Elaine and I left Oman on June 20, 2012, after living there 9½ months. We had come to the country with five suitcases. We were leaving with nine.
Everything was packed, we had wedged each last item into the bulging bags and were sitting in the flat until it was time to go to the airport. One of my students called and asked if she could still come and say good-bye.
Fatma was a favorite student. She was from a conservative family in Bahla, a town steeped in Omani lore as the center of black magic. She was a good student, opinionated, strong-willed and funny. We talked for hours in my office about Oman life, Oman culture and Oman people. I learned so much from her. So we said sure, come over.
She arrived with two shopping bags of souvenirs for us to bring home. Lovely, beautiful, sentimental items that mean a lot to us. After her visit, we looked at each other, then got in the car, headed to al Khoud, and bought a 10th bag to pack our new stuff in.
So when I emailed Fatma and said I was bringing a group of students to Oman, and specifically to Bahla for a visit, she immediately wanted a chance to meet them. To be honest, I wanted them to meet her.
It happened on Friday. We hit town from Turtle Beach about 3:30 in the afternoon. Our visit to Bahla Fort was nixed because the fort was closed, but Fatma and her fiancé were there to meet us. I knew she wanted to have coffee with my students. And I know what coffee involves in Oman.
We followed Fatma and Ali — who are to be married Aug. 15 — to her parents’ home. The men went into the men’s majlis (meeting room, or in this case, living room), and the women into the rest of the house. Ali and Fatma’s two nephews, Turki, age 13, and Safwa, age 8,were our hosts. Fatma and her sister hosted the women.
It was more than “coffee with the students.” It was a spread. There must have been at least 10 platters of rice and roasted half-chickens. And it’s where my students learned to eat with their fingers.
We sat on the floor, around a special washable mat. We were offered spoons, but the guys all opted to dig in with their right hands, tear off a piece of chicken, squeeze in some rice, and leverage it into the mouth with the thumb. Spilling is accepted, which is good because although I’ve done this many times, I’m still not terribly proficient.
At least three platters were brought to our group on the floor. I don’t know how many platters the women had. One of my female students was uncomfortable eating with her hands, so she asked for a spoon. She later told me that it was OK because Fatma ate with a spoon, too. Then she thought for a moment and said, “Do you think she ate with a spoon because I did?” Of course, she did, I said. Omanis never want their guests to feel uncomfortable. If one person ate with a spoon, the hostess would eat with a spoon, too.
We were all together in one room for dessert. There were three kinds of cakes, date truffles, donuts, a crème caramel sort of thing, and halawa, a Middle East sweet with enough sugar and honey to strip the enamel from your teeth. And fruit: apples, mangoes, oranges, pears and apricots. Juice and coffee were served, and when everyone was done, a plate of baklava was passed around.
That’s an Omani’s idea of a snack at their house.
As I said, Fatma comes from a very traditional family. She allowed us to take photos of herself and her niece and nephews, but I promised not to put them on social media. As we made ready to go, the women had to return to their majlis and exit through the females’ exit, and the guys went out our own exit. I did not, and could not, meet her sister, who stood in the doorway as we left. I did not shake hands with Fatma because she did not extend her hand. Quite natural here in Oman.
It’s easy to mistake that conservative exterior for something that it’s not. Omani women are well-educated. Fatma holds a research position at Sultan Qaboos University, where she earned her master’s degree a year ago. She is not shy, not ignorant, not reluctant to share her opinion. She is that unique blend of Omani, the type of person the country needs for its future.
The hospitality she showed us, opening her house, giving us food, drink and rest, is pure Omani. We experienced it many times in the past. I’m glad my students got a chance to experience it as well.