Hermit crabs by the thousands had set the beach in motion. Not wanting to disrupt their pageant of borrowed splendor, my wife and I retreated far enough above the water line to leave them in peace for the night. The fellow teacher who had recommended camping on Masirah promised us Oman’s characteristic freedom from crime as well as perfect temperatures and need for neither tent nor sleeping bag. The island fulfilled all expectations. I had driven the three hours in silence while Marianne graded exams so that she would have no work to bring to Masirah. Now, as we ate the beef and chicken kebabs we had picked up from the Turkish restaurant in the only town on the island, I could finally tell her about the speaking exams I had given in the morning.
I’d had no chance to talk about the exams on the ferry after a Bedouin family noticed Marianne’s camera and drew us into laborious conversation. The man spoke first, of course, as his wife pressed her mask closer to her face and hurried off. Yet she did not go so far away that she couldn’t hear the three of us laughing, and gradually she warmed to us. When she returned to stand beside her husband, she still wore the distinctive Bedouin mask that covers the upper half of the face, including the nose, and that leaves openings for the eyes. She refused to pose for a photograph, even in her mask. But she got excited when her unmasked teenage daughter wanted to take a picture of Marianne and me. She tore off her mask and put it on Marianne as the two women and the girl—who, speaking much better English than her parents, assured Marianne that she looked beautiful in the mask—all giggled. Then the woman amazed me by taking my arm to wrap around Marianne for the photograph.
We still have the picture. I’m not sure I agree with the girl’s judgment that the mask flatters Marianne, though. She had already covered her hair and shoulders with her own black shawl before the Bedouin woman offered the mask, whose prominent nosepiece evokes, for me, an image of the Big Bad Wolf pretending to be Grandmother. When I study the picture of her careless smile I think, “My, what big teeth you have.”
On the island, Marianne wanted to hear about the speaking exams because once the weekend had passed, on Saturday, she would have to administer the same test to a group of students at the same level. This would be the middle level of the pre-college “Foundation” curriculum, where the elementary English skills of the students put a straitjacket on the possibilities for conversation. So she knew the speaking exams’ speed would mitigate their dullness. But her curiosity took the form of questions about my exam partner, Thuraiya, an Omani woman also scheduled as Marianne’s partner. I told her that we’d had an easy time agreeing on grades and that I had also liked Thuraiya’s willingness to depart from the scripted conversations with students. Both Marianne and I believed we could assess fluency, grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation even if the discussion took an unexpected turn, so we appreciated Thuraiya’s spontaneity.
We had needed something new after hearing from two or three young women students, one after the other, about their objections to the shoulder-baring gown in the photograph of an American bride.
“Yes, yes,” said Thuraiya, a little impatiently. “I understand: you can see that I wear the abaya also. However, I think there is one thing about this wedding that you would like for your own wedding day. You can see how happy this American girl is, Basma. Wouldn’t you like to be just as happy as this when you get married?”
Basma’s hands remained frozen on her shoulders as Thuraiya spoke. Like her classmates before her, she had required more than speech to express her horror at the American bride’s naked shoulders. Her hands sought out her own shoulders as if to give not only reassurance of their covering, but an extra layer of protection against the violence of my penetrating imagination. And then Basma surprised us.
“Oh, I don’t want to get married!”
I spoke quietly and slowly and as calmly as I could, hoping to persuade her that, out of all the things on the planet which might interest me, her shoulders would come in last. I think I succeeded, as I might not have if her shoulders had been bare.
“Thuraiya and I know that you want to finish college. But when you get married after college, don’t you want to be happy like this American girl, even though you will dress very differently?”
“But teacher, I don’t ever want to get married. I don’t like the man.”
Thuraiya and I looked at one another out of the corners of our eyes. This sounded interesting. But it turned out that she meant something else.
“The man too loud, too bad behavior. And here at college she say and write bad words in Arabic. The teacher she don’t know Arabic, so she think is no problem.”
Even while Basma talked, I could hear the avid voices of the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old boys outside the classroom. Then I heard Thuraiya.
“Basma, where are the rest of the girls? This class is made up mainly of girls, but so far Don and I have talked to many more boys. And the girls almost always arrive earlier than the boys do for exams.”
The student shrugged dramatically.
“Yes, Miss, we get here before. But only a few come into the hall with me to wait with the man. I tell the others, but they stay in other room. Is quiet, and no bad words.”
I agreed with Thuraiya that we should take the remaining women students next. I hadn’t finished with Basma, though.
“Won’t your mother and father be disappointed if you never get married?”
She had already thought about this.
“I study hard and own good business. I buy all good things for my father and mother, brothers, sisters, their children. I buy for myself the most beautiful abayas so all the man want me. But she get too close and I pull the veil over my face—even over my eyes. Then she knows she can’t have me!”
Because the imperative to protect the chastity of women students living away from home prevents them from spending as much time outdoors as the boys do, the women tend to have lighter skin. Basma’s headscarf, which alternated black with stripes of banana-peel yellow, called attention to skin as pale as banana flesh. She adjusted the scarf before sweeping into the hall and speaking breezily to the boys as they continued their horseplay. Thuraiya translated for me: “Now you will take your turn.”
After two more women expressed disapproval of the American wedding picture, Thuraiya made the next student wait while she spoke to me.
“Many are not this conservative, you know. I gave speaking exams yesterday to more advanced students and happened to ask one girl what she would like to do when all the exams are done. She said she wants to get on a plane, take off her abaya, put on a T-shirt, and drink a beer.”
“What did you say back to her.”
“I told her that if she intends to wear a T-shirt, then I hope she has a good shape; the abaya hides a multitude of sins, you know.”
I saw a rare opportunity to ask an abaya-wearer what she thought about it. A Mona Lisa smile prefaced her answer.
“I am satisfied to reserve my sins for my husband.”
Hearing nothing as entertaining as Basma’s declaration of independence from marriage, Thuraiya and I began switching pictures after every couple of students. Finally, as we plowed through the last few boys, we started having a good time with a picture of two cars that had just collided. I would ask what drivers could do to prevent accidents and the student would recommend slower driving and no cellphone use. Then Thuraiya would ask whether men or women had more accidents. Our exchange with Sami was typical.
“Men have more accidents, Miss. Many, many more.”
I took the next step in laying the trap.
“Why do you think men have more accidents, Sami?”
He was a handsome boy and he flashed a big smile.
“Men drives too fast, teacher. My sisters, all old than me, drive much slow. I drive fast, fast!”
“Please be careful, Sami. We like you very much, so we don’t want you to get hurt.”
We had Thuraiya—a pretty woman in her early thirties, of the same hue as Basma—say that because we knew the boys would appreciate it. Sami’s grin seemed to grow an inch. I had the next line.
“If your arm was broken but you had to go on a long journey, would you rather have me drive you, or Ms. Thuraiya? Would you rather have a man or a woman driver, Sami?”
He didn’t pause to think, which might have led him to draw the inescapable conclusion from the argument he had just made.
“I want the man to drive,” he shot back, “because the woman get too scared.”
The answer delighted us every time we heard it.
“They believe men are better at everything,” Thuraiya explained, “so logic plays no part in what they say.”
The last boy who wanted a brave man to drive him was Omar, whom I’d looked forward to interviewing. He had helped lead the student protests that closed the college for a full week in March, shortly before Marianne and I arrived. One particular request by the protesters fascinated me.
“When you demanded changes at the college,” I asked, “why did you say you wanted a taller dean, Omar?”
“Yes, Dean Ali very short.”
He was right; I had met Dean Ali.
“I know the dean is short. But why is that a problem, Omar?”
He looked confused, so Thuraiya tried.
“Why do you want the dean to be taller? Why is a short dean not good?”
Now he understood.
“Dean need power, so he need to be tall.”
It was my turn to look confused.
“Driver need power and bravery, so the man is better driver. Dean is in charge of school, like car driver. So the dean he need same power.”
The student could see he had not dispelled my confusion. But he had reached the limit of his ability to communicate in English, so Thuraiya came to his rescue.
“You mean that a short dean is weak, like a woman. You don’t want a woman driver and you don’t want a woman or a weak man to be the dean, do you, Omar?”
Relief lit up his face.
“Yes, Miss, thank you!”
Turning toward me and drawing her veil over the side of her face that Omar would have seen in profile, Thuraiya suppressed her laughter.—Don Stoll