We were headed to Oman and my excitement could hardly be contained. After a year of preparation and waiting, we were finally on our way. I knew we were in for a multitude of changes and challenges, and I thought we were ready. However, I was not ready for my first culture shock to come before we even left LAX. I didn't want to have to unpack and shuffle baggage weight in the middle of the airport. Anxious to make sure I stayed below the 75 pound limit, I placed my suitcase on the scale. The attendant told me the weight in kilos.
Kilograms instead of pounds. Kilometers instead of miles. Centigrade instead of Fahrenheit. Changes that all involved math. Anyone who knows me, knows I was definitely in trouble. The attendant must have been accustomed to seeing a blank expression like mine because she quickly changed it to pounds. As I walked away, I tried to remember all the things I’d packed in boxes to ship. For my husband’s sake, I was glad I’d brought my own measuring cups and spoons for cooking.
Then my heart did a little skip and I stopped in my tracks. American dollars to Omani Reals
No problem. That involved shopping so I knew I’d pick that up easily enough. I hurried on, ready for my next challenge.
Flying business class is an experience all its own. Champagne before take-off. Hot scented cloths. GPS trackers that follow the flight path, personal movies, music and a reclining seat with a pad, blanket and pillow. After a decent meal of steak and a luscious desert, we watched a beautiful sunset above the cloud cover and went to sleep.
The first leg of our journey was a fifteen hour flight. My husband woke up at sunrise just before me. We had traveled over the North Pole and Greenland and were headed to Russia. Below us, he could see giant icebergs floating on the deep blue sea. By the time I woke, clouds had covered everything and I missed the sight, but the GPS tracker told us we were flying over St. Petersburg. At Moscow we turned south. After breakfast, it began to grow dark again. A little over an hour later, it was pitch black and we were looking down on the lights of Tehran. We saw a sunrise and a sunset in less than two hours.
Our first stop was in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. The city stood out long before we landed. The major highways are wide and clearly marked with tall street lights. It was easy to see them weaving in and out of the city. The airport was clean and busy, even at two a.m. in the morning. We visited the business class lounge and were able to eat…again, and stretch out on divan type seats. The lounge even offered mini-spa treatments. I seriously considered a massage but fell asleep too quickly.
My next culture shock came when I went to the bathroom. They were extremely clean. The stalls were huge and very private but instead of toilet paper, there were spray handles for washing. Now I’m certain that’s probably hygienic. Judging from the lack of waste paper floating around, it’s very clean. But cold water and drip-drying are definitely not my friends.
My next culture shock came when I saw women completely veiled. Most of the pictures I had seen were of women with their hair veiled but their faces uncovered. I had not seen many pictures with women in the black abayas, scarves called hajebs and silk veils that covered their faces. At Muscat International Airport in Oman, I saw even more. What I didn’t realize was they were all coming from Salalah where we were headed! More women covered their faces in the far south, an indication that Salalah is much more conservative than metropolitan Muscat. Not more religious, just more old-fashioned. In most Gulf States, the wearing of the abaya is more of a fashion statement than a dress code and European designers create haute couture abayas for these countries.
I didn’t realize how beautiful the abayas and hajebs can be. The abayas are light weight and completely cover the clothes. The sleeves can be ruffled and are often edged with colors. I saw beautiful, delicate embroidered flowers, lace, dainty rhinestones, even a strip of turquoise. The hajebs are silk and edged with matching colors. As they walk, the dark garments flow around them with flashes of color. Usually their handbags match the color in the hajeb and you will glimpse sparkly high-heeled sandals as they move.
I have to admit that next to the elegant and graceful Omani women, I felt very gauche and plain…but probably more comfortable.
There are many different styles of hajebs. I’m not sure if they are chosen by region, family or just preference but there’s a great variety. I saw hajebs that are round like small, silk-covered crowns with traditional square veils attached to the sides. This type of veils leave the eyes uncovered. The women of Salalah wear some sort of bun-like form at the back of their head which gives their hajeb a distinctive round shape and a very elegant line. Their abayas are also longer in the back to give them a more graceful, flowing look.
Some of the men wear western clothing but others wear a long, white garment that reaches their ankles called a dish dash. The dish dashes are universal for men throughout many Arab countries and differ only through small details. In Salalah, traditional small tassels are sewn close to the buttoned, low collar and used to be perfumed to hold against the nose when a bad smell is encountered. The men of Saudi Arabia and Dubai have stand up collars, similar to Nehru jackets and the men of Abu Dhabi and Qatar have colors in their collars.
The men also wear scarves called ghutras. Ghutras are the typical, triangular scarves most often seen in pictures. The men of Saudi Arabia wear red and white checkered ghutras with black rope-type bands called igals around the top.
In Salalah, the ghutras can be many colors, but most are tan or light brown with patterns that often incorporate expensive material such as cashmere and silk. They also wear small tassels on the ends of their ghutras distinctive to Salalah, which is now being copied by the men of the north. The ends of the ghutras are wrapped around the head to form a low-sitting turban. Unlike other Arab countries, this low sitting turban is the most common way for Omani men to wear their ghutras, not loose and flowing.
Omani men usually wear a small round cap called a koma. This cap is exclusive to Oman and is usually white with embroidered designs in tan, brown or similar colors. It sits tall on the head and can be creased down the middle or in the back to make it higher in the front. I saw as many ways to wear the koma as there are to wear baseball caps...maybe even more because the koma can be folded. All of the dish dashes are sparkling white and starched and even though the abayas are long enough to drag on the ground, I never saw a dirty or tattered hem.
I was amazed and I hadn’t even left the airports yet!