By CHRISTOPHER PIRRIE
This past summer I was selected to participate in an intercultural and language study abroad program in the Middle Eastern country of Oman. One of the goals of the program was to explore how we viewed culture and how our experiences shape these views. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I mainly thought about culture in relation to myself.
How would the locals view me? Would I do something dumb? Would I accidently use the wrong word in Arabic and end up making people think I was just another arrogant tourist? However, almost as soon as I arrived, I realized my basic Arabic skills and a willingness to try to speak to people in their language opened an opportunity for me to experience local Omanis at a more personal level.
Ahmed was a young, scrappy looking guy not much older than me. Like all taxi drivers, Ahmed was Omani. Ahmed’s cab was fairly normal in comparison to others, which had dashboards that were bedazzled with plastic shiny diamonds, or some that, in an effort to make the back seat more “luxurious,” had plastic seat coverings and no seatbelts to detract from the overall aesthetic.
Ahmed was unusual in that he was not wearing the traditional maser, a unique Omani cap worn by men of all ages. Ahmed’s hair was unkempt like he had just woken up. Despite his appearance, Ahmed was, like most Omanis I met, very hospitable. It was close to iftar, the meal that breaks the fast for Muslims during the month of Ramadan, when he picked me up.
Although close to Maghrib, or the time of sunset, the air this day, like all the days I was in Oman, was still as hot as the air from an open oven door. Ahmed was on his way home to eat and as the time got closer to sunset, the faster Ahmed drove. “Asif,” (sorry) I said in Arabic, but Ahmed smiled and replied “no problem” in English.
This was usually the way things went during most of my cab rides. I practiced my Arabic and the Omani taxi drivers used their English. Ahmed turned on the radio and tuned in to a station. The sound was smooth, rhythmic and pleasant. It wasn’t singing but it wasn’t speaking. I recognized it as the Quran being recited.
It is a sound that is frequently heard in Oman. I heard it in the Turkish restaurant where I ate dinner many evenings, as cellphone ringtones, in our language school, and as part of the daily prayers. From my apartment, I heard the Adhan, or call to prayer, every day. Each Mosque has it’s own caller, so sometimes the Adhans would overlap with each other. It was amazing.
Due to social and religious practices, mixing of genders outside one’s immediate family is not common. I did have the opportunity to interact with a family during another taxi ride. One evening, my roommates and I were heading to Al-Mouj, or The Wave, a common beach for Omanis.
On this occasion, the taxi driver had his wife and young baby accompanying him in the front seat. As we approached our destination, I said “Hunna, Qaf, min fadlek” or “stop here, please.” The driver kept driving, not seeming to register that I was speaking to him. His wife turned briefly to us in the back seat, and then smiling, turned to her husband and repeated “Hunna min fadlek.” He chuckled, surprised to hear me speaking Arabic, but as with everyone I met, he was appreciative of my efforts to communicate in his language.
Taxi cabs are a bit like a driver’s office on wheels. It is a personal space into which strangers come and go throughout the day. It is also a great way to see into the culture of a society. I took many cab rides during my stay in Oman. From them I learned that the country has a class system in which Omanis drive cabs and guest workers from Pakistan and India mainly work in restaurants. I learned the fine art of bargaining, as each ride’s fare needed to be negotiated with the driver.
A familiarity of the fares and a jovial approach to bargaining with a few Arabic phrases helped to avoid a “ghalee jadan” or very expensive price. I learned that people are curious as to why I, a young American, was in Oman. It seemed that as much as I wanted to be a good guest, they wanted to be a good host. I learned that like me, the Omanis I met wanted others to see them as individuals who were proud of their country and their traditions.
Christopher Pirrie can be reached at email@example.com