Friday, April 21, 2006

Oman

Oman was amazing! Instead of describing the place and its people in another lengthy post, I decided to post some pictures with brief explanations. In general, although I was only able to spend about 5 days in Oman, I was able to get a pretty good feel of the place. And I loved it! Okay, I had some major technical problems (AHH!) placing the pictures in any sort a coherent way. Sorry. So, they are numbered with corresponding comments below.

First, a link to a map of Oman. http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/middle_east_and_asia/oman.gif As I describe places, feel free to check out the locations on the map. Notice Oman’s natural importance as a port, which has historically led to a population that is very accustomed to interacting with different people from all over the world. That certainly continues today.









1-4.
The cornice in Muscat, the capital of Oman. Coming from Jordan, the organization of the place was truly stunning to me. There are clean roads, traffic rules, and legitimate art (with water!) in the center of the roundabouts. What?! Unlike many of the other gulf states, which have become crazy (and often awkwardly) modern places, Oman has done a uniquely superb job of combining the benefits of oil wealth with the preservation of its traditional culture. Way to go Sultan Qaboos!

5-6.
One of the most interesting aspects of Oman, especially Muscat, was the number of foreign workers. Coming from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and especially Pakistan and India, foreign workers actually make up about 20% of Oman’s total population. In Muscat, it felt much higher. We spent some time talking with these folks, hearing about their lives and, of course, eating their food! In fact, just about every meal we ate was at an Indian or Pakistani restaurant, often full of Omanis customers. The degree of mixing and intercommunal tolerance was quite impressive, at least on the surface, as Omanis eat at Indian restaurants, buy Bangladeshi-made clothes, and sleep in Pakistani-run hotels. The large and absolutely beautiful Muscat market is a small picture of this mixing, lined with shop after shop of Indian saris, next to shops of the traditional black Omani dresses. Nothing makes me happier than experiencing these diverse cultural expressions living in harmony with one another! We were able to share tea with Pakistanis from Kashmir, sit in a park with Christian Sri Lankans, and eat dinner in the home of native Omanis.

7-8.
Wadi Asshab, the “Grand Canyon of Oman.”

9-11.
The Sultan Qaboos Mosque, the national mosque of Oman. In general, the mosques in Oman are extremely beautiful, often reflecting the architecture of Shi’a mosques in nearby Iran. The majority of Omanis are neither Sunni nor Shi’a, but a minority sect in Islam called Ibadism.

12-13.
The wildlife in Oman is incredible! Aside from seeing beautiful birds, a constant supply of the always fascinating camels, ghazelles, and numerous lizards, I witnessed one of the most impressive natural phenomenon of my life. There is a beach near the city of Sur named Ra’as Al-Jinz that is a prominent landing spot for giant sea turtles, and during the summer, literally hundreds of turtles come to this beach to lay their eggs. Although we weren’t there to witness this, I can’t complain too much, as we were able to observe all sides of the turtle egg-laying process. We watched turtles wash onto the shore, crawl up the beach, and use their flippers to dig holes to lay their eggs. At another spot on the beach, we saw over 50 baby turtles popping out of the sand, literally appearing from everywhere, like insects. They had just hatched from their eggs below the sand, and they were beginning their highly precarious journey to maturity which very few will reach. Even if they escape the dangers of foxes and crabs to reach the ocean, the vast majority with be eaten or drown in the sea. Finally, and perhaps most impressively, we witnessed a giant turtle (who presumably had just laid her eggs) slowly creep from the beach back to the ocean. This absolutely enormous turtle would use its flippers to crawl three or four steps, stop and take a (loud) breather, and then continue to push forward until it finally reached its destination. It’s difficult to describe the whole scene, but it was fantastic!

14-16.
The Indian Ocean. Never been there before.

17-20.
A castle in Nizma, a city at the foot of the Hajar Mountains which was once the capital of Oman and remains at the center of the Ibadi faith.

21-23.
The Hajar Mountains, a mountain range that dramatically reaches up from the Indian Ocean to 10,000 feet. We had a great time climbing around…that’s me in the background of the first picture. Scattered throughout these mountains, and all over Oman in general, are towers dating from the Portuguese era in the 16-17th Century.

24.
Men in Oman are different! This was a sign for the bathrooms.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the pictures. Happy belated Easter to everyone (it's Easter today in Jordan)! By the way, I'd be interested in your opinions of my last post, about homosexuality in the Middle East. I thought I'd get more of a response.

Monday, April 10, 2006

My very humble impressions of homosexuality in Jordan

As promised...homosexuality in Jordan. I hope I made sense. Feel free to comment, as I would love to have some sort of a discussion. Next post...either Oman (I leave the day after tomorrow!) or local opinion of Saddan Hussein. Keep checking! By the way, I'm doing much better, especially after a refreshing trip to Madaba. The Bedouin hospitality always does a sould well! Anyways, the post...

The issue of homosexuality in the Middle East is certainly not discussed openly, leaving one to assume that it remains irrelevant. However, during my 7 months here in Irbid, Jordan, I‘ve had a small glimpse into this odd world of same sex relationships. In fact, it is probably inappropriate to label it as a ‘world of same sex relationships’ per se, as in fact, I’m talking about something entirely different. Instead, I am referring to seemingly straight men engaging in homosexual acts with other seemingly straight men. Strange? Perhaps, but there are real explanations.

First of all, I should say that I am only writing about men. When I had an American friend of mine who is living here read this post, he accused me of being a chauvinist and denying women’s sexuality! Ouch. I’m not trying to do that, but I just have no idea about women and this issue! Furthermore, I would still maintain that IN GENERAL, men are more sexually motivated than women. That may be culturally encouraged, of course, but it seems to be true. Okay, on to the real issue.

In terms of sexual expression, this culture is quite repressive (keep in mind that I am speaking of Irbid, which much more conservative than Amman), and I think two crucial factors provide the basis for this sexual repression. First, the norm for men is to marry as late as 35, when they are sufficiently stable financially to provide for a family. According to the Jordanian Department of Statistics, the average age for a Jordanian man’s marriage is 29.3 (both Will and I think this is too low), more than two years older than the average American man. Therefore, this late age of marriage means that unless they are engaging in pre-marital sex, men are waiting an extremely long time to have sex. Because celibacy is so important for women, usually, men aren’t engaging in ANY sexual activity, even kissing. Regardless of what any religion says, this is a period of fighting your own biology!

Second, unlike those in the United States who choose to remain celibate until marriage, celibacy here is not really a choice, but is culturally mandated. This cultural pressure is not merely limited to parental disapproval or something like this, but it permeates the entire culture. Of course, men can engage in physical activity with women, but it certainly requires searching and high amounts of risk, thus dissuading the majority of horny men from partaking. The combination of these two factors are brutal for men’s sexuality (and for women, too), as you have a large number of men unable to satisfy their desires, not necessarily by choice. Of course, there are also many men, perhaps the majority, who are committed religiously to this still celibacy. Regardless, the fact remains that many men are 'forced' into sexual purity.

While the obvious parallel is with Christians in the United States who wait until marriage to have sex, I must reinforce the many differences. First, oftentimes these American men may not be having sex, but at least they are enjoying some sort of sexuality, even kissing. Here, for the majority of men, nothing. Second, for the many Middle Easterners who are only marginally pious, their waiting until marriage to engage in any sexual activity is not a matter of major religious significance. It is culturally forced upon them. They cannot share the ‘us against mainstream culture’ pride that many Christians in the US have. Finally, there is a fairly obvious trend amongst Christians in the US to marry early, which I think is directly related to the desire to have sex (no one take that personally!). Once again, people here are waiting until 30 to have sex.

So that’s the situation. Men are men everywhere, and this sexuality must come out somewhere. Prostitution is available, but there is also a surprisingly normal activity amongst young men whereby they engage in sexual acts with each other. Opportunities for same-sex sexuality are increased by the close physical relationships that already exist between members of the same sex. I cannot be entirely certain of its pervasiveness, either culturally or in terms of numbers; but it is definitely present throughout the Middle East. I have a gay American friend here in Jordan who has engaged in various forms of homosexuality with a number of men, men who are not gay in a strictly-defined sense. These are men who may have a girlfriend, men who hope to get married. These are men who know that it is highly unlikely that they will be able to express themselves sexually with women in the near future, and they have decided that this simpler alternative must suffice.

Perhaps this phenomenon merely reflects a society that better understands the broad range of human sexuality, a society that consciously or secretly has decided that the labels of ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ are insufficient at best. That would be cool. Perhaps, as foreigners, we attract that population that is either gay, or at least desperate for anything. Regardless, it does produce some strange results. Last week, for example, I went over to the home of a new ‘friend,’ only for him to come on to me quite aggressively. A few months ago on the bus (granted it was a seedy, late night bus), Will and I saw two men fondling each other from under a coat.

Although this type of stuff seems highly antithetical to an extremely religious culture, especially considering Islam’s strong condemnation of homosexuality, I guess it is a cultural concession to an otherwise overwhelming problem. In the past, of course, men married much earlier. It would be interesting to hear the perspective of religious scholars, who condemn ‘homosexuality’ in the strongest language. Perhaps they would merely deny its existence. Certainly they view this strange cultural phenomenon of non-gay men engaging in gay activities with disdain. Whether it is considered better than the alternative of women potentially losing their chastity, voluntarily or by rape, I am not certain. I am sure, however, that it will remain a relatively secret issue.

Before you laugh to yourself about the hypocrisy inherent in this model (of which there is plenty), reflect on our own society. I guess all societies must deal with the drones of horny men (and women!) in their own ways! Ours has generally chosen to disregard chastity and sexual purity all together, leading to problems with premarital pregnancies, abortions, AIDS, and a general apathy towards the importance of sex beyond physical pleasure. However strange it may seem, this is one solution, one that certainly avoids many of the pitfalls of our own society.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Eclipses and Robberies

I have only two months left in Jordan. Although it seems like I’ve been here forever, I can hardly believe that it’s almost over! Well, during these next two months, I’m going to try something new for my blog. Every couple of weeks (inshallah), I will write about a specific subject to Jordan and the Middle East, such as marriage or local ideas about Saddam Hussein, for example. The next bi-week topic will be homosexuality, and I’ll post it early next week. I know that Dsome Rof Ayou Pare Enterested Rin that topic. For now, my life...the highlights.

1. There was a total solar eclipse that passed very close to Jordan, and it was awesome! Really, I was very impressed. Perhaps more interesting, however, were the Jordanians' reactions. For example, all of the non-university schools were cancelled out of fear that the children might look at the sun when they walked home from classes. At the time, I just assumed that they were looking for an excuse to cancel school. But, lo and behold, they made up the day on Saturday! There was this crazy perception that the sunlight from the eclipse was somehow more dangerous than sunlight at anytime. At one point, I was glancing at the eclipse and some guy shouted with panic, “Don’t look at the sun!” I asked my Egyptian doorman if he saw the eclipse. Nope. He informed me that he shut himself in his room and locked his door, out of fear of the sun’s rays. What?! Yet despite all this fear and unwarranted concern, no one seemed to be taking advantage of the situation economically. Do you guys remember those “look at the eclipse” glasses in the U.S.? You would think those will be flooding the streets!

2. A terrible two days, days which made it painfully clear that I am not living in my home country. Some of problems included…

- The shower running out of water, while I was in it.

- My bed broke, for some reason. It’s already so shitty, fixing is probably impossible.

- Two nights ago, I had my worst experience in the Middle East. Considering that I’ve now lived here for a total of a year, I guess I can’t complain too much. I was robbed...while I was in the house. Okay, that sounds much worse than the theft actually played out. Rather, it was one of the weirdest and most mysterious situations I can recall in my life. While I was taking a shower, someone (somehow) reached into the window of my room and stole my cell phone, wallet, and a card of cell phone credit from my desk, which is near the window. They must have used a stick or something. Admittedly, I wasn’t the smartest in the whole thing, but I didn’t think that locking my window from the inside was all that necessary. That night, I literally spent 2 hours looking for my phone, and I went to bed convinced that either Will was playing a late April Fool’s joke on me or that I accidentally flushed it down the toilet. The next morning, when I realized that my wallet was gone as well, I knew what happened. Probably the craziest thing is that someone must have been watching me to know that I went to the shower. Otherwise, Will or I would have heard the noise. Uhh. The hassle has been significant, especially cancelling cards and trying to obtain new ones. All told, the thief jacked my cell phone, over $100, my university ID, MI Driver’s Lisence, Jordanian residency card, local bank card, US bank card, and a Visa card. Quite the snag! I have tried to maintain a positive attitude about it all, although it has made me a bit colder to the culture, something which I am already overcoming. Even though crime in Jordan is very, very low, Will and I are learning that we still need to be careful.

So that’s that. Early next week, I’ll give that post about homosexuality. Check! I miss you guys.