During my five years in the Sultanate, I tried to win the hearts and minds of the Omanis with my exemplary driving — always using my turn indicators, maintaining lane discipline, stopping at stop signs, etc. It resulted in drivers speeding up behind me when I signaled, so I wouldn’t momentarily be in front of them as I attempted to pass the alfalfa or camel farmer with no particular place to go except in my way. Using turn indicator lights is actually considered a sign of weakness, and is reserved for those who need to be mindful of others.
Hazard lights, on the other hand, are very useful and should be used under any provocation — raindrops, a wedding procession, a heard of goats crossing the road, Oman winning a football match, etc. And if someone is tailgating you, just turn on the hazards and they’ll more than likely back off because they think you’re having car trouble.
This is not only an Omani peculiarity, but an Arab one in general. In Saudi Arabia, for example, when you fill up your car with petrol, they’ll actually give you a complimentary box of tissues. Small wonder you’ll spot them on the dashboards of cars all over the Middle East, usually in a baroque-style tissue box holder. Napkins just haven’t caught on the way tissues have. If you ask for a napkin in a restaurant, expect puzzled looks.
In Arab terms, the world is your parking lot. You can park on the on-and-off ramps to the freeway, actually on the freeway, and on roundabouts too (a very popular cop hangout). If your parking job happens to block a lane of traffic, malesh — traffic can go around you.
The opportune time to witness double and triple parking mayhem is during Friday prayers. Inside the mosque, everyone is lined up in neat orderly rows. Outside, however, the parking lot and surrounding streets and even the sidewalks are in complete chaos.
The idea is to bring God into each and everything you do, all the time. Life has already been written, and the will of Allah is all. And since it is, that conveniently provides wiggle room if you aren’t really that keen on going to your student Abdullah’s cousin’s sister’s wedding anyway. Just tag on an Inshallah after anything you say (including things that are actually happening at the moment), and you’ll not only appear religious and cultured, but you’ll simultaneously create a way out for yourself that your interlocutor is perfectly aware of.
Inshallah is a get-out-of-whatever-free-card, with an embedded duality characteristic of life in the Arab world — saying one thing, and meaning another.
The newer your car is, the better and the more prestigious you will appear. One way to show the world your new Nissan Patrol is still spanking new is to leave the just-from-the-dealer plastic on the seats as long as possible. The only problem is that the window tint has to be light enough for everyone to see that you’re sporting the plastic on the seats. The darker the tint on the windows, the more mysterious you are, but then how are you going to show the world your car is still new with the plastic on the seats if they can’t see in? This is indeed a dilemma.
This all-encompassing chunk is most often employed by Omani taxi drivers to ‘show off’ their English with the hope of coaxing unsuspecting expats into their cab so they can charge exorbitant fees. As taxis are completely unregulated in Oman — except that you must be Omani, wear a dishdasha (a floor-length shirt-dress for men) and paint your car orange and white — the taxi drivers charge whatever they think they can get away with.
When given the choice, most Omanis prefer to eat with their right hand from a communal plate, rather than with a fork or spoon from their own plate. The germs on their hands are actually good for the body, they claim, and the more hands and germs in the plate, the better. Just don’t ask why they wash their hands before they eat, if this is the case.
In a benign dictatorship such as Oman, change in governmental procedures can happen overnight. Those decisions come from Muscat, the capital and the seat of power in the Sultanate. Questioning why something has suddenly changed is tantamount to heresy and treason combined. It will often be responded to with tongue tisking and interjections of Haram, meaning “forbidden” or “shame” depending on the context. In this context, it actually means both.
After so much tongue tisking and Haram!s being thrown at you, you’ll come to realize asking “Why?” is an exercise in futility. Like any other culture, Omanis are taught that their way is the correct way of living and since it is, there’s no reason to question it.
The novelty of seeing men in white dresses, or dishdasha, has worn off. You are now a discerning member of the GCC fashion police. You can tell an Omani, Kuwaiti, and Bahraini from a Qatari, Emirati or Saudi with just a glance at their kandura (what they call a dishdasha in the rest of the Persian Gulf countries). The difference between a kumma and a mussar is as obvious to you as the difference between anabbeya and a shayla — i.e., there is none.
Okay, you still do, but you don’t giggle about it anymore. Oman is progressive in that it is one of the only countries in the Khaleej that has government-sponsored coeducational colleges. Nevertheless, for the sake of propriety, males and female have designated hallways or “passages” so as to minimize contact with the opposite sex. Just remember, boys in girl passages are strictly haram until marriage.
Glossed broadly as “influence” or “clout,” wasta is a cultural phenomenon that pervades every aspect of life in the Middle East. Like most Arabs, Omanis are obsessed with it. They call it “Vitamin Wow” because that’s the effect it has on people. Just as vitamins are essential for daily living, so is wasta for life in Arabic countries.
If you’re not qualified for a job but your uncle has a friend in HR at Nawras, for example, the job won’t go to the most qualified, it’ll go to the one with the most wasta — you. And if you can’t be bothered to wait in line for a driver’s license, a doctor’s appointment, or a court date, just flex your wasta and watch how quickly doors open and exceptions to the rules are made. Most will admit it’s a scourge, but clamor for more nonetheless.
Tisking is when you stick the tip of your tongue on the alveolar ridge (the place where the hard palate meets the teeth) and with the help of some tongue suction, you make a clicking kind of noise while shaking your head. Omani men and women frequently tisk to show disapproval and/or displeasure. It’s used to curb haram behavior through public shaming — that the actors in the films are not paying attention is of little consequence. Shaming someone (even disembodied actors in a film) raises your status by default. And Omanis, like most Arabs, love status.