A shiny white Honda speeds down a newly-paved highway that swerves in and out and over the mountainous outskirts of Muscat. It’s a taxi and the Omani man driving it is wearing an ankle-length collarless white gown with long sleeves—a dishdasha—and a kumma on his head. He turns on the local radio, and suddenly the cab is filled with words from the Qu’ran.
It is 7 a.m. on Dec. 22 and the sun has just risen over the mountains and deserts of Oman, awakening its 3 million people who are to vote in the first ever municipal elections. Oman, officially called the Sultanate of Oman, is a Muslim country located beneath Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Sea in the Middle East.
In spite of the turmoil westerners associate with Islamist and Middle Eastern states, Oman is a relatively peaceful well-functioning stable absolute monarchy with the Sultan Qaboos bin Said holding most of the executive power. It’s rich, filthy rich. The country like many others in the region constitutes most of its wealth from its vast oil reserves.
But unlike his less stable neighbors, His Majesty is well liked by the people, the taxi driver says. In a mix of Arabic and English, the man explains that the Sultan is very good about reinvesting the oil money into the infrastructure of the country. The exquisite highways that run from village to village between the mountainous coasts are actually quite expensive and are a result of His Majesty’s development policies.
Although it’s December, it’s warm enough to lay out and tan which is what most European tourists come here to do; that and get away from the now-overly touristic places like Abu-Dhabi and Dubai. A step outside the luxurious palaces that serve as hotels reveals a world of modesty. Almost all the men wear the traditional outfit the taxi driver was wearing and the women are in similar black gowns with veils—hijabs—to cover their heads; very few wear the full burqa. In the souks women wander about from shop to shop often unaccompanied by men, even as late as 10 p.m. They gossip in Arabic as they admire beautiful gold-plated jewelry, big bangles are the fashion.
These women are beautiful and their clothing dictated by their religion, rather than giving a message of suppression, command respect and admiration. Oman is well known for being very religious but also very religiously tolerant. Omani Muslims have a very pure interpretation of Islam and require all of its followers to participate in the attire, which makes swallowing the otherwise seen as suppressive robe-like attire much easier for a western woman. And the men don't stare: they don't scan your western hair, your skin color, and your almost always too-tight fitting clothes (in their eyes). It's comfortable.
Two young Omani women enter a shop that sells everything from incense to herbs to shampoo and dried fruit. An older western white man crosses their path. The women smile at him and one asks, gesturing to the four western women accompanying him, “Is this your wife? And are these your children?” He is surprised. The man has traveled to other Arab nations: Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Turkey, among others. But he has never once been addressed by a woman or dared to speak to one. Women in these countries resembled property more than human beings; they didn’t speak to men unless addressed to, and especially not to foreigners.
He smiled, “Yes this is my wife. One, two, three, daughters I have!” The women giggle and congratulate him.
In terms of the souk, though, it is still an Arab nation in the sense that haggling over the price of products is still a must so as to avoid paying three times its worth.
Oman's Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is the one of the few mosques in the region that permits non-Muslims to enter it on the condition that the visitors respect the dress code--veils for women, long sleeves and pants for all, shoes off at the door, and no children under 10 years old. The mosque is hu-uge. It has the world's second largest hand-woven carpet, a guide says. It measures approximately 300 ft by 200 ft and took four years to make.
The mosque is an attest to the country's openness. And the tourists arrive in bus-loads to take advantage of it. Inside and out, the walls are marbled white and spotless clean. Little enclaves line the walls serving as shelves for the Qu'ran. At the opposite end of the entrance, down the long middle aisle, is a slightly raised podium where a sheik leads the people into prayer.
The people are happy, the taxi driver says. The country is growing and building itself up. The new parliament just outside of Muscat has just been completed. In Muscat, poverty seems almost non-existent: people have houses, sources of water, food to live off of, and schools to attend. It is not host to the poverty that often reeks the big cities in western nations. It's government is expanding to allow for regional representatives to be involved with decisions the Sultan makes. Of the 46 women in the 1,400-something candidates that ran for the 192 seats on local councils, four women won. Although this step may not appear to be as democratic and egalitarian as many western nations would like it to be, it's still a step. Insha'Allah.