Friday, February 25, 2011

The Grandiosity of The Gulf

On the 11th, two kids I study with, Chris and Katie, and I took a trip to Oman.  I was the guava bag; if you don't know what that means, ask an Egyptian.  As luck would have it, we found a flight through a new budget airline called Air Dubai, which, in accordance with its namesake, routes all of its flights through Dubai.  So, since we arrived in Dubai at 7pm on Friday with a 12 hour layover ahead of us, we decided to explore the city a bit.

This was the kind of place where 12 hours suffice.  We ate at an amazing Indian joint called Saravanaa Bhavan (which has a location in New York City) and then went to check out the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building at 828 meters, and the Dubai Mall, a huge building with expensive designer shops and an olympic size ice rink.  In Dubai, everything is the biggest:  biggest building, biggest mall, biggest acrylic panel in front of a fish tank.  The city felt more like plastic than anything else.  The only Arabs we came across were shopping in the mall; most of the interactions we had were with the South Asians living there, which allowed Katie to brush some dust off of her Urdu/Hindi (it's the same language guys).

The Burj Khalifa.  Far too large to fit into a single frame.

We went back to the airport and tried sleeping on the grass outside, but were rudely awakened at 3 am by sprinklers.  Too cliché.  Inside the airport was not quite as comfortable, but it was dry.  The next day we flew to Oman.

I'm not going to chronicle everything we did there, lest this turn into an unbearably long and boring piece, so I'll try to give an overview.  The first two nights we slept in Nizwa, a smallish town about 2 hours south west from the capital, Muscat, with a couch surfing couple.  We saw some sights around that area, and then went to Sur (on the coast, south east of Muscat), stopping for a safari through sand dunes in the Wahabi Sands.  That night we slept on the beach/in our rental car.  The next day was by far the highlight of the trip when we went to Wadis Tiwi and Shab.  They were gorgeous oases with palm trees, green freshwater pools and amazing rock structures.  Following this we returned to Muscat, had dinner at the Saravanaa Bhavan there, and met up with our second couch surfing host.  We spent a few nights in Muscat, and while there we went to a hot spring and saw one of the palaces of Sultan Qaboos (easily the best looking Arab leader).

Walking through the desert near Nizwa
At the Wahiba Sands

Our camp on the ocean

A pool in Wadi Shab leading to the cave at the end

Inside the cave at the end of Wadi Shab.  We climbed up that rope and found a path that lead to the top of the cave.  I couldn't bring my camera though for fear of soaking it.

We found a frog

The Sultan's Palace

Neanderthals crossing.
The Muscat Port

Fireworks at the Muscat Festival.  Kids got in my way, but made for a cool picture.

Oman was an amazing country not only because of its unique geographical features, but because it is an incredible mixture of cultures.  Arabs, (East?) Africans and South Asians are everywhere (despite this diversity, three white kids still stand out, even if two of them are galabiya clad.  Although I will say if I wasn't flanked by my companions I blended in pretty well).  The multinational aspect of Oman is manifested foremost in the cuisine, which is a blend of Arab and Indian/Pakistani.  In contrast to Dubai, it still felt very much like an Arab country, but was far more developed than any place in the Levant.

After a week of traveling, I returned to Syria, a day early, because that was the day my Syrian visa expired.  As a general rule, it is not advisable to take such risks with entering this country, but it worked out for me after more than a couple raised eyebrows.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Oman omen

In my last post, I said that Mubarak and I were both going to be traveling soon.  As it turned out, we were actually destined to travel on the same exact day!  I didn't even realize how accidentally prophetic I was being until my mother (surprise, surprise) commented on my post.  Anyway, developments in the Middle East over the past week have been incredibly exciting.  It has been so satisfying to watch all of these oppressive, geriatric leaders tremble before the power of the people.

Egypt erupted into celebrations, which I watched on Aljazeera in the Dubai airport, following Mubarak's forced resignation.  And many other Arab countries have been following suit with strong demonstrations against their tyrannical leaders.  However, Egypt isn't out of the water yet.  I am very hopeful for its future, but the army is still in power, and all three of the previous dictators have come from the army.

Coverage in Egypt has brought to light some disturbing sexism and racism in the western world, best manifested in this article.  It should be noted, however, that Nir Rosen does do a solid job at defending at least his own comments and provides additional commentary on the topic here.  The way women are treated in Egypt has been a large problem for a long time, one I witnessed on more than one occasion, and with a new government I believe this has the potential to change, but the blanket blaming of Egypt and Islam is just another example of the west's tolerance for some forms racism, but not others.  A hypocrisy that is not so different from the U.S.'s tolerance for some tyrants (i.e. those that support its policies in the Middle East) but not for others, irrespective of democratic aspirations and human rights records.

Now, the protest bug has spread to Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Iran and Bahrain.  Libya is the newest and most optimistic, and if Gaddafi is ousted the only thing about him I will miss will be his antics.  Aljazeera did an excellent job covering Egypt in both English and Arabic, essentially becoming the primary source of information and developments in the country and is now extensively covering Libya and Yemen.  However, once unrest spread to the Gulf, namely Bahrain, the Qatari news channel's Arabic version has become disturbingly silent.  It seems that Qatar will support regime change anywhere but in other Gulf countries.  It's just unfortunate that Aljazeera is subject to the same governmental pressures as so many other media sources.

I returned to Syria from Oman today.  While it was an absolutely incredible trip, my internet, being slower than a snail going through maple syrup, precludes me from uploading pictures.  So, I will post again in a few days with exciting details of my week devoid of boring political goings-on.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

What do Hosni Mubarak and I have in common?

We're both going to be traveling really soon!

There isn't too much news in Halab since my last post, but next Friday I'm going to Oman for a week.  Finally, the Middle East decided to catch up with Europe (I know the U.S. will follow suit next) and create a budget airline called Air Dubai, which flies around this region for pretty decent fares.  A couple friends and I will be flying into Dubai, where we have a layover from 7pm to 7am and then we'll continue onto Muscat.  That layover couldn't be more perfect, as it's just about enough time to see some cool things in Dubai, but not enough time for the place to start getting under our skin.  Anyway, I'll be coming back the following Friday the 18th in time for classes to start again two days later.  The upshot of all that is you will likely be saved from my ramblings by way of more pictures the next time I update.

But enough about my boring news, the Middle East has been so exciting these past couple weeks!  I'm sure all of my many loyal readers (who probably just boil down to my mother) have been following events in Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt meticulously.  Nothing has changed in Syria though.  The situation here has been completely unfazed by exterior events.  However, one of my friends who was working in Cairo, and has since left for Athens, sent me some pretty cool descriptions and pictures of his participation in protests in Egypt.  Minus the slight danger of beatings/incarceration/death, I'm a bit jealous of his experience.  Syria is relatively boring.  I guess I've been spoiled by security.  Also, I, unlike CASA folks in Cairo (one of which has a blog that I've linked to on the right side of this screen, although it appears she's even worse about updating than I am), am able to continue my Arabic studies uninterrupted, so maybe I shouldn't complain.

As a conclusion, I will leave you with a picture that I posted on Facebook with the same caption I used (my room mate's speculation as to what they're saying) that's created quite the fuss:

Democracy in Egypt? HA!