Our activities outside of class hours in a lot of cases were spent doing extra activities that the school had to offer. Two days a week after class, we would get paired up with Omani language partners to talk in Arabic for a few hours. It was a good chance to get to learn some dialect, and some people got to be really close friends with their partners.
We had a series of guest lecturers while we were there. The first one was a Christian minister who had written about Ibadhism in Oman. He added an interesting perspective, because he was a Christian American expat who was lecturing us on the faith of Oman. The Omanis in the audience asked a lot about his Christianity, while the Americans in my class got to get a little education on Ibadhis. This was early on, so I think a lot of the students there didn’t know Omanis weren’t Shi’i or Sunni and had no idea what Ibadhism was. There were some interesting questions from some of the Omanis about the historical and theological connections to the khawarij that I found were pretty interesting.
Some of the points I learned while he was lecturing were about how the Khawarij were a violent splinter sect who had assassinated Ali. They had dissolved after a few centuries, but the Ibadhis remained as a group that shared their origins. By contrast, the Ibadhis are extremely nonviolent and tolerant, which seemed to be a point of pride for the Omanis in the audience. A bit of research after the fact revealed that outside of Oman, there are a few very small Ibadhi communities in other parts of the Middle East, but only in Oman are they a majority.
The next guest speakers was actually a chemical engineer who worked with petroleum. Given that Oman is a petroleum producer in the gulf, the choice of speaker made sense, but he really didn’t talk about petroleum at all. Instead most of his talk was evangelizing Ibadhism and explaining the importance of Islam in his life. Unfortunately, he came off much less academically than the previous speaker, and it kind of felt like he was using the opportunity to try and convert us. There wasn’t as much discussion after his speech as the first speaker, I think in large part, due to some of the class feeling uncomfortable. He seemed like a nice guy and charismatic speaker, but it kind of reminded of the treatment I got in Mississippi by church groups when I was working with Habitat for Humanity.
Our next speaker, Dr. Khalfan al-Barwani, worked in banking in Oman, so his presentation focused on the economy of Oman. He spoke of the difficulty of getting more Omanis into the private sector. Most public sector jobs are taken by Omanis, but most private sector jobs are occupied by third party nationals. The process of Omanization of the economy is supposed to help remedy that by getting Omanis more skills so that they can work and build the economy when Oman’s oil runs out. Unfortunately, its a slow process and many Omanis look down on the lower paying jobs, so they are largely still filled by immigrant workers.
I also took the chance to ask him about Islamic Banking, because I never really understood how it worked without usury or speculation. His answer was that it wasn’t really practiced in Oman and kind of scoffed at the idea of it. He implied that Islamic Banks still act like non-Islamic banks, but change the terminology to allow them to function.
Besides the guest speakers, we also had weekly calligraphy classes. A calligraphy exhibit years ago is actually what got me interested in studying Arabic in the first place, so I was pretty intensely interested. Unfortunately, I lack anything in the way of artistic ability or decent penmanship, so I’m not sure that I really got that much out of the classes. Probably the best part for me was watching the Egyptian calligraphy instructor show off between lessons.
On one occasion, we visited a summer school for Omani kids. We split up into groups of four and each took a classroom. We asked the Omani could questions in Arabic and they would respond in English, or vice-versa. I don’t think we did too bad, but those kids English definitely put our Arabic to shame. I assume another big push to give Omanis more opportunities on the world stage is to teach English, because these kids were very good at it. Some of the misconceptions about American culture were kind of funny, and several of the boys got up the courage to awkwardly ask us about American women. After the Q&A’s, we went outside to play one of there favorite games. I’m not really sure I understand the rules, but it definitely involves a bunch of people beating the person in the center, and that person fighting back.
We also played some sports with our professors and some of our language partners. We organized gender segregated field days and played football (the soccer type). Not shockingly, all of the Omanis were really good, although I think I acquitted myself well on the field. We had another day where we played some traditional Omani sports. There was a tug of war type game that was pretty familiar, but there was also a strange game where a bunch of people hop on one leg and try to knock each other off a carpet. It sounds simple in theory, but it was actually pretty difficult.
While we spent some time doing our own extracurricular stuff like getting hookah and watching the world cup, or visiting Omani friends for dinner, we were pretty isolated, so having the extra activities was nice.