Bouncing around the Middle East, Part 2

Omani cat and goats

I met Michele in Korea, when she was teaching English in Cheju Province and I was in Seoul. Recently I asked her for an interview about the time she taught in the Middle East, in Kuwait, Oman and the West Bank. Part 1 deals with her experience in Kuwait. Thanks to Michele for all the photos.

Michele’s story

Michele in the desert

In 2003 I went to Oman, which was totally different from Kuwait—certainly in Sohar. It was lush. I don’t know what they were growing on those farms, but it was just beautiful. Sohar was a little town on the coast, about a two-hour drive northwest from Muscat, the capitol. I was working at Sohar University, which was the first private university in Oman. It was founded in 2001 by Sultan Qaboos, who overthrew his father in 1970 and then instituted much-needed reforms and modernization. Many times I’ve heard that in the 1970s there was only ten kilometers of paved road in the whole country, which seems hard to believe. Sultan Qaboos dragged Oman into the 20th century, building schools, hospitals and roads. Oman doesn’t have much oil, so they rely on agriculture. None of the countries in that area manufacture cars or anything like that.

In Oman the Indians and other foreign workers were treated completely differently from how they were treated in Kuwait. Once I was at the airport renting a car, and the Omani guy at the desk was speaking Hindi to another employee. I was astonished because a Kuwaiti would only speak Arabic to the other workers. Omanis were willing to treat others like people, not as if they were not human. So that was a very nice change. So was the sea. My apartment was right next to the water. Unfortunately I couldn’t see it from my apartment, but I could if I stepped outside. I rented a car shortly after arriving. Omanis drive on the right as they do in the United States, and the laws are basically the same.

Omani door

I did have an issue once with this car. I was driving with a Kuwaiti license because I didn’t know I had to have an Omani license. If I’d had a tourist visa, I could have driven on any current driving license. Every now and then there would be checkpoints where the police would stop you to see whether you had a license and were wearing your seatbelt. One day I was stopped on the way to the university. When the officer found that I didn’t have an Omani license, he immediately impounded the car. I was livid. Of course I was wrong. I should have found out what the law was, but I was very angry that he didn’t even give me a 24-hour notice. The car stayed there, and I had to walk the rest of the way to work. That was an eye-opener. I was able to get a license very easily – in less than 48 hours – but still—in Kuwait nobody respected the police, apparently because they were on the bottom rung of Kuwaiti society. Everyone just disregarded them. But in Oman people actually did what the police told them. After that I made sure I had everything right. I had to pay a fine, and I was able to get the car back. You really needed to have a car. Public transportation was non-existent. There were taxis, and they weren’t expensive. Some people did rely on them for years, but I liked to be able to just go out and get in the car and go. Also, in Oman the taxi drivers spoke only Arabic. I know some Arabic, but I just found it such a hassle.

The university was nice. I don’t remember how many students we had overall. Again, as I found with colleagues throughout the Mid-East, the ones at Sohar were kind of bizarre. They had issues with alcohol, or they had been there a long time. Maybe it wasn’t the Gulf that had gotten to them, but they seemed cynical and a number were just unhappy people. And they weren’t really teachers. I mean, to teach at the university you had to have a master’s degree in something, but it didn’t have to be in English teaching or a related field.

We had offices which were divided into four by partitions, but the partitions didn’t reach the ceiling. So we had some privacy, but not separate rooms. Charles, an American colleague with a degree in marine biology, shared an office with someone I was going to be co-teaching a class with. In my first encounter with him, I wanted to speak to this instructor but there wasn’t an extra chair in her office, so I went to Charles’ office and asked him if I could borrow his extra chair. He glared at me. I thought, you schmuck. There’s nobody in your office, you don’t need it, and I’m just in the next room. As I found out through subsequent interactions with him, that was his attitude about everything. But it really annoyed me and I remember thinking, I’m a compatriot, I’m new to this country and this university, and this is how you treat me?

I remember another colleague, a woman who’d been there a long time. She was an extremely bitter person; she’d go on about students, how stupid they were, on and on, negative, negative. I’d think, if you’re so unhappy with these students, why are you here? You don’t have to stay. I’ve encountered that time and time again with expats. Toward the end of my time in the Gulf I was also getting very negative, and I told myself I didn’t want to be that kind of person. Eventually I left.

The department head was an Australian, an interesting guy who’d done a master’s thesis about native peoples on some island in the Pacific. For a year or two or three, he’d lived in a hut in one of their villages. He was very interested in language and people. But he was a real people-pleaser, and that’s not good in a department head. So he would try to manage with all these personalities, and it just didn’t work. He’d make a decision, and then somebody would be unhappy with it, so he’d undo it, and then somebody else wouldn’t like that. There was constant upheaval.

An Irishman in my office area took issue with the department head and wouldn’t speak to him. I had to work with this guy for one class. He said he wasn’t going to speak with the boss, so I had to relay to him whatever the boss said. It was so stupid. These people were supposed to be adults in a professional setting, and this was like grade school. Once he didn’t have the key to his office so he actually came into mine and climbed over the wall. He was a total imbecile.

Another guy from the UK would very often not show up for work. When he did show up you could smell alcohol coming out of his pores. He used to joke that he couldn’t be sacked because the boss liked him. I think the boss was probably gay. It was a running joke in the department. The British guy ended up staying there for six years. Those were the types of characters I met. The place was a zoo. I had a two-year contract with the university, but within the first few weeks I’d heard you could request a one-year contract and I did, and it was honored. So I only stayed there for a year.

It was actually a fruitful year in a number of ways. I took a workshop to become an IELTS examiner, and I presented a workshop at TESOL Arabia in Dubai, UAE in March of 2004. I also learned to scuba dive, which was wonderful because we’d go diving in a marine preserve. That opened up a whole new world for me. In Oman the fish in the Gulf are very interesting. You can see manta rays and moray eels, and I saw a shark there once.

I have very good memories of my time in Oman, though not of the university. Omanis are just lovely people. Every other teacher I’ve met who’s been there has said the same thing. If you drive inland from Sohar even thirty minutes or so, there were mountains and then deserts beyond. If ever you’d meet people while you’re out taking pictures or something, they’d invite you to their house. Even though they didn’t know you from anybody, they’d always invite you. Not of course in the city, but outside, if you met them one-on-one.

One day I was out driving just to get out of Sohar. I went to the mountains where the roads were winding curves. I turned a curve and six camels were coming toward me on the road. They can be very dangerous if you hit them because the bulk of a camel’s weight is high up, just at the level of the windshield. They are also quite expensive. They’re used for many things, of course as pack animals, so it’s a big loss for the owner if one is killed. I just pulled off the road to let the camels go by. In Sohar at the side of the road you’d see dead sheep or goats that had died naturally or were killed in accidents. I assume someone was responsible for collecting them because carcasses were never there long.

In Oman I often saw camels grazing at the side of the highway. They weren’t wild. Somebody owned them. There were also a lot of goats. The village of Suwadi, which we drove through on the way to the diving resort, had more goats than people. The road was one lane each way. Goats were everywhere, so inevitably you’d have to go very slowly so you wouldn’t hit them.

In 2003, Sohar had maybe 10,000 inhabitants. Being in Sohar was like going back in time. There was electricity and cars and modern things, but the pace of life was very slow and very laid back. I could drive anywhere in five to seven minutes. Everything was very convenient. But in the supermarket you’d have to dust off the items sitting on the shelves. The meat was always frozen. Not many things were available. The fruit was so-so. When I went back ten years later, there was a big supermarket. Everything had changed dramatically because they were building a big port. So I was glad I lived there when I did.

Alcohol was legal in Oman in hotels, so a lot of my colleagues and I would congregate at the Sohar Beach Hotel, which was right on the beach. There were two bars, one for the Indians and another for the hotel guests. It had a pool table. The setting reminded me of the British colonial period. The food was okay, and the hotel had a pool, a gym and there were yoga classes. I did yoga there once on the beach. It was very nice. In 2004 I went from Oman to Arab American University – Jenin in the West Bank.

Muscat coastline

I went back to Oman on a six-month contract starting in January of 2005. I’d already decided to do a master’s degree in England in October. My job was in the Al-Mussanah branch of Oman’s Higher Colleges of Technology, which are government schools where students go who are not able to get into a university. It was near the coast, maybe an hour north of Muscat. I had a twenty-minute drive to work. Again I rented a car. The students were okay, not terribly bright but very nice. Generally the faculty seemed saner, a bit more normal—some Canadians, an Australian and some Americans. I didn’t particularly like the director, and we had these stupid restrictions because the school didn’t have much in the way of financial resources. I didn’t have an office. I didn’t even have a desk. One of the teachers allowed me to share her cubicle, and we timed it so we wouldn’t be there at the same time. If you wanted to make copies of something in a book you had to spend time erasing the answers. And there was this stupid rule that we were limited to 500 copies per semester, but inevitably after you’d made 150 copies they would say you’d used up all your copies. This happened all the time. You were always scrambling for resources and exercises to use in class.

The school had a small cafeteria, but every day it served biryani—rice and meat, usually chicken. There are so many other things that Indian food can offer other than biryani. I’ve never been able to eat it since, and I love Indian food. In the Gulf I’ve had so much good Indian food from little hole-in-the-wall places. I loved that aspect of living in the Gulf. Indian food in Kuwait was wonderful. Other kinds of food I didn’t think were as good, certainly the Chinese food wasn’t. A lot of Filipinos lived there, so I tried Filipino food, but a lot of it was fried, and I usually don’t eat fried food, so I tried it only intermittently. Of course the Mid-Eastern food was excellent.