Thoughts on my travels after Oman

The Summer Arabic Language and Media Program was a great opportunity to learn more about Oman and the Middle East in a more broad sense, but because it was a program, a lot of the information and experiences we got were rehearsed.  Previous programs had done similar things and one of the purposes of the program was to show us the good things about Oman.  Traveling on my own allowed me a lot more freedom of movement to explore.  In contrast to Oman, I was also less isolated from the population and I had to buy food and groceries for myself while I was traveling, so there was much more contact on a day to day basis with the local population.  While I was traveling, I was responsible for myself financially, which meant that I spent more time hitchhiking or couchsurfing to keep costs down when I could which also put me in contact more often with locals.

I chose the countries that I traveled to for different reasons, but many of them were related to academic interests.  I traveled to south of Spain largely because of its Islamic heritage and to Malta because of the linguistic ties to Arabic.  Morocco was an easy choice because of its proximity to Spain, and I have been interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict for years.  In each of these cases, I got some real world context to things that I had mostly just read about.  Linguistically, my spanish is passable and so is my arabic, so more chance to practice those was helpful.  Where it wasn’t helpful, for instance in darija-speaking Morocco was illuminating in its own light.

Morocco, Oman, and Palestine are three largely Arab countries that share some similarities, but their differences are interesting too.  The difference between Omani and Palestinian bedouins was stark and kind of interesting to see.  The similarities in food were much less than I would have guessed, but the differences were interesting too.  Even the differences in Ramadan were interesting.

Malta turned out to be kind of disappointing from a cultural aspect, but I can’t blame the Maltese for capitalising on European tourism.

Probably, the best part of my trip was to Israel and Palestine.  I took a class with Professor al-Tikriti on the history of the conflict, but seeing the effects of is quite different.  The casualness of armed military in Israeli cities, the sirens, or even talking to Israelis is puts things into their context.  There were definitely Israelis sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but I also met some who believed that all of the land was theirs and would brook no opposition to that.

Dealing with security checkpoints and mobility was certainly easier for me than the average Palestinian in West Bank, but a gave me a better idea of what they go through everyday if they have to go elsewhere for work or have family elsewhere in the territories.  There was a surprising amount of diversity in Palestinian dialects as well.  Only a short drive from Ramallah in Taybeh, qofs disappear and become glottal stops (actually the same thing that happens in Maltese), from person to person where can be weyn or feyn, but certainly not aina.

I think that traveling is important if you are interested in something and able, because there are small details and sensory experiences that can’t really be described in a text.  The similar usage of inshallah and mañana for a half serious hope of something as me and Spanish-Moroccan Jew discussed or the feeling of being caged in at Qalandiya checkpoint between the occupied territories and Jerusalem.  I was fortunate to be given an opportunity to travel by the Sultanate of Oman and having a decent amount in savings to continue on after that, and hope to have the opportunity again.  As of now, I was awarded a Gilman Scholarship to study in Beijing, I’m awaiting hearing on Fullbright Teaching Assistantship in Taiwan, and getting ready to start the paperwork for the Peace Corps, so who knows where I’ll be or what I’ll see in the future.

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Making it home

I had a little time in Jerusalem, so I decided to take a trip to al-Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem on my last day.  Checkpoint 300 is much easier to get through than Qalandiya, possibly because Bethlehem is such a big tourist destination.  I wandered around the security wall where personal anecdotes had been posted on signs, and browsed the graffiti.  The graffiti ranged from inane, to incredible works of art, and as I walked along it, a Palestinian family stopped to talk to me.  They were residents of al-Aida, so they offered to take me there with them on their way home.  We arrived in the camp and they invited me into their house to talk for a while.

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They seemed to be doing better than I had expected, but the father complained of not being able to find work and not being able to enter Jerusalem where he used to do construction.  He talked about wanting a better life and an education for his sons and seemed generally optimistic that they would have a better life.  He was uniquely also the first person I met who seemed to want a single state with the Israelis.  I don’t know if it was from being beat down from living in a camp his whole life and just wanting peace and opportunity or the influence of the UN at the camp, but most Israelis and Palestinians I had talked to previously believed two separate states was the best option.

He offered me food and a bottle of water which I was torn about accepting.  I didn’t want to offend him by turning down food and implying that he was , but I didn’t want to accept and take something from him when he clearly less well off.  I decided to accept a small amount to be polite and give him some lokum from Hebron and some fruit from Daher’s farm in return.  I don’t know if that was the correct response, but I hope he understood that I appreciated his generosity.  I had to leave shortly after that to make it to Ben Gurion airport, so I said my goodbyes and wished him luck.

The trip to Ben Gurion didn’t go so well, and I ended walking an hour and a half to get there only to discover that they had changed the terminal my flight was in.  After waiting on a bus to the other terminal I made it there barely in time for my delayed flight.  Getting through security proved to be a challenge, so I almost missed my flight anyway.  Previous experiences with security in Israel had not gone well for me, and this was no exception.

During what had been a cheerful chat with the woman working security, I mentioned that I had traveled to the West Bank, and things to a turn for the Kafkaesque.  Her expression suddenly became blank and she began repeating the same sets of questions to me over and over again, presumably to get me to slip up?  It was surreal experience, she gave no physical acknowledgement of the repetition, and I briefly had to wander if I was going crazy, and the entire time I was just trying to get to my flight.  Finally, I was free to go and rushed through as fast as possible and only barely caught my flight.

I made it to London late at night only to find my bag hadn’t come with me.  I wouldn’t receive it for another three weeks, so I had to find some toiletries.  London was largely uneventful and a day later I was back in the states.

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Experiences in West Bank

I arrived at Ramallah late in the evening with a Canadian I had met in Jerusalem.  Our attempts to find the hostel were unsuccessful, and neither of us a had a phone.  We knew we were close, but the map we had wasn’t terribly helpful so we stopped to ask directions from a family who had just started to close down their shoe shop in preparation to break the fast.  We sat and chatted for a bit in Arabic, and I showed them the map, but unfortunately, they had no idea where the hostel was either.  Their younger boy suddenly scooped up my backpack and decided he was going to find it for us and ran off down the street.  His father laughed and told us to go with him, so we set off.

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The boy didn’t really speak fusha, so we spent the time going back and forth trying to figure out different words in Palestinian dialect while we walked.  I felt guilty haven’t him carry my backpack and asked for it back, and he begrudgingly returned it.  It quickly became clear he didn’t really know where he was going either, but he seemed very excited about the whole experience so I decided to keep following and just keep my eyes peeled.  It turns at that we had been circling the hostel the entire time, which was made worse by the fact that the building was unmarked, but we eventually found it.  After my experiences in Tangiers, I began to get out some money, thinking that it would be expected.  Besides the kid was pretty cool and very enthusiastic about helping us and I thought it would be a nice gift especially since Ramadan was still going on, but he steadfastly refused any payment.  He said that it was his home and he was just doing what was right and then scampered off into the night.

The hostel was nice, an Ethiopian-American volunteer named Semhal met us at the door and led us to our rooms.  The two brother who ran it, Bobo and Chris, lived in the floors below the hostel with the rest of their family.  There was a photojournalist, Johannes, from Finland there working on a story about Ramadhan in the West Bank, and another aspiring photojournalist named Til.  I spent most of my time in West Bank travelling with Til, Johannes, and Semhal.  We went out later so Til and Johannes could get some pictures of a protest at Minara Square and to find somewhere to get some falafel.  The protest itself was interesting, but we left shortly after as Palestinian Authority Security forces began to crack down

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Over the next few days we did some traveling outside of Ramallah, and our first stop was Hebron.  The tension in the air there was even more palpable then in Jerusalem.  We met up with a friend of Chris and Bobo’s who took us to a friend’s house at the edge of territory that settler’s had staked a claim to.  His house was surrounded on three sides by settlers territory and his roof was topped with barbed wire to keep people out.  He showed us some videos of a settler climbing onto his roof to remove his flag and yell at him and crowds of settlers protests outside of his house.  A short distance from his rooftop, an Israeli soldier manned an outpost.

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We continued on through a market in the old city that was screened in above by chainlink fence to catch garbage and rocks that were thrown down from above at vendors.  One section on a side street was filled with closed shops that had been shutdown after security cordons reduced traffic to that area, and most of the doors were covered in graffiti.  After passing through a checkpoint we visited the Cave of the Patriarchs, but to be honest we weren’t able to see anything worth seeing.  We stopped by a shopkeeper’s shop who showed us some older pictures of what Hebron used to look like before parts of the city were cordoned off by security forces.  We made our way back to the central bus station, but not before we heard the rattle of gunshots in the distance.  We never found out who was doing the shooting, but given the atmosphere in the city, it honestly wasn’t surprising.

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Our next trip was to visit Khan al-Ahmar Bedouin camp that Johannes had heard of.  To get there, we to a taxi to Jericho, and then hitchhiked back along the highway to get to the camp.  It was kind of a miracle that we were able to get a ride, considering there were four of us, but we figured we could split up into groups of two if necessary.  Fortunately, we managed to a get a ride from a man from Jericho whose sisters was married to one of the Bedouins at the camp.  He introduced us to his sister and went off and found the boss of the camp.

The Bedouins were vastly different than the ones I had met in Oman.  A little of the disregard for the rules was there (several were smoking or drinking tea during the day in Ramadhan), but they were not giving camel rides to tourist.  The camp itself was the largest of many in the area, but still quite small.  They didn’t have access to utilities, but had set up solar cells and generators with the help of an NGO to provide electricity to a central meeting place in the camp that housed a refrigerator and an old tv.  He showed us some pictures of him with foreign dignitaries who had visited his camp (including Ban-Ki Moon) and some reports the UN had put out regarding loss of land by Bedouins, then took us to see the school that had been built by another NGO.  It was a construct of tires and concrete that had been decorated by the children of the camp, but its still in danger of being demolished so that the highway can be expanded in the area.  Semhal and one of the Bedouin women exchanged jewelry and goodbyes and we made our way back to Ramallah.

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Johannes had mentioned wanted to visit a beer brewery and restaurant in the Christian village of Taybeh, so that was the next trip we took.  It was a short trip from Ramallah, maybe 20 minutes.  We grabbed some Musakhan and a few beers and enjoyed the view of Jordan in the distance, before heading on to the brewery.  The brewery was closed by the time we got there, but owner’s wife happened to spot us wandering around outside.  In another instance of Palestinian hospitality, she postponed a dinner out with her husband and some friends to take us on a personal tour of the brewery.  

As far as brewery tours go, this one was pretty standard, although some of the adversity they have to go through to do business was interesting.  Because they are allowed limited access to water, they have to do many of their activities on one day out of the week when they can use it.  Because of the difficulty marketing and shipping their beer its often made to order, so extremely fresh.  They don’t really export to many countries, I believe she said Sweden and Japan as of right now, but they do decent business in Israel and Palestine.  Its also probably easily the best beer I had while I was traveling.  After the brewery, we hitchhiked back to Ramallah.

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On another daytrip, we traveled to Tent of Nations, a farm run by a Palestinian farmer in West Bank whose slowly being surrounded on all sides by settlements.  He’s been fighting in court for some time to retain his land, and its been a battle despite him having documents from the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate, and Jordan establishing it as his families.  Getting there was difficult as quite a few taxi drivers didn’t want to travel in the area due to the large concentration of settlements, but we found one driver who would take us.  After climbing over a pile rubble blocking the road to the farm, we hiked to the front gate where we were met by Daher Nassar, the current owner of the farm.

He showed us a summer school he had set up in a cave where he teaches refugee children and the tents that he housed volunteer workers at.  I asked him about the tents and the caves and he responded that he wasn’t allowed to build any new structures on his land.  His orchards were home to apricots, apples, carob, figs, grapes, and other kinds of fruit which he would periodically pull from the trees to give to us.  He relied heavily on volunteers to help him keep the farm going and ran the program as a way of educating people to live renewably on the land.  The volunteers we met were largely from Germany, and many were Lutheran, like Daher, though he accepted anyone (the kids from the refugee camps were mostly Muslim).

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My time in Ramallah itself was largely spent getting hookah with Johannes at a place near Arafat square, and hanging out with people he knew in the city.  One of his contacts was an editor for al-Hayat al-Jadeeda, the PA newspaper, so we visited a protest with him so the could take pictures.  The protest was a march on Qalandiya checkpoint from Ramallah and quickly turned to chaos while we were there.  Khaldun, the editor, was able to help us stay safe during the protest as Palestinian youths exchanged fireworks and rocks for Israeli bullets and tear gas.  We talked politics for a while, as Khaldun had majored in Hebrew studies and political science at university, so I was able to get an interesting perspective on the current political situation in Israel and Palestine.  After the protest, he drove us to the hospital where his wife was giving blood, so Johannes and Till could get pictures.  The death toll was only three, but the injured were in the hundreds.

The most interesting thing about the protest was how organised everything was.  The crowd would surge forth and move back as one with the increases or decreases in firing from the Israeli side.  People carrying boxes of chopped onion would move through the crowd dispersing it to be rubbed under ones nose to reduce the effects of tear gas.  Men would run down the center of the street clearing the crowd so ambulances could move towards the front as other groups of men would move the wounded away from the front lines.  The ambulances themselves would stay uphill out of the line of fire (although several had windows blown out by the end of the night) until needed and then would come surging down to collect the wounded.  Not surprisingly, the Palestinians seemed to have distilled the act of protest down to an art.

The city when not protesting is a lot smaller than I thought, considering its the de facto capital (both the Israelis and the Palestinians consider Jerusalem their capital).  I looked it up on wikipedia later and apparently the population is only 27,000.  Because it serves capital any embassies are located there, though there aren’t many.  Similarly, most embassies in Israel are located in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem.  The government operates out of a complex called the mukataa that also houses Arafat’s tomb.  Despite its small size, there’s a shopping mall, and both Arafat Square and Minara Square are bustling centers of commercial activity.  There’s also an incredible Mahmoud Darwish Museum that I would recommend checking out.

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My trip back from Ramallah took me back through a now scorched Qalandiya checkpoint.  Its a pretty disheartening experience, with the journey through the checkpoint building forcing you through a series of cage-like lanes before getting to an xray scanner.  Johannes made it through fine, but I had to unpack my backpack and run everything through the scanner individually.  Unfortunately, only a few people are allowed into the scanner at a time, so as I was held up by security, a line formed behind me.  After finally making it through, I headed back to Jerusalem to get ready to fly home.

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Foundation of Peace/Abode of Holiness

Jerusalem was a very different place from Tel Aviv.  There was a lot more obviously religiously observant Jews here and a lot more Arabs, so it was a bit more tense.  There were also a lot more armed soldiers on duty around the city.  I stayed in the Old City in a hostel not too far from Jaffa gate near the border of the Armenian and the Christian sections.  The building was ancient like much of the rest of the city, and again, I opted for sleeping on the roof.  The view of the city was incredible, and often I’d wake to the sound of church bells or the Adhan.  There was a basement area to hang out in when it got hot and a single maybe 15″ bulky tv down there.  On the second or third day I was there, we all crammed into that basement to watch the ground invasion of Gaza begin on that little tv.

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Because of the strife in Gaza, tensions were inflamed in Jerusalem and the Haram ash-Sharif was closed the entire time I was there, as were some portions of the Arab quarter.  So, I saw what religious sites I could from the other denominations.  I visited the Wailing Wall and traveled to the catacombs beneath it on one of my failed attempts to see the Temple Mount. I checked out the Tower of David and walked along the walls of the Old City.  There were plenty of churches to see with Christianity’s long presence in the city.

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Obviously the most interesting one was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  The thing you see when you walk in is the anointing stone where Jesus was supposed to have been prepared for burial.  People from all over the world congregate around it, kissing it or praying to it, and it looked like some had little vials of water that they blessing over it.  As you pass by that, on the left is the Holy Sepulchre where you can actually stay overnight in on vigil.

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More interestingly though, if you head to the right you’ll pass by all kinds of specific chapel rooms for different denominations.  So you’ll pass by an Ethiopian Church, to Catholic, to Orthodox and so on.  Some are bigger than others, and one or two rooms actually looked abandoned.  Its a strange experience to walk through this patchwork of a church, and every room has a different style of decoration and a different language is being spoken.

Before heading on to Ramallah, I took a day trip with a couple of Australians to Jericho and Bethlehem.  When we visited the Church of the Nativity, it was under construction and kind of underwhelming.  We traveled through a market after and actually found a Starbucks in Bethlehem.  That’s a bit sad, but I thought it worth noting.  We spotted a few Banksy painting while we were there and headed on to the Herodium outside of town.

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The Herodium is a fortress built by King Herod the Great sometime around 20 BC built on top of a mountain.  Its pretty high up so it affords a great view of a lot of the West Bank around it and the ruins are pretty impressive themselves.  You can travel down into the tunnels beneath it where supplies and water are kept.  It was destroyed during the Jewish War against the Romans, but was rebuilt and used again during the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

The last leg of our daytrip was to head to Jericho, one of the oldest continually occupied cities in the world.  The old city itself was small and took little time to take in, so we decided to head up the mountain on a cable car to see the Monastery of Temptation.  Its a Monastery built into a mountain that’s said to be where Jesus fasted for forty days while Satan tried to tempt him.  Unfortunately, after hiking up the mountain, the monks were apparently calling it a day, so we weren’t able to get in to see the actual monastery.  Still, the view of the dead sea was fantastic and dust devils were kicking about in front of it, so I’d say it was worth the ascent.

After a few days, I traveled to Ramallah.  The owner of the hostel I stayed at in Jerusalem was an Arab with family that also ran a hostel in Ramallah, so I had somewhere to stay when I got there.

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Arrival in Tel Aviv

Like many of my other arrivals, I got into Tel Aviv fairly late at night.  I guess that’s one of the costs of cheap plane tickets.  My hostel was located in the Florentine district which, like in many other cities of the world, is a place that turned from a poor industrial part of town to a haven for artists when they figured out the cheap rent situation.  I actually ended up sleeping on the roof while I was there which was a bit cheaper and actually really nice given the climate.

I didn’t really do anything particularly historical while I was there.  Its a new city, relatively speaking, and I was going to be travelling to Jerusalem and the West Bank shortly. I mostly spent my time eating great falafel and drinking Arak and grapefruit juice, two things that I find I miss here in the states.  I did get a chance to see Old Jaffa which is an Arab town that was incorporated into Tel Aviv over time.  Its quite different from the rest of Tel Aviv because it so much older than the rest of the city.  There’s more Arabs here I think, but also a lot of Africans who have moved as refugees.

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I did talk to some Jewish Americans who were at the hostel after doing birthright.  Its an interesting program which had some parallels to my experience in Oman.  They basically invite Jewish people from elsewhere to stay in Israel and take them around to show them all the best parts about it.  A lot of the people I talked to said it was a bit heavyhanded on the propaganda but mostly they had a positive view of Israel.  I think the endgoal of it is to solidify identification in the mindsets of non Israeli Jews and possibly convince them to emigrate.  The group I was talking to were mostly more secular, but I could see this being a great recruiting tool for the more religious Jews in the U.S.

A couple of rockets were launched at the city while I was there, but at least in the hostel, no one really seemed to take them seriously.  Apparently buildings in Tel Aviv built after a certain date have to include some kind of bomb shelter.  In the case of ours, it was the stairwell, so we’d shuffle into there while the sirens went off, but there was a sense that people who had been there for a while were kind of rolling their eyes at the whole process.  The owner of the hostel would shoo everyone down there, and when the sirens stopped everyone would go back to what they were doing.

There were a few things like that that seemed out of place to me, but were just part of everyday life.  I’ve lived on military bases before, so seeing soldiers isn’t that big a deal to me, but its a bit odd to see uniformed and armed soldiers walking casually about such a big city.  They wouldn’t even necessarily be on duty, sometimes they’d be on a train or bus or at a grocery store.  Even with soldiers, the atmosphere in Tel Aviv was generally friendly, except for an occasional argument about politics.  I left for Jerusalem after a couple of days, and that had a very different feel to it.

 

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You say gżira I say جزيرة

Since I had written and presented about symposiums about the divergence and evolution of Maltese from Arabic, I decided to spend some time on the island to get more of a personal perspective on the matter.  I was pretty excited because there was some interesting history, and hopefully, culture as well.  Its been at different times Roman, Arab, Norman, ruled by former crusaders/pirates, and much like the rest of the globe, the British.

In retrospect, I don’t know that it was worth it, but it was an educational experience.  Just getting there was expensive and kind of a trial.  There use to be a ferry from Sicily that was pretty reasonably priced, but apparently now one company has a monopoly, so it turned out to be cheaper to fly.  It was still cheaper to fly to Sicily to catch a plane, so my time in Malta was bookended by stays in Catania.

My first night in Malta was expensive, ended in my room flooding and damaging some of my stuff, but the upside is that the flooding killed the scorpions that were apparently living in my room.  There was only one taxi service available from the airport (which was of course expensive), and buses had stopped running when I arrived, so that also cost me some money and some frustration.

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I decided to move to a cheaper hostel in Sliema, which was less eventful except for someone setting the kitchen on the top floor on fire.  Unfortunately, most Maltese seemed uninterested in conversation and few people seemed to speak casually in Maltese, so listening wasn’t really an option.  Signs were often in Maltese, or at least toponyms, were usually of Maltese origins, so that gave me a little of the language to check out.

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I took some daytrips to various parts of the island.  The trips were pretty short as its not a large island, but public transit there is routinely late.  I honestly don’t know if the posted schedules were out of date, but buses never showed up closer to 15 minutes late.  My other option was the crazily expensive taxis, which kind of led me to wonder if there wasn’t some degree of collusion between the two.  Honestly, renting a car might have been worth the extra cost.

As I said before it was hard to get a feel for Maltese culture.  Much of what I saw on the island was geared towards tourists.  Most hotels offered pools, which is crazy because the beaches are beautiful.  I went out to find a bar with some people from the hostel one night and we were really only able to find places with overpriced, oversweetened drinks that cater to kids on vacation from Europe.  I assume hotel bars and casinos is where many adults go, but I’m honestly not sure.  There was a smattering of pubs, but even those were basically just themed bars filled with European partiers.  Presumably the locals go somewhere decent to drink, but I never found anything like that.

Prostitution is technically illegal, but seems to be very, very tolerated, as there were quite a few very aggressive prostitutes in the streets.  A lot of this may just have been a defect of Sliema which seems very Las Vegas-esque, but even other places I stayed in the North seemed to largely be resorts.  Mdina and Rabat on the main island was a change of pace, but still pretty touristy.

Mdina (from the Arabic for city) is a much older walled city and former capital that still has people living in it.  Its also home to some museums, very old churches, and a bunch of gift shops.  Adjacent is Rabat (the etymology of which I’ve seen variously as Arabic for troop encampment, fortified monastery, and suburb), which is a bigger more sprawling village.  I checked out some of the historical stuff and managed to catch a wax museum audio tour about the Knights of Malta.  It was kind of an unpleasant experience because it amounted to pro-Catholic anti-Arab propaganda complete with cartoonishly villainous music when discussing the Arab legacy of the island.

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The island to the Gozo was a refreshing experience in that respect.  The people there were friendly, there were less European partiers, and everything was substantially less expensive.  I visited the Citadella, another walled city in the vein of Mdina, and finally managed to find some reasonably priced authentic Maltese food.  It was pretty good, but outside of the inclusion of rabbit, not terribly different to Italian.  The Maltese do have meat pies, so I guess they have that advantage over the Italians.

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The Maltese seem to have a pretty vibrant tourism industry, but overall it was kind of disappointing given my expectations.  If you have money and are looking to party in the vicinity of some beautiful beaches, its great though.  There were a lot of marinas and yachts, so I assume its a pretty popular place for people with boats to stop off at.

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Short Jaunt to Morocco

I didn’t spend too much time in Morocco, because I got stuck in Barcelona for much longer than I had planned.  I arrived late at night on the last ferry from Tarifa to Tangiers and was greeted by a dead and closed port.  Because I wasn’t sure if I would arrive that night, I hadn’t booked a hostel, so finding a place to sleep that night was my first priority.  Unfortunately, that involved dodging what felt like an entire city trying to scam me.

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On my way to my hostel, I did happen to wander through a night market.  Because it was Ramadan, a lot of Berbers had traveled up to Tangiers to sell their wares, which provided a chaotic but interesting environment on my way.   I managed to haggle down the price of a goat fur jacket with a Berber while drinking tea, but other than that just tried to navigate my way through the craziness so I could sleep.

Against my better judgement, I finally accepted help from one of the many people milling about in finding the hostel.  Funnily enough, I had been right around the corner, so it was a short trip, but ended with haggling over how much I owed him for the help.  He really wanted my shirt for some reason, but I handed him a 100 dirham note, which was all I had left after paying for the room and left.

The next morning I decided to leave for Marrakech on the first train out because of my experiences in Tangiers.  Luckily I was seated with someone who spoke a decent amount of Fusha, because up until that point in Morocco, Arabic and English were failing me, and Spanish was only doing slightly better.  So between decent, if sparse, conversation and some beautiful countryside I managed to make my way to Marrakech.

Marrakech was an entirely different experience from Tangiers.  People were still interesting in trading and bartering, but weren’t actively trying to rip you off.  I was able to get by much better with Fusha and English and the hostel I was staying at was much nicer and cheaper than the one in Tangiers.

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The Suq was every bit as chaotic as in Tangiers, but the shopkeepers were a lot easier to deal with.  At one point I visited an herbalist to see what kind of spices I could bring back and got a full demonstration of their wares.  I ended buying some Argan oil (that was unfortunately later confiscated at Ben Gurion Airport) and a few spices blends.  When I got back to the hostels I realised that the Kohl that had been applied to my eyes looked ridiculous.

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Because of Ramadan, at night, the market turned into one huge party as droves of people came out to break the fast and celebrate.   I journeyed out into that a few times with a group of Germans and ended meeting some pretty cool Moroccans.  There were fireworks, cobras, horse drawn carriages, and some random boxing matches.  I wish I could’ve stayed a bit longer, but had to leave the next morning for Malta.

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Islamic Legacies in Spain

After leaving Oman, I flew into the UK and left shortly after for Barcelona.  I ended up being stuck in the city for five days instead of the one that I was planning on, due to issues with my credit card and purchasing tickets to get out.  In the interest of keeping this blog Middle Eastern themed I’ll skip over my time there and get on to Granada and Seville.

I arrived in Granada early in the morning after an overnight train, and managed to make it to the hostel in time to drop off my bags and catch a walking tour of the city.  Granada has been continuously inhabited since well before Roman times, but began to become an important city after the Islamic conquest of Spain.  The Umayyads fled to al-Andalus after being routed by the Abbasids in the Middle East.  The set up a caliphate based in Cordoba, but during the strife that led to their downfall, a Berber set up the Taifa of Granada as an independent state.  It become an important part of Almoravid and Almohad holdings in Spain and later was the home to the Nasrid Emirate of Granada, the last Islamic dynasty in Spain before the Reconquista.

We started the tour by walking along a river at the base of the hill by the Alhambra, with old irrigation networks that definitely reminded me of the falaj (Qanat) systems I saw in Oman.  We traveled up through the old Moorish section of the city, Albayzin.  Because of its historic nature, its difficult for renovations to be done to the buildings here, so many are inhabited by poorer residents of Granada, which is often students or appropriately enough, Arab residents.  The alleyways here are alternately narrow and wide, and as serpentine as any suq I’ve been here.  Interestingly, the guide said that the narrower walkways were intentionally built that way to help funnel wind and block the sun for a natural cooling effect in the heat.  I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it would explain the way that many Mediterranean towns are set up.

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Albayzin is on a hill, and as you get higher, you begin to get beyond the Moorish architecture and into an area where people build stores and homes into the cave systems at the top.  Again, these are primarily for poorer residents, in this case, Romany and artists for the most part.  From across the hill you get a good look at Alhambra.

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While I was here, I decided to take the opportunity to eat tapas whenever possible.  Similarly to Turkish Mezze, tapas are little plates of food brought out to a table usually consisting of a random assortment of simple, unique dishes.  Granada is where tapas originated, and here they are still done traditionally, where each tapa is free and brought out as an accompaniment to a drink of some kind.  Local wines were less than 2 euro, so it was an all around good deal.  Between the flamenco influenced local music scene, some pretty impressive graffiti, and gastronomically adventurous cooks of Granada, the city is a haven for creatively minded people.

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The most famous part of Granada is Alhambra, the palace/fortress complex one a hill in the middle of the city.  Several people I met at the hostel were actually architecture students who had come specifically to see Alhambra.  A relic of the Nasrids, it was built by Mohammed ben al-Ahmar, giving it its Arabic name, الْحَمْرَاء‎ (al-hamra).   The Nasrid palaces are incredibly beautiful and filled with the kind of geometric art found in much of the Islamic world.  These served as the palace to the Nasrid emirs who ruled over the last Islamic emirate in al-Andalus.

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In addition to beautiful architecture, the Alhambra complex was a military stronghold.  The Alcazaba citadel, walls, and its location on a hilltop provided a strong defence were the city ever to be besieged.  During the Reconquista, Muhammad XII of Granada surrendered rather than force the Spanish to take Alhambra by force, but he probably could have held out for years if he had chosen too.

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The third major part of the complex was added after the Reconquista.  Holy Roman Emperor Charles V built his own palace within the complex.  From the instant you see it, you can tell it is from a different time and culture from the rest of the complex.  It doesn’t really fit, but its interesting that the Holy Roman Emperor revered the Alhambra enough to build a palace there, but rejected the Nasrid complexes onsite for a palace.

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In Seville, the Islamic influences aren’t as stark as in Granada.  The city was actually the capital to the Umayyads, the Almohads, and the Almoravids, but it seems to have been built up a lot in the style of European renaissance architecture as well, and continues to be built up in more modern styles.  Much of the Islamic architecture was repurposed and in some cases isn’t really recognizably Islamic.  A perfect example is La Giralda, the Bell Tower of the Cathedral of Seville.  I walked by it not ever having any inkling that it was previously a minaret, because it had been refitted to look like the cathedral it was now a part of.

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Probably the only recognizably Islamic building I saw in Seville was the alcázar (from القصر or al-qasr).  Much like Alhambra, there is some post-Reconquista construction here as well, but the palace still retains much of its Islamic character.  Despite the fact that it was originally a fort, its an incredibly beautiful building.  Interestingly, it is still an official residence for the Spanish King in Andalusia today, though the King has a few of those scattered over Spain. 

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Wandering through the city with a guide did give me a new insight into the Arabic influences on Spanish.  Spanish contains more than a few words of Arabic origin, many of them beginning with ‘al’, but even words like olive and oil are of Arabic origin.  Another common pattern is that many Spanish-named begin with guad or guadal, even in the Americas.  Our guide explained to us that the Guadalquivir that runs through Seville was actually originally the al-wadi al-kabeer.  Further research led me to Guadalajara/wadi al-hajar, Guadalupe/wadi al-luben, and Guadalmedina/wadi al-medina.

Culturally Spain draws some of its heritage from its Moorish rulers, especially in the south.  Its kind of interesting to see more of that in person.  Its a very Catholic nation now, but before the Ottomans took Constantinople and the Balkans, it was the bastion of Islamic culture in medieval Europe, and a place of remarkable religious tolerance.

 

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Last thoughts on Oman

The program was a great way of getting to know Oman better.  I think because it is so comparably peaceful, its not as well known as the rest of the Middle East, but its a terribly interesting country with a lot of history.

Its the only Ibadhi Muslim country in the world, which makes it pretty unique, but even more so when you realize that a lot of people don’t really know anything beyond the Shi’i-Sunni divide.  Its not exactly a well kept secret that the Sultan is probably gay, but he seems to be almost universally loved which is amazing in such an otherwise conservative Gulf State.  While the Ottoman Empire was the face of the Muslim and Arab world for centuries, Oman has a lesser known legacy as an independent Muslim Empire.  More importantly, its one that successfully established it own colonies and successfully competed with another maritime great, Portugal, in the Indian Ocean.  Its holdings in Baluchistan and East Africa bring some ethnic variety to Modern Omani culture, but it is also host to some extremely old South Arabian languages like Jabbali (Mehri) that are extinct nearly all of the rest of the Arabian peninsula.

So, as a cultural outreach program, I think it has a lot of value in educating people about Omani culture.  Given the Sultan’s drive to diversify the economy beyond just petroleum production, getting the word out there that Oman exists is great for both tourism and investment.  Its stability and relative social openness for the Gulf should be able to bring more money from the West, and drive for education should help Omanis benefit from that and build up other sectors of the economy in the future.  I haven’t been there yet, but I’ve heard that the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington DC serves a similar purpose.

I’m pretty grateful for the opportunity to go study there, especially considering everything was paid for and taken care of.  I think my Arabic really benefited from the time spent there, although I still think the best way for me to cement that is a more long term commitment in the Middle East, like the Peace Corps.  Having said that, dialect is something that they focused on, especially with language partners, and I think that’s something that American institutions should do a lot more of.  Fusha is only useful to the extent that the local dialect is similar to it, which can be relatively close or almost mutually unintelligible like with the Darija in North Africa.

I got to experience a wide variety of Omani culture and settings, and though I would hardly call myself an expert, I’m certainly more informed now, so I think the program serves its purpose.

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Extracurriculars

Our activities outside of class hours in a lot of cases were spent doing extra activities that the school had to offer.  Two days a week after class, we would get paired up with Omani language partners to talk in Arabic for a few hours.  It was a good chance to get to learn some dialect, and some people got to be really close friends with their partners.

We had a series of guest lecturers while we were there.  The first one was a Christian minister who had written about Ibadhism in Oman.  He added an interesting perspective, because he was a Christian American expat who was lecturing us on the faith of Oman.  The Omanis in the audience asked a lot about his Christianity, while the Americans in my class got to get a little education on Ibadhis.  This was early on, so I think a lot of the students there didn’t know Omanis weren’t Shi’i or Sunni and had no idea what Ibadhism was.  There were some interesting questions from some of the Omanis about the historical and theological connections to the khawarij that I found were pretty interesting.

Some of the points I learned while he was lecturing were about how the Khawarij were a violent splinter sect who had assassinated Ali.  They had dissolved after a few centuries, but the Ibadhis remained as a group that shared their origins.  By contrast, the Ibadhis are extremely nonviolent and tolerant, which seemed to be a point of pride for the Omanis in the audience.  A bit of research after the fact revealed that outside of Oman, there are a few very small Ibadhi communities in other parts of the Middle East, but only in Oman are they a majority.

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The next guest speakers was actually a chemical engineer who worked with petroleum.  Given that Oman is a petroleum producer in the gulf, the choice of speaker made sense, but he really didn’t talk about petroleum at all.  Instead most of his talk was evangelizing Ibadhism and explaining the importance of Islam in his life.  Unfortunately, he came off much less academically than the previous speaker, and it kind of felt like he was using the opportunity to try and convert us.  There wasn’t as much discussion after his speech as the first speaker, I think in large part, due to some of the class feeling uncomfortable.  He seemed like a nice guy and charismatic speaker, but it kind of reminded of the treatment I got in Mississippi by church groups when I was working with Habitat for Humanity.

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Our next speaker, Dr. Khalfan al-Barwani, worked in banking in Oman, so his presentation focused on the economy of Oman.  He spoke of the difficulty of getting more Omanis into the private sector.  Most public sector jobs are taken by Omanis, but most private sector jobs are occupied by third party nationals.  The process of Omanization of the economy is supposed to help remedy that by getting Omanis more skills so that they can work and build the economy when Oman’s oil runs out.  Unfortunately, its a slow process and many Omanis look down on the lower paying jobs, so they are largely still filled by immigrant workers.

I also took the chance to ask him about Islamic Banking, because I never really understood how it worked without usury or speculation.  His answer was that it wasn’t really practiced in Oman and kind of scoffed at the idea of it.  He implied that Islamic Banks still act like non-Islamic banks, but change the terminology to allow them to function.

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Besides the guest speakers, we also had weekly calligraphy classes.  A calligraphy exhibit years ago is actually what got me interested in studying Arabic in the first place, so I was pretty intensely interested.  Unfortunately, I lack anything in the way of artistic ability or decent penmanship, so I’m not sure that I really got that much out of the classes.  Probably the best part for me was watching the Egyptian calligraphy instructor show off between lessons.

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On one occasion, we visited a summer school for Omani kids.  We split up into groups of four and each took a classroom.  We asked the Omani could questions in Arabic and they would respond in English, or vice-versa.  I don’t think we did too bad, but those kids English definitely put our Arabic to shame.  I assume another big push to give Omanis more opportunities on the world stage is to teach English, because these kids were very good at it.  Some of the misconceptions about American culture were kind of funny, and several of the boys got up the courage to awkwardly ask us about American women.  After the Q&A’s, we went outside to play one of there favorite games.  I’m not really sure I understand the rules, but it definitely involves a bunch of people beating the person in the center, and that person fighting back.

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We also played some sports with our professors and some of our language partners.  We organized gender segregated field days and played football (the soccer type).  Not shockingly, all of the Omanis were really good, although I think I acquitted myself well on the field.  We had another day where we played some traditional Omani sports.  There was a tug of war type game that was pretty familiar, but there was also a strange game where a bunch of people hop on one leg and try to knock each other off a carpet.  It sounds simple in theory, but it was actually pretty difficult.

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While we spent some time doing our own extracurricular stuff like getting hookah and watching the world cup, or visiting Omani friends for dinner, we were pretty isolated, so having the extra activities was nice.

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