Greetings from Oman, assalamu aleykum. Kayfa halek, how are you? Zayn, zayn, alhamdulillah. I am well, praise God. Shu ahbarekh? What are the news? Kayfa hosh wa bosh? Bi hayr, alhamdulillah. How are your goats and cows? They are well, praise God.
My Arabic teacher taught me that in Oman, it is polite to ask at least three questions asking how the other person is doing before continuing with the conversation. After exchanging pleasantries, it would also appear rude not to invite even a complete stranger to join you at your coffee table. It is OK to decline the invitation politely, but hospitality must be extended nonetheless. This is but one example of the openness and warmth of Oman and its people. Coming from a culture where strangers can be met with a degree of suspicion and distance, I have at times felt overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people I’ve encountered here.
I travelled to Oman at a very special time in its history. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said passed away a week after I had arrived in the country after ruling the country for nearly 50 years, and a mourning period of 40 days is still ongoing. Sultan Qaboos was the main architect of Oman’s Renaissance, during which the nation rose to the ranks of the most developed in the world, while maintaining peaceful relations with all of its neighbours and the rest of the world. I was fortunate enough to have a personal connection with the late Sultan – he was a passionate sailor and granted scholarships for sailing students to participate in the Tall Ships Races, a sailing event which takes place every four years in the Baltic Sea. As one such student, I was able to sail from Finland to Denmark not once, but twice, all thanks to Sultan Qaboos. For that, I am forever grateful to him and saddened by not getting the chance to thank him in person.
I’ve now worked at Al Amana Centre as a volunteer for almost a month. Four weeks is hardly long enough to get to but scratch the surface of a new country and its culture, but I feel fortunate having done my scratching with claws provided by the Centre. After my first two days in the country, I had already visited the magnificent Grand Mosque, seen one of Oman’s most beautiful beaches and gone on a deep-sea fishing trip. By two weeks, I had tip-toed along the edges Oman’s own Grand Canyon and slept in a desert camp after watching the sun set over dunes that glowed like embers. I got to delve into the depths of Hazim Castle, where imams of old would commune with the djinn, the spirits that still inhabit the wilderness.
However, what has struck me most is the promise of interfaith dialogue and the mission of Al Amana Centre. In a world where easy solutions are too often applied to solve difficult and complex dilemmas, the notion of dialogue over debate usually goes overlooked. The Centre provides a safe space to encounter people of different faiths and backgrounds and to engage in dialogue with them, breaking stereotypes and creating relationships.
A group of students from Calvin University in Michigan spent two weeks at the Centre as part of a cultural immersion program that allowed them to ask questions freely about Islam and Omani culture and to meet and befriend both Omanis and expatriates who have moved to Oman from other countries. At the end of their time here, the most common answer to the question of “what did you learn?” was that a concrete change in worldview had occurred as a result of leaving one’s own context and adopting new information that challenged existing notions of what it means to be a Muslim, for example. Many students remarked that they would have to rethink their own faith as a result of their time at the Centre. On top of that, we had a great time with them, eating goat and rice with our bare hands while sitting on the floor and swimming through turquoise wadis, springs that well up from the mountains.
As I eat more goat and drink more tea on Kashmiri carpets, I hope to learn to listen more instead of talking. There is so much we can learn from each other, if we take the time to stop and invite them to our table, to ask them three times how they are doing, and to hear what they have to tell us.
Written by Kaarlo Kallio, student at University of Helsinki and volunteer at Al Amana Centre