Thursday, November 11, 2010

Independent Study Period

I am currently on the final portion of my study abroad program entitled ISP... or Independent Study Period. So, I'm living in Muscat making an attempt to care of every day as the dying embers of a warming fire that will inevitably fade in the morning. I have exactly four weeks to the day until I will set foot on US soil. Home. Comfort. I'm sighting that day over the horizon like land to Ulysses. My journey is closing, but not over. Nowhere near over. This month I will start a research project that I hope will take me further into related studies for the rest of my academic career. I have been approved by the Omani Human Studies review board to engage a study concerning Oman and 'Moderate Islam'.   Radical Muslims offer an explanation of global politics and recent history that glorifies Islam victimizes and privileges the Muslim tradition and is most often consistent with a simplistic view of reality. Thus, radical Muslims often preach a hatred for American foreign policy and for American values in general as well as anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim who would seek to refute their narrow belief system. I want to prove that a moderate and liberal form of Islam exists in the world, specifically in Oman. The Western political tradition has a tendency to paint with a broad brush and group radical and moderate Islam into the same discipline. While I do believe that only one Islam exists in the world, certain people go about preaching this belief in different ways. I have developed a definition of what I believe constitutes a moderate Muslim. Above all, moderate Muslims cherish freedom of thought while recognizing the existential necessity of faith.  They are progressive in the sense that they see a need to distinguish between divine laws and principles…and human interpretations, between regulations concerning worship or duties to God (‘ibadat) that cannot change…and social regulations (mu’amalat) that can be changed. Moderates shun literalism and selectivism in the understanding of sacred texts. They reject the notion that any one group can have a monopoly on defining a “correct” Islam. A moderate Muslim does not reject the validity of other faiths.
                  A have four weeks to compile a literature review and interview at least 12 local experts on my topic. Time is of the essence. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

University of Nizwa

            Putrid, pungent, rancid is that tasted smell, a bitter tinge slides past my face to sting my nasal cavity driving my senses into eye clamping, nostril squeezing defense. Such a futile coping mechanism to elude the stale stench of urine and maturated fecal matter. Germinated heat wafts off a festering morsel of meat near the sun-bathed windowsill, maybe chicken, maybe lamb, definitely a few days old. Welcome to an all male hostel at the University of Nizwa. A five-story villa with 22 rooms set suddenly and purposefully in the desert about a half-mile from the college. Men live off campus in Nizwa. Women live on campus. For one week I woke, slept, smelled, ate and laughed with the men of this all but quaint hostel in a town directly adjacent to Nizwa, Burkat al-Mouz. My weeklong endeavor was one of grindingly uncomfortable living arrangements and smoothly traversed cultural boundaries. I had my first impressions shattered and my experiences molded into emotional cornerstones for which I will always derive faith in the human condition as well as a perception of the imperative need to incessantly dispense knowledge to even the most basic levels of students, as long as they are willing to learn.
            The university is relatively new. The current enrolment is considered to be the first college generation to pass through Nizwa. Consequently, as is the case with any new organization, the kinks are not quite worked out yet. An American teacher at the school said to me, “yah, sometimes I wake up and it’s like…let’s all get together and play university.” Nizwa University is a real learning environment with some motivated students. However, there is a pervading paradigm in Oman’s developing educational structure that says just put up the sign and start moving. Rather than toiling over every detail and making sure that the functions of a specific school or learning center will go according to plan, administrators simply press teachers to move forward and essentially “play” successful academic institute in hopes that everything will eventually fall into place. While this bold tag and dash strategy leaves little room for serious planning, I kind of admire it. There’s something to be said about an organization that progresses simultaneously with the delusions of its own grandeur.
            By ‘some’ motivated students I mean women, and a handful of men. At Univ. Nizwa, every class is taught in English and by mostly British or American professors. I lived with the men of Nizwa Univ. for a week and spoke only Arabic. I was happy to get the practice. However, none of them spoke great English so I didn’t really have a choice. This lead me to believe that even though a couple of these guys were in English literature classes, they were still taking an ‘English as a Second Language Course.’  The guys I met seemed to be more interested in the fact that Nizwa Univ. housed roughly 7,000 girls to surround about 2,000 guys rather than any econ or early British literature classes. Girls are everywhere at Univ. Nizwa. They own the university. I had full conversations about politics and cultural differences with a few girls…in English. I sat in on a 17th Century American Literature class in which the American teacher did an outstanding close reading of Anne Bradsteeet’s ‘ notes on a burning house’ poem. The depth at which these Arab women were able to express themselves emotionally as well as comprehend the complexity of Bradstreet’s work in English blew me away. The class was all female and I didn’t say a word. Not because I was a visitor or estro-genetically outnumbered…but because I’d never read the poem before and was learning more by just listening to their valuable insight.
            For better or for worse, classes and social life at Univ. of Nizwa are segregated by gender. This de facto segregation reflects a broader tendency within Islam and the greater Omani culture to keep men and women apart except in marriage. I get it, it’s easier to concentrate academically when there is no pressure to appease or impress the opposite sex. Men learn differently than women, visa versa. Islam and Oman have chosen this path long ago and therefore present academic institutions should respect the trend. Make any argument you want for the validity of gender segregation in schools… my Western lens will always have me see it one way. Girls and guys should be educated and socialized together. The men I met at Univ. of Nizwa have grown up entirely cut off from the opposite sex. Their mothers and sisters don’t count. Consequently, women have become objects to be revered, feared and intensely desired by men who have no idea how to socialize with them. They consistently asked me about “strategies” for how to “trap” the best woman. I told them everything I know and just how I did it, when I was in the eighth grade. The more pertinent issue arises when those men who do want to succeed academically and professionally and have never been beaten by a girl on an algebra test move into the work force and are supposed to function efficiently and cooperatively under a female supervisor. Univ. of Nizwa is an English speaking university with English professors that teach their students to interact with English materials. There will be female supervisors and there will be men who hold a false sense of pride in a societal constructed stereotype.  i.e. men should hold higher positions than women.  
            The men I lived with have it in there minds that they are set for life. With a family and some land to live in to, a wife that will be chosen for them and hopefully a college degree…life in Nizwa should be smooth sailing. Education is just a bonus and school is a great social life… a way to look at girls and talk about girls and never speak to them. Women who don’t want to accept their fate as wives and mothers and as life long dwellers in their respective villages view education like a basketball in the hood, it’s a way out! Presented with no other alternatives for intellectual expression or social mobility, school has become a beacon of light and an intersection of respect for women in Nizwa. If men don’t step up to the plate and if the system in Oman does not recognize the issue at hand with affirmative action for males who are motivated…change will occur and it will have two x chromosomes.  An educated mind is a free mind, and freedom of thought is impossible to retract, regardless of gender.
            Oman is facing a tough future. The loss of its ‘rent’ based economic system through the exhaustion of oil reserves is inescapable and imminent. Sultan Qaboos is not old, but he is not young. Will Oman go the way of Yemen as NYT writer Nickolas D Kristof suggests it could have 45 years ago? (… Or will education prevail and allow Omanis to carry their nation through hard times with innovation, linguistic diversity and technologic expertise? Only the crystal ball or the sands of time can tell. However, the University of Nizwa is the perfect place to start formulating a hypothesis.
            Afterthought: I met a few guys who were truly motivated students and were genuinely concerned about the intellectual condition of their comrades. One guy sticks out in my mind… he had lost both of his parents two years previously in a car accident and was granted a scholarship to Univ. Nizwa to study economics and English translation for four years. He was genuinely concerned for his less motivated buddies, but also for himself. He wants to work in America some day and have a family…but he is not sure if he will be able to speak good enough English in order to make the kind of money needed to support a family in ‘the home of the free’. I really felt for this guy. He was not granted a scholarship to Sultan Qaboos Univ. (often considered the Harvard of Oman) and he had no place else to go. Education is his only stepping stone to prosperity.  He is unique but not alone. There are guys who want to lead and foster change in Oman at the Univ. of Nizwa. However, they lack a sustained enabling community.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wahibi Sands and Nizwa

                                             The Wadi Bahala in Oman's interior is an oasis.
                                      A slender water canyon winds its way through the mountains.
                                                                       Cliff jumping.
                                                                     Cliff diving.
                                                                       A higher plane.
                                Outside of Nizwa, a group of men hand crafts the traditional Dhow.
                                             Heavy blocks of wood are carried to the deck.
                                              A man splits wood used for tacking the hull together.
                                                           A fisherman and his hungry dogs.
                                                                  The Dhow's architect.
                                                               It's all done by hand.
                                                          Fishing under the bridge.
                                                            The Wahiba Sands Desert.
                                                        The sun setting on the Wahiba
                     A sand dune experience: my driver decided to jump ship and steer from his door.
                                     Ahh, the old pilot and co-pilot bail at the same time trick... funny?
                                                    Bedouin children catching some shade.
                                                    Children in Burkat al-Mouz near Nizwa.
                                                A village of Al-Jabal Al-Akhdar mountains.

                                                         An abandon mountain village.
                            I scaled the mountainside along a slender falaj (irrigation canal) system.
                                         A child of Nizwa, sitting in his backyard banana farm.
                                                On every farm, there is work to be done.
                                        A woman in Nizwa walks some tall grass off her land.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Started in Dubai...ended in Qatar. A Feminine Analogy.

-Brother, look at those two females…
-Which ones are you referring to?
Right there, standing adjacent to one another, the blonde one and the dark haired one... that woman behind the window curtain is standing at their back sides, can you view them clearly?
-Oh yes, yes, I see them clearly. What’s the issue with that female behind the curtains?
-I don’t know man, I can’t see her face but I think her male companion is standing next to her so f’ that. Seriously dude, the blonde and the brunette, those girls are the talk of the town and we need to check them out, are you up for it?
-Yah, I guess so…let’s find out who they are first, my brother, Amir, knows everybody at this party!
-Dude, are we going to have to listen to him talk about his trip to Dubai and Qatar again?
-Yah dude, he will probably talk about his travels for a bit, just to let us know he is all worldly, then he will introduce us to the females, don’t worry.

Amir: Ok guys, Dubai has two things worth talking about. Well, maybe there are more than two haha but I was only there for three days and I was so messed up the entire time I don’t remember much haha, you feel me. Dubai is awesome.
            Gentlemen, let me tell you about Dubai Mall. Dubai Mall is the biggest mall in the world, the f’ing biggest! It has the biggest indoor fish tank in the world and has the most department stores under one roof than any other mall ever! Anywhere!  I saw stores for every brand you can think of, Gucci, Prada, Armani, Zara, you name it. If it’s famous and expensive and screams opulence with ear piercing astuteness, this mall most positively allows for its spontaneous consumption. I spent so much money in this place it’s not even funny. Seriously, I’m not laughing.
            The stores are great, the variety is amazing, but the real treat is the eye candy. Western women strut around flaunting their skin like it’s a fashion show designed by Hannibal Lector. I’m talking lower backs, upper thighs, chests and much more. It’s all on display for the dollar in Dubai Mall. You just have to look fly and look expensive and you’ll make Dubai happen. Ok so after you get pimped out at the mall, hit up the Gold Souk.
            The Gold Souk. Miles of shiny glass windows protecting shiny gold trinkets and jewels all sparkling and shimmering with extravagance. This isn’t your standard jewelry store, brothers. And in Dubai, nothing seems to be standard, that’s just the rule. Further down the street in the Creek Area of Dubai is the rest of the souk. Vendors on top of vendors. Shops on shops. Shoulder to shoulder bustle and hustle. Fake Rolex, fake designer bags, cheap clothes, anything you can think of that should be expensive and hard to find is here. Even sex. Yah, just walk around for a bit, you’ll get asked to visit with some ladies if you know what I mean.


            Qatar is different than Dubai. The city is calmer and didn’t seem to be as crazy. But like Dubai, they’re loaded. Oil money to spare and then some. I’ll start with Education City. Qatar has brought in a couple of big name American Universities to service its young aspiring minds. They pour huge amounts of black gold profits into this palace like compound of the liberal arts and needless to say the facilities are decedent. The Qatar Foundation utilizes its enormous pocketbook to bring in academic personas from around the globe. Cutting edge debates often occur and BBC World often televises them. It’s really invigorating. The souk in Doha is also pretty cultured. The shops tend to carry historically significant items like Kanjars and Abayas. They even sell falcons! You can get traditional shwarma right off the street or you can live it up some designer restaurants, right in the souk! The souk itself looks really old and exactly what I pictured an Arabian souk to look like. It’s so clean and well organized too! Doha has had some real genius’ help with their city planning. Obviously some body has been thinking about sustainability in this place!
-       That’s all great Amir. You’re such a worldly guy and you’ve been to some great places. But I was wondering if you could tell Fareed and me about those two girls standing over there by the curtains. Do you know them?

Uhhh, ya, wow, I do. That’s Debra and Quaniqua. What do you want with those two?

-       They seem really cool; we just want to know about them, can you help us?

Yes. I dated both of them last year. They’re sisters. Seemingly different on the outside, but in reality, quite similar. I’ll start with Debra. You know that type of girl…  the one everybody talks about like she is some rare goddess of beauty.  Her allure always precedes her presence. Everybody says how posh and en-vogue her style is, and how alluring her body is. Her golden blonde hair just shimmers on a beautiful day, her clothes are perfectly tailored as they compliment her every curve. Man, I could just trace her lines with my eyes all day and never even have to say a word. Really, a stunning woman, a true work of art, nothing else like her. But I know first hand, she’s easy. Easily understood and easily taken advantage of. She just doesn’t have much in the way of a personality or any self-confidence for that matter. That’s why we broke up. She slept with some guy who drove a Ferrari and owned his own trading company. Way out of my league. Man, what I wouldn’t give for just one more weekend alone with her.
            Now Quaniqua, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Still a decent looking girl but she has other priorities to be considered. Both these girls get a lot of money from daddy and he pretty much pays all their bills. But, Quaniqua, is a little older and she’s not only gainfully employed, but she’s got a couple college degrees in her resume. This girl is all about educating herself at foreign universities and setting a concrete foundation for her future. In fact, she’s so concerned with getting degrees from abroad and accruing international academic merits that I’m pretty sure she lost her innate sense of self a long time ago. She isn’t all that concerned with looking lavish and opulent but she does ok. All I know is I couldn’t keep up with all the time she spent studying and hanging out with her family, they have a click that just didn’t welcome me no matter how much time we spent together, I just wasn’t good enough. I felt like an outsider in her own little world.

             Dubai and Qatar are like two teenage sisters who have grown up in the same house, the Gulf region of the Middle East, and with the same ability to fall back on and utilize natural wealth as a means of achieving their respective visions.
            Dubai’s reputation precedes a visit there just like the reputation of a stunningly beautiful woman in a small community often precedes and intimidates a conversation with her. Brand Dubai is presented to the entire world as place where anything is achievable and all are welcome to their wildest dreams. When in reality most things are achievable and only for the steepest prices. In Dubai as with shallow beautiful women, money opens the door and has the potential to break the ice, or cultural barriers. Essentially, money in Dubai trumps nationality as well as intentionality. Massive daunting structures of the most cutting edge architectural design punctuate the Dubai skyline and give merit to a seemingly divine cityscape, but there’s nothing inside these behemoth mountains of steel and glass. ‘For rent’ and ‘open space available’ signs dot the largest and most extravagant buildings all over the city. Just like a beautiful woman can capture a man’s eye and set him on a whimsical journey through the cavernous bowels of his desirous mind, so too can Dubai’s physical landscape serve as a masterpiece for creating unsatisfied yearning at the expense of those who are monetarily less endowed. Empty marvels of architectural flawlessness display soulless charisma and allude to the lackluster personality of a woman in search of the bigger and better deal as a means of gaining widespread attention. Dubai has used its vast oil wealth to garner a vision as the Middle East’s trading center. They have been successful, but at some cost. Culture and genuine personality are hard to find in Dubai, as the almighty dollar seems to have cast a cloak of steel makeup over any semblance of historical grounding. Why is Dubai like this? How did these buildings get here? Who cares, it looks enthralling and pumps money from the ground into the sky! This kind of woman is enticing and if you have the right moves and the right riches to keep her satisfied anything is possible. However, just like anyplace or anyone with whom money has the ability to push the limits, poverty has the ability to set the lowest bar. And in Dubai, the disparity between the opulence you see in the clouds and what really exists behind the walls of places like the Gold Souk is greatly disappointing for a region of the world with so much potential.
            There is no brand Qatar. Like a well-educated and self-respecting woman, Qatar does not feel the need to make itself into a gimmick consisting of wild fantasies in order to sell itself to the entire world as a playground for the rich and lustful. Qatar’s self-confidence is evident in its ability to promote its worth based on hard earned academic and investment accreditation rather than empty physical characteristics. There are a few skyscrapers modeling across Doha’s skyline and they are not by any stretch of the imagination, behemoth. In twenty-seven years, Qatar’s ability to garner international investment in Doha will be sufficient to sustain the country without the existence of oil wealth. Qatar has clearly worked hard to ensure a sustainable future for its self.
            Education City is just one example of this foresight. However, Qatar’s vision to be the educational cornerstone of the world has also come at some cost. Rather, they have become somewhat of a steppingstone for universities like Georgetown and Carnegie Melon to utilize their abroad campuses as an international service hub for a more ‘wordly’ perception of themselves. The question of whom these American universities abroad really serve is still up in their air.
            When it comes to the academically paranoid, one of two scenarios exists. We can feel the need to take shortcuts and risk originality for the sake of efficiency, or the decision to forgo time-consuming life experiences is accepted in an effort to get work done. Qatar has done a little of both in its laborious attempt to fulfill its vision. I’m not saying that Qatar has cheated in the same sense that plagiarism is cheating, but they have taken some shortcuts and retarded some natural development. Education systems have the ability to determine the national identity of a nations youth. By importing higher education, Qatar has not allowed its own style of cultivating young minds to develop organically.  Just as the girl who educates herself abroad will inevitably take on the sensibilities of the places in which she studies, so to will Qatari students educated at Georgetown adopt an American centric view of their home and the world.
            There are roughly 200,000 Qatari citizens who receive benefits such as utilities payments, healthcare, automobile insurance and education from the government’s pocketbook. This is compared to the roughly 2,000,000 people living in Doha and the surrounding desert. This larger population is made up of mostly imported Indian laborers who build and run the gritty day to day in Qatar. Just as it is not entirely within a man’s control if his girlfriend’s family accepts him as their own, gaining access to this elite minority of benefited Qataris is relatively impossible. 
            Qatar is not Dubai’s sister. If anything, the two countries are like cousins whose parents derive their wealth from the same trust fund, oil. The biggest difference is in how the two sates have utilized oil wealth to carve a niche in the world. Dubai has used its wealth to create a sex appeal that attracts gaudy trade wealth and consumer insecurities. The need to spend and buy in Dubai is parallel with sightseeing. Qatar is doing a better job of creating a sustainable future, but it is still having some trouble finding its innate sense of self. For both places, some serious soul searching is definitely in order.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Started in Dubai...ended in Qatar.

I sat shotgun in this Bell Longranger helicopter... my pilot:"do you speak English mate?"..."yes"..."don't touch anything."
               Burj Al-Arab and coastline from 3,000 feet. The haze is a mixture of fog and pollution.
             The uninhabited world project. The islands are there for the buying...where are all the takers??
                                          That's how they do it.
            This is Dubai Creek...the souk is behind Rolex Iranian friends docked right here...
                                    A soon to be private beach home on one of the 'Palm' branches...
           The Dubai Gold Souk is a massive jewelry and raw gold market. Hundreds of shops line the     street and back alleys with gold, gold and more gold. 
                 Look at the shoppers...mostly Westerners...Dubai Souk is a shady place for shady business.
                                                      This man's face says it all for me.
                This man's shop is a perfect example of marketing towards Western consumption rituals.
                                    A big busy place the Dubai Souk is... easy to get swallowed up.
 Just passing by/ snapping a picture... I was invited by the crew to hop on board their vessel docked in Dubai Creek... Just me, my camera, a cliff bar and some sunglasses, the boat was docked roughly 3 boats out or about 60 feet off the pier... would you go?
 They live in Iran and have a license to ship goods from Dubai back to Bandar Abbas each month. Not a short journey...they had been on the boat for two weeks strait. The crew spoke a little English and understood some of my Arabic...but Iranians speak Farsi...the communication barrier was intense but rewarding. 
                              They proudly fly the Iranian flag 50 miles off the coast of their home.
                            'Aref' spoke some English...a few sentences... he still made me laugh.
 The crew was really a heartwarming bunch... they had so little but shared so much...their language, their political beliefs, their jokes...and some Iranian tea with a cigarette. I can't thank them enough for their hospitality, wherever they might be...
 'Morteza'...the first mate...spoke decent English and served as a translator for the crew...He was educated and polite and gave me all of his contact information in Iran, "for if I ever want to visit, I have a sleep." The crew asked me to stay on the boat and set sail for Iran in the morning as a deckhand...too far.
                                                                   The Qatari sun.
                               Al-Jazera TV is housed in Qatar...a news anchor reads her notes.
                                                                      Camel meat.
    I have become a self-proclaimed connoisseur of Shwarma...the UAE has the best so far, but I hear Lebanon is pretty good.
 Falcons are highly valued luxury animals in Qatar and the UAE... sure, it's safe...just wear the glove...and watch out for the razor sharp talons... judging by the hissing and scratching, this bird was pissed and for the first time on my journey...I felt uncomfortable.
 Falcons like these...sold at the Qatar Souk in Doha...can be purchased for roughly $800,000.
                                                                    Amazing creatures.
               Still a product of mother nature no matter how high of a price tag we place on her head.
                              This man makes custom bracelets from heating plastic over hot coal.
                                           This man designs, crafts and sells custom hookahs.