A glimpse of Danish society from a tourist

After a few days in Copenhagen, my observations echo those of many, many US folks before me. So many cyclists commuting, taking their kids places, just getting around. Three bus lines (at least) within eight minutes of our apartment in a neighborhood north of town. A river running through the middle of town that has been so cleaned up that now there are large public swimming areas in it. We were in a metro stop and saw some rainbows on the ground. Above us, we discovered prisms as part of an art installation. Margaret’s comment: “If you pay lots of taxes you get rainbows everywhere!” (We’re not indoctrinating her, I swear…)



Friendly alley in the Østerbro neighborhood of Copenhagen.

At the same time, not all is perfect in the socialist paradise. A law banning burquas and niqabs just came into effect (with the fig leaf that wearing facemasks and false beards is also disallowed). Lots of debate about this decision. Reading the papers, both sides speak to the concept of Danish values, with one saying that aggressive covering violates women’s rights, and the other speaking to freedom of religious expression.

I’ve also read online a little bit about the idea of poverty in Denmark. The government publishes the “ghetto“ list – neighborhoods targeted for special help and services. These tend to be dominated by older people with limited education or recent immigrants. I also read one person saying in a chat forum that the Danish healthcare system does not cover dentistry for adults, so you can sometimes see people (again elderly or immigrants) missing teeth.

But back to the benefits we saw and heard ourselves. The quality of the museums and of public building upkeep is impressive, with great signage and creative things for kids to do. A Danish family who hosted us for dinner spoke about their support for the public school system, free through university, and for the European Union. Overall, my first impression is one of a strong commitment to the general welfare and the common good.


Jobs Omanis do, part II

A few observations I have heard but can’t swear to:

  • In 1970 so few Omanis were educated that most teachers came from Egypt. Now almost all teachers are Omani.
  • Almost all restaurant workers are guest workers. But the owner would be Omani – only Omanis are allowed to own restaurants (is this true of all businesses, I wonder?)
  • Some jobs are restricted to Omanis – taxi driver and water tanker driver. Why? Because these are good jobs that don’t require education, just a drivers’ license.
  • All government jobs, police and military are only for Omanis.
  • Someone working in the fields is not Omani, but the owner of the farm is.
  • An old man carrying grass on his head to his flock in rural Oman is Omani (why, if the current point about Omanis not working in the fields is the case?)
  • For every 5 foreign workers hired, a business must hire an Omani.

Most restaurant workers are from India; these guys were from Yemen


Presto Chango!

Recently we went to dinner at a hotel restaurant in Muscat. It was one of the higher end hotels, and the restaurant served wine, so I guess you could identify it as a cosmopolitan or liberal space. (As I understand it, few independent restaurants, and not even all hotel restaurants, are licensed, even in the capital.) The diners were a mix of Omanis, Europeans, and folks from other Gulf states (at least one man wore what I think of as a Saudi ghutra.)

Next to us sat a middle-aged Omani couple. He was wearing the traditional Omani cap and dishdasha. She was wearing a black abaya and head covering. After they ordered dinner, she removed her head covering, kissed her husband, and excused herself. She returned without her abaya, wearing a red tank top and jeans.

Both in Oman and in other countries, I have seen women and men in widely varying interpretations of modest dress. But I have not seen someone change their level of dress “in public”, if you will.


Define this space: public? Western? liberal?

Greetings in Oman: more than just “hi”


We were picnicking in a wadi when a farmer came around the corner, carrying on his head grass for his goats. Our guide rose and exchanged the following greeting and farewell (my apologies for poor transliterating/translating – it’s what I could get from my guide after):

Salaam aleikum (Peace be with you)
Aleikum Salam (And with you peace)
Kief Halek (How are you?)
Hamdulilah ([I am well,] Thanks be to God).
Mash Akbar? (No news?)
Mash ulum? (No information?)
Diar salime (The country is safe)
Bifuthel Allah wa Qaboos (by the grace of God and His Majesty Sultan Qaboos)
Ma Salama ([Go] with peace)

…and the man went on his way.

Wealth, poverty and wealth again

Oman has swung from substantial to impoverished and back again. The trading history is fascinating and romantic. In the 18th century Oman controlled a series of ports along the Somali and Kenyan coast, as well as the island of Zanzibar. Trade was conducted by dhows, the last of which was built for (for actual commercial use!) in 1951.


Built as an actual trading vessel in 1951! Cool, but also showing the technological limitations of Oman at that time.


The beautiful harbor and lighthouse of Sur

Nowadays in the Omani coastal town of Sur they are still building dhows. Now, however, wealthy princes from other Gulf states order them as symbols of their commercial history! Made of teak and taking a year to construct, they don’t come cheap.

During the 20th century came a time of steep decline; Oman became incredibly poor. Since 1970, however, when the current Sultan deposed his father, the increases in all markers on the human development index have been dramatic. Oman once again does a serious sea trade; this time in oil and natural gas.


LNG tanker off the coast of Sur, Oman

Figuring out who is an Omani, and what jobs they do

This is my first time to a Gulf country, and I am particularly interested in questions of wealth, poverty, oil, and guest workers. On my Etihad flight from New York to Abu Dhabi, no-one was wearing traditional Gulf Arab clothes. There were no men in dishdashas, and I did not even notice a woman who covered her hair. In terms of appearance, if you hadn’t told me where the plane was going I would have said India. Most of the folks who didn’t look European on this flight looked South Asian to me. Were these mostly guest workers? Or were they just Indians and Pakistanis changing planes in Abu Dhabi? And is there another airline or flight time that is more popular for Gulf Arabs?

On our flight from Abu Dhabi to Muscat, however, there were significantly more folks in traditional dress, most clearly a group of young men. When we got off the plane, there were four paths through immigration. The first was marked “electronic gates” – the young men in dishdashas went that way. The second said “GCC nationals” – I’m not sure I saw anyone head that way. The third was not labeled as far as I could tell, and we were waved that way (just on the basis of our appearance, I think). The fourth said “retinal scan”, and that is where the folks who looked South Asian went.

Since we have arrived, I’ve been getting a better sense of identifying who is an Omani and who is a guest worker. There are many, many of the latter. As a tourist, I’m pretty sure none of the restaurants I’ve eaten at have had Omani staff. At the same time, it appears that this doesn’t mean that every Omani is wealthy. We visited a fishing village today, for example, that was not fancy by any means. And one of the first things one reads about Oman is that it has far less oil than other gulf states (though oil production still accounts for over 50% of GDP).


Fisherman, Qantab Beach

Decline, revolution, and tragedy


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Ruling families in the late 19th century, it seemed, had a habit of building modern palaces at great cost. These were to replace their traditional castles, but they completed them just before they lost their crowns altogether. The “Summer Palace” of the last Emir of Bukhara is one such building.

Part Russian, part Central Asian

Part Russian, part Central Asian

While far more modest, it reminded me of the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. A few architectural details echo Bukharan buildings, but most are Russian. The last Emir was a close friend of the Czar, trained with him in the military academy in Moscow and fell in love with the Czar’s sister.

The decorations rotated with the seasons, even involving changing the wall panels in one major room. The fall panels remain today from when the Red Army arrived in September 1920. The Emir fled to Afghanistan.

Contrasting politically, though also evocative of the tragedies of the early 20th century in this region, we also visited the family home of the head of the first communist revolution in Bukhara, Faizullah Khojaev. He was the son of a wealthy merchant who felt his city was backward and needed become more egalitarian and modern. He became the head of the Bukharan People’s Republic, then joined the leadership of the Uzbek SSR. Eventually, though, Stalin had him killed in the purges in 1938.

The beauty and sacredness of popular religion


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The mausoleum of Bahauddin Naqshbandi outside of Bukhara is a gorgeous and peaceful spot, full but not crowded with families making pilgrimage. A visitor can engage in a series of spiritual practices. At the tomb itself, people found spots sitting on benches under the mulberry trees, holding their hands up in the cupped prayer position.

Praying at the tomb

Praying at the tomb of Bahauddin Naqshbandi

Visitors circumambulate a tree that tradition says bloomed from the walking stick of Naqshbandi. To cure back pain, one ducks under the low branches.

Sacred tree at Naqshband

Sacred tree

People drink water from a holy spring.

Sacred spring at Naqshband

Sacred spring

An imam chants the Qur’an before people share food they brought. On the day we were there, it was a few days before the baccalaureate exams, and the imam added an extra prayer for success for the students.

Praying with Imam at Naqshband

Praying with Imam

If one has a particularly large request, one can sacrifice an animal. When we were there, a sheep arrived on the scene while staff arranged seats for the ceremony. We did not stay for the main event.

Sacrificial lamb

Sacrificial lamb

People of all ages were there. Some focused on the religious practices, others enjoyed the shade and the park. We met a group of older women from Andijan, in the Fergana Valley. They approached us and asked to take a photo with us. One woman, smiling with a mouth full of gold teeth, told us she had trained to be a French teacher but there had been little call for it in her town so she taught Russian. They took our hats and wore them in silly positions for the photo. What made us so interesting that we deserved a photo – whether being specifically Americans or just Westerners in general – I did not discover.

They were smiling just before the photo, I promise!

They were smiling just before the photo, I promise!

The shine is unapologetically populist in its religious practice. There is not even a gesture, as far as I could tell, to the concerns Salafis and others have about folk Islam distracting from a focus on the unity of God.

Changes and combinations in Tashkent

A few observations about Tashkent from our day wandering the city:

There are a smattering of women dressed in brightly colored hijab, and a few older men wearing traditional caps. I was curious that the huge Jummah mosque was built in 2007-08 – I wonder what the story behind that is. There is a lively tradition of drinking – we went to a beer hall reminiscent of Eastern Europe, and apparently beer mixed with vodka is a popular drink. So the Islam at least of Tashkent seems to be a watered down (or ginned up?) version. Tashkent holds one of the oldest Qur’ans in the world, but alas for no clear reason the library holding it was closed today. I’ll have to satisfy myself with the images online.

The history of the statue in the main square is the history of the area in the 19th and 20th century. The first monument was to the Czarist governor general Von Kauffman. Then after the revolution came an image of a Red Pioneer, to be replaced by a hammer, sickle and cannon. A statue of Stalin rose in the 30s and fell in the 50s, to be replaced by a triptych of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Most recently after the fall of the Soviet Union Timur on his horse took the place of honor. For a dictatorship, there is absolutely no cult of personality – I have seen no picture of the president for life yet (though on our train ride to Bukhara, a poster had some saying attributed to him). Police presence appeared minimal, though once we saw several men in gray camouflage who our guide identified to us as from the ministry of the interior. Oddly, though, our bags were searched when we entered the subway. Apparently this is not always the case, but independence day is coming up…in a month!

The script is slowly changing. When the Russians took over from the Ottomans, they replaced the Arabic script with Cyrillic. Now the Cyrillic is slowly being replaced by the Latin script – we were told that school kids now cannot read the Cyrillic script well. The Uzbek currency is totally unwieldy – their largest bill is 1000 soum, which is worth at the moment about U.S. 25 cents. Thus, to pay for a delicious dinner for four people plus wine, $51, took more than 200 bills. We had stacks of bills in groups of 10 on the table counting out our payment! Several markets were very lively, though alas set in or around socialist 20th century buildings. Most of the areas we visited were fairly empty – probably most people were working, and it is quite warm during the summer.

Linguistic and monetary echoes of the Soviet Union

We exchanged money through an acquaintance. As he explained, 2550 soum to the dollar is the official rate. The safe rate (he goes to an apartment of a friend he trusts) is 3800 – $1. On the street you could get 4000 – $1, but it is not safe.

My mom after the exchange

My mom after the exchange

We had to give him new $100 and $20s. The $20s had to be crisp and not after 2003.

Also interesting – he speaks only Russian and English. He’s born and raised in Tashkent, and when he was in school (though he seems like he would have been in school after 1991) they were teaching in Russian. He knows enough Uzbek for the market. Now, he says, more Uzbekis know Uzbek, though everyone in the cities still knows Russian.