Thursday, October 1, 2009

21st Century Slavery

For most people in the western world the word slavery conjures images of centuries ago. Black Africans were captured and involuntarily transported to the new world, chained and forced to work without wages or the possibility of freedom. Fortunately this situation has been consigned to the past for the last 121 years (Brazil being the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery in 1888).
Here in Oman, slavery was only outlawed 39 years ago – well within living memory. When the current Sultan overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1970, many things changed for the better, and Oman was brought out of self-imposed isolation. One of the great steps towards modernisation was to make it illegal for people to be the possessions of other people. There was a sizeable population of people descended from Zanzibaris, a former African colony of Oman. These people were freed and made Omani citizens.

However, it seems that this only served to drive slavery underground. In Oman, and elsewhere in the Middle East, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of people living in a situation very similar to slavery. Over the Eid al-Fitur holiday I met the Filipina housemaid of a supposedly wealthy Omani family. Although the father of the household did everything to stop her from talking to me, she got a message to me that she was mistreated there and badly wanted to leave. Although she had taken the job of her own free will, the working conditions quickly became something that she had not volunteered for:

Lidena (name changed), has been made to work from the time she wakes until she goes to bed at night, sometimes getting as little as 2 or 3 hours sleep; her contractual rate was 60 Omani Rials per month (roughly US$150), but her “employer” frequently refuses to pay her; she is often verbally (though not physically) abused; during the month of Ramadhan she was forced to fast, even though she is not Muslim, and she was still expected to work in 42 degree heat; she is not allowed to leave the household compound, even to go to the supermarket and her door is locked from the outside at night-time; she is not allowed to speak to anyone from outside the family, and finally; her passport was taken from her when she started there, and not returned. In short, this is slavery in everything but name.

The problem is that in most GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, the government does not do anything for, and does not seem to want to know about, people like Lidena. In fact, they make it difficult for her to get another job if she was to leave (ie/ escape) before the end of her contract. Apparently forced labour is common in this part of the world, which depends so heavily on migrant workers. They are promised well paying jobs with good work conditions, but when they arrive in the country they find the reality very different, and the law does little to protect them.

Lidena is contracted to work until July 2011. If she sees out her contract, she will have worked roughly 10,795 hours before then and will theoretically earn as much as US$3,275. In reality, her “employer” pays her less and less often and she is unlikely to see a fraction of that.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Driving in Oman

Before even arriving in Oman I was told two things about driving in this country. I was told that I would need a car to do anything and that Oman is not a very safe place to drive. After being in the country for around a month now, I can affirm that both of those things are very true.

Given that I want to go off-roading as much as possible, and with a little arm-twisting from a friend here in Rustaq, I bought myself a 1996 Landrover Discovery. It doesn't have the fuel economy that I would like, but it's great for off-roading (4WD, diff-lock and loads of power). The really cool thing about this particular car is who it used to belong to. Apparently only the republican guard or Diwan (pronounced D1) is allowed to have their car this khaki-green colour. The guy I bought the car from was in the Diwan. So at some point I may be told by the police that I need to paint the car a different colour. Until then though, it's interesting watching the reaction of the locals when they see a white guy behind the wheel. Most of the time a wave and a smile is quickly reciprocated. It also helps when you want to be let into traffic, and I often leave the windows down and the car unlocked when I go shopping. Noone will mess with a car that belongs to the royal guard.

There really is very little car-related crime here in Rustaq. Noone would think of breaking into a car to steal something, much less stealing the whole car. In some rough parts of Muscat apparently you shouldn't leave anything valuable in sight in your car, but otherwise its pretty safe. There are however, two interesting offenses here which you might find interesting. The first one is that you can be fined for having a dirty car. Apparently it will cost 10 Omani Rials (about US$26) if the police feel that your car needs a wash. This one is not really policed very strongly here in Rustaq though. Since a storm last week my car has been quite dirty and so far no fine.

More importantly, it is illegal to verbally abuse or rudely gesticulate at someone in Oman. This includes shouting rude words, fist-shaking or giving someone “the bird”. Punishment means time in jail, and it is taken quite seriously. So, no matter how bad the driving is, the reaction should always be a polite wave and a smile (perhaps with a tense jaw).

Having a car that only gets 5-7 km to a litre of petrol (absurd I know) is that petrol here is ridiculously cheap. I normally put in around 60 litres at a time, which costs around 8.5 Rials (around US$22).

Driving here is not as bad as I had expected, though the fact that most Omanis have only been driving for one generation and the roads are mostly (though not always) straight as wide, means that they drive a little too fast and sometimes make unpredictable moves. Much more worrying is driving here at night. Many roads (for example the coastal road between Muscat and Dubai) are divided dual-carriageways with streetlights all the way. However, other roads (such as the road between Rustaq and the coast) are single-lane and traffic going in opposite directions are side-by-side (like most NZ roads). These roads are often unmarked by reflecting road markers, either in the centre strip or by the road side. To make it even more interesting, traffic coming in the opposite direction often don't dip their headlights, so all you can see is their headlights and absolutely nothing of the road in front of you.

So my advice to anyone driving here in Oman is: 1. don't worry about the cars behind you, just worry about the ones ahead of you; 2. don't feel you have to tailgate like most people here do. Give them some distance, and; 3. when you are driving at night, go slow, aim to the right of oncoming cars and if you flash your headlights, it encourages people to dip theirs.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Ramadan in Rustaq

All over the world at present, Muslims are observing the holy month of Ramadan. For teachers in New Zealand and other western countries this means tired and often absent students, and occasionally objections to playing music in the classroom. The holy month here in Oman completely changes everything.

Ramadan is a time when Muslims contemplate their behaviour, their relationship with God and with the rest of their community. They abstain from food, water, cigarettes and sex (and ideally negative thoughts and behaviour) during daylight hours. This is to appreciate the position of those who have nothing in life and puts the richest person on the same footing as the poorest (at least from dawn to dusk). Charity is also encouraged during the holy month.

The most important thing to remember is that during Ramadan here it is illegal to eat or drink in public during the daylight hours. Non-muslims are not required to fast, but they can only consume behind closed doors. This means that all restaurants are closed during the day, and that, even in 40 degree heat, you cannot take a swig of water in public. Imagine being arrested for drinking water!!

At around 6:30pm the call echoes around the neighbourhood for the Maghreb prayer and the fast is broken (Iftar). Usually the call only comes from the local mosque, but I’m sure that I’ve heard regular people making the call themselves with a loud-speaker here in Rustaq.

Another aspect of life during Ramadan is that shops and businesses have very irregular hours. The college where I work has shortened the day from eight hours to six, finishing at 2 o’clock instead of 4. However, every place has different hours. At the biggest supermarket in town, most of it is closed only from 6:30 to 8:30pm (just for Iftar) but the appliance section closes at 1:30, then reopens at 8pm. So everything is already difficult to get done, but tired and hungry workers make things even tougher. Getting anything achieved at the police station (where you get issued a national ID card and driver’s licence) is a battle of the wills.

Although for non-Muslims it is difficult and inconvenient, there are some nice moments too. A few weeks ago a taxi-driver took myself and some others on a detour to visit a tourist site, waited while we took photos and looked around, then dropped us back home and refused to take any payment for it. Ramadan Kareem (“A generous Ramadan”).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

First week in Rustaq

Well after a week in Rustaq I have finally shaken the feeling that I am living on the moon. All of the mountains around the city are bare rock. The heat is so overpowering that it feels like a physical force pressing on you from all sides, but even in this heat you are strongly advised to wear trousers and T-shirts at a minimum (although women are not obliged to cover their hair and many western teachers don't). The locals either pretend not to see you or stare at you openly.

The first few days here were in the only hotel in town, called Al-Shimookh Guesthouse. It was a reasonable place to stay for someone who is used to backpackers, but at around US$50 a night it wasn't cheap (the college only pays for the first three nights). There was free Arabic coffee and dates in the lobby and a receptionist whose grasp of English was quite shaky, but could usually get the message across. Mostly her fillers were “in the” and “with you”. While thinking of the next word to say, she would use one of those phrases to give herself time to think. Example: “Your friend, in the he in the go in the hybermarket. You with you stay in the room, in the hotel, in the he with you coming in the here.” Hand gestures make it easier also.

At this point I should introduce the other new teachers who arrived with me: David, also from New Zealand, now 60 years old, with a great deal of teaching experience in five or six countries; Angela, also around a generation older than myself, from Australia (though she grew up in London and has a very correct English accent), and; Senthil (pronounced Sindal) from Bangalore in India, around my age, who is, from what we can tell, the entire new IT teaching department. We met each other in the hotel and have struggled through the first few days together.

Things acheieved so far:
1. Finding an apartment;
2. Buying air-conditioning (the most important);
3. Partly furnishing the apartments;
4. Getting an Omani residency card and;
5. Learning how much taxi fares cost ao the driver don't rip me off too much.

Next things to sort out:
- More furniture (I'm writing this from the 5cm squab that I sleep on);
- An Omani drivers licence;
- A car
- Finding out what we will be teaching next week (would be nice).
- Sanity trip back to Muscat.

By the way, friends of mine who are following this blog from NZ, Brazil, Mexico, France or elsewhere in the world: I have rented a three bedroom apartment, soon to be fully equipped with furniture: you are welcome to visit whenever you like. You will have a place to stay. I would recommend coming after September so that you avoid Ramadhan (First day of Ramadhan today - topic of the next blog I think) and also the worst of the heat has passed by then apparently.

PS This blog is also around a week old. Now back on track and ready to update regularly.

Stopover In Kuala Lumpur

Well, I managed to organise a short four day stay in Kuala Lumpur on my way to Oman. To be honest, the first two days were pretty heavy. Going from 15 degree highs in New Zealand to 25 degrees at night was a shock to the system. The high humidity and the lack of proper links between metro lines made it really difficult to get around comfortably. However, after a few days the body adjusted and, provided you take it easy and not try to rush around like mad, the weather is really pretty nice. The daily rainstorm also helped a lot. Anyone who has been to Belo Horizonte (Brazil) in the summertime – its just like that.

The highlights were the KL tower, with an awesome 360* view of the city (despite the low visibility), Batu caves (photos of both of which you can see below), and the frequent interesting exchanges with vendors and other assorted locals.
I was quite stunned with the English of locals and immigrant workers in Kuala Lumpur. The official language is Bahasa Malayo, but almost everyone speaks English to some degree. Only one person in the four days I was there could not handle basic conversation (and that was in a roadside restaurant miles from the tourist centre). Now communication English is nothing like what I have been teaching at university. Some of the conversations were so funny (to me as an English Language Teacher) that I have to write some out here.

Quote #1: About the availability of sandals in my size:
“Size 8 don't have, lah. Also size 7 is don't have.”
Quote #2: Giving directions to the KL tower:
“This way, you go is can. Also, this way is can.”

There were long conversations like this in perfectly understandable and completely scrambled English. I loved it. I wouldn't like to be the teacher responsible for ironing that out, but it was so fun to listen to.

Then for the last two days I spent a most of my time sitting in the lobby of the guesthouse (lobby is glamorising it really – it was a desk at the top of the staircase – see photo). No going out in the midday sun. I passed hours chatting to the staff and other guests without hardly moving from my position on the plastic chair under one of the fans. Back in New Zealand I could hardly sit still for five minutes, but its amazing how compelling 34 degrees and 80* humidity can be. And honestly, it was so much fun. I met some cool, and strange people, learnt a handful of phrases in as many languages, and laughed my ass off on an hourly basis. On the day I left some of them tried to convince me to change my tickets and it was really hard telling them I couldn't. Honestly, KL is not a tourist mecca, but if you can handle a bit of heat and like taking it easy, it's a nice place to go. I'll happily go back next time I'm in Asia. I hope you enjoy the photos.

P.S. I write this blog about two weeks ago, but couldn't upload it until today. Sorry for the delay.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Omani Time

All of the Omanis that I have met to this point have been wonderful, generous and genuinely nice people, bless them all. However, since applying for work with them I have discovered one previously unknown side to their character. When it comes to work, contracts, etc, they are much more casual than your average westerner. This I have come to learn over the last six months without ever setting foot in the country.

I was first tipped off to this rather carefree attitude when I was asked to go to the interview in Melbourne, Australia. The lovely woman who arranged the interview couldn't tell me anything about the job, but told me that I would be reimbursed for travel costs and her instructions for getting from the airport to the embassy were, literally, "the address of the embassy is at the bottom of this email. Go there". Hmmm.

Now for the last five months I have been assured by my polite and friendly contact in Oman that everything is being organised to fly me to Oman to begin work there. I have not seen a contract as yet. People who know Arab culture better than me assure me that this is to be expected, since they expect to be taken at their word and the contract will be sorted when I arrive in Oman. Great. I have also been waiting for tickets from New Zealand to Oman. The same pleasant man in Oman has been making similar promises for roughly three months. I am now about three weeks from the date of departure. But, insha'allah, they will be sent to me tomorrow by email.

I am honestly expecting to enjoy myself while I am in Oman, when I get there (insha'allah, hehehe). I also think that their way of getting things done is going to be the biggest difficulty for me. From what I can tell so far, their casual approach to work beats even the French (whom I had previously thought unbeatable). The biggest difference is that the Omanis are so much more pleasant when they are telling you to try again tomorrow.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Leaving Christchurch

After years of thinking about moving to the middle east, I am finally on my way. Having left my safe, secure, cantabrian version of groundhog day I now head off to Oman with only the promise of a job - no contract, not even the airline tickets that they are promising to send. But the time has arrived to just cross my fingers and go.

Things I have done to prepare myself for the trip:
- learnt some Arabic (at least enough to read roadsigns and ask where the market is).
- read the LonelyPlanet guidebook to Oman roughly 1000 times. All I really got was: the people are very nice and airconditioning is very important.
- kept the emails of most of the Omanis I have taught over the last 6 years. I wish I had managed not to lose the rest - every Omani I have met so far has been wonderful.
- bought a copy of the Qur'an - ha ha, no really. I read about three pages and stopped - From what I could tell its pretty much like the bible only the main character is different.
- learnt about Arab customs. Using the word Allah a lot is good - it means you are pious even if you are cussing someone out. Unlike saying God a lot in English, which means you are a blasphemer, unless you are saying grace or in a church. Also learnt that you shouldn't use your left hand for doing many things, except washing your bum - hence the reason for not using it for much else.

Things that I will miss about living in Christchurch:
- seeing the changing of all four seasons. Actually I'm tired of Winter already, but Spring, Summer and Autumn here are awesome.
- New Zealand scenery. Kiwis never get sick of reminding everyone that "Lord of the Rings was filmed there" but honestly, it is pretty spectacular.
- golf probably. Last weekend I played with three guys my age. One was a painter, another worked in a tannery and the last one was, I think, a teacher like me. We spent the whole round (about 5 hours) in the cold wind trying to put each other off their game. We all played terrible golf, and we all had a great time.

Things that I will not miss about living in Christchurch:
- winter. Cold in general. Being 1m83 and about 70kg, I am designed to lose heat, not retain it (46 degrees might test me though).
- teaching students who are in the country because their families don't know what else to do with them. Realising that the ones on scholarships probably get paid more to fake being sick, stay in bed and play Xbox than I do to drag myself out of bed at 6:30 in the morning and cycle through the dark in subzero temperatures to teach the students who managed to show up that day.

To my ex-colleagues and ex-students: all the best for your future, whatever it may hold. I really did enjoy my time there. Take care, and be nice to each other.

Overall not a bad start to the blog I thought. Feel free to leave comments / questions / ideas / random abuse, and I'll try to keep up with them. If I haven't written anything for a while, please send an email, because I'm sure I will forget sometimes.