Throwing Children in the Street: Culture Shock Omani Style

Risse, M. “Throwing Children in the Street: Explaining Western Culture to Omanis,” Emanations: Third Eye. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2013: 265-274.


I spend a fair amount of time trying to explain what little I understand about Omani culture to Westerners (Do not ask how many wives a man has… Do not ask the names of female relatives… Do not discuss religion or politics unless you know a person well… Do not attempt to ‘liberate’ women…). In asking Omanis all sorts of questions about cultural practices and perceptions, I occasionally get a return question about Westerns artifacts and beliefs (Is Christmas at the same time every year and how many days is it? Why do Westerners hate their families? Why do Westerners put a nail in their tongue? Why do the leaders always go with girls and then talk about it on TV?)

As a kind of reverse engineering, I asked Omani students in a culture class to anonymously write questions about something they had seen a Westerner do or say, either in person or in the media. There were 20 students and a total of 54 questions. [They had signed agreements to allow me to use their questions anonymously.]

Most of the questions were the basic ones you would expect from conservative Muslim students: Why do Westerners eat half-cooked meat? (There is no such thing as ‘rare’ in Oman; meat is grilled to carbonization.)? Why do Westerners eat pork/ drink alcohol when everyone knows it is unhealthy? Why do Westerners do drugs? Why does the American person care of [about] time so much? There were a series of questions about why do Westerners not live with their children/ parents, as one student wrote: “Why do parents throw their children in the street”? Why do Westerners have babysitters? (The concept of leaving your baby with a ‘stranger’ is totally alien.)

But the most frequent question was “Why do Westerners shout every time”? This was phrased, for example, as “They do anything in any place and don’t control for anything,” “Why the American people if they met each other they are directly shouting – I want to know why they do that,” and “Why the child speak loud with your father and mother?”

I doubt that any Westerner could correctly guess that was the issue of most interest to Omanis – which is my main point. Foreign culture mean foreign.

How can you leave the house so dirty?

Cleanliness is an essential part of the Muslim religion as one must be in a state of cleanliness in order to the five daily prayers. Besides sweat (and visible sweat stains on clothes), hair is another issue of distress. There was a TV ad when I first moved to Oman in which a mother (hair covered of course) gives her young daughter (maybe 14 years old) a gift of a special electronic razor to remove arm hair. The daughter is overjoyed and gives her mom a rapturous hug.

The hair removal section in the grocery is about as large as the shampoo section – you have waxes, chemical foams, electric razors, razors and halwa (a sugar based sticky substance which is spread on and then quickly pulled off). Hair removal is a major industry and it is essential for women, when they are married if not before, to have their eyebrows and entire face waxed and or “threaded.”

Why don’t Americans care about their look?

This is the question that I have heard most often from Arab women – they simply cannot fathom why Western women are so uninterested in dressing well. Omani women create almost everything they wear at the tailors – they buy the fabric and then bring it to one of the several tailoring shops they frequent to have the abayah (lightweight black cloak), sheila (black headscarf), dhobe (loose cotton house dress), or party dress made. Family pressure (or lack of it) and the woman’s taste dictates how fashionable/ decorated and form-fitting the abayah is and most women take pride is creating beautiful designs with colorful ribbons, rhinestones, and embroideries. Gulf Arab women are also influenced by Lebanese fashion, in which women will wear long, tight shirts and long sleeved, very fitted shirts with or without a colored headscarf.

Girls usually do not start wearing an abayah until the onset of puberty so girls between about 10 and 14 are usually in bright, loose long dresses; sometimes a family will buy a bolt of fabric and each of the many daughters will have a dress with a slightly different design. The result is seeing a collection of young females or older women at home without abayah is like looking at a kaleidoscope of colors and designs – whereas if you looked at a collection of normal American women dressed for work the predominant colors are brown, black, beige, navy blue, dark green with dark shoes, dark purse, lip gloss, a few pieces of jewelry.

I am surprised every time I visit the States how much women at work look like they are walking mulch: loose, wrinkled fabric in dark colors. “But everyone wears black in the Gulf,” one friend shot back when I mentioned that the three women we had shared an elevator with looked like portable compost heaps. Yes, the women are in black but there is always something sparkling, even if it is simply shiny black beads lining the edge of the sheila, there is always a delicate scent, clothes are always ironed and pressed, and the shoes almost always have decoration.

Women who believe that important elements in dressing include good quality perfume, make-up (usually emphasizing the eyes with lots of mascara and eye-liner, a dark shade of lipstick), and gold jewelry can be surprised when faced with an American woman in sweat pants, a t-shirt and hair in a ponytail.

Why is she wearing make-up?

The other side of the ‘dress-up to leave the house’ expectation is the expectation that a person should decidedly not dress-up for certain occasions. The first time the men in my research group invited me to ‘go for tea’ (i.e. drive up in to the mountains to a scenic spot, make a camp fire and make tea) I debated what to wear. I wanted to ‘look nice’ but was unsure, as I would be the only woman with four men, if I should dress as I did at work. I finally decided to go decidedly boring – huge baggy shirt, plain pants, no make-up, jewelry or perfume. We had a nice time, no one mentioned my clothes and after a few more afternoon drives, it would have been silly to revert to work dress so I kept the plain clothes.

I wasn’t ever certain if I was ‘letting the side’ down by not trying to show Western womanhood in a more polished and  positive manner until one evening a few female Western friends came with me and some Omani men for night fishing. We all met after dark, fished from the shore and then cooked the fish over a campfire.

The next time I met the group of Omani men, one of them asked, “Why was one of the women wearing make-up?” Given that the men had never commented on my appearance – I wondered at such a specific question, so I asked, “Why are you asking?”

“Why would she do that – wear make-up to go fishing? Did she think she was going to a party?” the Omani man asked again, clearly confused by this behavior. “You never wear anything.”

“Actually, I was never sure about how I should dress,” I confessed.

He looked at me and said, “You are ok.” It was as if he had never thought about what I was wearing or should wear, but seeing the woman in make-up for a fishing trip was causing some kind of disturbance. There was a short discussion in Arabic and then the man asked again, “But why did she do it?”

I countered, “Well, why not? When should a woman wear make-up?”

“With ladies!”

It had clearly been a subject of debate, and not from a positive point of view. I never felt I understood the men’s point of view completely but they seemed uncomfortable at the thought of a woman (in their eyes) attempting to look pretty for them. Women are expected to dress for other women, not for men – the opposite of Western norms.

Where are your bathroom shoes?

This one confused me—one of the men in my research group asked me this after he excused himself from a meeting at my house to wash himself for prayers. One of the other men responded to him in Arabic; he nodded and disappeared. I forgot to ask what he meant and didn’t understand what was going on until a few weeks later when I visited an African friend. “The shoes are there by the door,” she called out after I had excused myself to go wash my hands.

And, in fact, right next to the bathroom door was a pair of cheap flip-flops. Aha! The next time there was a meeting at my house I put a pair of flip-flops (not the ones with pink rhinestones, the one with plain blue trim) by the door. Turns out it doesn’t matter – the Omani men never saw sandals as ‘gendered’ and I would occasionally find that someone had used my rhinestone pair or my Indian slippers. When we were on a beach, I was allowed to slip on whose ever shoes were nearest to go get more wood.

The basic point was that to be polite, you need to take your shoes off when you enter a house (entry ways are usually an amusing jumble of 20 to 30 pairs of shoes in small heaps) but the cultural assumption is that you must wear shoes in the bathroom, hence there should be shoes by the bathroom which are worn there, but nowhere else in the house.

This goes back to the whole idea of what is ‘dirty.’ Bare feet in the kitchen are fine, but not in the bathroom; sitting on the floor of the living room to eat is normal, but never sitting on the floor of the kitchen. Omanis can take a shower and then put on the same clothes and feel ‘clean’ – whereas Americans can feel ‘clean’ by putting on new clothes without taking a shower.

 Why won’t she eat at KFC?

An Omani asked me this after she heard a Westerner vehemently proclaim that she would never, ever eat at the Kentucky Fried Chicken. I have heard several Westerners sneer in derision and remark that they “don’t even know where the KFC is!,” so I had a fair idea of how that conversation went.

I understand the aversion for vegetarians and/ or health nuts but not for people who refuse on the basis that they want to stick to ‘local food.’ Who do they think is eating at the KFC? The McDonalds around the world are not solely supported by ex-pats Americans bent on cheeseburgers. International chains are a great way to pick up cultural insights when you see familiar brand with a new twist. I never understood the relationship between Germans and drinking until I saw beer at the Mickey D’s in Bonn. In Salalah, it is almost impossible to get a ‘normal’ KFC chicken sandwich because almost everyone orders it ‘spicy.’

Lastly, on three separate occasions, the first meal I ate together with an Omani was KFC because it was deemed a DMZ as it was both “my food’ (Omanis being polite and trying to make sure I was comfortable) and a known entity for the Omani. Omanis usually have rice with chicken, meat or fish for their main meal every day. They do not have many chances to try Western food and when they do, they usually don’t like it. I have had bad results with trying to share peanut butter cookies, oatmeal cookies, coffee ice cream, cream cheese brownies, nachos, and blueberries. For picnics I am always in charge of bringing Mountain Dew, roasted chicken and Pringles – my getting ‘creative’ in the kitchen is not condoned! Thus KFC is ‘safe’ from all sides – it’s a way for them to express hospitality and be with me on neutral culinary ground.

On the other hand, Omanis usually believe that I would not know or like Omani food. For me to say “Let’s eat something Omani” would cause consternation. They would be worried that I would not like it or not be able to eat it. This happened several times when a group of people were settling down to eat rice and fish and someone would suddenly start looking for a plate and fork for me until one of the men who knew me would say in Arabic that I was “ok to eat,” i.e. I could eat rice with my hands the normal way.

Also, my requesting something Omani might create pressure to produce something home-made or special, thus creating a problem for the person who invited me. This happened when a committee I chaired decided to have an end-of-the-semester party. Following the cultural rule that a person who has had some good luck (in this case a promotion) must share his joy, one man was instructed to bring “the sweet.” This turned out to be two intricate deserts made by his wife – I felt awful that I had joined the chorus of telling him to bring the dessert as the committee had obviously cost his wife a night’s worth of work.

Why don’t Westerners love their parents?

“It took me a long time to realize what she means to me. I waited one year? No, five years, no, after eighteen years of loneliness, she showed up – she is the most wonderful thing that could happen to a person. Her presence makes my world joyful and when she is absent my heart is destroyed slowly.” The next sentence is “When we first met, she was a tiny piece of snow, wrapped in a pink blanket. When I kissed her little nose, I trembled from cold but my hot tears made the cold melt away.” It is a mother talking about her daughter, not a man talking about a woman.

I think this piece of writing from a student best expresses the bond between parents and children which is more primary in the Gulf than the bond between spouses. It is upsetting (sometimes revolting) for Omanis to hear Westerners discuss their parents’ or siblings’ faults – complaining about family in public is never, under any circumstances, condoned or justified.

One Omani asked me in utter confusion, “Why do Americans talk about some toy that they did not receive when they were a child?” Moaning about the bike you didn’t get for Christmas when you were ten seems ridiculous to Omanis. The Gulf point of view is that your parents gave you your life; you must thank them, respect and take care of them every day of your life.

Why doesn’t he/she have any friends?

Although the family/ tribe is very important, Omanis also understand the importance of friendships and are confused by Westerners who are either solitary by nature or who socialize only with their spouses. Omanis will very seldom make negative comments in public – but this is an issue that puzzles them so I have been asked a few times as to why a Westerner stays alone in his/ her office without ever “making relations.” When I try to explain that the person is probably hard at work, the answer I get is usually, “Ok, work ok, but why not rest for a coffee?”

People who stay alone are coded as depressed and/ or dangerous. Why would someone sit alone hour after hour if they were not either sad or planning something they don’t want anyone to know about?

Westerners are accustomed to the idea that some people are naturally ‘loners’ or ‘asocial’ – these concepts don’t exist in Oman. Omanis are closely connected to family, often living in a house with 15 to 20 relatives. It is hard enough to understand my case (living alone) but to see a person who both lives alone and does not socialize at work (having coffee with colleagues) or outside of work (talking about trips taken or restaurants visited on the weekend) surprises/ confuses/ causes misgiving among Omanis.

The issue causes an underlying unease to the point where Omanis will hone in on family pictures in a Westerner’s office. Student who come to office hours always ask about my pictures: “It that your sister? Is that your mother? Is that a friend?” and there is a perceptible feeling of satisfaction/ relief to know that I do, in fact, have a family and friends.

Nice to see you in the morning!/ Thank you for telling us in the morning!

Not a question, but comments that gradually revealed to me an Omani cultural perception – what happens in the morning effects the entire day. This is sort of similar to the ‘bad hair day’ in the States, but with a stronger and wider effect.

Stopping by an Omani friend’s office when I arrive at work produces a wide smile “Nice to see you in the morning!” – she is also happy to see me later in the day but the idea that seeing something positive in the morning lasts the whole day is a good concept to keep in mind. If you have a present to give or something positive to say to an Arab, deliver it early in the day.

You should always avoid telling bad news under any circumstances but if there is no way to avoid this, share the news late in the day, preferably at night. I told the guys in my research guys that we had not received a grant we had tried for by sending an SMS early in the morning (working out of the American ‘tear the band-aid off quickly’ principle, get the bad news over with fast). This was not appreciated. I got a (very rare) ironic comment a few weeks later: “Thank you for telling us in the morning!” I should have told one guy at night and then it would be on his shoulders to tell the others.

Why do Americans smile when they talk with strangers and ask about their news?

English and Germans have the same question as Omanis – why do Americans grin like maniacs all the time? Hard to explain I say, with a smile. Americans are trained from birth to smile in public conversation – Arabs are not. It’s difficult for me to receive a blank stare in return when I smile as I catch a female stranger’s eye; yet I keep smiling – some cultural traits are too deep-seated to change.