(This was written the evening of Aug. 6.)
Leaving Oman is hard. It was hard four years ago. It was hard last year. It’s hard tonight.
My seven students feel the same way. They’ve said it. I can see it on their faces, too. Yes, I’m sure they’re eager to get home. But I also know they have come to love Oman as I have.
It’s gratifying as a teacher to be able to introduce students to an experience like this. For some of them, this is their first trip outside the United States, the first stamp in their brand-new passports. With the huge help of Zainab Jones, our in-country coordinator who runs Inspire Oman, we’ve given the students as broad an exposure to Oman as possible.
They’ve learned about the great things this country has. They’ve seen the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. They’ve skirted the desert. They’ve hiked the Balcony Trail and peered into Oman’s Grand Canyon that splits Jebal Shams, the country’s highest mountain. They’ve watched green sea turtles laying eggs in the sands of Ras al Jins and even carried a hatchling, too exhausted to complete the journey, into the foamy sea.
They learned about Oman’s long history with the United States. They got a lecture on Oman’s culture of religious tolerance, not only among the various Muslim sects but also among Christian religions, Buddhism and others. They visited the World Health Organization office, the only one in the Middle East region.
They met with the secretary general of Oman’s Human Rights Commission. They visited a business incubator and met with young and old entrepreneurs, all hoping to build their businesses and add to the employment sector.
One of the young entrepreneurs was a student of mine four years ago when I taught at Sultan Qaboos University. Despite that, Mohamed Al Harthy, Mustafa Al Awati and one other have built their film business into a 15-person operation. They’ve had at least two productions aired on Oman TV, along with other commissions.
Their three years at the incubator were up this week, and they had to move out. A business development counselor there said they’re ready; they’ll succeed. We saw a sample of their work — incredible.
They met with a DJ from an independent English-language radio station and heard their names mentioned on air. They sat with an American journalist working at an English-language newspaper and heard about the difficulties covering news and issues in Oman.
Our students met with young members of a think tank and visited the factory of Amouage Perfume, the most expensive perfume in the world. They saw how dhows, the ancient sailing boats of Oman, are still built by hand. They cruised on the Arabian Sea and swam in the gulf.
The tour of the Royal Opera House stunned them. The intricacies of the inlaid wood, inlaid marble, plush carpets and expansive auditorium rocked them. At the far end of the stage in the opera house is one of the world’s largest pipe organs, with 4,600 pipes.
Just as impressive was the Sultan Qaboos Mosque, a spectacular example of Persia and Arabian architecture and design. Its carpet was hand woven in Iran. It took four years to make, was shipped to Oman in 56 pieces on two Boeing 747s and woven into one complete carpet. For a while, it was the largest single carpet in the world, until the Sheik Zayed Mosque was built in Abu Dhabi. Its carpet is approximately 1 square meter larger. After gaping at the soaring dome with its blue-themed mosaic, the welcome center provided coffee, water, dates and conversation. And lots of laughter.
My students have experienced the worst of roadside toilets, truly dreadful, and spent the day at a seven-star resort. They’ve shopped in souqs, bargained with shop owners, bought pashminas, abayas, khanjars (the Omani-style dagger featured on the flag and national seal), coffees, saffron, T-shirts, key chains and just about any other souvenir one can imagine.
They’ve visited a village that probably has never seen an American. They were treated in Omani style to coffee, water, juice, bananas, apples, oranges, dates and plums. They ate tuna that had been spiced, wrapped in foil and grilled on hot coals. They ate lamb kababs and Omani rice. They also went American once or twice. Shawarma, a wonderfully spiced wrap that is standard fast-food fare here, became a favorite. An early morning visit to the fish souq let them see how the local Omanis bargain with the fishermen, their day’s catch impressively displayed on counters.
They come away from Oman with knowledge of a country most had never heard of nine months ago. They also come away with some new impressions of a region that is continually wracked by bad news. Oman is peaceful, gentle, friendly, open and hospitable.
What did I get out of it? I got to go along, offering whatever guidance I could, answering their questions. I got to see the wonder in their eyes as they saw, smelled, tasted and experienced new things. I got to be the recipient of their enthusiasm. I got to watch them grow into new areas of thought and appreciation. I got to go where they went. I got to re-experience all the things Elaine and I did four years ago. I got to return to Oman.
This whole thing was made possible only with a grant from Nebraska University that subsidized the cost of the trip. Otherwise, it would have been prohibitive. I don’t think any of them could have afforded it. But after two years of subsidy, there is no guarantee that the money will be available next year. The NU administration may decide to spend it on trips to other parts of the world. And to be honest, that’s not necessarily bad.
And as KLM Flight 450 gets ready to board, I’m sitting here with one enormous fear. I don’t know if I’ll get back here without a class to bring along.
This may be my last trip to Oman.