(EDITOR'S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton is traveling to Qatar and Oman as part of a professional/cultural exchange grant program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the second installment.)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton is traveling to Qatar and Oman as part of a professional/cultural exchange grant program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the second installment.)
By Susan Hamilton
For the News Tribune
OMAN - The day started with an early breakfast. All of the group participants were still exhausted from traveling. After breakfast our guide Achmed (which is pronounced like ockmed) wanted us all to introduce ourselves to him and to each other more formally than we had last night.
Apparently, there are certain names in Oman which are very common, like Mike and John are in the USA. In this culture, Achmed is one of those names.
Achmed went on to explain a little bit about what to expect from our time in Oman, which was really helpful. Sometimes what you read and hear about a place you are interested in traveling to is not entirely correct. It’s nice to get perspective and knowledge from local people who were born and raised there.
Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
The first place we visited was the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. When we left our hotel at 9 a.m, it was already 34 degrees Celsius: 93 degrees Fahrenheit. Everyone was required to wear conservative dress, which for the women meant long, loose slacks or flowy skirts that covered your ankles, shirts with long sleeves, no low necklines, tattoos not visible, and the head covered by a scarf.
For the men it was the same, minus the skirts of course, and the headscarf.
This dress code is taken very seriously at the mosque entrance, where there are men and women whose sole job is to ensure that everyone trying to enter is appropriately dressed.
We were advised to wear shoes that were easy to remove because shoes are not allowed in the areas where prayer takes place. That may seem strange to us, but in Islam prayer takes place kneeling on the floor, bent over with one’s forehead on the ground. Women and men do not pray together but have separate prayer rooms.
Both women and men are expected to be clean when they enter the mosque; therefore, a washroom is available where feet, hands, and face can be cleansed.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was built by His Majesty the Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said as a gift for the people of Oman, took approximately ten years to build and was opened in celebration on the 30th year of His Majesty’s reign. It was paid for with the his Majesty’s private funds not state funds.
The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque was constructed with sandstone imported from India. It is the second largest mosque in the world. There are five minarets, one for each pillar of Islam: (1) Profession of faith in God, (2) Daily Prayers, (3) Charity – Giving, (4) Fasting during Ramadan, (5) Hajj- Pilgrimage to Mecca once in a lifetime.
I found The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque to be quite stunning. It is elegant, and clearly no expense was spared in the construction: the chandeliers made from over 600,000 Swarovski crystals were evidence of that.
And yet, there was a sense of stillness and humanity that was comforting when inside. The prayer area is huge, holding 6,400 people at a time. All faiths are welcome inside: however, visitors are not allowed in the mosque during prayers, which take place five times a day between 5 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. The Imam of each mosque makes the daily calls to prayer which can be heard across the city.
Bait Al Zubair Museum
After leaving the mosque, we traveled to the Bait Al-Zubair Museum, a museum of which the people of Muscat are very proud. It houses a truly one of a kind collection of ancient weaponry, coins, household items, carved wooden doors, artwork, and costumes.
As is the case with many museums, photographs were not allowed inside. Visitors are allowed to take photos of the surrounding gardens, boats, and miniature Omani village. The items in the museum are almost entirely from one man’s private collection.
As I explored the museum I found myself drawn to the costumes, katanas (oriental swords), and the khanjars (J shaped sheathed knives). The costumes, both male and female, represented traditional Omani dress from the 20th century (1901-2000). Both weaponry and household goods dated from 3000 BC through the 20th century. Something which always impresses me when I travel outside the United States is how young our country’s history is compared to so many others in the world.
A traditional Arab market is called a souk. You will still find many souks in Arab nations and Oman is no exception. This was the first of two souks we will be visiting in Oman.
Mutrah Souk is a large, noisy, chaotic maze filled with a combination of tourist souvenirs and legitimate one of a kind items. The first thing I noticed when I walked in was the most wonderful scent. I learned it was Frankincense. Achmed told me that Frankincense was one of the Oman’s exports and can be used in a number of ways. It comes in crystallized form or leaf form and is most commonly burned as incense; although Omanis also use it for medicinal purposes like lowering blood pressure.
According to Achmed, Frankincense can be placed in water, allowed to sit for a week, after which the water can be drunk for health purposes. I have no proof of this, nor do I suggest trying it. I am merely passing it along for information purposes as a cultural practice of the Omani people.
At 1 p.m. the heat was brutal, and some refreshment was needed, so I ordered mint-lemonade from the juice bar outside the souk. This is my new favorite drink. Who knew mint and lemon juice would be such a treat? Not this lady!
When we left the Souk, Achmed took us to see a Frankincense tree. It wasn’t much to look at, kind of gnarled, with bark that appears to be peeling, but the smell coming from the trunk was wonderful.
My thoughts for the day are that Oman is a culture at a crossroads, and I can tell from the little time I have spent here thus far that the people are eager to keep pace with the world while maintaining their own unique identity and traditions. Everyone is as obsessed with their cell phones as we are in the United States.
One of our drivers is a member of a Fortnight (most popular online game right now) club. There is a lot of globalization in this very eastern culture: Harley Davidson, McDonald’s, Texas Chicken, Burger King and KFC to name a few familiar places.
I am definitely out of my comfort zone, but that’s a very good place to be for learning new things.