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.

Tashkent – More Soviet than Silk Road (so far)

Last night, after arrival into a mid-size airport that functioned fairly well and that kind of a drive through empty streets where you try to get a sense of the city in a jet lagged blur as it zooms by, we got to bed around 4am.

Tired at the Tashkent Airport

Tired at the Tashkent Airport

I hit the ground running at 7am with a visit to the City Palace Hotel’s exercise area. I came down from my 11th floor wood paneled room. They had a serviceable room with two treadmills, some weights and a stationary bicycle. The steam room was small and beautifully tiled, and I would have tried to capture some of the sense of a hamam except that it was the hottest steam bath I had ever been in! A quick stop in the sauna and some laps in the pool completed my gym journey. Breakfast in the surprisingly cheerful and reasonably sized coffee shop. Overall, I get the sense that someone with moderate aesthetics, taking a signal more from a nice Hilton than from the empty and grand monstrosities of the old Soviet empire, built this hotel.

Most of the streets are very modern.

Broad avenues

Broad avenues

People that I see so far look generally white, along the same spectrum that white folks in the U.S. would look. They don’t appear central Asian – well some do a little bit – is this a city vs country thing? The good morning greeting is “Salaam aleikum.” Neither last night at the airport nor today at the hotel do I see anyone in any form of traditional dress. A quick walk next door to the Timur Museum did reveal two women in brightly colored hijab. The young men hanging around the lobby of our hotel are wearing football (soccer) polo shirts and either shorts or slacks.

A few traditionally dessed women walk in front of the Timur museum

A few traditionally dressed women walk in front of the Timur museum

The emotional roller coaster of the peaceful Syrian revolutionaries of 2011


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Today a MESA panel discussed how the people committed to the Syrian revolution of 2011 experienced and continue to experience their lives. The most powerful was a presentation by Professor Wendy Pearlman of Northwestern University. In 2012 and 2013 she interviewed revolutionaries who had fled Syria to Jordan and Turkey. She speaks of four phases of fear:

  1. Fear as the coercive authority of the state: Before the revolution, “the walls have ears” and rumors of information about torture are everywhere.
  2. Fear as a barrier to be broken: During the protests, people muster a new ability to act through or despite fear. Some quotes: “Is that protester a man and I’m not a man?” “My generation could go out and protest, my parents experienced Hama 1982 [a massacre of protesters by the Hafez Assad regime].” “I engaged my humanity for the first time.” “It was better than my wedding day.”
  3. Fear as way of life: As the revolution devolves into a civil war, fear becomes the backdrop. People experience terror physically – breaking out in acne, having digestive problems. Horror becomes normalized – bodies buried in every public park, weekly routine planned around Friday massacres. From “Thank goodness the walls no longer have ears” to “Yeah, but now we don’t have walls.”
  4. Fear of the future: Now many of these young peaceful leaders are in exile. To some extent they have lost the sense of solidarity. They are closing in on themselves. They fear the radical Salafi trend: “All people could talk about in October 2013 was “Da’ash: ‘We did all these things for the revolution, and then Da’ash came and did all these things.’ The fear of the regime is gone, but now there is a fear of revolution itself.”

Emotion, experience and academic distance?


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Yesterday I attended the Middle East Studies Association meeting in which panelists and members discussed the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, in front of a meeting tomorrow to consider the Association joining the movement somehow. Professor Noura Erekat of George Mason University spoke in favor and Professor Ilan Troen of Brandeis University spoke against BDS. Then various professors and graduate students in the audience advocated for or against the idea of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel.

A few interesting points. Professor Erekat thinks a. Israel is treating Palestinians terribly (war on Gaza, settlements, ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, the wall on West Bank land, etc.) b. all other options have failed and therefore c. MESA should support the BDS movement, even though it is only “a pathetic counterforce.” Professor Troen argues that a. Israeli Palestinians are well integrated into the Israeli educational system (1/3 Haifa U students are Palestinian, 22% of pre-med students are Palestinians, the most successful school is in the Arab triangle, there are many outreach programs for Palestinians) and Jews are native to the land, so this is not apartheid, b. academic organizations should not take stances on difficult political issues that are not apartheid and therefore c. MESA should not support the BDS movement.

Other speakers joined the debate. Several anti-BDS speakers argued hypocrisy, or in the words of one (Prof. Josh Teitelbaum) the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that we don’t discuss boycotting Libya, Iran, the corrupt PA, etc. Another argued that “BDS is an extension of warfare,” not a peaceful move. A conflicted Israeli professor argued that he does not want to be cut out of his “home” in MESA, but that “we need pressure from the outside. It is legitimate – I don’t see any internal force in my country that will change the situation.” Pro-BDS speakers, especially Professor Judith Tucker, noted that MESA can tailor its type of BDS and not isolate Israeli colleagues.

The room, I believe, held Israeli actions primarily responsible for the situation of the Palestinians, as indicated by applause when speakers pointed out Israeli injustice. Most of the discussion was polite. Several comments caused significant muttering disapproval. One was when Prof. Teitelbaum called BDS anti-Semitic, another when Prof. Troen’s responses to questions were heard as unrealistically portraying Palestinian Israelis as happy and successful. By far the most censure (perhaps disappointment?), however, was expressed against the pro-BDS Professor Lisa Hajjar when she described Prof. Troen as having limited intellectual ability. (Those words may not be exactly right, but they are close.) People were quite upset by that ad hominem attack, which she said that she “withdrew.”

When does it become incumbent on an organization of academics to take a political (ethical? moral?) stance? When is consensus a form of working together in unity, and when is it enforcing conformity?