Since Marianne and I returned from Oman at the beginning of the month, we have focused on our work for Karimu and on preparing for the next Karimu trip to Tanzania–now just nine days away–about which I’ll publish an update before we leave. So I have taken a while to assemble my last notes from Oman, which follow below:
The goat using the roof of our car as a footstool seemed indifferent to any trouble the rental agency might give us; she cared only about the fruit on which she feasted. Figuring she had already done her damage, Marianne and I let her finish while Mina laughed at our courtesy.
“Maybe Americans like animals a little too much,” she finally said. “In Dubai I sometimes chatted with an American businessman who walked his dog in my neighborhood. He was a Republican who had paid a king’s ransom for the animal and brought it all the way from Tennessee. Its name was Ronald—for Reagan, of course!”
If not the politics, I could at least appreciate the sentiment.
“We have a dog back in California that I named Obama.”
The three of us came close enough to the goat to touch it while Mustafa and Khadija lingered behind. Khadija frowned and her lips curled with the disdain that she had insisted she felt for all animals. Strong passions also distinguished Mustafa, who claimed to share his wife’s contempt for animals. But we had touched on politics.
“If I get a dog, I will name it Sharon—or Netanyahu!”
Mustafa’s devotion to the cause of the Palestinians, rooted in personal experience and fueled by hatred of Israel and Israelis, concerned us because we never knew how far it lay from his mind. I worried that Palestine was already a lost cause and therefore likely to attract purported solutions whose irrationality could only magnify the scope of defeat. Anger at the conduct of the nation-state of Israel, pointlessly recycled until it sought a new target in “the Jews,” could accomplish no political goal and only coarsen personal experience. Marianne and I didn’t want to see this form of self-destruction visited on a man we loved for his tenderness to his wife and children and even to the previously anonymous courtyard of his apartment building, now transfigured by his garden and fountain. Khadija, sensing our concern, would anticipate Mustafa’s outbursts and try to channel him toward his productive passions.
The night after Marianne and I toured the sea turtle reserve at Ras al-Jinz, his eyes became huge, the way they also did whenever he strained to understand something new, like an unfamiliar English word or American custom. The slight but constant oscillation of his irises suggested eagerness to collect information as it arrived from every possible angle.
“The small turtles tend to be shy,” I told them, “but sometimes you can swim right next to the big ones. They’re not afraid, so you can get within three or four feet.”
“But I have to learn how to swim first. You don’t think I’m too old?”
Marianne, who loves the water, was incredulous. “You don’t swim?”
“It’s hard to swim in Jordan. We have very little water.”
Khadija chewed her lower lip as her eyes jumped anxiously back and forth between her husband and Marianne. I had seen him get angry once before as he talked about Israel’s management of water flow to the Palestinians. Now the news emerging from a meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, which sounded inauspicious for the Palestinians, had put him on edge. I think Khadija worried that we would have to listen again to the same speech about water, so she tried to divert him with humor.
“Do you want to see my Islamic bathing suit?”
She stood and, spreading wide her fully-covered arms, slowly turned first in a circle to her left and then in a circle to her right. The skirt of her abaya lifted just enough to reveal the cuffs of her pale linen slacks and her stiletto heels, which were turquoise like her eyes.
“So you don’t swim, either?” Marianne asked.
“When I take shower, that’s enough water for me.”
Marianne had another question: “Do you cover more here because the Gulf region is more conservative? I’ve heard that women cover much less in countries like Syria and Jordan.”
“It’s a percentage,” said Mustafa. “I think in Jordan maybe one third of women don’t cover at all—just like Western. Do you think one third, Khadija?”
“Yes, maybe one third or one fourth. That is because too many families don’t know Islam well, so they don’t correct their daughters. But look at my sister.”
Razan again, whose brilliance and beauty we had heard all about.
“She could say, I am young and beautiful now, so I won’t cover. Then when I am old and ugly to look at, I will cover and God will forgive me. In Jordan many young girls do this, but not Razan. My parents know Islam well and they teach us the right way.”
“It’s also where we live that is the point, Khadija. Maybe if we emigrate to Australia you will want to feel comfortable with the people there. So maybe you will cover only your hair, or maybe you will want to stop covering, like the Western woman.”
This surprised us because we knew he had opposed Khadija’s wish to move to Canada. What explained his change of heart?
“Khadija always argue that we must leave the Middle East for our sons, to give them better life. I didn’t want to say so, but I think now she is right. Look all around: you see terrible things in Libya and Syria, there is some small trouble in Jordan, and Israel always want to kill the Palestinians—old men, women, children, doesn’t matter.”
Marianne shook her head.
“But nothing like that is happening in Oman. I feel much safer here than I do in the United States, so you might be more safe here than you would be in Australia.”
When he stood and began to pace, I realized that he hadn’t smoked a cigarette all evening. I had never seen him without a cigarette before. I asked him why he didn’t have his pack of Gauloises and he shot a look at Khadija.
She glared at Mustafa before turning her luminous teeth on Marianne and me.
“He must stop for the same reason we should emigrate: the future. What will his health be like in ten years if he has cigarette in his mouth every minute he is awake?”
He uncoiled the garden hose in order to water his plants.
“I water already just one hour ago, Mustafa.”
Moving from plant to plant, he gave each one a generous drink.
“How about the United States instead of Australia?”
He opened his mouth to say something but stopped. When he finally answered, he disguised his opinion about my stupidity with an embarrassed grin.
“I think U.S.A. doesn’t want someone named Mustafa who holds a Jordanian passport and has many times visited Palestine.”
That made one too many references to Palestine for Khadija. She announced, to Mustafa’s obvious surprise, that they needed to go to bed so they could get up early the next morning. Before they turned in we agreed to visit the Ras al-Jinz turtle reserve together. Now, two days later, the comment about naming his dog implied that he hadn’t forgotten the meeting between Obama and Netanyahu.
“Then I must call mine Ahmadinejad,” added Mina—also not a dog-lover—who had just met Mustafa and Khadija. She had driven all the way down from Muscat to see the turtles with us, and I worried that she and Mustafa would make a combustible mix.
“By the way, don’t rely on Ahmadinejad to bring the Israelis to their knees,” she continued, turning to Mustafa. “He doesn’t even know how to buy a decent suit! So if he ever tries to fire a nuclear missile at Tel Aviv, you can count on it striking Tehran.”
I believe that neither Mina nor Mustafa had ever mentioned the Iranian President in front of me. But I had assumed Mina’s scorn for Ahmadinejad, whose sabre-rattling toward Israel, I thought, might make him a hero to Mustafa. So his casual reply surprised me.
“But what about cologne? Does he know how to pick out a good cologne, even if he’s not an Arab?”
He hadn’t forgotten Marianne’s comment about how good Arab men smell.
I’d taken care not to park under trees before, and this was the first time a goat had climbed on our car. Herds of goats enjoyed the freedom of the city. However, we rarely found them in our neighborhood, so I had put the car in the shade since five of us would need to cram into our little Toyota. I saw she had done no damage, though. She finished her vegan meal and left and we got in the car to head to Ras al-Jinz.
Mustafa’s relaxed mood, we soon learned, owed everything to Khadija’s new, liberal anti-smoking regime. She had adopted a strategy of weaning him gradually off cigarettes, which suited him much better than trying to quit cold turkey. He’d smoked a cigarette just before coming to our apartment; Khadija would ration another to him once we reached Ras al-Jinz.
The enclosed space of the car distilled a potent stimulus: the musk of Khadija’s habitual perfume, which gave no breathing room to her torrents of sweat, the natural byproducts of dressing modestly in the extreme heat of the Arabian Peninsula. She must have looked forward to the cooler temperatures of the beach, since she carried none of the kitchen towels printed with desert scenes–men astride camels, usually–that she often used to mop her face.
We hoped that after nightfall we would see at least one giant sea turtle nesting on the beach. With some luck, we would also see freshly hatched baby turtles making their way toward the ocean. Khadija backed away from her harsh pronouncements against animals when I mentioned that only about one in a thousand turtles hatched at Ras al-Jinz survives.
“That’s sad. Then it is not so bad for our sons, even in the Middle East. At least we can try to emigrate to Australia. Mother turtle has nowhere else to go.”
She asked about our children and we reported the latest news from California. She and Mustafa were both excited and appalled to hear that two of our children had started planning, independently of one another, to quit their jobs in order to spend several months traveling around the world.
“This is not a good time,” Mustafa objected. “A job in U.S.A. is hard to find now. What if they can’t find work when they return?”
In the rearview mirror I saw the concern on Khadija’s face.
“If what Mustafa say is true, you must tell your children not to make this mistake. You are father and mother, so you should tell them to think about future and keep their jobs.”
“But I think they’ll be okay, since neither of them is married or has children.”
“We can’t order them around, anyway,” Marianne added. “The people we know who try to treat their adult children that way just make the children angry and then the relationships are not very good.”
Our arguments didn’t persuade them.
“I tell you before that will never marry Mustafa except my father tell me I must try to love him. And look: he knew! The parent know more because is older, with more experiences.”
“Even today I will do whatever my parents tell me to do.”
Mina joined the discussion.
“If I had wanted the advice of my parents, I would never have married Jean-Michel. And you have heard about that disaster.”
Khadija nodded energetically.
“Maybe they get good jobs when they return, but their money is gone forever. If money they have now is gone and they get no money from job for months—is like they lose a year of their life!”
“I think they don’t consider all this because they are young. Same as Khadija needs her father to tell her I am good man. She is young and Mina is young, so they must do as their parents say.”
“Our children won’t, though” Marianne replied. “We can tell them what we think if they ask us, but we can’t tell them we’ll decide for them because they’re young. They’ll tell us we have no right to give them orders and they’ll just walk away.”
Mustafa and Khadija traded a look of disbelief. She gave the same look to Mina, on her other side, who only shrugged.
“What can you do?”
“Maybe,” I offered, “it’s part of the bigger picture of how Americans look at the world. I don’t know if we value independence just for its own sake. But age and experience don’t always add up to wisdom. A lot of the time, older people get comfortable always doing the same old thing, even though something new—that a young person would try—might work out better.”
Marianne saw where I wanted to go.
“But that new, better thing can only happen if the young person is allowed to act independently.”
She turned around to look at Mustafa and Khadija. He threw his hands in the air as she spoke for both of them.
“Inshallah, your children will be all right.”
“Yes: God willing.”
At the turtle reserve, the guides made Mustafa finish his cigarette before leading us to the beach. Out on the sand, the day’s crushing heat had given way to a tepid wind. We could have slept under it without blankets.
A genial guide named Yasser found one turtle for us. Perhaps a hundred feet in from the surf, her fins cast sandy clouds above her own dark mass as she burrowed. But Yasser’s sigh of disappointment soon alerted us to a problem.
“I think because the moonlight is too bright, she saw us.”
The game was up, so Yasser turned his dim flashlight on the animal’s laborious return to the sea. Occasionally she would manage two strokes with her fins in quick succession. Most often, though, she would stroke once and then rest for up to half a minute. Exhaustion seemed to overtake her and I began to worry that her pace was slowing—that she couldn’t make it. Khadija spoke urgently to the guide.
“If she fails, will we help her?”
He shook his head and then tilted it toward the animal.
Perhaps the violent wave that had just hurled its full weight into the sand caught the animal’s attention and signaled the proximity of home. She thrust hard into a sequence of three strokes that brought her to within a couple body-lengths of the water. She paused hopefully, but the ocean insisted on the terms of its agreement with her. It did not send a wave to carry her the rest of the way, which she would have to travel under her own power.
Ten of us watched her because Yasser had also led two middle-aged French couples onto the beach. One of the women, who had paid careful attention to Khadija’s exchange with Yasser, now broke away from our group and ran toward the turtle.
Yasser hiked his dishdasha up to mid-thigh and sprinted after her, closely followed by Mina and her own shouted words of encouragement.
“Yes, go, go!” Khadija, with her abaya pulled just above her ankles and handicapped by platform heels, trailed behind them. Suddenly, they all stopped as the French woman threw her arms high in exultation. The turtle had lunged toward the ocean which, relenting, met her halfway. She was home.
The moon illuminated Marianne’s wet eyes. I moved to put my arms around her as Mustafa and the other guide appeared beside us. Mustafa, his eyes shining with excitement, shouted to Khadija.
Once we had all gathered around the second guide, he released from his dishdasha about two dozen baby turtles, hatched from a nest farther from the sea than the one whose aborted creation we had watched.
“They were going away from the water,” he explained.
We shepherded the babies to the relative safety of the water, chasing away hungry crabs and mimicking the French woman’s cries of “Allez, allez!” while she smiled at us and thanked us in English.
I could see that her eyes, like Marianne’s, were wet. That was too much wet for Mina.
“What do you think, Mustafa? One out of a thousand survives. Is that better than the odds that the ordeal of the Palestinians will end in our lifetime?”
Khadija looked stricken. But if one wished to say something like that to Mustafa, Mina had picked as good a time as any. He eyed Mina only briefly.
“Or better than the odds that your President Ahmadinejad will help?”
He returned his attention to the baby turtles and Khadija offered him a cigarette.—Don Stoll