Friday, March 29, 2013


She stood quietly at the check-in counter at Charles de Gaul Airport.  I wasn't shocked or scared when I saw her, just startled a bit:  after all, it was December 2001, only a few months after 9/11.  The Muslim woman wore a black drape from the top of her head down to her toes, and a black veil covered her face with a slit so you could only see her eyes.  Because I had never seen anyone wearing what I now know as an abaya (or burqa) and niqab, I couldn't take my eyes off of her.  Along with my gaze, I asked myself a question -- 
What is the reason for covering up like that?

Since that trip to Paris a long time ago, I have traveled to many Muslim countries, so I am no longer startled when I see women dressed in an abaya and wearing a niqab.  I don't stare or ask any questions.  While I'm happy I can wear jeans and a tee shirt most of the time, I respect our differences and understand that one of the teachings of Islam is modesty for women.  Many Westerners see this manner of dress as indicative of male oppression of women.  However, during my visit to the Persian Gulf, we were told that the dress is grounded in a basic tenet of Arab culture -- that the male, as the head of the family, must assume total responsibility for the welfare of his wife.  Thus, in the more conservative families, shielding the wife's body and face from public view is seen as a measure of protection.   Ironically, the dress of Muslim women is similar to that of Christian nuns, who also cover their bodies and hair.   

I'm still not convinced that women would freely choose to dress this way, but I'm not walking in their shoes.  As role models, Muslim mothers  teach their children to think and behave differently from the way Western mothers do.  Young girls see their mothers covered  and want to be like them when they grow up, just like my granddaughter plays dress up in her mother's clothes and wears her high heel shoes.   Who am I to judge?   What we interpret as oppression may actually be considered comfortable and safe for a Muslim woman, but I don't know for sure because most of my in depth conversations were with men.   The only Muslim women with whom I actually talked were at the market in the small village of Ibra,  and our conversations were constrained because of the setting and the limited amount of time.   The closest I came to gaining any personal information was when I asked the young woman running a stall if she would be paid the same salary as a man when she found her ideal corporate job in human resources.  Her positive answer might have been different if we'd had time to talk over tea and establish trust.   Perhaps, she would have told me what she thinks when she  sees how Western women dress,  and how she feels about her own freedom and ability to choose.   

When traveling last month in the United Arab Emirates and The Sultanate of Oman, I learned more about Islam, and I talked to more Muslims about their religion and customs than I have in other countries.  I noted some similarities between their five pillars of practice that are the foundation of Muslim life and other religions around the world:  A belief that there is only one God; a devotion to pray five times a day; the practice of charitable giving; the promise to fast during the religious holiday called Ramadan, and an obligation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.  I also learned that the word jihad does not mean holy war, but means struggle, particularly the inner struggle that one endures in trying to submit one's will to the will of one God,  and that terrorism, unjustified violence and the killing of innocent people are absolutely forbidden in Islam.  Islam promotes peace not violence, but unfortunately this is not the impression we get from the media.   All of the Muslims we talked to about this subject condemned terrorism and said that Al Qaeda and other militant groups use religion as a tool to further their own political agenda.  

After 9/11 any woman wearing a head scarf or a man who looks Middle Eastern are suspect.  Even my cousin, who is not a Muslim, had epithets flung at her when she wore a headscarf to protect her hair on a windy day.  Unfortunately, racial profiling, especially against Arab Americans, still exists, even though acts of terrorism by white Americans in our country are abundant.  Peacefulness and respect are definitely elements I felt and experienced in Oman and several other Muslim countries I've visited.  And I loved listening to the beautiful Call to Prayer five times a day, even at 5:30 in the morning.

What surprised me most is not the style of Muslim dress, but some of the negative reactions I received from American friends when they found out I traveled to the Middle East.  Some of the comments are too rude to mention.  I chalk these statements up to ignorance and narrow mindedness, but it still bothers me.  The other day a man I know whispered in my ear about the Muslims who live in his upmarket neighborhood in Silicon Valley, whispering as if his neighbors were sitting next to us and he didn't want them to hear.  He wanted me to know their different nationalities, their unusual dress, and his surprise that his Pakastani neighbor jogged at the high school track wearing a head scarf.  He ended his comments by telling me how nice they all are.  Another woman curled her lip like a ferocious dog and said she didn't care how nice they were, she wouldn't trust them.   Her negative reaction was similar to those Americans who were vociferously opposed to a Muslim community center opening near Ground Zero, and those Americans who still believe that President Obama is a Muslim.   How I wish I could transport these people to Oman and take them to the Muttrah Souk to rub shoulders with lovely people selling silver jewelry and exotic spices, to see how hard they work to make a living just like us.   I wish they could have stood in the crowd with me at the animal market in Nizwa to see the power and influence Muslim women have when they toss pebbles at the animal  they want their husbands to buy.  Perhaps they would see what I saw -- men and women, boys and girls, who are like us.  People with the same feelings, the same passion, and the same hopes and dreams.  Perhaps those friends who spoke out against Muslims might change their minds

Several English-speaking Omanis I met also shared their views about Americans, specifically their impression that we hate all Muslims,  their sorrow that we do not understand their religion and culture, and disappointment that they do not feel welcome in our country.  Some of these people even spent a few years  studying in the United States.   Since it was impossible to ignore their heartfelt comments,  I always apologized and said that if more Americans visited Muslin countries and saw how respectful and peaceful the people are, they would probably change their minds.    I told them that I planned to share my positive experiences with people in my community through conversations and writing on my blog.     I don't know if I can change any minds.   I can only share my experience  of the culture and tell them about the friendly people I met.   Maybe some fears might be dispelled.   Maybe my positive comments about travel in Muslim countries will help to remove the misunderstandings and prejudices some people have about Muslims.  Maybe what I have to say will pique their interest and curiosity.   Maybe a few will even consider visiting a Muslim country some day.

A video of the animal market in Nizwa

At the Muttrah Souk in Musat

Buying and Selling in the Souk

The Grand Mosque in Muscat

Lining up for Kahwa in Muscat

One of the many gorgeous views in Muscat

Tami showing a little girl her photo

One of many beautiful oases

The mosque in Jalan Bani Bu Hassan

Sunrise at the Nomadic Desert Camp at Wahiba Sands

A khanjar for sale at the Muttrah Souk

Our taxi drivers in Muscat

Hanging out is a favorite pastime

Rain?  In the desert?

Good fishing in the Oman Sea


Monday, March 18, 2013


Our last two full days in Oman were as over the top as our two full days in Dubai, completely different, of course, but with the same mouth-gaping impact. On the last day, I wondered how best to describe the frenetic animal market, the steep road up the magnificent Jebel Sham, the beauty of the scenery and their version of our Grand Canyon, our special overnight at The View Camp, and the miles and miles of steep, dirt roads winding through the most rugged, rockiest terrain I have ever experienced in my life.


Every Friday morning, people from hundreds of miles away gather in the town of Nizwa to buy and sell goats, sheep, cows, and bulls at the huge animal market situated at the edge of the town's Grand Souk. Picture a large crowd standing in a circle three or four persons deep, all shouting at one another. The buyers are either standing or sitting in the middle of the circle while the frantic animals are led around the ring on ropes or in the arms of their owners. Imagine all the excitement with bleating goats and sheep and mooing cows, not to mention the sellers and buyers yelling back and forth as they bargain for the fairest price. Meanwhile, the women, dressed in traditional black abayas, sit inconspicuously on the side, appearing to be only observers, but, in fact, they are the ones making the decisions. When the perfect specimen appears, they toss a small pebble at the animal they want their husbands to buy. On the outskirts of the circle, local spectators socialize with friends, while curious Westerners, like ourselves, behave like paparazzi at a celebrity event.

Bruce had been vacillating about buying a ceremonial Omani dagger, called a khanjar, ever since he saw them in the souk early in our trip, but because they are very expensive, he was holding out for a lower price. He knew that many of the old khanjars come from this region, so the Friday market in Nizwa was his best and last chance to find a good deal. Suspecting we might get separated at the animal auction, we agreed to meet under the mango tree in the old souk as this was where khanjar sellers, buyers or traders would be hanging out. I had been somewhat reluctant to buy a khanjar because of the ridiculous price, but secretly wondered where a silver dagger might be displayed in our ever increasing collection of ethnic artifacts. The area near the mango tree was packed with Omani men of all ages, but it was generally the older men who were selling to the younger ones and a few foreigners like us. In addition to khanjars, there were also rifles for sale, and I got the shivers when I saw a man look down the barrel of a gun when deliberating a purchase. As soon as we showed interest in buying a dagger, a group of colorful old men with thick mottled gray and white beards surrounded us with khanjars for sale. Negotiating in Arabic, our guide, Kamil, helped us buy the most beautiful silver dagger for the best price. We struck a deal and both parties were happy. I'm still thinking of a prominent place in our house to show off our gorgeous artifact.


The Hajjer mountains are very impressive, not only because of their immense height but because of the ever-changing hues of the craggy rock that looks razor sharp. Colorful veins of gold and streaks of bright copper shimmer in the heat of the day, and muted shades of pinks and blues appear on the rock in the setting sun. Prickly scrub brush fight for survival on the rocky desert floor while lush forests of hundred year old date palms thrive in the oases, thanks to the mountain spring water that surrounds and supports the two hundred year old villages we actively explored.

"See the narrow white line about two-thirds up the mountain?" Kamil says, as we squint into the bright sun. "That's the camp where we will spend the night, and if you look just below the line, you will see the dirt road we will take to get there." After forty-five minutes of rough switch-back, we reached The View Camp, which is aptly named. Our large canvas tent had a front porch overlooking the valley, a smooth tile floor, and a big bed with a down comforter to protect us from the cold night air. We also had an ensuite bathroom with a Western toilet, sink, shower, fluffy Turkish towels, and plenty of hot water. We fell in love with The View Camp and want to post a positive review on Trip Advisor. While we were very happy to have had the Bedouin camp experience in the desert, not having to walk outside in the middle of the night to pee in the sand behind the tent was a huge relief.


At 6:30 AM the next morning most of us were standing at a precipice, facing East and hoping to capture an award-winning photo of a much acclaimed view. We were not disappointed. An hour later, after a delicious breakfast, I wrapped my foam collar comfortably tight to protect my fragile neck for the bumpy ride down the backside of these rugged Hajjer mountains. Bumpy ride? What an understatement! For more than three hours we rocked and rolled in hard pack, shale rock and soft sand in our four wheel drive vehicles. Although I could see the switch-back road above and the one below, I felt as if we were driving off road and not driving on road. Steadying my camera to document the incredible views was impossible. What a trip! The ribbon-like road was barely wide enough for one vehicle, so I kept my fingers crossed that no cars would appear from the other direction, although we swerved to avoid a goat standing in the middle of the road. At times I couldn't look down at the deep gorge below or else my fear of heights might be out of control, but I wasn't scared or worried either. Our driver was very experienced, but I was shocked when he answered his cell phone in a very precarious place on the road, and I told him so. When we finally reached the flat valley floor, one couple in our group said this adventure reminded them of a treacherous bus ride they took many years ago on a famous highway carved into the side of a high mountain in Bolivia.

I'm leaving the beautiful Sultanate of Oman now, but there will always be a place in my heart for this very special place that opened my mind to a culture I wish more people from my country could experience, understand and embrace. Reading about the Middle East is important, but if more Americans could travel there, perhaps there would be less judgment and more understanding in the world. I will always remember the beautiful sound of the Call to Prayer, the pungent and sweet smells of saffron and frankincense in the air, the thousand-year-old Falage system for transporting spring water from the mountains down to the villages, and the warmth of the people as we drank strong kawah and ate sticky dates together.   I will always admire the handsome men and the white traditional dishdasha they love to wear.  I will hold dear the grace and respect the Omanis have for each other and for curious travelers like us.  All of this and much more leaves a positive impression that I will never forget, I will talk about for years, and I will always be eager to share.

Thursday, March 14, 2013


I have been traveling in The Sultanate of Oman for almost ten days, and the only words I can remember in Arabic are A SALAAMU ALAIKUM, and SHUKRUN, and even then, I butcher the pronunciation. PEACE BE WITH YOU is the common greeting of the day, whether it is morning, afternoon or evening. SHUKRUN means thank you, and although many Omanis say the word "thank you" in English, they really appreciate an attempt by foreigners to speak their language. My ear is not accustomed to the guttural Arabic sounds. When our driver referred to the village of Bahla, I was sure I heard the letter T and not the letter B. And the throaty sounds are impossible to duplicate, no matter how hard I try. If a word begins with a KH as in Khasab, one of the villages we visited in Musandam, the K is silent, so the name of the town is pronounced HASAB. Also the number 5, which is spelled Khamsa, is pronounced hamsa. The only word I recognize in Arabic script is the brand name of the bottled water I've been drinking every day. I have no idea what the brand name is, but I now recognize the script.

At the same time, our guide, Kamil, also struggles with the English language. While his pronunciation is reasonably easy to understand, the circuitous nature of his sentence structure can be a challenge to follow. In our language, we might call it digression, but Kamil eventually comes back to the starting point without any prompting from us.

Much of our time, since leaving the capital city of Muscat, has been enjoying the extraordinary scenery of the multi-color Hajjar Mountains, the verdant green wadis, and visiting a few of the 500 ancient forts scattered throughout the country. The Omani forts played a major role in the history of Oman. And the restored castles, like The Jabreen (also spelled Jabrin, Jibreen, Gabrin, Gabreen), which dates back to the 17th century, are magnificent too.

For thrills we experienced a downpour in the WADI BANI KHALID, drove through a sandstorm on our way to spend the night at our Nomadic Desert Camp, slept in an authentic Bedouin hut, and talked to a Dhow builder, who was part of the 2005 Smithsonian exhibit on Oman, which was the motivation for our visit here.

At the Women's Market In the Bedouin town of Ibra, I was surprised to hear a female voice call out to me. The woman was selling a few cheap trinkets, plastic bags of safety pins, scented bar soap and Head and Shoulders shampoo in her tiny stall. "I learned to speak English in college where I received my degree in human resources," she said. "Until I find a job with a big company, I'm trying to make a little money for my family since my father is retired, and I have five younger brothers and sisters." She said she was 26 years old and had no plans to marry until her career was underway. Her English was excellent, and she even used the word "differentiation" when she answered my question about parity in salaries between a man and a women who are both in HR. She assured me she would be just as competitive, and that her salary would be the same as a man's. I wanted to take her photo but like most of the women in Oman, she declined. I gave her my BIKER CHICK website, and asked her to send me an email.

Some times it is easier to ask personal questions of our drivers when there are only three of us riding in one of the Toyota 4X4s. I made a huge faux pas when I asked a younger unmarried driver if he had a girlfriend. I was quickly informed that single Omani men and women do not date. When a man feels he is ready for marriage, he keeps an eye out for a woman whom he likes the looks of. She might be the daughter of a family friend, or someone with whom he has a family or friend connection. For example, our guide, Kamil, saw a woman in his friend's office. He told his friend he wanted to meet the woman's family, which he did, and the marriage was arranged. When I asked one of our older married drivers about birth control, he quickly answered "No, No, No," but then he mentioned that "if a woman uses birth control, she is giving her husband permission to find a second wife."

One man I met told me that Muslims never drink alcohol. The next day another Muslim man told me how much he loved Heineken beer. Not everything is the way it appears.

Tomorrow we begin our drive up the Western Hajjar Mountains and Jebel Sham, the highest peak in Oman at 3000 meters. Our lodging will be at The View Camp, so if the scenery is anything like the photographs we've seen, the views should be spectacular.

The Adventure continues.

Monday, March 11, 2013


When people heard we were going to Oman, they asked if we were also going to Petra. I had to explain that we were going to the country of Oman, a Sultanate actually, and not Amman, Jordan.

And often the next question was "And where is that?" As soon as I said "Next to Saudia Arabia in the Middle East," the question that followed was "Why would you want to go there?" Or "The Middle East? Aren't you scared?"

Once I explained about the beauty of the country with a gorgeous coastline flanked by the 9000 foot Hajar mountains, canyons, green oases, forts and castles, a rich history that included Portuguese occupation for over 150 years, its political stability and Middle Eastern tribal culture, people were somewhat more understanding but still a little dubious.

With only five days under my belt in the Sultanate of Oman, I want those skeptics to know that this is a country with whom the United States has a very close relationship. At the same time, it is a country that would have many Americans raise their eyebrows because we are traveling deep within a Muslim culture that is so foreign to our Western belief systems and to our Western ways of living. But there is nothing to worry about here. The people are so gracious, respectful, and happy to see us.

Although this is not the first Muslim country I've been to, I'm learning more about Islam, so that I have a better understanding for the way Muslims live their lives. Like Buddhism in Bhutan, Islam in Oman is inculcated into the fabric of everyday life. I still have major issues about the role of women, but Oman is more progressive in that regard. Their beloved leader Sultan Qaboos (who has a much longer name but shortened, so I don't have get off the bed to look it up) has only the interest of his people in mind. During his 40 year reign, he has made major improvements around the oil and gas reserves, roads, education, technology, and health care. While there are substantial natural resources here, Qaboos recognizes that these are finite and is preparing the country for this inevitability.

After driving across the border from crazy Dubai into peaceful Oman, we spent our first afternoon cruising the beautiful fjords along the Musandam coast in a Dhow, a traditional wooden Omani boat. What struck me most was how the geography reminded me of the rocky mountains of the Eastern coast of Greenland, without the snow and ice, of course. From afar we were able to see the white washed houses in the small villages tucked deep within the fjords. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to go ashore because of Muslim customs in these conservative villages, but I was able to capture a photo from the boat. The scenery was gorgeous, and after a short swim in the Oman Sea, we were delighted by playful dolphins who followed the Dhow at top speed all the way back to the harbor.

The capital city of Muscat was our home for three nights where we explored the frankincense scented Muttrah Souk, the Grand Mosque, the Sultan's Palace, and homes that have been converted into small museums. We walked for miles in narrow alleyways that snaked deep into unique neighborhoods giving us a good view and an opportunity to talk to the locals. Many hours were spent shopping in the Souk looking for traditional old Omani silver jewelry and ancient daggers called khanjars that are enclosed in highly decorated sheathes of carved silver and gold.

This morning the 13 of us plus our wonderful guide piled into five Toyota 4X4s, and we are now heading south along the Omani coast with the steep Hajar mountains by our side. Details to come.

The adventure continues.