I like to garden so, several years ago, I lived in concrete block ‘villa’ surrounded by a walled garden. I was the only non-Omani in my neighborhood and, thus, rather conspicuous. One of the small boys who lived close-by took a liking to me and would yell out his window ‘HOW ARE YOU?’ when he saw me. This led to cautious waving “Hello” between his father and me if we happened to be standing outside our houses at the same time. After nine months in that house, it was Eid, the celebration at the end of the Ramadan (the month of fasting for Muslims). Traditionally neighbors go to visit each other during the three day Eid.
So, after canvassing my Omani friends who work with me, I decided to visit. I normally wear my hair up in a bun and skirts with long-sleeved shirts, elbow and knees covered is the general rule, but I wanted to be polite when going into an Omani house. I put on my abahya (loose fitting black cloak), sheila (sheer black head scarf), filled a pretty gift bag with box of chocolates and walked to their house rather nervously.
As I came to the door, there was a teenage boy standing outside talking on his phone. I gave the traditional greeting in Arabic ‘salam alekum’ (peace unto you); he stared at me but quickly recovered, asking me in English, who did I want to see. I didn’t have an answer, so he calls to someone inside, gets an answer and beckons me to come in. From the entrance, I walk immediately into the living room, a sectional sofa around three of the walls, on the left part of the sofa are about several small boys, ahead is one man, and to my right are an older woman and two women about my age.
After living in the Middle East for long enough, I know the drill – ignore the guy, head for the oldest woman, smiling and saying ‘salam alekum’. They all look a bit shocked but are typically gracious and we all introduce ourselves [I will call the couple who lived there Noor and Nabil, not their real names]. I am served coffee and halwa, the traditional Omani sweet made from sweet rosewater boiled with cardamom and other spices. Questions go back and forth, about my family, where do I work and when I say, I am American. They talk in Arabic and nod philosophically.
I stay forty-five minutes, then rise to go. The lady of the house, Noor sprays me with perfume (a traditional gesture), then I invite them all to come to my house the following week. They agree and I trot off home, relieved not to have created an international incident.
A week later, Noor and part of her family come to visit me. Relations now established, tranquility reigned on my street until the day I noticed my mango tree was missing. I had bought two; Luxchman, my gardener who comes three times a week to water the plants, had put one in the ground next to the fig tree, the other was other was still in its pot. One afternoon I asked Luxchman to plant it next to the oleander, but the next day, there was a mango by the oleander and an empty space by the fig tree. What did he do? I asked myself. Luxchman has worked with me for four years; we don’t have a language in common but we manage to make ourselves understood. Did he think I meant move the mango? But where was the second one?
He only comes three days a week, so I had to wait two days to ask him. He said he didn’t know, he had also noticed the mango tree was missing and thought I had taken it. We stood staring at the place it should have been. Whoever had taken it had replaced the earth and packed it down so that there was no hole, and given that it was about three feet tall, I couldn’t see a small child managing it.
I was late for a meeting, so I couldn’t ponder with Luxchman for long, but when I got back to my house at 10pm that night, it hit me: someone had snuck into my garden and dug it up my plant. I had never been afraid living in Oman on my own; I have never had an Omani man threaten or in any way be unpleasant to me, but perhaps there was someone not happy to have an American woman in the neighborhood or did someone just want some mangos?
In either case, I felt unsettled, and for the first time since I moved in, I walked around the house switching on all the lights and checking all the corners. I changed into a thobe, a loose-fitting Omani housedress, and sat on the sofa. The theft was two days before, so I wasn’t as if there was any particular reason to be scared that night, but since I had just learned about it – every rustle seemed laden with dread portent. What to do? I went outside and walked around the small garden; roses, olive trees, lemon trees, papaya trees, neem tree, almond tree, hibiscus, palm trees, henna trees, jasmine, oleander, mint, basil and gardenias all present and accounted for. But how was I going to get to sleep, worried about all of them and myself?
Then I remembered my neighbors. Of course! They might have seen something and just telling them would make them more alert. I opened my bab, the small door in the sliding metal panel which is the entrance to the walled garden to I could check the stree. My neighbor’s car was not there, so I sat on the sofa and read.
It was only 10:30pm. People in Salalah are usually awake midnight and men usually spend the late evening with groups of male friends, drinking tea and smoking. When I heard his car, I rushed to my front door. He was getting out of his car, so I called over “Excuse me” in Arabic. He walked though his bab and towards his house, not turning. “Excuse me!” I called louder. He was on his house steps, “Excuse me” I yelled. He turned towards me; I waved for him to come to my house.
Then I dashed inside, got a sheila to cover my hair and walked quickly to my bab. I stepped out onto the gravel border between my wall and the road, headed towards him as he was coming out of his bab. But as I got closer, I could see him more clearly and Oh no! It was not my neighbor! It was a man I have never seen before. A random selection of cuss words floated through my mind as my feet, wisely, stop moving. He got a little closer, then stopped about 10 feet away from me.
We are at a metaphorical as well as physical standstill. I can’t talk to him – an unknown man, at 11:30 at night, next to my house. He could be anyone – a friend of my neighbors or someone dropping something off at their house. Heaven only knows what he is thinking, me calling him to my house, but I know that having made the first big mistake, I couldn’t make more mistakes by talking to him.
When telling this story later to two female Omani friends, they laughed so hard, they almost fell out of the chairs. “You called a man to you! You called him to your house!” they repeated over and over in amazement and horrified glee. “A man you didn’t know! To come to you! Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.”
That night, however, neither I nor he was amused. He doesn’t get any nearer, realizing that whatever I was thinking before, I was thinking something different now. I stood silent, looking at him wondering how the heck I was going to get myself out of this one. After about 30 seconds, he calls out in Arabic “I am Noor’s brother.” This helps. We now have a quasi-acceptable relationship. He is my neighbor’s brother; it’s not completely unthinkable that we might have a conversation. He then says, “Nabil coming!”
I nod, but don’t move. It would be incredibly rude to go back into my house, but I can’t walk up and start chatting. If I talked to him, I would be the kind of woman who calls men to her house and starts talking to them. Not acceptable. Luckily, just then Noor comes out of her house and walks to her gate. The man turns and goes back to Noor’s house and I follow.
Noor is standing by her gate with two women I don’t know and a few small children. Safe space. I walk up to her and say “Please excuse me” in Arabic. She says, “It’s ok, it’s ok.” Then I smile and say hello to the other women. Noor’s brother stands apart, about eight feet away to my left, just out of peripheral vision. He is listening but not officially part of the conversation.
I start to ask in halting Arabic if they have seen a man in my garden. The women murmur to themselves. I try to explain what happened but can’t remember how to say ‘tree’ in Arabic. And my sheila keeps slipping off my head and shoulders. It’s like a nightmare, my hands trying to get my hair covered while my mind is trying to conjugate verbs, remember to smile and not look at the guy.
I think I have conveyed the main gist when, oh relief!, Nabil drives up. At the time I thought it was just co-incidence but now, I think someone called him, “Come home, your crazy American neighbor is acting strangely!” In any case, I was hugely relieved. He speaks a little English and, just as importantly, we can talk. I came to his house for Eid, his wife has been to my house, we are neighbors – there is no reason we can’t stand by the street and chat. I explain my story. He takes his baby son from Noor and starts to walk over to my house; Noor’s brother follows him.
I make one last attempt to get my hair covered, say ‘Thank you and good night’ to Noor and the women, then walk home. The two men are standing outside my bab, of course Omanis would never walk through someone’s bab without permission. I open the door and stand back; remembering someone told me it’s not polite for a woman to go ahead of men. They walk into the garden and turn into Sherlock Holmes, carefully examining all the plants and studying the walls. As they walk around to the back of the house, where the light from the street lights doesn’t reach, they get out their cell phones and shine the screen lights on the walls.
I think it is a little silly until Nabil calls me over to one section by the almond tree. “Here,” he says. “Do you see?”
I see some dirt smudges. His brother-in-law comes over and they consult. “Here,” Nabil says. “They are coming here.”
“Over the wall?” I ask.
“Yes.” Well, that’s a new and entirely unwelcome thought. I hadn’t really thought about how the person got in.
The two men walk back out of my garden. I assume that they are going home but Nabil hands his baby son over to his brother-in-law, then walks over to the house they are building to the right of mine. I follow. He scrambles up a pile of gravel into the half-built house. I go behind him. The house walls are over eight feet, blocking out the streetlights, so it’s dark and there are chunks of concrete blocks strewn on the floor.
Nabil walks through the maze of concrete and rebar, checking the views out of the holes left for windows to be put in later. I tag along, not sure what is up. The brother-in-law shows up again and turning one corner that leads to a dead end, we almost collide. I flinch backwards and stand in the main entry way, out of the way.
I look up at the stars, trying to get the shelia to stay on top of my head, trying to remember how to say ‘Thank you for your help,’ wondering if being in a dark, empty, half-built house with two guys at midnight is a really stupid decision or if it’s good to trust and depend on one’s neighbors.
“Here!,” Nabil calls. I follow his voice, he is standing to the extreme left of a window, his brother-in-law standing behind him, “schuf mal” he says, pointing.
I come to the right side of the window and look where he is pointing. We are standing about five feet from my garden wall, and there, just below the window, is a pile of building rubble and rocks which reaches almost to the top of the 7 foot wall, in the section next to my almond tree.
The two men are nodding and conferring. “Here,” Nabil says, “Here coming. Move the rocks, no one coming.” I realize that when I went over to his house I wasn’t actually expecting a result. I just wanted to share my nervousness, but in ten minutes with a cell phone and common sense, he figured out what happened and had the solution.
We leave the empty house and go back into my garden. “No problem,” he says serenely, “Move rocks, no one coming.” I give my profuse thanks in halting Arabic. The men wave their hands magnanimously, solving crimes at midnight is simply part of the normal neighborly service.
The next day I corner the man who is building the house and ask him to get the workers to level out the pile of rocks next to the wall between our houses. He does. I buy a new mango tree. The plants all stay in place. Peace reigns.