ruled over by a seemingly benevolent leader and enjoying a period of unprecedented economic prosperity and growth. This was troubling at first, because I had grown accustomed to studying the political economies of the countries I was visiting, and in the face of almost complete lack of strife, I felt almost as if there was nothing to be learned. After all, I had chosen Oman over Amman because I knew almost nothing about it – Oman tends not to come up in discussions about international affairs, even when discussing the Gulf.
All of this changed however, beginning with our AmidEast excursion as a group to the town of Nizwa and outlying mountain areas. On our voyage, we were divided into groups of three or four, each group piling into a desert-ready Land Cruiser and embarking on the several-hour journey out of Muscat. On the way, my roommate and myself enjoyed several hours of stimulating, in-depth conversation about both Oman, the Middle East and the world of international politics with both our trip guide (and AmidEast instructor) Faisal, and Hamza, our driver. Faisal lent his perspective as an Omani Arab from Muscat – a young, single man raised in the city, and we were treated also to the unique perspective of Hamza – an older man originally from Zanzibar, who had fought in the Omani infantry and had impeccable English through classes at the US Embassy. It was eye-opening and extremely enjoyable to be able to share and engage these types of issues from various viewpoints – no less in Arabic!
My worries about being “bored” by Oman were finally put to rest when we had the chance to sit down and break fast (iftar) with our Omani professors at a wonderful restaurant in Muscat. We all sat around the table, enjoyed inappropriate amounts of food, and eventually broached the subject of Middle Eastern politics, US foreign policy, Islam and the west and several others, until all had had a chance to argue and debate, and learn about the different opinions and perspectives – in short, we unexpectedly engaged a discourse that I did not expect us to, but was extremely grateful to have engaged. I felt lucky to have been able to gain such an intimate and in-depth perspective into a society I previously knew so little about, and my month there will be an experience I cherish for a very long time.