My wife often expresses her gratitude for me–she’s easy to please. Yet as we walk Sur’s nighttime streets, where one rarely sees a woman, she says she has never appreciated me so much before. Only the less conservative Omani women seem to go out at night. On the beach last evening we saw half a dozen or more with their faces uncovered, chatting and sharing a meal while their children played and tried out their English on two American strangers. This afternoon in the supermarket most of the women had their black veils drawn across their faces. And the modern supermarket, we realize once we stop in again well after dark, constitutes a different kind of social space from the crowded souk with its countless small shops, many of them the size of a kiosk and the temperature and humidity of a sauna. The old souk belongs to the men, but not the supermarket, where even at night we share the aisles with women draped in black from head to toe.
Although March still has a few days remaining, the heavy nighttime air should probably discourage us from walking as much as we do. But, driven by curiosity, we turn right, rather than left toward our apartment, when we leave the supermarket. It is nearly eleven o’clock and we have arranged to meet a taxi at eight in the morning. Yet since we can’t get enough of Sur, we choose a long, looping route home in order to study more of the Omanis’ houses. They are all painted either dazzling white, like a movie star’s teeth, or a soft earth tone to absorb a minimum of the sun’s heat. Each house is crowned by the level roof that has no need to shed rain and that can serve as a deck in the relative cool of the evening.
No flat roofs cover the protesters whose tent city we pass, set up on a hard dirt lot adjacent to a complex of government buildings, distinguished by their green, white, and red Omani flags stirred from time to time by a welcome breeze. An Omani taxi driver–Jamal, the same one who will take us to the beach in the morning–explained the protesters to us during the day. He said they are unhappy with Oman’s job shortage and rising prices. Hearing about a job shortage made immediate sense to us because we had earlier caught lifts in two other cabs driven by Omanis. In January and February in Dubai and Sharjah we met only Indian and Pakistani cab drivers; no citizen of the wealthy Emirates would have dreamt of driving a taxi. But Jamal, who has hunted in vain for accounting work for two years since he earned his certificate, considers himself lucky to have a job.
He may or may not have interpreted the protesters’ desires in a way that would satisfy them. Their signs call for an end to repression, injustice, and racism. But does this demand, written in English, indicate not so much authentic concern about racism as a wish to catch the eye of whatever thin slice of the international press happens to find itself in an obscure Omani city?
The record of encounters between different races, whose unreality biologists have tried and failed to sell, goes way back in Oman. This little coastal sultanate once reaped huge profits from the East African slave trade run out of the main island of Zanzibar, now Tanzania’s most heavily Muslim district. The traders chained men, women, and children from the interior of Africa to one another inside a narrow holding cell which sat mostly underground. Air and light came in through a ground-level aperture facing the Indian Ocean, over which the slaves would travel north to their new lives, or deaths. Because the traders held their merchandise conveniently close to the market, and because the market operated conveniently close to the docks, a storm or high tide could bring warm sea water flooding into the cell.
Studying the slave trade and recognizing that it ended long ago is one way to try to make sense of the biological fantasy of race which remains a social reality. The protesters’ assertion of an enduring link between race and injustice is another way. And one more way to try to make sense of the biological fantasy of race is to treat biology itself as a fantasy by whiting out one’s race, like some of the black clerks in the modern supermarket who apply a thick pale coating to their faces, except for their hands the only parts of their bodies which they show to the world.–Don Stoll