The Mole Diaries: Muscat, Oman
Charlotte studies Spanish and Arabic at Durham University. She is currently in studying Arabic at the Center for International Learning in Muscat, Oman, after having spent 4 months volunteering in Peru. For stories of Charlotte's year abroad, you can read her blog. This is her insider guide to life in the Middle Eastern country that often gets overlooked...
Population: around 3 million (1.2 million in the capital city, Muscat)
Language: Arabic (but English is the language mostly used for business)
Weekend: Friday and Saturday
I chose Oman for two main reasons. Firstly, it is safe, and that’s an important aspect to consider for your Year Abroad, especially if it is to be done in the Middle East. Due to the current situation in the Middle East, my university gave me the choice between Jordan, Oman, Morocco, and, under certain conditions, Lebanon. As much as I would have loved to go to Lebanon, I chose to play it safe (quite literally). Morocco didn’t interest me due to the local dialect being described by many Arabs as ‘not exactly Arabic’. So I was left with Jordan and Oman. I picked Oman because most of my friends were going to Jordan. It sounds like a weird reason, but I wanted to escape the ‘Durham bubble’ for just a little while, and push myself to make new friends. Also, Oman is a beautiful country with lots to offer.
I struggled at the beginning of my time in the country, once the first couple of weeks of excitement wore off. It was a big cultural adjustment having been in Peru, and I was only home for two weeks in between switching countries.
Tip: when you move to your second country of your Year Abroad, give it time, because the countries may be completely different and you may miss the first half of your Year Abroad a lot.
Adjusting takes time, but eventually you will start to see the new country in a positive light without comparing it to the previous one, and begin to enjoy yourself more and more! I have now made wonderful memories in Oman that match, and maybe exceed those that I made in Peru.
Oman offers desert (of course), a beautiful coastline, breathtaking valleys, and in some parts, depending on the time of year, a lot of greenery. It’s not just sand here! Although, there is a lot…
Many of the tourist activities that you can do in Oman are outdoorsy, including hiking and wild camping. The one issue with this is of course the searing heat in the summer and the not-as-searing- but-still-hot temperature during the rest of the year. So, take advantage of the ‘winter’ season, and get those hiking boots on!
So, without further ado, here is my advice for a year abroad in Oman.
1. What to pack
Long-sleeved, leg-covering, loose-fitting clothing. I’d recommend maxi dresses and long skirts for girls, and some light cardigans and pashminas to cover up, or wear normal length summer dresses with leggings underneath. Men should avoid tank tops, but shorts (covering the knees) and normal-length sleeved tops are okay (although shorts aren’t allowed in the centre where I study).
Oman is a conservative country, so try to respect this. There are, however, places, such as hotels and private beaches, where normal swimwear is allowed. I would also recommend bringing a nice going out dress for girls, as there are some bars and clubs that you can wear them to. I bought an abaya (a long, black dress that goes over your clothing, worn by Omani women) at a market in Oman in order to go over my going out dress until I was inside the bar/club. Girls don’t need to cover their hair, with the exception of visiting mosques (just use your pashmina). Don’t forget your sunglasses!
All toiletries are available here, although they're a little bit more expensive. Girls, sanitary products are of not of the same quality as the ones back home, so you might want to take some with you. Bring sun cream, although it is easily available here. One thing that I discovered which is great for travelling and short trips is the quick-drying micro fibre towel.
Plugs are the same as the British ones, with a slightly different voltage. I plug in all my appliances without converters, no problems so far! Some appliances you buy here are round two-pin plugs, so an adaptor is needed (available in lots of shops).
The currency used is the Omani Rial (OMR), which is divided into 1000 baiza (you’ll soon get to know how annoying 1000 baiza into one rial is…). I got a good amount of currency before I left, but you can, of course, withdraw at ATMS for a charge in Oman too.
It might be useful to get your phone unlocked before arrival so that you can buy an Omani SIM card at the airport. Omanis love WhatsApp, so a smartphone is useful!
Home comforts (but not too many!)
The good thing about Oman is that it has a lot of British brands available (including Waitrose essentials…), so you won’t have to miss Dairy Milk or the like. But, take some photos or small reminders of home with you to ease inevitable homesickness.
2. Getting around
Muscat is unfortunately a very spread out, long city and getting around without your own car can be expensive and frustrating. So, first off, if you can rent a car, that would make your life so much easier. However, take into account that the roads are full of drivers whose driving is pretty crazy and road accidents are very, very common. So, unless you are confident in your driving skills, you might want to avoid driving.
Private taxis (‘engaged’)
There are many taxis driving around in the city, so you will nearly always find one. They are noticeable by the orange painted panels and the taxi symbol. Taxis don’t run on meters here, so you will have to bargain with the driver before entering the taxi and be prepared for them to try to rip you off. Use your Arabic with them, tell them that you are aware of what the price should be, and sometimes a white lie such as, ‘I go to this place every week for [insert a reasonable price here) rial’, will help you to get a decent price. Women should avoid sitting in the front seat as this can give off the wrong impression and lead to uncomfortable situations.
The best thing about taking taxis is the opportunity to practice your Arabic. All taxi drivers are Omani (men) and if you strike up a conversation, or even just greet them in Arabic, they are bound to help you practice. Also, it’s a great way to practice dialect. Although Fusha will be mainly understood, the driver might not reply in Modern Standard. I will write a basic list of useful Omani dialect words and expressions later on in the article!
Shared taxis (‘3dee’ عادي)
Shared taxis are the same cars as engaged ones but it just means that you are willing to share with strangers, and the driver won’t take you directly to your destination. Shared taxis are good if you want to get across the city cheaply, and then get out on the main road and hail a private taxi to your specific destination. The rule for women in a shared taxi is a little different, as you will be asked to sit in the front seat, because the other passengers will usually all be men. If you feel uncomfortable with sharing, just stick with a private taxi. Some people go by the rule that if you are a solo female traveller, always get a private one, but I have travelled alone in shared taxis without any problems.
These are minibuses or vans that have the same orange taxi symbol on them as the normal taxis, but work much like a shared taxi. They will generally only go on the highway, but you may see them elsewhere. They are called ‘baiza buses’ because they are cheap. I have also used these without problems, but, again, it completely depends on your comfort level whether you choose to take them or not.
As I previously mentioned, Oman is an Islamic country and therefore conservative, which should be respected. You will hear the call to prayer five times a day, and at first I woke up at 5.30am each morning because of how loud it was, but I soon started to sleep through it!
Fridays, the first day of the weekend, tend to be very quiet until late afternoon due to the Friday prayers. This means that shops and restaurants are generally shut until about 4pm, so I’ve learnt to buy what I need on a Thursday night!
Omanis are known for being well-presented in their appearance and will make sure to keep their dishdashas and abayas clean and pressed. The dishdasha is the traditional dress for men, and most men do wear it every day. It is a long, white (but some men opt for coloured ones) gown with long sleeves and a tassel on the collar which is usually scented. For special occasions, the men will wear a khanjar around their waste which is a decorative dagger. The men also wear two types of headdress, depending on the occasion. There is the muzzar, which is more formal, and is a type of turban, usually decorated with colourful patterns, and the kuma, which is a hand-embroidered cap.
Women in Muscat wear black abayas which are floor-length, long-sleeved, and sometimes decorated. They also wear the hijab and, in some cases, cover their face with the niqab. Women in more rural areas may wear traditional Omani clothing which is colourful, and comes in three parts: a dress, trousers underneath, and a headscarf.
Having previously been living in Peru, I was used to rice and chicken, and it is no different here. Many traditional foods are made with rice, and chicken, lamb or fish, with various spices for flavour. This is traditionally eaten with your hands, without cutlery. I have tried this tradition and failed, surrounded by rice which didn’t reach my mouth, but it’s fun nonetheless!
Dates are a very popular fruit in Oman, and, with coffee, are offered in hospitality (which Omanis are well known for!) and used to welcome people into the home. I have been offered coffee and dates on numerous occasions, and the etiquette behind the tradition is very detailed.
Oman has many restaurants that sell foreign foods, Turkish being the main one. You can buy very cheap food from local restaurants, but eating chicken shawarmas everyday does make you gain weight… One of my recommendations is karak, a milky tea with lots of spices. You can get different flavours including vanilla, saffron, and even chocolate!
5. Tips for girls
- Dress conservatively, but be prepared that this won’t stop unwanted attention completely Ignore men who make comments in the street and if they harass you, a good phrase to use is: "حرام عليك"
- Buy an abaya for those nights out where you are wearing something a little more revealing, and put it on when you are not in the bar/club.
- Avoid sitting in the front seat of the taxi, as this gives off the wrong signals If you are walking or sitting with an Omani man (especially one in traditional dress), you may get funny looks, or comments, but as long as you are both comfortable that is fine.
- Remember that gender roles are different here, and that sometimes means that things are easier for men than for women
- Certain restaurants and cafés will have a separate room for women, but if you are in a mixed-gender group ask to sit in the ‘family room’, where you will all be able to sit together
6. Contacting home
This is an important thing to mention if you plan on doing your year abroad in Oman, because contacting friends and family at home can be difficult due to certain internet restrictions.
FaceTime and Skype, among other video chats, are not available which can pose a problem. However, I use Google Hangouts to call home, and although you have to get a lot of people to register for it that haven’t already, it (generally) works a charm!
When I first arrived in Oman, I was unsure if there even was any nightlife, or at least the nightlife that I had grown accustomed to. But, it turns out there is indeed nightlife of many different kinds here, whether you are in the mood to sit outside a café and chill with friends until the early morning, or dance the night away at some (questionable) bars and clubs.
The ‘café’ culture is mostly reserved for men in Oman, but there is usually nothing stopping girls from joining in with a group of Westerners. My friends enjoy smoking shisha (I love the smell, but don’t like smoking it) in a near-by café called ‘Rendez-Vous’, and it is open nearly 24/7. A lot of football games will be shown late at night on big screens outside of cafés and restaurants too, which can attract large groups of people.
In terms of Western-style nightlife, there are a few hotels with bars and some with clubs. The alcohol is very expensive, but sometimes you just want that fruity cocktail or a nice cold beer. You can’t buy alcohol from shops here unless you have a license so hotels are your best bet. One important thing to mention is that public drunkenness is not tolerated, and could end you up in jail.
I have danced to so many rubbish DJs in some odd bars here, but I have enjoyed it each time; it’s a unique, and sometimes hilarious, experience. There are some classier bars and clubs too, but where’s the fun in that, eh?
8. Omani dialect
The Omani dialect is not very difficult to pick up if you just listen and ask people what certain words mean. It is much simpler than Fusha, and not too much different. Pronunciation depends on the area of Oman, some people pronounce ج as ‘j’ and some ‘g’, some people pronounce ق as in Fusha, and some as a ‘g’ sound. All tenses are negated with ما, which makes things easier! Instead of كِ as the feminine singular object pronoun they use ـِش.
I really enjoy learning dialect because it’s the real spoken language, and although Fusha is great (sometimes), dialect is freer and easier.
Here is a basic list of words that should give you a head start before you arrive:
هناك – في There is
اين؟ -- وين؟ Where?
ماذا؟ -- ويش؟ What?
لا/ما/لم/ليس – ما (negation)
نعم – أيوا Yes
الآن – الحين Now
كثير – واجد Lots/a lot
غدا – بكرا Tomorrow
جيد – زين Good
ذهب -- راح (أروح، رُحت) To go
فعل – سوّى (أسوّي، سوّيت) To do
سوف – بـَ + المضارع (future tense particle)
9. Studying Arabic
I am doing an intensive 6-month Arabic course at the Center for International Learning in Muscat. I have 4 hours of classes in the mornings and 2 hours of either conversation with an Omani speaking partner or other activities, including Arabic film showings, cultural lectures, etc. This amount of daily Arabic was recommended by my university, and although it is tiring and sometimes a pain in the butt, it has helped my Arabic tremendously.
Each day I have classes in grammar, speaking, media, reading, and writing. This sometimes gets repetitive but at least I know that I am focusing on all the skills needed to learn a language every day. I have a Peer Facilitator on Sundays (yes, school on a Sunday…), Tuesdays, and Thursdays. This is an Omani person, who is usually a student or someone who has recently graduated, with whom you get to practise your Arabic. It’s a great opportunity to learn directly about the culture and society in Oman, and learn some dialect!
In terms of practising Arabic outside of the centre, it can sometimes be difficult, especially if you’re a girl. The reason is the high amount of foreigners, many of whom speak to you in English. Business is usually done in English, and many of the shop and restaurant employees are not Omanis. Making Omani friends can be tricky too, once again, especially if you’re female. However, I have managed to make Omani friends, many of whom are guys, from going to salsa classes. The year abroad never fails to surprise me! As I have previously said, talking with taxi drivers is probably the easiest way of practising your Arabic.
10. Some interesting opportunities I have had so far
Helping out at a BBQ in a care home for the elderly, and listening to one resident recite Arabic poetry. Volunteering at an Earth hour event, and learning more about environmental issues in Oman. Cleaning up the beaches of the Daymaniyat Islands Nature reserve, and then enjoying free snorkelling and a ride on a fancy yacht with party music blasting out. A day’s modelling for my teacher’s sister-in-law, who is training to be a make-up artist. Attending a traditional Omani wedding, and dancing completely sober with the lights fully up. Doing an interview in Arabic, live on Omani radio, and not breaking down midway through. Learning salsa in a country where I would have never previously believed it to be popular, and loving every minute of it.