Trying to Be Green in Oman

Sustainable Oman

The produce lady sees me coming. She peers from the side of her eye and begins to mumble something. She’s not looking at the color of my skin or the way I’m dressed, because in all honesty, we can pass for cousins. She’s looking at my reusable produce bags and can’t seem to figure them or me out. To me, it doesn’t seem complicated. My produce is bagged. You identify it, weigh it, put a sticker on it and we move on in peace, but no. She does a quick examination wondering if and when I wash my produce bags. Trust me, the bags don’t double as socks or underwear. I thank her and move on.

At the nuts and dried fruits counter, I hand my reusable bulk bag to the clerk and politely make my request. He’s confused but proceeds to weigh my kilo of raw cashews in a plastic bag. I point out my cloth sack again and he clumsily makes the transfer, only for his manager to wrap my cloth bag in a plastic bag stapled shut as proof of purchase.

Vegan Oman

Once I get to the register, the cashier clerk gives me the thumbs up. My eco-attempts are not totally in vain. The bag clerk has no opinion. He takes my reusable shopping bags and fills them quickly. There’s a combination of locally grown produce, imported organic goods, eco-friendly cleaners, a gallon-bottle of white vinegar, plastic bottles of coconut oil, glass jars of nut butter, boxes of almond milk, and a shameless bag of American tortilla chips. Each shopping trip is a tug-of-war between practicality, my conscience, and our budget.  No party ever truly wins, nor are they defeated.

Trying to live sustainably isn’t so easy in some parts of the world. Maybe in Berlin, I can shop at a waste-free supermarket, ride home on a bicycle, and live in a solar-powered home, but Muscat isn’t Berlin. Maybe in Oregon, I can grow my own food, build a tiny home, and barter goods with my neighbors, but Oregon isn’t in Oman. I live in an oil-producing nation with limited public transportation, a negligible recycling industry, and very little environmental awareness. However, life in Oman sustains us in many other ways. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I do have a generous wish list that I’m willing to work towards seeing fulfilled. Until then, I need to hold myself accountable to rejoining and getting involved with the Environmental Society of Oman. They do great work around animal conservation and environmental preservation, but I would love to see them usher in a new generation that will make sustainable choices more available for us all.

Vegan Oman

 

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Reflecting on Our First Ramadan in Ankara

Made at our pre-Ramadan party with friends.

This Ramadan has been challenging and it has nothing to do with hunger, thirst, or heat. There is something intangible missing—namely that collective common spirit that I’m accustomed to feeling in either the wider consciousness of a Muslim country or the intentional consciousness of a dedicated minority. Still trying to figure out how to comprehend life in secular Muslim Turkey, being here feels like its own dimension. I see signs of Ramadan—donation requests, iftar buffets, Ramazan pide breads for sale—but I can’t feel it. Seemingly more the exception than the default, fasting feels like a secret only shared with an unknown few. Obviously, fasting is a very personal act of devotion that need not be publicized, but when you’re invited for lunch or offered food and drink in the middle of the day, it starts to feel a bit like the Twilight Zone.

A first attempt and a new addition to our Ramadan home decorations.

Lil’ Z is taking gymnastics lessons at a great academy that happens to be housed in a large shopping mall. If she wasn’t enjoying and progressing well in the class, I would find a way out of frequenting my least favorite destination four times a week. I thought the usual shopping mall annoyances might be turned down a notch for Ramadan, but it was business as usual. Diners, coffee drinkers, and smokers were doing what they always do, but one particular young lady really made me pause. While waiting at a bus stop, she came supported by two young women at her side. Because she put no weight on her bent legs, I immediately thought she sprained her ankle or was injured. But when her friends attempted to sit her up, I realized that she was passing in and out of consciousness. Her head dropped and eyes rolled back. Drool ran from her lips quicker than her friends could open their moist towelette packets to clean it. Though her entourage seemed calm and collected, I had to intervene, fearful that her condition was worse than they perceived. I thought that perhaps her blood sugar was low from fasting or she was severely dehydrated but, to my shock, one of the young men told me in unmistakable English, “She is drunk.” Having lived in a college town for eight years, I’ve seen drunk before—loud drunk, belligerent drunk, staggering drunk. But on the verge of black out drunk in daylight–I’ve never seen. Again my mind goes back to Ramadan.

Ramadan Calendar 2016

Many of the irreligious Turkish friends I’ve met here have made reference to a grandparent who prays. I can understand that a person may consciously reject a choice for themselves, but there seems to be this total unawareness and disconnect from the lives their forefathers lived only two generations prior. Yes, there are many religious Turks as well, but I’m disappointed by how seemingly clueless young people are about Islam. Almost as if a cloud of amnesia descended a few decades ago that reduced Islam to not eating pork and calling God “Allah”, which I hear often. “Ma sha’ Allah” when seeing a cute child, “in sha’ Allah” when speaking of future happenings, or, my favorite, “Allah Allah” for any reason ranging from a spill to a near car accident. I see beautiful mosques all over the city, amazing modest clothing lines, prayer beads for sale in the streets, but I can’t seem to access what Islam means here in Turkey, or at least in Ankara. It’s a discussion I’d like to have, but being religious seems to be tied with supporting a particular political party, so those conversations are muted for fear that an innocent inquiry will turn into a partisan debate.

Mama makes a Ramadan sign too!

As with any reality in the outer world, I’m forced to look inward. Whether fasting as one in a small crowd or one in a million, I need to peer through the fog of my confusion to see the lesson awaiting me, the Teacher beckoning me, and the service demanding me. Ramadan is not something happening to me but rather within me. For more than a decade, even with its challenges, Ramadan is the internal housecleaning that I look forward to every year. Both in and outside of Ramadan, fasting heightens my awareness of God, refines my inner vision, and tempers my connection to the temporal world. As with Islam in general, it’s such a treasure that I hate to see people forfeit or belittle. Our little family is doing what we can to keep our own Ramadan fire aflame because I can’t rely on others here to fan it. With about half of the month left, I have to seek out some virtual love to pull through this month of mercy, so I can end with the cleansing and spiritual recommitment that I always find awaiting me in its last days.

Why We Live Abroad

Landscaping

It’s a sunny day in Ankara. After a week of peering through a cold cloud of fog from our apartment window, the frosted trees now glisten in the sunshine. Our home is abundantly warm and the neighborhood serene. With the exception of weekends and holidays, both national and Islamic, Urbndervish walks ten minutes to his office and prepares for class. His students, mostly Turkish, respect him and render him the regard due of an educator. His employer compensates him well based on his merit and experience, not race or gender. One income alone suffices our family here, so I’m available to stay home with Lil’ Z and Moulay.

Puzzled

When we do venture out to the store or around town, we usually see only a handful of other people of color, but it isn’t a big deal. We are not negatively harassed or profiled because of race or ethnicity. It is correctly assumed, however, that we are not Turkish, but we are still embraced warmly and helped hospitably. Our children are kissed, hugged, stroked, and given candies like all other children here. Younger children call my daughter abla, which means “big sister”, as they would call any other older girl. People find Moulay’s curly locks and Lil’ Z’s kinky hair curious, but the curiosity is sincere, not fetishism or disgust.

At the mall

I’m not an expert at cultural analysis or the politics of migration, but what I do know very well is the feeling of being welcomed and I experience it regularly outside of the borders of my homeland. Some people find this assertion absurd and implicitly or explicitly ask us the recurring question “Why?!?” We field those questions as they arise in personal conversations, but after reading this article about the higher quality of life that people of color experience in Norway, we thought it time to share our reasons for migrating too.

Mosque atop supermarket

Practice of Faith

So, if it’s not obvious by now, we’re a Muslim family—a brown one, at that. We’re not ethnically Muslim (well, if we knew our pre-slavery history, we very well could be) but rather people of African descent who embraced Islam as our way of life as adults. Our respective decisions were very personal and significant in our lives, hence practicing our faith—not just believing in it—is important to us. Having mosques and prayer spaces abundantly accessible, as well as restrictions on alcohol, drug consumption, and other social ills that we disapprove of makes our lives easier. We are not criminalized or victimized because of our faith, nor do we have to trip over ourselves to disarm the prejudice of others or absolve ourselves from atrocities that we neither committed nor condoned.

City Logo

Safety

In all of the countries we’ve lived in, the incidence of gun violence, mass shootings, and violent crimes in general is negligible. Similarly, crimes that target children, Muslims, or people of color are uncommon in these places too. Going out at night is not a cause of fear or anxiety.  However, during our last extended stay in the United States, the very real possibility of being harassed or harmed because of race and religion became a more vivid reality. If Urbndervish was late returning home from the mosque or the supermarket, the fear that he might have been stopped or harassed unjustly be a police officer was a legitimate possibility. Also, the incidence of hate crimes against Muslim women has become more prevalent as well. Wanton racial and religious profiling without abandon persists and keeps hitting uncomfortably closer to home.

Che

Higher Quality of Life

As an English instructor, Urbndervish has been able to provide a better life for us overseas than he would have in the United States. Most of his positions in the last five years have provided our housing, airfare, and health insurance. Additionally, his single income suffices to not only make ends meet but provide us with an enjoyable quality of life where we actually have time to spend together, a budget to travel together, and savings instead of debts to put aside for the future. Saving more than we spend on a monthly basis was impossible for us even when we were both working professionals in the United States. The documentary Professors in Poverty  addresses how American educators struggle to make fair wages in greater detail.

Juice Bars

Global citizenship

The added benefit to our life abroad is the enrichment that comes from seeing just how vast the world is and feeling empowered to know that we have a rightful place in it. Granted, we are very, very blessed and privileged to have degrees, diplomas, and passports that are respected in most parts of the world. We have an opportunity to leave a land that seems to have left us a long ago. Yes, there is work to do be done as agents of change and cultural transformers, but this is true anywhere and everywhere we find ourselves. Where one finds their purpose and peace is a very personal matter. We know and have read of other families of color who found home in Costa Rica, Indonesia, Ghana or the Netherlands. Whether permanently or temporarily, travel and migration teaches us and our children about other cultures, countries and ways of life firsthand. Similarly, it communicates that the planet is our home and we need not be held hostage to any one corner of it.

Park

More Quality Time with Family

A very lucrative trade-off for us is that even though we live further away from our extended family, we actually have more uninterrupted time to spend with them during our summer holidays. While living in the United States, we juggled two weeks of vacation and a handful of national and religious holidays to split between our scattered families. Since living abroad, we’ve had five to eight weeks of annual leave every summer, so we can enjoy uninterrupted days and weeks with our family. Yes, we miss some of the large family gatherings, but we do our best to compensate by making our time together rich in substance and not just cultural symbolism. We also have weekly video chats and phone calls with our folks.

Robot Girl

Conclusion

For the last seven years, our choice to live abroad has not been about fleeing or running based on fear, but rather doing what the human race has done for millennia—migrate. Whether it’s across town or across a continent, every individual has the God-given right to move freely to where they feel best supported in the pursuit of their ambitions and quality of life. Of course, there are legitimate financial and political challenges that hinder migration, so we don’t take this opportunity lightly. Nor are we so committed to any nation that we would stay in spite of it no longer serving our interests. We are global citizens, living our lives, seeing the world and exploring to find a place where our souls fit best.

Kocatepe Mosque

…they will be asked by the angels: “What (state) were you in?” They will answer: “We were oppressed in the land.” And the angels will say: “Was not God’s earth large enough for you to migrate?”  -Holy Qur’an, Chapter 4, Verse 97

Fall Reflection + Quince Recipe

Fall Foliage

If one were to casually peek into our window, either literally or virtually, it would appear as if we are oblivious to the pain and suffering happening around the world. We consume the news in small doses and discuss some of it in code or late night conversations, consciously careful to protect this nest and the pure hearts of the littlest birds in it.

Smile

Like a diet, we restrict our intake of the harsh ugliness in the world and binge on the joyful beauty; not to delude ourselves but to avoid being subsumed by the weight of sorrow and despair which would rob our hearts of hope and our nights of sleep. We have never used this tiny bit of bandwidth and memory for political commentary or news reporting. Instead our commitment is to share and document beauty, light, and love and be healed by it, as we pray that it offers healing to others.

For you

Even in Ankara, we saw a major tragedy last month. We digested it, reflected on it, and prayed for the whole world of “us” afflicted by various crimes, tragedies, and injustices. But, for the sake of our souls and children, we move on. We continue to savor peace where we find it and express gratitude for what is. As unfair as our world may seem, we believe in an Ultimate Judge and an Eternal Justice, without neglecting our responsibility to affect change on a spiritual, communal, and social level where we are. As it has been said, “the two wings of the believer are hope and fear”. We are trying to chart our path through this temporal world with balance and would like to share some of our joy as of late with no disrespect or disregard to those who are still mourning.

Wild Apples

It has been years since we’ve experienced the fall. I almost forgot how much I enjoy this season. The earthy, warm colors; the cool, crisp weather; the feel of fuzzy textures and layers are all very comforting. Most days here have been sunny, so I can take Lil’ Z and Moulay out for walks or to the park in our quiet suburb. Some days, we pick wild apples behind our apartment building or buy seasonal delights like figs, mandarins, walnuts, pomegranates, and quinces from a local produce seller. Because of our limited Turkish, I actually bought quinces by error but tasting the pear lookalikes foreshadowed the pounds of them we would soon receive from a friend’s yard.

Quinces

The coarse, gritty texture of a quince is not as smooth as a pear and the taste not as sweet. I tolerated the first few but found them difficult to eat because of their starchy density. To consume the pounds in our fridge, I searched for recipes but most of them were for super-sweet jam or jellies. Eventually, I found this recipe and tweaked it be a lot simpler and with a lot less sugar. If you find yourself in a Mediterranean fall, give quinces a chance. Enjoy!

 

Stewed Quince with Dried Cranberries

Ingredients

8-10 quinces

1 tbsp. coconut oil

1 tbsp. ground cinnamon

3 tsp. of vanilla powder

A pinch of salt

1 handful of dried cranberries

Cut Quinces

Directions

  1. Wash, peel, seed, and chop the quinces into small pieces
  2. Add quinces to a pot with enough water to cover half the depth of quinces
  3. Cook the quinces covered on a high flame
  4. Add all ingredients except for the dried cranberries to the pot and simmer once the water starts to boil
  5. When the quinces are soft and easy to mash, stir in cranberries, and turn off the flame.

Stewed Quinces over Muesli

Marital Advice That Works for Us

Celebrating our ten-year anniversary at home with the children

Celebrating our ten-year anniversary at home with the children

My cousin is getting married today and unfortunately, we can’t be there to attend.  Our newborn is not yet six-weeks old and we’ve had to rework our travel plans accordingly.  In lieu of our absence, we wanted to congratulate the newlyweds and offer ten practices and principles that have really benefited us in our years of marriage.

Be committed to a common aim, purpose, and spiritual path.  There should always be something greater in your life than yourselves and each other.  Your lives should orbit around a constant that is unchanging, not the temporal.

Express gratitude generously for things both big and small.  Everyone wants to feel appreciated, even when they do what’s expected of them.

Be committed to your personal development.  Always set goals for self-improvement and support each other respectively.

Avoid blaming each other and instead work together towards solutions.  Blame is rarely productive but teamwork most often is.

Share new things that you read/learn/think about and be reflective.  Sharpen each other’s intellect and rediscover each other through stimulating conversation and thoughtful introspection.

Value each other’s interests.  Understanding what a person loves or enjoys helps you to better understand them.

Be selfless in your service to each other.  If you are both sincere in your giving, there is no need to keep tabs.  In a healthy relationship, giving and receiving is mutual.

Maintain attractiveness, health, and well-being.  Value your self and spouse enough to take care of yourself both inwardly and outwardly.

Honor each other and your families.  Never tear each other or family members down, in public or private.  Always seek to build, not destroy.  Offer criticism constructively and advice sincerely.

Choose your companions wisely.  Surround yourself with friends that value marriage, fidelity, and family.  Build a community around you that nurtures your marriage and a marriage that nourishes your community.

Our warmest congrats to you both.  We pray that your union is blessed for many years to come.  Welcome to the family, Fiona!

Dinner Hosting Made Simple

Platter of fruits, dates, and coffee

When it comes to homemaking, I’m no Martha Stewart.  I love taking care of my home and family but there is no inherent joy derived for me by the means, only the end.  I cook and clean happily but there is no euphoria involved.  With my limited domestic skills, I used to be deterred from having guests for dinner.  I would be too concerned that my home isn’t spotless and my cooking isn’t spectacular. But after being reminded of the tremendous blessing in hospitality, we decided to make hosting our habit in spite of our shortcomings.  At times, we underestimate the bounty of a simple meal shared with sincerity, but we always find that these gatherings and moments are the tastiest.  So, here’s our strategy.

Select your guests wisely

I personally find it easier to have more frequent meals with a few guests at a time, as opposed to hosting a large group seasonally or annually.  For us, we have the natural limitation of space and utensils.  It took a bit of coordination to host a family of five for our first Ramadan iftar (fast-breaking) meal this week. When we host even more this weekend, we’ll have to ask them to bring their own spoons.  But once you know how many people and who to expect, you can assess your supplies and plan accordingly.

Also, consider the chemistry between the guests you invite.  Don’t pair strangers unless you have some reason to believe they will get along and don’t assume that buddies are always on friendly terms.  I was grateful when a guest I invited informed that she was no longer on good terms with another who I was about to invite.  Instead, I invited someone else which made for a smooth evening without creating an awkward conflict.  Thankfully, the two later resolved their tiff.

Almond Burger Salad with Homemade Dressing

Match your meal to your guests

As I mentioned before, it’s a good practice to inquire about food allergies and preferences before you plan your meal.  Consider which meals you can prepare confidently and capably without too much risk involved.  If you want to try new and complicated recipes, practice on your family first.  Evaluate which dishes in your repertoire best suit your dinner company.  Take special effort to accommodate diabetic or hypertensive guests who might be tempted by the sight of sugary or salty foods.  If you’re hosting guests who are free of health challenges but have poor eating habits, your meal is a great opportunity to showcase how tasty and nourishing a healthy meal can be.  Some of our most carnivorous guests have been pleasantly surprised and inspired by our vegan pizza, fruit smoothies, and raw desserts.

Stewed fava beans, roasted eggplant, curried mung beans, sauteed green beans and brown rice

As for cuisine-matching, I personally feel self-conscious when attempting Arab food for Arab guests, Indian food for Indian guests, and the like.  Instead, I prefer to use the opportunity to introduce my non-American friends to some of our Afro-Caribbean cuisine.  Why?  It’s like throwing seven different types of smoke.  They generally have no idea what to expect and it makes for good cultural exchange.

Black-eyed peas, sauteed cauliflower and green beans, and roasted eggplant

Start your prep early

Don’t wait until the big day to clean the whole house and start your meal.  Start your cleaning 2-3 days prior.  Cleaning the floors, dusting the surfaces, and tidying your home can be done well in advance.  Unless you have a bathroom designated for guest use only, you might want to freshen up your sink and commode on the day of your engagement.  Desserts—whether baked or raw—should be prepared first either the day before or the morning of your dinner.  Dips can be prepared the day before and salads earlier on the same day.

Tag team the effort

Enlist your family to help out where possible.  Sometimes, Urbndervish and Lil’ Z will welcome our guests and serve refreshments while I finish last minute dinner prep or clean up the kitchen before dinner starts.  Whoever finishes eating first will usually clear the dinner dishes from the table while the other chats with guests.  Then, the other might serve tea and dessert.  When Lil’ Z and her dad are ready to walk our guests to their cars, I’ll jump in the kitchen and start the first round of dishes.  After the little hostess is readied for bed, we’ll switch places again—I’ll put Lil’ Z to sleep and Urbndervish will finish up the dishes.  Sharing the load means that we can all enjoy the company of our guests, savor the food, and not feel burdened by the clean-up that follows.  If we’re particularly close with our guests, whoever is washing dishes will invite a friend to join them in the kitchen so the conversation can continue while washing up.

Kidney beans, pineapple salsa, and cashew sour cream on a bed of lettuce

Set the aesthetic

I have difficulty making my food look really enticing and presentable, so I compensate by combining dishes of varied hues.  For example, our iftar last week centered around black-eyed peas, which are a bit bland in color, so I added yellow rice and steamed okra and tomatoes to brighten up the plate palate.  You can also serve your food in decorated plates and dishes, set a nice tablecloth, and burn incense in the home to satisfy sensory appetite.

Minimize your waste

We can’t stand the sight of wasted food, so we generally start our guests with a modest plate and offer refills.  When we’re guests in the homes of others, it’s uncomfortable to be pressured to eat more than we normally would or be served increasingly more food when we’ve already expressed we’ve had enough.  My Omani friends, for example, explain that they want to make sure their guests are not being shy and taking less food than they desire but this can get frustrating when you feel like you’re being force-fed.  We don’t encourage our guests to overeat but we offer them as much as food as they would like to eat.

It’s also common to buy disposable dinnerware when having guests but please don’t give in.  In college, I would carry a box of dishes and utensils to potluck dinners and volunteer to wash the dishes every time.  I felt tremendous guilt drinking from red plastic cups and eating from Styrofoam plates with plastic utensils while calling ourselves activists and revolutionaries.  Yes, some water is saved but I believe the energy and waste consumed is not worth the convenience.  Feed the people but don’t neglect the planet in your hospitality.  Consider the use of a large, shared platter of food or use paper plates, if you insist.

Remember your intention

Sharing the gift of food is an honor.  It implies that you have the means to share and the friendship of others worth sharing it with.  Intend to serve for the sake of God and you may find facility in your efforts as I often do.  My food almost always taste better when we have company but we often attribute this to the blessing they bring with them when accepting our invitation.  When you keep the close companionship of upright people and serve them pure and wholesome food with love, there’s very little room to fail.  Even if your guests are not the most inspiring or positive people to be around, try to set the tone for an enjoyable evening, free of backbiting, ill speech and negativity.  Whether during or outside of Ramadan, try to keep your home illuminated by service to others.

Ramadan Festivity for the Not-So-Crafty

Candle Jars and Paper Lanterns

If you own a hot glue gun, X-Acto knife, or a MacBook, perhaps this post is not for you.  This post is for the artistically-challenged.  Those of us who struggle to draw straight lines, lack innate artistic ability and have never owned a set of cookie cutters.  There are great companies and creative individuals who save us from our artlessness by selling beautiful decorations, streamers, and banners.  But my inner minimalist prevents me from substituting someone else’s efforts for my own.  Besides, I’ve concluded that it’s more fun to craft with my child instead of for her.  She deserves the same quality of beauty that those fortunate children of crafty moms enjoy but our goal is to make her experience tangibly memorable, not our own.  With a few simple activities that revolve mostly around a child’s artistry, not an adult’s, this is what our Ramadan 2014 looks like.

Ready for Ramadan Party

We joined efforts with another family to kick-off our Ramadan this year.  We planned a simple Islamic trivia game, read a story, painted used jars to make candle holders and folded paper lanterns, followed by a tasty lunch and dessert.

Vegan Pineapple Upside Down Cake

Ramadan Love Packages

We found a simple cake recipe and made greeting cards for Lil’ Z’s friends.  She was quite proud of her cake and card.

Lil' Z's cake

The four-year-old boy she shared this card with was so happy to receive it that he kept asking if he could keep it.

Ramadan Card

Ramadan Calendar and Decorations

We made our calendar together and it’s great to see how much more Lil’ Z can contribute now than she could last year.  It really is starting to feel like her holiday, not one we’ve prepared for her.  We strung lights and stuck stars around the calendar and ended the night with the recitation of the Qur’an and sound sleep.  A blessed Ramadan to you and yours!

Ramadan Calendar

 

 

 

Review: Sifawy Boutique Hotel in Jebel Sifah

Al Sabla Restaurant at Sifawy Boutique Hotel

In our household, non-religious holidays are not a big deal.  We can easily bypass birthdays and national holidays but one occasion that we do make an effort to celebrate is our wedding anniversary.  June 5th is the day we professed and committed to be a family, in full view of our loved ones and friends.  As each year rolls by, we look back and express gratitude for our past and present life as a union.  Last year, our anniversary weekend incidentally overlapped with a religious holiday and this year it overlapped with a delayed observance of that same holiday.  For our three-day weekend, we found a perfect retreat in Jebel Sifah.

Private Beach

Jebel Sifah is home to a huge development resort about an hour south of Muscat.  A stretch of winding road ascends and descends in both directions, through small villages and mountain valleys.  With the road to Sifah being  mostly unlit, driving is only recommended during daylight hours.  A four-wheel drive vehicle isn’t required but an experienced, careful driver is.  After entering the village of Sifah, an unpaved road leads you to Sifawy Boutique Hotel, adjacent to the Jebel Sifah Marina.  What attracted us to this destination was largely the discounted summer price.  A weekday double room on a half-board basis with a free suite upgrade was a total of 60 OMR or $155 USD.  The same accommodation at this four-star hotel would’ve cost more than double during the high tourist season, without dinner included.

Sifawy Suite

Entering our suite, Lil’ Z was immediately drawn to the inviting bed and couldn’t wait to sleep in it.  After reviewing their “green hotel” policy and examining all of the features, we were thoroughly satisfied with our selection.  The hotel fixtures were sturdy and obviously selected for beauty and longevity.  Quality wood furnishing and soothing hues of purple and green comforted us on arrival.  After enjoying our welcome platter of fresh fruit and herbal teas, we dressed up for dinner that evening.

Sifawy Reception Lounge

The large dining room was empty when we arrived but each table was prepared with candle-lit lanterns and purple drinking glasses.  Our waitress greeted us with a tall bottle of water and our prix fixe dinner menu.  We scanned the options quickly and looked up at each other.  The only included vegan option was Mango Noodle Salad.  Obviously, our meal request upon booking hadn’t been communicated to the kitchen but our able waitress quickly came up with a plan to swap the salad for lentil soup, the chicken or fish entrees for veggie pasta, and the cheesecake dessert for fruit sorbets.  To round out the protein content, we ordered some additional hummus dishes on the side.

Veggie Pasta

After our evening prayers, we turned in for the evening, anxious to get a good night’s rest after the long drive and wake up early for some time on the beach.  Our breakfast buffet was a more veg-friendly affair, with fresh fruit, stewed fava beans, hummus, vegetables, hash browns, breads, teas, and dried fruits and nuts on the spread. We ate well and then hitched a ride on a zero-emission golf cart heading to the sea.

Breakfast at Sifawy Hotel

Beyond the hammocks and thatched roof umbrellas, we stood on a shore of glittering smooth rocks and crystal clear water.  The pull of the tide was felt but not overwhelming.  Without a single fish or crab in sight, we could see the finest particles of sand sparkling like fine glitter in the sea.  We had a contention with the swimming dress code which forbade long swimsuits but with no other guests or enforcement in view, I was determined to enjoy the sea in my modest swim attire.  After more than an hour of swimming and wading, we returned to the shore to dry off and hailed our golf cart back to the main hotel grounds.

Arabian Sea

We returned to our room to clean up and prepare for departure.  Our less than 24-hour stay came to a close but we really couldn’t imagine spending much more than a day or two longer.  Aside from the pool, private beach, and fitness center, there wasn’t much else to see without a cost.  The hotel offers a variety of tour packages for sailing, snorkeling, and day trips.  The cheapest sea activity would’ve been an 8 OMR or $21 USD round trip on their water taxi service from Muscat’s Marina Bandar al-Rowdha.  But that’s only available on weekends when the discounted summer room rate goes up to 70.2 OMR or $182 USD without the option of a free suite upgrade.  Other than these activities, there are plans to make Jebel Sifah a shopping and entertainment destination, neither of which sounds appealing to us.  Regardless, we had an enjoyable weekend getaway and would happily return, as long as the price is right.

Hotel Pool

 

A Ramadan Retrospective

Green Dates

As I prepare to enter my twelfth year of observing Ramadan, I can’t help but revisit my first.  I had recently accepted Islam freely and privately in my attic bedroom.  My fast was just as covert as my conversion.  In a house full of Christian roommates, none were aware of my new faith and the fasting that followed.  One of their boyfriends, a perceptive medical student, realized that I was losing weight but I never shared why.  I sat in the living room, eating my late dinner in their company way beyond sunset.  I was never really sure that the sun slipped beneath the horizon until the sky was dark blue and black.  I hurriedly ate a bowl of cereal upon waking, way after dawn, again confused about the boundaries of time.  It never occurred to me that I could ask someone or search the internet.   I later made up for those deficiencies but in spite of those flaws, I soared on an incredible high for the entire month.  After the puzzling previous years of searching and praying, I was elated to finally be on a path that resonated with me intellectually, socially, and spiritually.  Ramadan was a new beginning for me.

My second Ramadan was more communal.  I befriended a sister, an Afro-Caribbean convert like myself, and we regularly attended the mosque and night prayer vigils together.  We were college students then and ended our day’s fast with iftar dinners at the local mosque.  After starting with the traditional dates and water, we made room for all of the various cultural cuisines at our collective feast.  I vividly remember my first tastes of Nigerian black-eyed pea fritters, and Egyptian stewed fava beans that year.

Starting to Ripen

The speed of life picked up after my college days, blurring the details of the subsequent Ramadans but some trends stand out.  By the third year, I was married and had a fasting partner to wake up for the pre-fasting meal with me.  Beyond meal planning and food, we shared our goals for the blessed month and supported each other in attaining them.  From the sixth Ramadan onward, we had lived in Yemen and Algeria where we experienced an entire society yielding to the blessed month, not just household by household.  By the ninth Ramadan, Lil’ Z was born in Oman and we had to add parenting to the already challenging experience of fasting, introspection, and spiritual striving.  We also tasked ourselves with translating Ramadan into a tangible and memorable experience, adding the festivity and fun that any family tradition should embody.

Each year has its unique demands but Ramadan is a constant in the cycles of our lives.  A rite that seemed so foreign 11 years ago has become a welcomed annual guest in our home.  Even Lil’ Z is counting down the months.  Before its arrival we prepare and plan by slowly starting to clear the clutter in our lives, homes, and schedules.  Then we set goals to worship more, serve more, and be generous.  We aim to be acutely aware and intentional about the use of our time and energy to avoid squandering these precious resources vainly.  In a successful Ramadan we are able to tune out, so we can tune in.  This year, as with every year, we pray that our hearts are awake enough to listen.

Almost Ready

 

 

Finding Community Where You Are

I’m mourning with my community today.  I’m far from the Queens streets of New York City I grew up in or the Kingston neighborhood where my grandparents lived in Jamaica.  I’m in a small town, unknown by most, a little more than an hour inland from Muscat, Oman.  The statistically high incident of traffic accidents here now feels real as the tragedy has hit home.  The young man hurled from a recent collision was my neighbor’s son.
 
Since living abroad I’ve always tried my best to blend in, and today is no different.  I solemnly enter the sorrowful family’s home like another ripple in the sea of flowing black abaya gowns which seem most fitting for a day like today.  Trying to imitate the others, I enter with lowered eyes and lingering handshakes, mumbling salutations and inaudible prayers.  The boundary between family and community is so thin that I greet everyone as if they are the mother of the deceased because, in actuality, everyone feels the loss.  From room to room, I continue the procession wondering who is who in this house full of women.  A familiar face directs me to the matriarch of the family.  She lies in bed, as if ailing from grief.  The sorrow was so thick I couldn’t bear entering the room.  I wasn’t sure about coming here.  I don’t know this household so well.  Yes, I feed their goats my compost and we exchange pleasantries when we see each other, but this was my first time actually entering beyond the tall gate.  Should I have brought something to give them?  What exactly should I say?  I exit their home and assure myself that I did the right thing by coming.  This is my community.  They know I’m not from around here but they’ve grown accustomed to my oddness and so have I.
 
From the time I first moved abroad, I was vigilant, almost obsessive about fitting in.  I was prepared to dress, speak, and behave as the locals do.  I was determined not to cause the slightest blip on the visual or social radar screen.  However, after adopting the dress code and language of another land, I found that I still couldn’t really assimilate.  After my name, I am most-often asked “Where are you from?”  At a distance, my stature and stride set me apart.  My function over fashion sensibilities keep me from wearing cute, heeled sandals in my desert village, and when was the last time you heard of a vegan in Arabia?  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t veil my otherness.  No matter what I said or did, I was still different.
 
Over the years, I’ve come to terms with this myth of “fitting in.”  I stopped apologizing for being strange and cringing when I’m introduced as the American.  I learned to express my views and articulate my lifestyle choices in a way that was comprehensible but not confrontational.  I realized that I can embrace another culture without wholeheartedly adopting it as my own.   No matter how much I imitate, there is still a line drawn in the desert sand but those boundaries, however real or artificial they may be, don’t keep me from having authentic relationships with people and sharing in our commonality.
 

I live in a small town where most of its residents have lived for generations.  They are born, go to school, marry, raise children, age, and die in this very place.  They know where everyone lives along the unmarked pathways and know everyone’s name without a phone directory.  But more important than their deep roots in this neighborhood is their social obligation to one another.  At the announcement of a birth or death, they are celebrating and lamenting with the affected before the story even goes to print.  I used to find this tight knit tapestry of community intrusive but I now see it as inclusive.  Even if only symbolically, every family’s joys and tragedies appear to have the same value, concern, and relevance to all.  Some of my neighbors have more wealth and prestige than others, some are orphaned, divorced, or widowed, some are foreigners, like myself, but none of us seem to be left out, even if we don’t fit in.
 

At this point in my life I realize my home is where I am and my community is where I live.  I’ve negotiated the tango of “give and take” and try to accommodate the culture in which I reside without losing myself in the process.  I’ll continue to accept the dates and turn down the Omani coffee.  I’ll eat with my hands but avoid the meat.  I’ll don the black abaya but opt for a colorful head scarf.  But most importantly, I will rejoice and grieve with my community, even if we don’t always agree.

 This post was originally published at Women of Color Living Abroad.