“Shotgun!” I shout – needlessly, there’s only two of us – sprinting towards my friend Ghassan’s sky blue 2008 Toyota Yaris sedan. The mid-July heat is mercilessly radiating off the asphalt, threatening to turn my cheeks into bacon, as I bend down to inspect the front wheel, the dent on the rim still there. It’s the mark of when, years ago, we almost became the paint on the walls of a construction site after an ill-advised handbrake turn. A last-ditch yank of the steering wheel saved us – Qurum Drift, we christened it. I can’t help but laugh, recalling our foolishness, giving the hood of the Yaris an affectionate pat before taking my seat.
We pull into the garage of a house on the outskirts of Muscat, where Ghassan’s brother and cousin – Sultan and Sultan – are waiting. Ghassan tells me that a certain Donald Rumsfeld will be joining us for the Eid al-Fitr festivities (the Islamic holiday that follows the Holy Month of Ramadan) at his uncle’s newly built, dune-side villa on the edge of the Sharqiyah Sands, three hours away. But as guest of honor, Mr. Rumsfeld isn’t too keen on attending, and promptly lands a powerful, lip-splitting headbutt on Ghassan’s chin. Using our numerical advantage to weather the onslaught of kicks and blows, we manage to bundle him, bleating in protest, into the back of the car, and begin the drive south.
The imposing, grey, big-windowed concrete slab of a villa proves quite a contrast to the sea of orange sand dunes stretching beyond the horizon. It’s difficult to decide which of us is more out of place: this villa that has no business being here, or me, the white expat who, a month shy of 14 years of living in Oman, had only begun learning Arabic 10 months earlier at university (in France!). Even more embarrassingly, I had never actually made the effort to embrace – or even experience in a non-superficial way – the culture of my “home”.
That all changes the next morning, when the life leaves the body of Mr. Rumsfeld with a shudder as I pin him down and Sultan (the brother) slits his throat.
I may be only a three-hour drive from Muscat, but this is definitely uncharted territory.
It isn’t so much the fact that I’ve just helped slaughter a goat, not-so-affectionately named Mr. Rumsfeld, but that in helping turn him into a delicious stew – the main course of the Eid al-Fitr meal – I’m taking a central role in the sacred ceremony of a religion that isn’t my own. With it, I’m finally transcending the voluntary and reciprocal segregation with Omanis and their culture.
The country has been my home since my sixth birthday, but only in the physical sense. Sheltered in my expat bubble, Oman was, until now, merely the place I happened to find myself living in, a friends-with-benefits arrangement conditioned on the price of Brent Crude Oil on the New York Stock Exchange.
The rest of the day sees me commuting between our impromptu butcher’s stall in the yard, the kitchen, and the living room, doing my part in the dinner preparations and conversing with various members of the Al Hajri family. Displaying the fruit of my 10 months of Arabic lessons, I even have one cousin convinced that I’m Lebanese. As night falls, the table is covered in bowls of steaming rice laden with raisins, a rich array of spices and tender, succulent chunks of goat meat cooked to perfection. Without any urging from my hosts, I ignore the knife and fork laid out for my convenience and jump at the opportunity to feast the Omani way – balling up balls of rice and meat with my right hand, free from the unnecessary complication of Western utensils.
“I swear you are more bedu [bedouin] than we are,” laughs Ghassan.
By the end of the dinner, it’s still me, rather than the half-painted villa, that’s more out of place in this quaint corner of the Arabian desert. Yet this has been a victory on two fronts; after 14 long years, I’ve finally had an authentic experience with Omani culture.
Clad in my SZIGET Festival t-shirt, advertising the debauchery of another culture a world away, and with skin and hair various shades lighter than that of the rest of my dishdasha and abaya-wearing company, by the end of the dinner, it’s still me, rather than the half-painted villa, that’s more out of place in this quaint corner of the Arabian desert. Yet this has been a victory on two fronts; after 14 long years, I’ve finally had an authentic experience with Omani culture, through which the ice with Ghassan’s family has likewise finally been broken.
Though he’s been one of my best friends for almost half a decade, there was always a palpable, if largely unspoken, tension between his relatives and me, who perceived me (in rare cases justifiably) as a corrupting Western influence. The unlikely encounter with Mr. Rumsfeld helped me change that – the irony of his namesakes’ destructive legacy on this part of the word not lost on me.
As the Yaris turns onto the potholed dirt road to the highway the next morning, I roll down the window and watch the half-painted walls of Saif’s dune-side villa recede into the distance. I’m filled with pride as I recall my host’s declaration during dinner:
“From now on, Máté, you are an honorary Hajri!”
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