Thursday, March 31, 2011

Teach your children well

I am in Doha, drinking more tea (pretty soon this blog will become “Bulldogs who Drink Tea in places other than Iowa.)
Doha is simply wonderful. Everything Muscat lacks Doha has. (To be fair Doha has 150,000 Qataris, with 850,000 Expats who do things to serve them such as house work, construction, and education.)
Doha believes in education so much that it started something called Education City. We went there yesterday for lectures. I cannot convey how impressed I was. The notion of taking a bunch of your wealth, targeting specific universities for their specialties, and then saying “come, and we will build you a massive state-of-the-art world-renown campus. For Free. Bring some of your teachers and the classes they teach. We will send our kids, and anyone else who wants to go. Oh yea, and if your students stay in Qatar for 5 years working after they graduate, the whole education is free. Carneigie Melon does business, Northwestern journalism, Georgetown has their School for the Foreign Service, and someone else has medical and and humanities. Imagine how that Board of Trustees meeting went: So Qatar wants us to set up another branch campus. How much do you think it will cost to do that? 18 billion? Cool, here is the blank check they gave us, we just have to send some professors over there. All of this is paid for by the Qatar Foundation-the brain child of the Emir’s (countries leadership) second wife. The amount of spending here puts American grandiosity to shame. I was impressed. Really impressed. I was so impressed that I am kicking myself for not having known about this when I applying. (Technically I did found out about it at Orientation weekend, from a gentleman who I met up with again yesterday. He was the Dean of Georgetown Doha, dropping his son off at Drake. That shows you how good Drake is.) My father pointed out once when I was contemplating an international education (American University Cairo or Beirut) that so many students are trying to come to the US for education, I might as well get in my home country. He was right and I am glad I did. It was still marvelous to see and gave me thoughts of what our school system would look like if we (had and) put that kind of money towards education.
My other Drake highlight of the evening: after all the fun of being out at Education City listening to lectures on American policy and Arab revolutions, one gets tired. Therefore I found myself unwrapping one of the Cuban cigars (thank you Duty and Embargo-free Muscat Airport) and wandering down to the smoking area of our hotel (bar.) We were given strict orders not to drink by our AD, so I smiled at Jack, Morgan, and Johnny Walker and proceeded to ask the man sitting at the bar if he had a light. He tossed me a box of matches, and asked what I was drinking. I said a coke, he sent one my way and we got to talking. He was Scottish and had served time in the RAF in Oman, as well as Northern Ireland. We talked about the Troubles for a good half hour. A big thank you to Prof Kelly Shaw for teaching us a whole unit on the issues of Northern Ireland. I survived and had a wonderful conversation with the Scotsman. I was eventually joined by my other colleagues (one was another Bulldog) and we talked the night away. It was marvelous. Rarely do I find a practical use for what I was taught in high school. However, the things I am taught in this line of education at Drake are almost always put to use. Being able to have an enjoyable conversation and not sound like an idiot made my day. Pharmacists and actuaries have their work stations. Ours can be embassies, war rooms, or hotel bars. Diplomacy comes down to practicing something really simple: engaging people. Hearts and minds over Cubans and Coca-cola ? Perhaps. Thanks Drake!

Material World

The next couple of years of my life will see me mobile. Very mobile. I already lead a pretty temporary lifestyle but just on the horizon I have: travel home for a few days, then move to Des Moines for winter until winter break, move stuff back home for Christmas, then Back to Des Moines, then move very little to OCS, then from there I could go anywhere. I know I will spend more time on my ship than not, which means no space for stuff. I am at the point in my life that I can shed a lot, and try to live with very little. I love reading about folks who consciously live out there with very little. I understand this is pretty much making poverty seem cool, but that doesnt mean going monk. (Although one of the coolest phrases I ever heard was "Live simply, so others may simply live.") that is not why I am doing this, it is so I may enjoy life more. Stuff gets us down, and creates clutter. If we focus on stuff we spend less time focusing on ourselves and those we care for.
I am worried what to do with sentimental things, like trophies and what not. At some point my parents will not need their current house-the one I and my brother grew up in. This translates to less room for stuff; particularily my stuff. It may be time to condense.
All of this is weighing in on my mind with my travel plans: the Emirates, specifically: Dubai. Consumerism at it's finest. Minimalist hell. I will keep you posted as to how I do.
I have been kicking around a shopping list. Most of the stuff I could get online in America, and very little of it do I need, but it will be something to see it all. I am dreading knicknacks, and trying to avoid bringing them back, as I do that on every trip. I think a nice, sturdy, quality article of clothing that I know I would wearand would remind me of my trip would be great (advice from my director, thanks Issam.) Right now I am thinking another blazer. I don't entirely know if I have a style yet, but in the 4 malls that I have to visit (class requirement:) )I imagine I will find something.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Running down a dream

“Hey is this lit up at night?” I asked as I checked my compass.
“Not really, why?” He replied.
“Awesome, when I come back do you think we can stop by here? The opening on the coastline there is perfectly lined up with the stars for a photo I would like.”
“Do you see that fence line? That is the Valley of the Witches. The army posts guards there, and something always happens every few weeks, so they run away scared. There are so many Gin here, we cannot be here at night.” My guide, who was cultured, spoke perfect English, and had travelled the world was deathly afraid of the Gins, which are spirit creatures, sort of like poltergeists. My photography has been halted by cops, cold, and clouds, but never by spirits. Until now; they are very prominent in the latest town we were in; Salalah.
My journal entry started: “I am in an airport. Waiting. Again.”
We flew down south to Salalah, where we witnessed a very different environment and culture. We also witnessed some of the finest Arab hospitality on a beach south of town, as well as the plain before the mountain where we had a bonfire, and a lecture on the Dhofar rebellion, next to a bonfire, with dinner, cake and smores. (Possibly my new favorite lecture style.) The fine white sand of the beach greatly added to my enjoyment. While we were waiting for dinner, I had laid back on my beach mat and looked up at the bright moon. Cheesy Arabic music was blasting from the parked car one of our hosts brought. A new song started, with the sultry introduction I love so much: Hotel California (Live.) I was under a full moon having BBQ on a beautiful beach listening to the Eagles. I am not sure what heaven would be like, but I imagine this is pretty close.
Verbatim from my journal:
“Ya Talal, you used to be a runner, care to go for a quick run down the beach?”
“Sure, are we jogging or running?”
“Let’s run!”
I took off. I was bounding through the receding waves. It felt good. It felt real good. A huge smile broke out over my face again for the second time that night. I extended my arms and closed my eyes. I didn’t jog. I didn’t run. I flew.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I am now glad for every frustration I have had in this country. Yesterday our American counterparts in Jordan came through; all 30 of them. This is their big spring break trip, which originally was to Egypt. We heard grand stories of constant binge drinking in Jordan, as well as in Oman. (They have been here for two days.) They walked in all sporting traditional parts of dress. Women were wearing Kumas; the male only hats. Gender roles stateside are much less played up or dictated. However here they are important: the looks they got from our liberal-by-Oman-standards teachers signified this was going to be interesting. There isn't really anything close to comparison stateside, except maybe a man walking into a university with short shorts, a tank top, and flowers in his hair.
We lead completely and totally different lives than many of them. The amount of drinking was astronomical. It is even weirder as I know Jordan, and I know it pretty well. In the two summers I was there, I didn't drink once. There are plenty of things to do, and although alcohol can be a part of Jordanian society, it doesn’t have to be, and isn’t for the vast majority of Jordanians. One can have all the social interactions and feel good attitude at a cafe with shisha or tea. If one wanted to drink; stay at home for it is much cheaper.
They asked us what we do on weekends, and as much as I complain about our lack of tangible experiences, I have something here I never would have gotten elsewhere: a family. In Egypt I had very close friends that I know I could have relied on, and did so in times of need, but here I have a legitimate family. I am included in their daily lives and see their struggles. The Jordanian students may have that too, but for every minute I am out at a bar, there are things happening, or people "being" that I am not a part of. There is a fair amount of sitting and tea drinking here, and at first that got to me. As I close in on the downward slope I realize I miss out on simply sitting and being when I am at school. Thankfully I get to do it here, with people I may never see again. Everyone has a story, right now mine is learning theirs.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Two cigarettes in an ashtray

Conversation, especially of the "I'll have another pot of mint tea" type is one of my favorite activities here. . For too many days on end we do not have actual conversations with people (at least in the States.) The slow calculated breathing and social atmosphere of these coffee shops lends itself to conversation. The nights when we were having it in Nizwa, were wonderful and very diverse topically. The last evening found us at the same café as the previous night but with a host of different topics from energy to different travel dreams, to growing up back home. Someone makes a point, and then draws on their shisha hose, while the others all evaluate. It is something I really enjoy for the taste, but mostly the atmosphere that in brings out.
My handwriting is atrocious. I have been trying to write letters to folks back home, as postcards here are 1, nonexistent and 2, if found, ridiculously expensive. Letter writing is another lost art. I know none of these letters will get to their destinations very quickly, and email is easier, however the emotions associated with writing and receiving letters can’t begin to be a legitimate comparison for email. I received my first letter before we left for the Nizwa. It was awesome and immediately lifted my spirits. It also feels great to write. I bought a journal the other day, and am excited to start writing in it. When I was alone in the desert, watching the sun go down, I felt connected as if I was sharing the experience with a close friend. I was writing letters.

"Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company."-Lord Byron

Allah and Soldier

Our last evening in Nizwa was interesting. I learned to pray, and got the whole “come to Islam” speech. It was the same tactic I have heard people use for Christianity “If you aren’t in the club, you are going to hell, and I think you are a good person, so come to Islam because I don’t want you to go to fire.” I have been to this region either four or five times depending on evacuation count and only now was personally taught to pray. It was pretty moving, and one could definitely feel something. I do not consider myself a Muslim, but have a new appreciation for the religion which encompasses and dictates so much of my life here.
On the complete opposite end of religious devotion we are still living with 20 year old boys who can’t talk to women. They are curious, and asked “In America, you can make sex with any woman you want, right?” Uh, not exactly. On the way back to Muscat we were asked the same question at a University we stopped at for a cultural exchange. We explained that the movies and music videos they watch are made for Americans, and thus are not a mirror to American society, but entertainment fantasy.
We stopped at a natural hot springs and a fort (I have been doing lots of fort shopping this past week) on the way back after our second university visit. A very old man was sitting at the entrance nodding and greeting people. He looked to be at least 80, and was dressed in traditional interior clothing: ammunition belt, and knife. I gave the standard greetings when we passed to go have a quick dip in the only hot tub (hot springs-which had benches carved into the rock) I can find south of Spain. I had my hat on, a t-shirt and have grown a beard; I definitely would not be associated as military. However as we were leaving, I was lagging behind to talk to some of the Omani students with us and say our goodbyes. As I approached the seated old man, we made eye contact. He stood up, and rendered a perfect Omani (British, open hand) salute. I snapped to attention and returned it in our fashion. That moment engulfed me in something more than the religious teachings ever could. I felt a connection to that man’s sacrifice and love for his country. It has been a few days since the experience, but I still feel completely overcome by it.

Ramblin' Man

I live a very temporary life. I am either in school, at home, or travelling. This is making me pretty good at minimalism, and keeping my "stuff" levels down while I am on the road. I think a temporary lifestyle is full of adventure, and am fine with having that for the next 10 years or so of my life (school, different school, training runs, deployments. Rinse, repeat.) The ability to be able to be semi-nomadic and not be tied down is at times invigorating.
I have noticed some things about Oman, which is why it is not my ideal place. The place lacks community. It is too warm to walk anywhere for most of the year, therefore people stay in their cars (what did they do before 1970 when there was 6 miles of road? Staying in one’s car means they won't have meet or interact with others. There is no gathering place for the exchange of ideas. I haven’t found a place where old men gather to play chess and backgammon while complaining about the youth and the state of things. There is not a Tahirir square, nor too many things which function as the meeting or social exchange spot that a tavern would in the Western world. The experiences here are very esoteric, and thus we appreciate the tangible much more when it does come.
Last night a few of us discussed these issues and our temporary lifestyle over hookah (shisha) and mint tea. We also solved many of our world's problems: high speed rail transport for example. If every voting district took a ride on a French TGV or the Prague metro, they would fund it all. Imagine being able to get from Cleveland, Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Des Moines, STL, Kansas City in around an hour or two. Environmental saving would be huge, and most of the infrastructure is already in place with the interstate system. Then, forget the need to actually travel to any of these places. With 3g and now 4g speed, video conferencing, remote meetings, etc are becoming more and more useful to travel budgets. Last semester a friend had to run home for a doctor appointment, but could not skip class. Therefore she skyped herself into the class and fully participated as a student. Omantel's lock on the internet will become one of it's largest hindrances in the future. We discussed the two biggest problems Oman faces, which may coincide with each other: the oil running out, and his majesty’s life doing the same. This place is called the Sultanate for a reason, and when the beloved Sultan departs power, the cult of personality-puppeteer-father of the country will be gone, leaving a great void. And then, on top of all this we schemed and dreamed of ways to become insanely rich off of this country. As this is a Drake funded blog, I feel maybe I would endow a professorship of some form. Now if only I could figure out what to do with the other 28 million?

Country Roads...

"Welcome to our hostel!" We were greeted and swarmed by the male students of the equivalent of a fraternity house in Nizwa, the village we are staying in this week. We are with the men of the University of Nizwa while the girls are with families getting the more conservative, interior of the country experience. I live with all the Bedouin guys, who come off as simple country folk but are quite dedicated to their studies. The first evening we spent much of our time lounging around on the front porch talking to everybody. As we were doing this it started to rain. My whole mantra for the trip has been "it could be worse, it could be raining." In theory it should be much worse, as it poured! They all interpreted it as a good sign.
Tyler and I went to a coffee shop with one of the guys, who drove a Corvette. In theory all the students at the university have an academic level of English. This one actually did. As we drove into one of the villages around the university, we noticed there was nothing out here, which is probably good to keep everyone focused on their studies. We had a very intense conversation about women and the social pressures the men are under. It is forbidden to talk to a woman (and there is 6,000 of them on campus, compared to 1,000 males) so the notion of having women as friends is not really understood. There is some rendezvousing but it has a more romantic flavor. One our housemates has had six girlfriends, and never once actually hung out with them. All they do is talk on the phone.
At breakfast the next morning, I was tapped on the shoulder with a big "Saba al khir" (good morning.) It was the dean of students, who hosted us for coffee and honey dates the day before. There is a uniform here of white dishdasha for males and blakh abaya for females. I did not bring either, so stuck out even more than usual in my gray polo. We talked for a little bit and I got a fair amount of quizzical looks from the gathered breakfast eaters.
We went to the Imamate’s fort and then up the tallest mountain in all of the Gulf. This was the region of the rebellion and has not always taken kindly to the rule of the Sultan from Muscat. The following day we went to a place called Bahla which has a large concentration of black magic. We found another fort which was still under renovation from the bullet holes and mortar shells of the Dhofar Rebellion in the late 60's and early 70's.
Lunch was had with the man who is in charge of teaching everyone English for the first two years before they get into their major. He was an Omani who went to University of Northern Iowa, so we bonded. We also talked at great length about education theory and the lack of critical thinking that his students have. His observation was they still relied too much on rote memorization, a philosophy I agree with.
It is very different out here. It is a wonderful place to visit but I could never live out here. There just isn't that much to do, and the ability to not talk to the vast majority of the students outside of a purely academic (how do you solve for x?) would kill me.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Bulldog Abroad

The Desert Sands of Oman

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Good Friday

The revolution has quieted down. I think. It is shortly before noon on Friday here, and supposedly the region itself will have massive demonstrations after prayer gets out. I think Oman will be fine. There have been more "Violence is bad, we love the government, and especially His Majesty" protests than opposition ones. The cell phone companies keep sending around texts about pro-government demonstrations, and it appears many people are taking to them. A few nights ago I heard crying coming from the other room. I cautiously went to investigate. My host father had the television on and they were showing the demands of the anti-government folks-which were ludicrous. He was crying, saying this is not his Oman. It was really touching.
Some of the demands included giving more power to the legislative branch, and independent oversight of the police. This has been in the works for the last 8 months, as was rolled out right before everything went down. However other demands were raising the minimum salary to 500 Rials a month, but they would settle for 300 so we can get 15X their salary loans...then forgive all the loans. It is ridiculous. They have 12 jobs found for them before they are cut off from social security. I imagine everything will be fine, and it seems the movements are dying in Oman, but like so many other things in this world, we shall see.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Things are starting to go into a cycle. I am normalizing, which I do not like. I was on edge all the time in Egypt, which meant I was hyper-sensitive and thus took in more. Here, that is not the case. I don't have the need to always feel my wallet and passport right at my side. Maybe it is because I am in a family setting, but other people have noticed it too. Don't get me wrong it is great to have that sort of complacency, but I am not entirely sure that is what I wanted.
Things aren't American or Western here, but the individualism (families included) hits close to home. Everything looks the same, the people dress the same, even the roads are really efficient. I don't know the neighbors and only yesterday found the back alleys near my house to the main street. These were gorgeous and this is what I really longed for. This little area next to my house was my underbelly of Cairo, or market in Alexandria. This was what I imagined.
Yesterday was pretty odd and a decent way to break up the cycle. I got a fair amount of work done in the morning, and then as the sun started to dip, went to the walmart-esque shop to get some things. I spent a great deal of time just looking at stuff and people. Earlier in the day I found cement in paint cans with a bar (bench-press) on the roof from what I think was another student as there was a whiteboard with a bunch of different sets, in English, up there. I was looking for protein shakes, when the hallelujah chorus came on, and angels themselves shone florescent refrigerated light on the Arc of the Covenant itself: Rootbeer! I bought all eight of the entire supply. I also bought a thin blanket, as I have a very thick one and it is getting warm, as well as beach/sitting blanket for school. (When we get back from Nizwa this week, I am going swimming. Everyday.)
I went home and made some tea and kept reading/talking with the host mom/making noises at the little one. The kids wanted popcorn chicken for dinner, so we made that. We also made regular popcorn, so I melted some butter for that and they loved it. I could tell this could become a very American night. Then one of my buddies called who had a rough skype conversation with what could very well be his ex-grilfriend. In keeping with my American night, we went bowling. As I got in the car of a friend of my buddie's host brother, a song was playing that had special meaning as an inside joke to our group in Egypt and it immediately put smile on my face.
I bowled really well, and then we went to play billiards. When we were coming out of the mall that housed all this stuff we saw a woman who had blatantly broken her leg. They were trying to lift her, which was only causing her even more excruciating pain. There was a food stand right in the entrance of the mall, so I ran up there, past the group, and "borrowed" his stool, much to his surprise. We then put her on it, and she immediately stopped screaming. The group then lifted the stool down the steps and put her in the car for what I hope was a ride to the hospital. America!
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