Saturday, August 6, 2016

You can lead a camel to water, but you can't make her speak Arabic....

Is this sign proof of a language barrier or evidence of someone blatantly ignoring a sign? I would like to think that the perpetrator did not speak Arab or English (or maybe just chose to ignore the sign!)
Finally--the moment all of my devoted readers have all been waiting for: Arabic 101 Lessons. Beofre you get too excited, let me preface this by saying, my Arabic is quite limited. (Just so you can full understand how limited my knowledge is, I bought "Arab for Dummies," and still don't understand the language. I wonder if there is a book called "Arab for Those Who  are Dumber than Dummies"). Despite my language limitations, Arab gives us an essential glimpse into discovering a bit about culture. You might even be a bit surprised to learn that some English words actually trace their origins to Arabic. Some of the words that are directly linked to Arabic are cotton, magazines, alcohol, candy, magazine, sherbert, sofa, zero, and algebra. Interesting, huh?

 So, why learn Arabic? Besides the fact that if you ever find yourself experiencing hunger pangs while  traveling in an Arabic speaking country (which you will--the food is phenomenal!) or need to read street signs, Arabic is the official language of more than 20 countries. (An estimated 300 million people claim Arabic as their native language). Arabic is the language of one of the world's major religions, Islam, and it is the official language of the Qu'ran. Although the Qu'ran has been translated in 100s of languages, it is considered most pure in Arabic, since that is the language which Muhammad received the word of Allah (God). (Muslims believe that the Koran is actually God's word which was given to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel).

At first glance, the alphabet may look a bit daunting to speakers of the Romance languages because it is unfamiliar. It is very different than European languages because it does not use the Latin alphabet. It also is written from right to left, which is quite challenging. However, like many foreign languages, nouns take masculine and feminine forms. For example, when referring to a male teacher, you would say 'mu.dar.ris' but that term changes to mu.dar,ri.sah when referring to a female teacher. Nouns and adjectives must be in agreement, as well, and nouns come before the adjectives.

 I was told that once I memorized the alphabet, learning Arabic would be a breeze. I was even given this handy wheel to help me in my endeavors which would be most useful when trying to spell out words in Arabic.  Arab words are written in cursive. Another fun fact is that Arabic letters, depending on where the letter falls in the word, takes a different form. Every consonant can be written in four different ways depending on its position in a word.  And, if your head isn't spinning yet, to make it even more confusing...there are some consonants that don't have English equivalents. (some of the sounds are unfamiliar like breathing heavily and then making noises like you  have a hairball in your throat. That's not an accurate description, but is the only way I know how to describe it.)
For months, I had to constantly take the wheel from my son and remind him it was not a toy. However, I eventually succumbed to his pleas to play with the wheel when it proved completely useless to me. Th Eventually, I succumbed to his pleas to play with the wheel

Remember, Arabic is written from right to left. .There are vowels and consonants in Arabic words, but the vowels aren't actual letters; rather, they are symbols that are placed on top or below the consonants. The location of their placement, determines the sound it is meant to create in the word. There are 28 consonants in Arabic, but there are some sounds that are not familiar to English speakers (these sounds sound like heavy breathing or like a cat choking on a hairball...Ok, that's not really an accurate depiction, but it's the only way I know how to compare it for you!)

Can you read this sign? Remember, Arabic is read from right to left. 

Some popular Arabic expressions:

Hello (مرحبا) (pronounced (This translates into simply "hello," but it literally means "May peace be upon you)
The most common reply is "And upon you peace." (pronounced wa.a.lay,kum
(I love the sentiment behind this reply!)

My name is (اسمي هو) Is.mi...(Is.mi Nicole) (That seems simple enough!)

Praise to God الحمد لله (pronounced: al.ham.du.lil.lah) (A lot of expressions in Arabic make reference to God because the language actually evolved from the writings of the Qu'ran.
So, how is this expression used? Well, even though the phrase has religious connotations, it can be used quite casually and can be used after completing a simple task (I have started using it after I finish folding the loads of laundry that consistently accumulate in my house). It can also be an appropriate response when  someone asks you how you are doing (كيف هي احوالك)--Praise to God: I'm well."

God willing (مشيئة الله) (pronounced in.sha.'a al.lah) This expression is used when someone asks about a future event (I hope so, if God wishes it.) So, if someone asks you, "Are you going to work on Monday?" You answer "God willing."

Excellent ممتاز (pronounced: mum.tahz) (I love this expression!! I used it all the time because this is really the only thing I knew how to say!)

I am going to leave you with some interesting translations of Arabic signs into English.....Stay tuned for next blog post when I share some images and history of Sultan Qaboos!

Sometimes we can lose meaning in translation...I am not sure what exactly this company is selling!

Beauty supplies for women

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque: A Wonderful Lesson in the Teachings of Islam

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque
The grandeur of Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, located in Muscat, is evident before one even  steps into  the ornate place of worship, and it is easy to see why tourists of all denominations are drawn to this absolutely breathtaking architectural structure. In typical Sultan Qaboos grandiose fashion, everything at this mosque is HUGE, including the world's second largest chandelier. (The world's largest chandelier, though not as famous as the one located in the Grand Mosque, is located in Qatar). Judging by the size of the Grand Mosque, it is quite a feat of architectural wonder how it only took a little over 6 years to complete.(Sultan Qaboos is pretty darn efficient, but I will save that for another post!)

Interior of Grand Mosque. The chandeliers are made of Swarovski crystals. 

Because Sultan Qaboos wanted to ensure that all Muslims feel welcome while visiting and worshiping at the Grand Mosque, the exterior of the mosque was designed to represent specific styles and themes from various periods of Arab-Islam history, ranging from Spain to Central Asia. These niches are handcrafted with tiles that represent the various eras. The corridor offers a beautiful testament to the rich history of Islam and invites all believers to come together in their faith.

Left Niche: "Sand, Myrrh, Silver": Oman niche reflects patterns found in Oman's tribal crafts
Right Niche: "Lotus Flower and Tulips": Iznik tile is representative of the Ottoman Period 

The Women's Mosque is much smaller than the main mosque because rules requiring women to pray in the mosque are not as strict as they are for men. Women  and men do not pray in the same room  not because women are considered inferior--in fact, Muslims believe that women and men are equal in faith. So, why the division?? Well, let me put it to you bluntly: when Muslims pray, their bodies are in constant states of standing and bowing down. (It is actually very powerful to watch Muslims pray in unison as they recite the Qu'ran and simultaneously move their bodies in prayer. Although each person is deep in his or her prayer, the motions are still done in sync).Believers either pray on individual prayer carpets, or, as in larger mosques, individual prayer squares that are delineated on the carpet. So, imagine a room of men and women whose bodies are constantly standing, bowing, standing, bowing, all while reciting the Qu'ran. Imagine a man glancing up for a split second and seeing a woman in constant motion. He may become slightly distracted and his thoughts may wander from his prayers. Keeping one's heart and mind is so important in Muslim tradition that prior to entering the mosque, "ablution," or ritual washing, takes place. According to Muslim traditions it is essential to focus on the prayer, that is why women and men are separated.  Catch my drift?

Left: Men's ablution room. Prior to entering the mosque, men gather and wash their hands and feet
Left: Entrance into the Women's Restroom and Ablution Room.  Just as praying is done in separate spaces, so is ablution.  

After soaking in the grandeur of the mosque, we stopped in the Islamic center for traditional dates and Arabic coffee. The center is open for visitors who want to learn more about the faith. The visit to the center  was truly a highlight of my visit at the mosque because of the willingness to share and address any questions about Islam, Oman, Arabic culture, women's role in Islam, and any misconceptions we had. At no point were we, as visitors, condemned for our own beliefs; rather it was a delightful conversation in which we learned and questioned one another without judgment.  One  of the best ways to understand a culture is to engage in nonjudgmental, open conversations such as these--we don't have to agree with one another but by having these conversations we can understand one another instead of fearing those who we perceive as different than ourselves.

Want to learn more about Islam. Check out this great website:

Stay promised...Arabic101 is coming next!! 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Ramadan Kareem! (Have a Blessed Ramadan)

While traveling to a new place, particularly a foreign country, I always try to keep an open frame of mind. Many differences exist among cultures including tastes in foods, music, or even smells in the air. One of the biggest differences I have experienced while traveling in both Oman and Zanzibar is Ramadan. I had a much different experience traveling in Turkey last summer during Ramadan because Turkey prides itself in being a secular nation; however, Oman follows very strict Muslim laws so Ramadan has been quite a different experience.Businesses close during the day and it is illegal to eat or drink in public during the fasting hours.
During the month of Ramadan, businesses shift their hours of operation. Businesses, such as these, reopen after the fast to ensure their customers receive their services. 

The month of Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which is based on the lunar not the solar calendar. Every year during the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn until sundown, abstaining from food and drink. The philosophy behind the fast is that by cutting oneself off from worldly comforts, even for as little as a month, a fasting person gains true sympathy with those who are hungry as well as grow spiritually . When I say fasting, I am not referring to the "No Meat Fridays" practiced by many Catholics during Lent. Ramadan fasting refers to not eating anything during the day. (This includes water!) Since Oman is a Muslim country, it is illegal to eat or drink anything in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan. As tourists, this was quite difficult since we were not required to fast, but we did not want to flaunt this in front of our tour guides, local guides, and bus drivers who were fasting. Since Oman is quite hot, this proved quite challenging. (When I was able to sneak an illegal sip of water, the water was usually quite warm as it seemed to boil in my backpack. Even though it was typically warm, it quenched my thirst).  The fast ends at sundown when the Iftar feast begins. Iftar begins with a serving of dates, and, then, the feast begins. (Dates are traditional to the Iftar feast since Mohammed broke his own fasts  with three dates).  Because it is so hot during fasting hours, many people stay indoors in order to maintain their strength.
Many restaurants have specials each night to cater to those observing the fast. Papa John's Pizza offered a buffet special nightly. 

Date baskets made from palm. Dates are grown in Oman and picked directly off the trees. Baskets such as these can be used to collect the dates from the trees. 

Citizens of Nizwa scope out goats for the Eid Feast
 We visited Nizwa's Goat Market in which we witnessed preparations for the Friday feast. Goats and cows are paraded around to be sold by at the best price. Visiting the Goat Market, which is only open on Fridays, is one of the best ways to truly catch a glimpse of Omani culture. Goats and cows are paraded around and sold at the best price directly from the herder.  Men in white dishdashas hurried around the market area selling goods, livestock, and even skewers to cook the goats later. Much of the livestock was being transported to the parking lot, often against their will.

(Left) Men walk into the entrance of Nizwa's Goat Market.
(Right)  We  spotted these little guys in the parking lot of the market. They were just purchased at Friday's Goat Market and are waiting to be transported to their new home. They will most likely be slaughtered for the Friday night's feast. 

Man cuddles with his new baby goat. 

The end of Ramadan, Eid-al-Fitr, begins the new day of the tenth month of the Islamic calendar. At this time, the fast is officially broken, and  believers participate in many communal celebrations and prayers.  During this time, many Muslims offer some form of charity whether it be food items, such as barley, dates, raisins, flour, etc, or its monetary equivalent, to the poor. Because Ramadan is a time of reflection, believers develop a sense of sympathy for those who have little, and the works of charity are done in honor of that. Additionally, the celebration is marked by wearing new clothes, visiting relatives, and preparing large fee

Newspaper article announcing the end of Ramadan's fast. Let the celebrating (and feasting) begin!!
Ramadan feast offered at our hotel in  Zanzibar

(Local Zanzibars participate in the Eid festivities which is a four day celebration. Streets remained crowded past midnight)

Witnessing Ramadan in Oman and Eid-al-Fitr was extremely powerful because of the depth of commitment to one's faith that was evident in both countries. However, that is not to imply that every single Muslim in both Oman and Zanzibar abide by all strict observances during Ramadan (that's like saying every single Christian attends church every Sunday), but it was truly beautiful to watch people come together nightly. They may have had different social, economic, or political beliefs, but they had one thing in common--their faith. The peacefulness and overall happy spirit that permeated the communal celebrations was so refreshing to witness.  Islam is truly a beautiful faith, but often the media presents a distorted view of the faith. Yes, there are some people who profess to be Muslim but do not behave in ways that are promoted by the Muslim faith, and it is because of these people that Islam is often misunderstood. Hopefully, through my experiences, I helped you understand a little bit more about this faith.

Stay tuned  for my next post as I give you a very condensed lesson in Arabic.... 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Hakuna Matata: It's our problem free philosophy

All those years ago when I watched "Lion King" I had no idea that Simba and Pumba were referring to a Kiswahili phrase, "Hakuna Matata." I never have relied on Disney as providing accurate depictions of history. Imagine my surprise upon hearing "Hakuna Matata" within minutes of arriving in Zanzibar. (And guess what song was floating around my head for seven days while? One thing Disney does get right is catchy tunes!!)

This is Hellen, proprietor of Hellen Art Gallery in Zanzibar, Stone Town. I met Hellen during my first morning in Zanzibar while on my morning jog. She approached me on the street and asked me to enter her shop. Throughout our week in Zanzibar, I brought many of my colleagues to her store to purchase her artwork. (I am still upset she didn't give me a cut of her profit. That Hellen is so crafty!!)  Hellen has a website if you are interested in learning more about her and her artwork
(Photo credit: Katharine Mitchell)
The East African Kiswahili Commission was initially established as an effort to create a collaborative organization for Kenya, the United Republic of Tanzania (including Zanzibar) and Uganda. In 1999 the group was revived and efforts were made to establish Kiswahili as the lingua franca,  of the community. (Lingua franca: language of communication for people with different languages. Using the lingua franca for business, economics, etc. makes communication easier). The Commission is committed to investing and promoting Kiswahili in member countries as well as international programs which teach about the language. However, the goal of the commission is not to eradicate other languages spoken in East Africa: rather, Kiswahili should unify the region's people. 

Kenneth Inyani Simala, director of Zanzibar's branch of the East African Commission, that this institution is essential to coordinate the development of this international language. He stated, "We want to harmonize our region, not standardize it." Language is at the heart of culture and in order to understand the importance of a language they must understand its impact on its people and culture. By understanding that culture and language are both a way of life, students of language can respect the life of the speakers of the language as well as find some commonalities among cultures. The commission is not intent on eradicating all other languages in East Africa; their goal is to form a multilingual society with Kiswahili as a unifying component so that people can better communicate with one another. 
Flags representing the East African member countries in the East African Kiswhali Commission

For more information on the East African KiSwahili Commission, please access the following link: 

Now that you know a little about the importance of Kiswahili  here are a few key phrases to help you out:
Jambo: Hello
Hakuna Matata: No worries (example: "Oops! I forgot to wear deodarant today." Response, "Hakuna matata!!)
Pole Pole (pronouned; Pol-ay, Pol-ay); slowly (example of usage: Running through the airport and bumping into passengers. Response, "Pole, pole" (Slow down, you fool, you already missed your flight!!)

Asanti Sitaki: I don't want it. (Example: You are walking down a row of vendors who approach you to buy spices or cheap scarves. Your response, "Asanti sitaki." (Trust me, this is a much nicer response than LEAVE ME ALONE!! I DON'T WANT YOUR STUFF!!!) 

Asante Sana: Thank you very much.

Karibu: Welcome

Jina langu ni Nicole (My name is Nicole (feel free to insert your own name!) 

Mambo: What's up?  Response: Poa (pronounced: Po-ah) "All is cool!"

Nina toka wapi? (Where are you from?)
Nina toka Marekina (I am from America)

Our awesome Swahili teacher, Asia.

Now that you know a bit of Swahili, perhaps you are ready to try  it out on some locals. If you aren't comfortable, don't worry! People in Zanzibar are so friendly and they love to share their language and culture with visitors. 
Even restaurants are dedicated in helping spread Kiswahili to help non-native speakers. 

Stay tuned to learn more about my travels in Oman and Zanzibar!!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Zanzibar: Only a Monsoon Wind Away

Karibu,  Zanzibar!! (That's Swahili for "Welcome  to Zanzibar" but I will  save Swahili 101 for another  blog  post). 

Zanzibar—the name alone  conjures images of an exotic, remote,  fairy tale land. In fact,  much of what I heard about “mystical”  Zanzibar  made me  doubt if it really existed!!  Having spent seven  days  there,  I  can attest that Zanzibar  does indeed exist and it definitely has a very rich and unique history. 
Can you find Zanzibar on this hand drawn map of Africa??  If you can find Tanzania  on the east coast,  Zanzibar is a small  archipelago in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Tanzania. (In fact, it is only a ten minute (no,joke!) flight from Zanzibar to Tanzania's largest city, Dar es Salaam) It is comprised of many islands, but  the two largest are  Ujunga and Pemba.  

Due to Zanzibar's strategic  location  in the Indian Ocean, it has played an important role in Oman's history and economy. The wooden dhows were large, single-masted  boats with triangular sails that Omanis used for trade. Because they were carried by the seasonal  monsoon  winds, the dhows could make the voyage around the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean in just a little over a week. (Thanks to modern advances that same journey can be made by airplane in a little less than 5 hours).  In the late 18th century Oman usurped control of Zanzibar from the Portuguese around 1650 and ejected Portuguese from the Arabian Peninsula. The  Omanis were so enamored with Zanzibar  that in 1840 the Sultan Said built  his castle  in Zanzibar because of the enormous economic  potential and the much milder climate.  (Trust me, Oman  in the summer  is even more  grueling than Louisiana in August!) Sugar cane, coconut palm, and clove plantations contributed to the economic growth of Zanzibar under Omani rule.
Oman still produces Dhows such as these for countries in the Gulf  Region.  Qatar already   has  dibs  on this beauty. 
Because of its proximity to India, Zanzibar made a substantial contribution to Britain's economy (Britain controlled India during this time). Furthermore, because of "clove mania" and the desire to crush the Dutch monopoly over the spice trade, the British became interested in obtaining control over Zanzibar's economy. As the British became  more powerful in Zanzibar, the Sultan's role diminished and he became a mere figurehead.  British imperial rule did stabilize Zanzibar's economy but it also planted the roots for economic underdevelopment which can still be seen today.

The remains of the Sultan's palace in one time this palace would have given Buckingham Palace a run for its money. 

Zanzibar's educational policy suffered greatly from colonial rule which eventually led to Zanzibar's call to end foreign rule and become a self-governing country. In 1964, Tanzania and Zanzibar merged into the United Republic of Tanzania but many Zanzibaris want to secede from Tanzania and become a self-ruling country.

Many Zanzibari citizens do not want to be part of Tanzania. Graffiti pleading for "Freedom" is a common site throughout the island. 
Stay tuned for my next blog entry in which I share with you some basic KiSwahili terms, the official language of Zanzibar. (KiSwahili for Dummies taught by Yours Truly!)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Land of Frankincense

Tourists enjoy the natural  beauty offered  by Salalah's natural  sites. 
Salalah,  located in Oman's Dhofar region,  lies in the southernmost portion of the country, close to Yemen's border. The southwest monsoon winds inpact Dhofar making it much more temperate and diverse than the northern region of the country. The Dhofar region is also unique because Sunni Muslims dominate the region  unlike another branch of Islam, known as Ibadi, which dominates the majority of Oman's population. Salalah is a popular tourist destination because  of its many natural  sites.

Indian Ocean 

The geographic location of Oman  plays  a  key role in  the historical  connection between its  people and the  sea.   In  fact,  Oman provides an excellent  example  of globalization and its  early impact on society. Oman's  proximity to  the sea not  only was a  major  source of income for its  people but also  linked Oman to other nations.  The Dhofar region was a major  exporter  of frankincense.  (Many people often associate frankincense with one of the three gifts brought to baby Jesus by the Magi).  The exchange of frankincense throughout the Indian Ocean, Red Sea, and as far as China caused Oman to become a leader in Indian Ocean trade. The long distance sailing boats were used on voyages  from Oman to the east coast of  Africa,  specifically to Zanzibar and Mombasa. (I will share more about the historical ties between Oman and Zanzibar in upcoming posts). When the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe, Oman slipped in its economic importance  because of its use of traditional ships which could not keep up with Europe's booming economy.

 Frankincense,  which  is primarily grown in Oman, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Somalia,  derives from the dried sap of Boswellia Sacra. Today it is most commonly associated with incense but it  is also used for medicinal purposes such as treatment for nausea and congestion. At one time, it was also used for post-childbirth recovery!)  
To extract frankincense, the bark must be cut off so that the sap can leak from the tree. Frankincense is essentially the hardened sap. (Photo credit: Kara Navas)

 The quality of frankincense is based on the color of the hardened  sap. The lowest quality which is   most common is   a brownish-yellow color.  Because it  is  so common,  it  is rather  cheap and  readily available. The best quality frankincense is silvery and clear with a slight greenish tinge. (Rumors have it  the  highest quality frankincense  is reserved  for  Sultan Qaboos).

Frankincense Trees

Although the frankincense trade is not as prominent as it once was, the Indian  Ocean still  plays  a major role in Oman's economy.  Oman has modernized its ports so  as to better  compete in the global  market  and is determined to  reclaim its  maritime status.

Monday, July 4, 2016

OMAN?!? Where in the HECK is that?

Oman?? Where is that? Perhaps so many people do not know where Oman is because it is not in the news. The country of Oman is not known for harboring terrorists, so maybe we don’t perceive it as newsworthy. Quite honestly, I did not know much about Oman until I started researching it. I have always been quite interested in Southwestern Asian countries but because we are exposed to such negative images, I have, too, have been skeptical. In July 2015 I visited Turkey for the first time, and my fears were alleviated. However, in lieu of the recent attacks in Istanbul and Bangladesh we are bombarded with even more negative images. While there are terrorists in the Southwest Asia, we have to remember that they represent only a microscopic portion of the population. I have been here less than a week, I can already say that many of the hesitations I had about traveling here are now gone. It is through my encounters with locals and firsthand experiences I have developed a deeper appreciation and understanding of this region. During the next few weeks, it is my goal to share my positive experiences in both Oman and Zanzibar in hopes of negating any misconceptions you may have about the region. 
Omani Graffiti on Hagar Mountains 
So, where is this place, Oman? Here's a little map to orient you. 
As you can see, Oman is flanked by a few body of waters. In fact a boat cruise on Gulf of Oman is a must do while in Oman (Not only for the beautiful sites but for an excellent break from the scorching heat while on land!!) 
Boat cruise on the Gulf of Oman with my travel buddies. 

Here are a few fun facts to wet your whistle:

1. Oman officially the Sultanate of Oman, is located in the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, located north of Yemen. Because of its strategic location, Oman had vast contact with several regions through the sea. In fact, it was once America's largest importer of dates! Dates which may seem like such a common item actually brought lots of wealth to the Arabian peninsula. 
Date Groves are everywhere. Dates 

2. Oman once controlled Zanzibar (today part of Tanzania). In the 20th century, the sultanate came under the influence of the UK. 

3. The current Sultan, Sultan Qaboos, actually came to power with the help of the British. He overthrew his father, Said bin Taimur. (Fun fact: Sultan Said bin Taimur outlawed sunglasses, but Sultan Qaboos made sunglasses legal again. Why sunglasses? Too western. 
Our local guide thanks the Sultan for his sunglasses.

4. There are roughly around 22 Arabic countries in the world, one of which is Oman. Oman's official religion is Islam.
Peeking through a window at Bahla Fort  

 Stay tuned as I share with you my experiences. (Internet is a bit spotty depending on the hotel we are in, so I will do my best to post as much as I can!) 
So, Ma'a Salama for now...