Things That Surprise You About Oman

Welcome To Oman

“Welcome to Oman,” writes perpetual globe-trotter Paul Terhorst, filing his first report from that country.

“Oman is a Moslem Arab country at the bottom of the Arabian peninsula,” continues Paul, “between the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. Vicki and I came to visit a friend who teaches here, but we’ve thoroughly enjoyed the place and the kind, mild-mannered, pro-Western, generous Omanis who live here.

“We’ve been surprised over and over. Here, following, are 10 things that might surprise you, too:

One. Omanis use their car horns principally to signal waiters in restaurant parking lots. Waiters then run out to take the to-go order. Buses use their horns to signal departure, and taxis use theirs to let pedestrians know they’re available. That’s it; Omanis never use their horns in traffic.

Two. Men may not sit next to women on the bus, unless the woman is a mother, sister, wife, or child. Vicki and I took an overnight bus to the southern Omani town of Salalah. Three Omani girls, dressed in black from head to toe, only parts of their faces showing, were on our bus. The driver put them in the first two rows of the bus, the third girl with an empty seat next to her. Although the bus filled up, with men standing, no one used the empty seat. Some of the men stood for hours. I’m told that leaving the seat empty is a sign of respect for women in Omani society.

Three. Towns run in straight lines rather than in clusters, usually along one or more main roads. The roads may stretch for 20 kilometers or more, here a mosque, there a hotel, now and again a bunch of houses. As a result, everyone must use a car or taxi to get around. I’m told some cities run local buses, but I never saw any.

Four. Omanis consider dates a diet staple, along with rice. Dates are so common that, in ancient times, date juice was boiled and poured down on enemies who approached the gates of forts. Omanis produce little rice but have been importing rice and recipes from India for centuries. Omani food resembles Indian food, although the Omani version seems less spicy. Here’s a picture of a date tree ready to harvest. Date trees require little water–ideal in the desert–and can produce well over 100 kilos of dates.

Five. Omanis tend to suffer from type II diabetes. I assume there’s a genetic disposition to the disease, but it’s lifestyle and diet, too. Because towns and cities stretch along lines, people ride rather than walk, and anyway, it’s too hot to walk. Dates are 60% sugar, and, as a staple along with rice, make for a high carbohydrate diet.

Six. Omanis practice arranged marriages–sort of. In traditional Omani society, the girl has an absolute right to refuse a proposal. No one will force a marriage against the girl’s will. Vicki asked an Omani friend who married last year whether his was an arranged marriage or a love marriage. He laughed.

“’Very good question,’ he said, ‘but the answer is complicated. First, we have no arranged marriages in the sense that both bride and groom are free to say yes or no to any proposed union. Having said that, young people have no way of meeting or falling in love before marriage. In traditional Omani society, boys and girls attend segregated schools, pray in different parts of the mosque, and generally live parallel lives. Even at a party, boys must stay in one room, girls in another.

“’When I wanted to marry, I told my mother and sisters. Remember that Mom and Sis know the eligible girls in town; they’ve known them for years. So the women and girls arranged a meeting or two, always carefully chaperoned, in my bride’s house. My wife and I had little chance to fall in love before marriage. But we Omanis believe love comes after marriage, not before.

“’These days, though, more young people attend university, sometimes away from home. Far from the village or bride’s house, boys and girls can meet on their own terms. I figure we’ll see more love marriages in the future.’

Seven. Oman produces myrrh and frankincense, the stuff you read about in the Bible.

Eight. Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s benevolent leader, gives new meaning to the word benevolent. Qaboos took over from his father in 1970 and promptly began distributing the Sultanate’s wealth to the Omani people, both in direct subsidies and infrastructure. The Sultan built schools and universities, hospitals and labs, roads and ports. Because oil was discovered here in 1968, there was plenty of money to do the job… Omanis speak of 1970 as the first year of their ‘renaissance,’ which took the country from feudal to modern. Omanis give all credit to their beloved Sultan.

Nine. Omani men dress alike, in floor-length gowns with a tassel dangling at the neck. The gowns are most often white. Men cover their heads with a round, white cap with embroidered geometrical designs. To dress up, like a Westerner putting on a tie, a man wraps a turban around the cap. If you see a man on the street wearing pants and a shirt, he’s not Omani. Men from the Emirates next-door wear the white gown, but neither the cap nor the tassels. The standard cap and gown ensure that rich and poor, educated and illiterate, high class and low all look alike. Here’s a picture of Omani men relaxing on a mountaintop, two with their caps off and one with a gray gown. How they keep their gowns so spotlessly clean in such a dusty country remains a mystery to me.

Ten. Omanis use their complete names on signs above their shops. You’d never name a shop ‘Seven Eleven’ here or ‘Wal-Mart’ or anything that smacks of clever marketing. Here’s a picture of the sign on a mom-and-pop grocery called the Sulaiman bin Ali bin Nasser al-Riavi Trading Establishment. I doubt very much if mom tells her kids to ‘Run down to the Sulaiman bin Ali bin Nasser al-Riavi Trading Establishment and buy a kilo of sugar.’ I figure she’d say something like, ‘Run over to Suly’s.’ But then what do I know…”

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