Thursday, June 15, 2017
The Taxi Driver from Baghdad
[Because of its unique location, Oman is used for joint military ventures by Omanis and Westerners, and it has world's longest runway for military aircraft. Its coastline, on the Gulf of Oman, is not far from Iran, which keeps threatening to mine the Gulf, through which passes about 20 percent of the world's oil. I used to watch an Omani spy plane head to Iran at dawn every day. The mentality of Oman, and that of Gulf Muslims in general, is very different from that of Westerners. Omanis might form military partnerships with Westerners, but they see nothing odd about the fact that a young Western woman can be gang-raped by Omani men. Omanis have Toyotas and mobile phones, but they cling to the tribal mentality of fourteen centuries ago.]
When I first arrived in Nizka, what I saw was a town of perhaps thirty thousand people on a flat desert. On much of the land, away from the buildings, there were widely spaced shrubs of some kind. In most directions further away, there were hills and mountains consisting of great piles of loose and angular rock fragments. The native Omani men wore long white robes and mumbled into their mobile phones as they zipped along recklessly in their Toyotas. Most Omani women wore scarves and ankle-length robes of a thin material. The students at the college had that same medieval clothing. Any manual work at the college was done by men from Pakistan or India.
There were flocks of goats that wandered all over the neighborhood. A lizard as long as my arm nearly ran over me once. The houses were all white or cream with flat roofs, and looked like Arab versions of tiny medieval castles. The area where I lived was called Falaj a’ Sharah (the Water Channel of Sharah), a five-minute drive north of the college.
After my second week in Oman, I still had no passport (the recruiter had it), no work visa, no residency permit, no bank account, and not much chance to use email. I had very little access to money, food, drinking water, or medicine (I had a cold).
I didn’t really know what I was expected to teach, except that I was supposed to turn Arabic college students, English majors, into teachers of English to Omani children. Like other teachers, I spent hours every day trading small scraps of information, since there was no means for all the teachers to have access to all the basic information. The holy month of Ramadan meant that everything was closed at the most inopportune moments. At the end of every day, I was totally exhausted, although I had accomplished very little.
The classrooms were nearly impossible to find, partly because I had never before seen Eastern Arabic numerals, which are not closely related to those used in the modern Western world. But even after I had mastered those numerals I realized that the numbers of the classroom doors were utterly random anyway, out of sequence ? they had been scribbled (or tacked onto) the doors whenever someone in the past had found a liking to a particular room. Several decades of oil revenues have had quite a deadening effect on intellectual energy.
The job had been offered to me only a few weeks before I had to get on the airplane, but I was already starting to learn some Arabic. I had managed to acquire a basic knowledge of several languages over the years, not from a passion for linguistics, but merely from the exigencies of living on my wits. The memorization of a language is neither a sign of intelligence nor a creative use of the mind. I would swear that each expedition from familiar Indo-European to unsettling petroglyphs would be the last. I have always been a reluctant traveler.
There were serious problems with Hazim Al-Adawi, the head of the English department. He was lacking in competence in all areas of school administration, and his blatant unfairness with staff members only increased these problems.
Classes were about to begin, yet almost nothing was ready. All preparations for a new semester should have been in place long before the semester began, not randomly put in place while classes were already in progress. In any case, for many courses, the curricula and other descriptions were very vague.
For several weeks, teachers were pulled out of classes and re-assigned, or they were being told to move their students to other classrooms, often repeatedly.
In many cases there was little in terms of teaching materials. The materials sometimes consisted of textbooks, but these were often missing, severely damaged, or inadequate in number. For many courses the teaching material consisted partly or entirely of hand-outs, but hand-outs required photocopying, which presented another major problem.
Even when course materials did exist, they were of very low quality. Often the assigned textbooks were totally inappropriate for the course. In general, and especially for courses above first year, the materials were too abstract, they were too difficult for second-language learners (who always passed tests by simply memorizing blocks of text without comprehending what they were memorizing), and they were quite boring. Above all, the course materials ? and even the overall topics ? were generally irrelevant to the lives of students who were planning to become English teachers. Very little resembled what would go on in a good Western school for training future English teachers.
At the same time, basic learning issues such as grammar and spelling were simply brushed over. Most tests were designed and administered with no professionalism. It could be said in general that students were given passing grades whether or not they had actually learned anything.
Registration of students, and the recording of marks, were a perpetual problem because the registrar’s office was always shifting its work load onto the teachers. If there was any problem, the teachers were “summoned” to the registrar’s office; no one from the registrar’s office ever walked to the teachers’ offices. Hazim never supported the teachers in this struggle with registration.
Part of the trouble with lesson plans and with teaching materials was that there was a high turnover of teachers, largely because of frustration with the perpetual disorganization. The hiring of unsuitable teachers, often with completely false credentials, also played a large part in the turnover. When teachers left, the lesson plans and teaching materials tended to disappear, although master copies of everything should have been kept on file, and the new teachers had to reconstruct all these things.
Although department meetings were held from time to time, they consisted almost entirely of one-sided decisions made by Hazim. Whenever he asked for opinions or comments from the staff, it was only with regard to very minor issues. His general approach to the staff was hostile and uncommunicative. His attitude was very dictatorial, and his comments to teachers were often bluntly rude and demeaning.
Hazim was quite blatant in his favoritism towards certain members of the staff. Those whom he regarded as his friends were given the choice positions; those whom he regarded as his enemies were not. Even the allocation of courses, prior to the start of each semester, was handed over to his favorites, not to people who were qualified to make such decisions; these people then allotted the nicest schedules to themselves.
Photocopying was a perpetual problem. The entire English department was relying on one photocopying machine. This was an old and constantly breaking machine kept in a very tiny room on the second floor of the staff building. Even access to paper for the photocopier had been severely restricted ? but instead of contributing to a solution, that decision simply increased the problem.
There were other technical problems, particularly with computers and access to the Internet, but when these were mentioned to Hazim, he claimed that teachers should inform some other department, but he was quite aware that no other department would ever address these problems. Instead of participating in these campus-wide issues, Hazim simply tried to improve his own image, either by denying that any problems existed, or by blaming the teachers.
Hazim claimed to have a Ph.D. in English from Iraq, but the rumor was that he had been a taxi driver in Baghdad, and that he had worked his way up to becoming a spy for the Americans, finally awarding himself an imaginary education and running the English department in Nizka.
About a month after I came to Oman, after many hours of puzzling over that unique society, I temporarily summarized my findings by saying to myself, “This is a country where nothing works properly.” A few months later, I was talking with someone who’d been here a few years, and he said, “My first impression was that this is a country where nothing works properly.” The same words.
But it all remained somewhat elusive. The issue of “liberal education” comes in there: some countries have the objective of offering their citizens an education in which they learn about the history, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy of many cultures, exposing them to these matters in a way (at least, ideally) that is not twisted to suit a crude religious dogma. When I was a child, living for several years in the US, we were taught not only the facts of “the democratic ideal,” we were taught also the purpose behind it. The American Constitution and its Bill of Rights were put there for a reason, and similar issues apply to British and Canadian law.
The layers of the onion never seemed to stop receding, but gradually my theories about Oman could be reduced to a few simple principles. At one level, it could be said that the authorities conspire to keep people stupid. At another level, it could be said that the political system resembles Soviet communism specifically, a world in which responsibility and incentive were always crushed, and that more generally it resembles the present governments of many countries in Eastern Europe. Unlike Oman, however, many of the European countries have abundant arable land and other resources, but these European resources are not utilized because all ambition and planning are discouraged by the forms of government, which could be described by the well-known terms of laziness, greed, and corruption. On the third level one could say that Oman is a society in which there are almost no rewards and no punishments. There is neither positive nor negative reinforcement. There is no sorrow and no joy. As a result, people do nothing. They can stare at a wall for hours at a time for the simple reason that the result is the same as if they got off their chairs and actually did something.
Many of the problems in Oman could be solved if the appropriate people took a brief evening course in business management, instead of acting as if they were out in the desert living in their black tents as sheiks distributing largesse to their followers. But that is really just part of the general statement that the seventh century (the days of Mohammed) is badly pasted onto the twenty-first. Human beings always mistake the material (mobile phones and Toyotas) for the abstract. If a donkey could drive a Toyota, it would still be a donkey.
One result of my detective work was the discovery that the form of government has a profound effect on one’s life. I had lived most of my life in England, the United States, and Canada, and I had never really thought much about government, never really explored the depths of the concept. I had never thought about government for the same reason I had never thought much about the engine in a car. I had never had much reason to wonder about car engines, and I always assumed that any mechanic with a good reputation could deal with any of the minor problems that occur, leaving me free to think about other matters.
Oman is running out of oil. Oman is running out of water. The government’s main response is to issue royal decrees and forget the matter. The only technical suggestion is to increase desalination, based on fossil fuels, which is a case of using one declining resource to bolster another declining resource. Oman is a preview of the entire world as it will be at some point in the coming years. A look at Oman is a look at the future, more than a look at the past. Yes, it is true that Oman is basically the seventh century badly glued to the twenty-first, but it is more true to say that Oman is the world of the future, a world of depletion, chaos, and collapse. A society that has never bothered to think is approaching the stage at which it will suddenly do so, but by then the thinking will do no good, because there will be no solutions.
When I reached the college in the morning at what was supposed to be opening time, there was always a fair chance that I would not be able to get through the locked gateway, perhaps because the guard hadn’t arrived at work, or he had wandered off to get a cup of coffee. One morning he presented me with his sidearm, complete with holster and belt. I was pleased with the gift. Then I decided he wanted me to shoot him. Finally I realized that he merely wanted to point out that he had not completed his attire.
Not long after arriving in Oman, I went home one day feeling utterly burned out from the stress of teaching hopeless students. I walked into my apartment with a sigh that meant “home, sweet home.” I turned on the cold water in my kitchen, and the cheap metal fractured, so that the entire tap fell into the sink. Water began gushing out. I found a roll of tape and wrapped several yards of it around the tap, reducing the flow somewhat as I hunted for the main valve, unsuccessfully because it was on the roof.
The entire building was rarely “home, sweet home.” For weeks at a time, the walls were shaken by Pakistani laborers hammering away at the pipes and concrete. Yet the Chinese women, living on the ground floor in the “health club,” were less fortunate than I, because at least I could be awake and at the college before the noise began, only having to deal with it later as I tried to prepare my dinner.
Before I came to Oman, I had almost never thrown out an item of food, but as time went by I found it necessary to do so. A fair amount of what I bought at the local supermarket ended up in the garbage: fruit that went from unripe to rotten with no stage in between, lettuce that crawled with unidentifiable insects beneath its plastic wrapping, meat that was mostly gristle and fiber, unsuitable even for feeding to a dog. The supermarket aisles had large signs above them, bearing no relation to the actual products below, and stock was frequently moved, so it took a good deal of walking to fill a shopping cart.
In a very small way, the portraits above are those of the “failed state.” Not failed in any dramatic way, but failed in the sense of being grotty, seedy, squalid. A land where plumbing problems alternate with electrical ones. A land where “corporate structure” means one band of low-lifes conspiring against another. Oman was a good education. It taught me, at least to some extent, to become inured to the type of day that in Canada would be regarded as one of non-stop disasters. Things my fellow Canadians would have denounced as “totally acceptable” were regarded in Oman as nothing remarkable.
That was my preparation for saying goodbye to the world I had known most of my life. I was adjusting to an environment of perpetual noise, overcrowding, and hostility. I was learning to live with the paradox that in a society in which everyone is mentally ill, the term is meaningless.
My desert walks in those days were to the ruins of an ancient town that I had discovered earlier with a friend named Karen, a teacher colleague, only an hour’s walk from the northern edge of Nizka. It was a fairytale world, with a ruined fortress and other stone structures at the summit of a small hill, and with the remains of tiny field boundaries in the form of lines of stones below that hill. Potsherds were everywhere, in a great variety of glazed and unglazed forms, delicate and massive, and probably of all ages.
I went back there without her after the first visit and walked up an even higher hill, at the top of which there was a short cylindrical tower, as well as some igloo-like tombs that I supposed were much older than the fortress. Looking down at the field boundaries from there, I discovered that they stretched for what must have been an entire square mile or two.
The site reminded me of various depictions of King Arthur’s mythical Camelot. Among the fields down below, there were sometimes rectangular stones the size of coffee tables, acting as bridges over what were once irrigation channels. Now there was no water or greenery anywhere, nothing but dust upon dust. Even the memory of that ancient world had totally vanished. I felt like an invader from another planet, or a time traveler, although all we now had to offer in homage was the plastic garbage that blew everywhere in the wind.
But King Arthur was no longer there. One point at which I disagree with most Westerners is the idea that we “have to get the word out” about our Western obsessions. It is simply not possible to “get the word out.” The sad truth is that most human beings cannot even read, despite official statistics on literacy. The concepts of overpopulation, resource consumption, and so on are far beyond their comprehension. There in Oman, the reality was that most of the Arabs did not -- and basically could not -- even read Arabic. When I showed my students fossils that I had found there that were seventy million years old, a strange blindness and deafness took over them because such things could not be fitted into their cosmology. There was a common Omani belief that Arabic is the ancestor of all the other languages of the world, and my most articulate students intended to use their English only for proselytizing. Most of my students came from families of at least five or six children, often ten or twelve children, and they refused to believe that they would ever have to change their way of thinking. Slavery was officially abolished in Oman only in 1970, and only at the insistence of Western oil companies. but at least it had offered lifetime employment; the Indians and Chinese there now did not have even that dubious blessing. Except for Toyotas and mobile phones, nothing in the daily lives of the Omani had really changed for centuries.
A Westerner who goes to live in a “developing” country for a few years, avoiding five-star accommodation and other forms of social distancing, may be suddenly crushed by an inexplicable feeling of mourning and despair. In spite of the reasonably high pay, tax-free and rent-free, the average Western teacher at the college lasted only about six months, I estimated, before being defeated by the unnameable. In the arts of many cultures, humans and angels are depicted with similar faces, but most people do not live as if they had any kinship with such heavenly beings. Observing the prolonged degeneration of humanity can be truly crippling, but one must accept the fact that Conrad’s “conquering darkness” has already overtaken a great deal of the world. In a land where human life is not just cheap but valueless, salvation is largely a matter of delaying all grand ideas of education and reform, and learning first to pay attention to one’s own small and uncertain steps.
I grew up in New England, a world of sailboats, private schools, huge university libraries, and suburban houses with stereos playing diluted jazz, among adults who would have been horrified by any breach of the upper-middle-class code of honor, although actually there was no code, we were just honorable. In my grade-school days, the most shocking member of my community was a woman who had divorced and remarried. It was quite a glass bubble I had lived in. I not only didn’t talk to people from “the other side of the tracks” in those days, I was only barely aware of their existence.
Little by little, I left that somewhat privileged world behind. In grade school I was younger than most of my companions, but when I had left childhood far behind and started visiting liquor stores, I was a generation older than most of the people I spent my time with. I managed to lurch my way out of that long road to nowhere only when I realized I had been conned into thinking I was an inferior being. By the time I came to Oman, however, trying to replenish my life savings, I was still struggling to get myself on a better track.
I suppose childhood world-views are hard to give up. After nearly three years in Oman, I still felt as though I was living in the middle of a horror movie. Listening to the call to prayer blasting through my apartment windows from the local mosque five times a day was a perpetual reminder that I was no longer living with the saxophone sunsets of New England. Well, if one god had invented electronic loudspeakers, another had invented loud air-conditioning units, so it was a standoff: the noise of the latter machines helped to block out the noise of the former. If I tried to talk to any of the local residents, in either English or Arabic, all I got was the look that meant there was no meeting of minds. It was hard to regard it as communication.
I could only hope the time would go quickly. To a large extent I soon gave up caring about all the chaos, stupidity, cruelty, and ignorance. At the college, all rules came down to one: that the (Anglophone) teacher was always to blame; in that way, no one else could be dragged in for questioning. The entire college there was just a sham, but I was willing to accept that fact largely because the consequences after I was gone would not be my responsibility. Instead of feeling that I’d been captured by beings utterly unrelated to myself, I tried to look at my next-door-neighbor’s two wives and fourteen children with anthropological detachment. But it wasn’t easy, and I had always preferred my social science between the covers of a book.
I was only slightly worried about the permanent effects of that country on my mental health. Would I be like those soldiers who seem to come back from wars and spend the rest of their lives undergoing psychiatric treatment? I asked another teacher friend, Paul if, after leaving there, I would be able to forget Oman. He said, “Yes, but there will be a scar.” Or would the fresh air of Canada at last make me realize that there was life beyond the loudspeakers?
One day I was in a supermarket in the capital, Muscat, and a Chinese woman came up to me and started a conversation in English. She told me her name was Helen, and she gave me her phone number. On several occasions later I came very close to sending her a text message, but then I would change my mind. My intention for staying in Oman was to put some money in the bank, and although it was the hardest money I had ever earned I was certainly getting a nice monthly paycheck. On the one hand, I had enough common sense to know how certain kinds of women can drain a man’s bank account, but on the other hand I was learning quickly how much of a heartbreaker sheer loneliness could be.
One day in May, however, I sent Helen a text message. Actually we sent several back and forth on that morning. Her English was not very good, so it was a bit confusing, but then she phoned me a few hours later and we agreed to meet at a bookstore in Muscat three days later.
I got to the bookstore with only five minutes to spare, after I’d suddenly decided I needed to buy some more-presentable clothes. In the process of phoning Helen I saw a woman nearby, and I knew it was her. She said she’d called me a few minutes previously, but it seemed that in all the noise I hadn’t heard my phone ringing. We went to the café inside the bookstore and sat down.
We had a fairly brief conversation, maybe half an hour. Helen said she was divorced, and that she came from a part of northern China near Russia. She asked me quite bluntly about my job, my salary, my marital status, and so on, but she was also quite forthright when I asked her questions. She said she worked at a Chinese import-export company there in the capital, though her boss was cheating her by paying her only half what he’d promised before she arrived in Oman. She had a teenage daughter living in China, studying dance – not what I would have thought of as a good preparation for any hard times to come.
But Helen asked me if we could meet again the following week, and she agreed with me that a Friday would be better -- it was generally a quieter day of the Omani weekend. She also asked if I could take her back to Niska on that Friday to see my apartment. I was rather shocked by her suggestion, but quite pleasantly so.
There were warnings of a typhoon. I was hoping Helen would call to delay that second meeting, but she didn’t, and I certainly didn’t want Helen to think I was hesitant. In any case, judging from other storms I’d encountered in Oman, I thought that if I got caught by heavy rain, I could just pull over to the side of the road and wait.
I drove to Muscat with my friend Karen, who was happy to be left at a beauty parlor, where she was undergoing a lengthy and perhaps unnecessary weight-reduction program. She said she’d later take a taxi back to Nizka alone. The rain was so bad that Helen couldn’t get a taxi to the bookstore for about two hours, but finally she showed up. I said, “We’d better not stay here long, because there are increasing warnings about the storm.”
Helen insisted, “No, we should have lunch.”
After the meal, it took more than three hours for the two of us to get to Niska in the downpour. I realized that it wasn’t the rain that was the danger, however, it was flooding. In several places the water was over a foot deep. There were very long traffic jams as the cars negotiated the water. We saw several accidents that had just occurred or were occurring as we drove by.
We finally reached the outskirts of Niska and were about halfway across town when we came to a torrent that was utterly impassable, a raging flood that no vehicle could cross. The irony was that Karen had called not long before by mobiles phone and told us that she had got across that part of the road by taxi, long before Helen and I got to that point. But I couldn’t think of any good solutions.
I finally called my friend Paul, who lived near Mulaadah, at the intersection of the road from Nizka and the road to the capital. He arrived about an hour later with his wife and daughter, but he realized that even his SUV wouldn’t be able to cross. Finally he took Helen and me back to a cheap hotel in Mulaadah, where she and I could spend the night. Following Paul’s advice, I sneaked her in and out the back door, so that the management wouldn’t assume she was a prostitute.
Helen and I agreed that we would take it slowly, and she seemed quite welcoming. I suspect the romance and excitement of the typhoon and the hotel played a part as well. In any case, we slept afterwards for ten hours.
In the morning, I was sitting on the couch, and she climbed on top of me, kneeling, and lifted her blouse so I could begin again the exploration of the long cool miles of her body. She wrapped her arms slowly and deliberately around my neck, as if oblivious to what was happening far below and all around us.
Later that morning I decided to try getting into Niska. The road was actually dry, so we managed to get across town, and we spent a pleasant few hours in my apartment. I thought all our troubles were over. I took her back to Muscat late that afternoon, and Karen came with us. Although Niska had dried up, the flooding closer to Muscat had barely changed, and it took hours to get into that city.
I looked at books for an hour or so, as I waited in the hope that the floods would go down. As Karen and I drove away from Muscat, it seemed that the road was a little better. Then we came to a place where nearly all the cars had pulled over to the side of the road. The water there seemed impassable. But I was determined not to spend another night away from my apartment.
There was an eighteen-wheeler truck stopped just at the edge of the water. As we came up beside it, it started across the water. I pulled my car right up beside him, hoping he could take most of the force of the water, which was coming toward his far side, not to us. I was also using other tricks, such as avoiding any sharp changes in speed or direction. Both vehicles were about two-thirds of the way across, when suddenly a giant wave appeared just ahead of us. There was obviously no way of getting back, and we couldn’t just sit there, so I focused my attention as well as I could. For a few seconds the car was lifted by the water and started to go downstream. Then my tires caught again on the surface of the road.
Karen and I finally got back to Niska, not long before midnight, but I was quite exhausted. At one point on the road I had even yelled to Karen that the car was rolling backward, and I changed gears and pulled on the handbrake. The car hadn’t been rolling backward, it was just that my own dizziness had caused the illusion. I later felt that by driving back and forth through that typhoon I had done something rather foolish and irresponsible, not to mention dangerous. But I really hadn’t known what a typhoon could do.
During the summer, Oman was a sun that filled the sky, and under it silver creatures moved very slowly in a landscape without shadows. I didn’t leave the apartment very much during July and August. After several weeks of sprinkling ant poison, I was beginning to hear voices.
I seemed to be one of the few teachers at the college who didn’t have a Ph.D. Their degrees came from places among mountain ranges where army helicopters went wang-wang-wang-wang-wang as they swayed heavily over the rooftops, as they did there in Oman, so it was frustrating to deal with these “doctors” and their freeform interpretations of English in particular and linguistics in general. A casual remark about spelling and I’d started gangland warfare. How was it possible for all these “doctors” to make such a mess of the English language? After two years there I supposed I could consider myself a veteran, though, at least among the blue-eyed crowd. The rest got shipped out with bad hangovers, acquired mysteriously in view of the fact that this was a Muslim country.
I was told that a car battery would melt there if the car was left in the sun for a while. It was the word “while” that puzzled me. The previous summer I had unbolted the battery before going away for a month, but that following year I was facing the sun’s undiminished fury, and so was my car. Three major religions all invented hell in the same part of the world, although my theories of comparative religion may be over-simplified.
Staring at a wall during the weekend, with nobody to talk to, unable to go for a walk except in the earliest hours of the morning, could make a day seem like a hundred years. The brain shrank away from the skull, shrank and hardened, so that when I shook my head it sounded like a bell, but only bone against bone, not the attenuated reverberation of metal.
The biggest concern in the desert wasn’t heat or water, but getting too close to a house and encountering a pack of dogs. Such creatures were thin, all legs and teeth. They would spread out equidistant in the light, traveling at great speed, trailing a cloud of dust, as if the whole desert was their territory. Lacking the social skills of wolves, dogs are just killing machines that pretend to be man’s best friend until the food runs out. The previous year, I had left one panting at a cliff top while I walked away shaky-kneed.
The smallest particle of food on the floor, and the next day the ants were there like iron filings around a magnet. Back in Canada I had once slept on an enormous glacier-scarred rock, and I later told someone that ants were the dominant form of wildlife there. His laughter seemed excessive, as if he knew more than he was telling me, but perhaps my mumbling had merely taken him by surprise.
Nevertheless I later wondered if it was ants that control the universe. Perhaps humans are merely an accident, irrelevant to the grand design. White powder, boiling water, I turned them into motionless black dots, but the next day there were more of them. There were always lines of them coming and going. I played an old game of trying to watch one to see where it went, but the lines swayed and swerved, interweaving, and I lost track almost immediately.
After another of my long desert walks one day, I came across a second crumbling old fortress. Close to it, I found a series of well-like vertical shafts, about ten or twenty yards apart, with water in them about fifty yards down. But some of the land had been excavated, or perhaps recently re-excavated, between some of them, so I could see that the shafts all connected underground, forming a horizontal channel, a falaj, of which the plural is aflaj. Some of the aflaj, even in a small town such as Nizka, stretch for many miles, running from the mountains and across the desert to water the palm groves and vegetable gardens.
Starting from the fortress, I went back the way I came, but following an above-ground channel, covered for perhaps a hundred yards with crude stone blocks, each too heavy for one person to lift. That channel also became an underground one, marked by vertical shafts, and it led over several miles all the way back to Nizka.
During that entire walk, I encountered only one person, a woman driving a herd of about fifty goats, and that was near Nizka. I didn’t want to frighten her, so I kept my distance, although it was hard to avoid her since we were both obviously heading in the same general direction. I suspected she was a wife or daughter of someone named Saeed, a man I had once met, who lived on the north edge of Nizka. I had had to go to his house once when I found one of his goats badly tangled in a thorn bush; I’d freed the goat, but hadn’t been able to get all the branches out of its hair.
The desert was like a fairy land, a magical, enchanted place that you might see in a dream. It was all very beautiful sometimes, if you could ignore everything that had been built in Oman in the previous few decades and just looked at the amazing culture that once existed out there. And it was odd that there seemed to be so little written about that ancient culture. But those shafts and so on were such an enormous amount of work, all done by hand. I suppose they weren’t consciously thinking of “building for eternity," it was just one falaj at a time.
During the Middle Ages there was more contact between Arabic and European culture than in later times. The “-al” words -- algebra, alchemy, and so on -- entered our language. All this happened during the Crusades, when the two cultures were faintly starting to blend. I have no idea when my two fortresses were built, or over what length of time, although it was obviously when Oman was a different world, since no one now could live a medieval life in that land of unrelenting sand and stone. There was clearly once a population dense enough to provide workers. All I knew was that the remains looked like the popular depictions of King Arthur’s Camelot, and I suspected that a fortress in Europe and one in the Middle East looked very much the same in those days. Now in Oman all one could see in the centers of population were the Toyotas, the mobile phones, and the false industrial paradise that started there yesterday and would end in the near future.
In my apartment building there was a huge sign in Arabic (correctly spelled, as I knew from checking it myself) explaining how to get to the “health club,” which was on the ground floor. Nevertheless, since the local Muslims couldn’t even read Arabic they would come up to my apartment on the top floor to ask how they could get to the women. I should have been grateful for my chance to practice conversational Arabic.
The reason a Chinese prostitute has rapid sex with an endless line of men is that she wants to send money back to her family. This family inevitably consists of her fatherless teenage child, who refuses even to do schoolwork and who thinks of the mother as a perpetual money-machine, and two parents who think that it is their daughter’s duty to support them for the rest of their lives, even though she never asked to be born, let alone turned into a piece of meat and sold to strangers.
I once mentioned those women to Helen, just to see if I could get another perspective. She said, “Maybe they don’t have jobs. Maybe they have children to take care of.” She spoke rather casually, as if there was nothing odd about selling one’s body in times of need. In a country where there is no government support for the unemployed, the sick, the disabled, or the elderly, perhaps prostitution and other forms of low-level crime are the only thing available to those who cannot expect to be supported by their relatives. Perhaps also, in China and many other countries, a woman may have an arduous and low-paying job, yet keeping that job may include sleeping with the boss or his customers.
The common saying about Hollywood is that sex there is just a commodity, but it may be that in impoverished countries, even China with its supposedly booming economy, sexual submission is part of daily life for those women who have not done well in the scramble for wealth and power. At the same time, it seems that in China and elsewhere the intense hatred of the rich and the poor for each other is undisguised by a veneer of hypocritical charity. Mystery after mystery, and I was constantly surprised at my own ignorance.
I also wonder to what extent prostitution is something that a woman more or less drifts into, like alcoholism or drug addiction, not something planned carefully years ahead. I can’t envision how anyone would carefully prepare for a career of daily sex with dozens of men, including many who are physically repulsive or whose manners in general leave something to be desired. Surely as a twelve-year-old not one of those women imagined such a life.
Perhaps for such women it is like swimming: the farther out they go, the deeper the water below, but the strokes are always the same. The water gets colder, but the strokes are still the same.
I also had to remind myself that there are many types of prostitutes. Of course there is the economic spectrum from the drug-addicted streetwalker to the high-society mistress. But there is also the spectrum of styles. Not all prostitutes have red mini-skirts and spike heels. On the contrary, a part-time gold-digger may be far more dangerous than an obvious solicitor, simply because she may not be suspected. The most money I ever lost in Oman in one day was during an encounter with a woman who had an important government job, and whose income was probably greater than mine. When I met her I was both awed by her and totally off-guard, but after a brief shell game in a shopping center my life savings were suddenly depleted. It was a combination of “love is blind” plus a basic naivety about her varieties of fraud.
With the help of friends, I had started putting together a lengthy document on the problems at the college, especially with Hazim Al-Adawi, the head of the English department. The question was: What to do with the document? Thanks to the Internet, it seemed there were various ways in which it could be sent out to a wide audience. If I was discovered to be the author, however, I would either be fired or arrested, or both. This was not a land of “the rule of law,” nor a land of civil liberties. Such things cannot exist in combination with absolute monarchy. If I was arrested, it would not be a matter of a public trial and all the elements of “due process.” Perhaps I would just “disappear,” and any inquiries about me would be met by a yawn. Even just being fired would not be very nice, since I was being paid well for my job, and I did not want to return to the shrinking economy of Canada until I had put some money in the bank.
A few weeks later, small protests broke out here and there in Oman, and those protests set off others. Oman was among the least of those Muslim countries to experience rebellion, perhaps because it is in fact a rather easygoing place, and even among foreigners it has a reputation for tolerance. Still, it is by no means a democracy, and there must be a fair number of citizens there who are aware of the facts, even if people rarely discuss matters openly. But why should the people tolerate newspapers and TV programs that produce only “good news”? And how can young people believe that the oil revenue will go on forever, when it is no secret that oil production there has been in decline for years? For that matter, how long can people go on praising the generosity of Sultan Qaboos, when it is not his generosity but that of the foreign oil companies? Tales of his wisdom and benevolence are a circular argument, since every “truth” about him comes from his own lips.
Anyway, Qaboos isn’t as pious as he pretends to be, and it’s also incorrect to assume that Oman is a theocracy. Qaboos is in constant conflict with the religious leaders, partly because he’s homosexual, but mainly because he was an accessory to the British murder of his own father in 1970, after which he took over the government.
One day I received phone call asking me to come downstairs and talk to a young Dutch woman named Alison, who had arrived in the country a few days before. She had come to Oman to meet her “boyfriend,” an Omani soldier. She had some rather vague questions about “safety.” She also had some reservations about this man she was about to meet. I tried to explain the need for caution, but I didn’t want to be guilty of fear-mongering. I tried to answer her questions without either terrifying her, so that she would just shut out whatever I said, or toning down the facts so much that she learned nothing, remaining as naive as her parents raised her to be.
The next day, she was taken out to a wadi (dry riverbed) by her “boyfriend,” his brother, and a third man. They spent several hours gang-raping her in every possible way. I spent most of the following day trying in my clumsy fashion to counsel her. Whenever I wanted to break off the conversation, which merely went around in circles, she whispered that she didn’t want to be left alone. I tried to explain to her, without drifting into academic nonsense, that this was a patriarchal culture, essentially a “warrior” culture, still a world of warfare among bands and villages. This was a culture that had stopped evolving many centuries ago, and its view of women as cattle or chattel was fixed.
I also tried to explain to Alison that Oman was a culture devoid of love in the Western sense. One of the strands of Christianity was the “invention” of the concept of love, as in “faith, hope, and charity,” with “charity” a translation of caritas, which in turn is a Latin translation of the Greek term agape (versus eros or philos), “spiritual” love versus either lust or camaraderie.
In Oman it’s not easy to deal with the police, but I managed to communicate with them through intermediaries. Over the next few days, I made some enquiries, but I discovered that the police weren’t interested. Their basic message was that she wasn’t a Muslim, she hadn’t had her head covered, and she hadn’t been with a male relative. End of story.
I realized later that the police would certainly have done nothing, and there had been no point even in asking them. A “devil-worshiper” foreign woman can never expect much help. Western women in taxis were sometimes groped by the drivers, but whenever I had tried to warn them they generally thought I was exaggerating.
I started to do some Internet research to see about the possibility of getting Helen into Canada, and she seemed to like the idea. I mentioned that we would eventually have to consider the idea of marriage. I didn’t like to bring up the subject of marriage, since it seemed to me that it was not very romantic to “half propose,” but there seemed no way to avoid the subject entirely, even though I think neither of us was certain enough to make such a commitment.
The grand conclusion I came to was that even if I married her, she would be thoroughly grilled by Canada Immigration. They would ask her many questions to see how well she knew me, how long she’d known me, what sort of relationship we had, and so on, all to get rid of the gold-diggers, women who marry Canadian men and then dump them when they’ve got themselves into the country.
I even typed up fourteen possible questions and asked Helen to answer them. She could only answer about three. She couldn’t even answer the first one: “What is your spouse’s full name?” She knew my first name, but she didn’t know the rest. When I showed her how badly she’d done on the quiz, she laughed. I had no idea what that laugh meant. She said, “You can give me the answers later.”
I said, “That won’t do any good, because they’ll just ask more questions.” But she still never made an attempt to learn anything about me, even though I’d asked her many questions about herself. In any case, as I learned later, many Chinese women prefer bringing a Western husband back to China, where his ignorance of both the language and the laws leaves him a prisoner in a strange land, one with an astonishing population density.
Within a few months after it began, my relationship with Helen seemed at times to be going badly: an insoluble battle over the somewhat tacit questions of sex and money.
I once sent Helen a text message in what I hoped was sufficiently simple English:
“I pay you 100 (or 150) rials, but you do not come to Nizka. You say you are poor, but now you want me to give you an extra 300 rials for a computer. I try to teach you English, but you don’t pay attention. I don’t understand what you are saying. You don’t understand what I am saying. Are you crazy?”
I was so angry that afterward I turned my mobile phone to “silent” and put it away. When I retrieved it the next day, there were several messages from her, all of them along the lines of:
“how are you my darling good night kiss”
Whether those issues with her could really be resolved was something I didn’t know right away, but I soon became doubtful. All I knew at first was that I couldn’t easily cast her off. She was rather shy and easily hurt, or at least that had been my impression. Also, I had been treated in such a bouncing-ball fashion by women in the past, and I therefore found it objectionable to be doing the same thing to someone else, especially to someone who had never been unkind to me.
One night, after what seemed like a day of a hundred hours, filled with watching Helen sleeping, cooking meals, eating meals, washing dishes, dealing with emergencies that seemed impossible in such a small town as Nizka, cleaning parts of the apartment that I’d already spent hours cleaning before her arrival, in fact a day filled with everything but a moment of conversation or the briefest hug or smile, I went to bed and waited for her to join me. I had, by that point, absolutely no interest in sexual contact.
Helen didn’t like to have the bedroom light on when we made love, and any suggestion of making love anywhere except on the bed made her raise her eyebrows in the libido-destroying manner she reserved for anything other than five minutes of strictly genital sex just before we fell asleep. I usually therefore just left the dining room light on while we made love, so that I could at least tell on what part of the bed I’d be most likely to find her. At that moment I suspected she also would be happy just to put a sudden end to an unsuccessful day, so I turned out all the lights, assuming she could get from the bathroom to the bedroom with only ambient light. But she turned on the living room light and left it on when she came into the bedroom.
I asked her: “You want that light on?”
“You want light off?”
“I'm asking you, do you want the light on?”
“Light on okay. Up to you.”
“But do you want it on or off?”
“I no care. You want light on?”
It was certain that my return to Canada would cause a problem with the two of us: Helen’s own contract still had another year to go, and in any case it was unlikely that Immigration Canada, which had become quite restrictive, would allow an impoverished Chinese woman to immigrate to Canada, even as my lawful spouse.
Helen was taking money from me, and I was in fact paying her for sex, although I suppose also for companionship, but somehow it never seemed to me like prostitution. A strange and incalculable difference. On the contrary, each morning was filled with both compassion and gratitude. I was slowly learning that English-like language that has a total lexicon of about two hundred words, and that regards the invention of reading and writing, not as the transition from savagery to civilization, but as a waste of time. Literacy is highly overrated.
But I spoke of small protests. There were demonstrations and riots in various parts of Oman. Not much was happening at first in my own small town, but at the next college, an hour’s drive away, there were army tanks lining the highway, as even the TV was showing. That town’s department store was burned and looted, and for a week or so it was possible to buy computer hardware and software at amazing prices if you knew the right people.
As far as I can recall, the news media reported that two demonstrators had been killed by government gunfire in that other town, but I heard through the grapevine that it was twenty killed, not two. Anyway, that sort of uncertainty was everywhere. If the news media never reported the true news, then in a sense one could say that facts did not exist. There was only rumor upon rumor.
The courses at my college were still never properly organized, and nothing started on time. The curricula were terrible, the materials were in short supply, the few available textbooks were abstract, difficult, boring, and irrelevant. There was no support from the registrar’s office, which piled its work on the teachers. The chaos was made worse by the rapid turnover of teachers, which was a result of the disorganization, which in turn was fostered by the presence of phony teachers, people who were supposed to be teaching English but in fact could not tell a preposition from a proposition. And always, everywhere, there was blatant favoritism: the most sycophantic, most weasel-like, got the best courses and the fewest teaching hours.
My colleagues and I thought we had an answer to our predicament. We passed our document on, anonymously, to an elderly and well respected person high up in the ministry. Unfortunately we had not considered the fact that to reach such longevity one must be extremely cautious. He did distribute the document widely, but he first excised a great deal, leaving little more than the basic passages relating to the false credentials of teachers and to the inadequacy of the courses. These were valid concerns, still, but they were somewhat bordering on apple-pie issues ? how could any respectable person contest such matters? What he left out of the transmission was the more combustible.
On the other hand, our “friend in high places” was in no better position than we were, in terms of getting to the heart of the matter. The fact is that if one is investigating corruption it is highly likely that the trail will lead upwards, not downwards. Corrupt officials maintain their corruption because they have the support of people above them. And how high does an investigator really want to climb with nobody protecting him?
Ever since I had begun began teaching at the college, three years previously, there had been armed guards at the front gate, as elsewhere in the country; actually the police and the army are almost identical in every respect, from uniforms to behavior. A guard at a college is not likely to be a person of great ambition, since the main requirement is to be able to sit for hours in a little gatehouse. These guards were shifted from one location to another, so I could never be sure who would be on duty on any particular day. But one day I noticed that the two guards on duty were more muscular than the usual, and they were not in the mood to listen to my silly attempts at colloquial Gulf Arabic.
Over the course of one or two more days, the main square of the college was filled with students who appeared even less inclined than usual to be on time for class. One day they entered the office of the dean, a man from Egypt who did basically nothing for a living, grabbed him by the elbows, lifted him out of his chair, and escorted him to the front gate. As the days continued to pass, there were speeches by the student leaders, and so on. But for the teachers, almost everything remained rumor piled on rumor.
A few days later, a group of students came through the building that contained the offices for the teachers. They were handing out copies of some sort of manifesto. I read my copy quickly and nearly tossed it into a waste basket, since it looked rather juvenile and basically self-centered. It seemed that their main demand was that their payments be increased. Unlike students in the West, those in the Middle East are actually paid to attend post-secondary institutions, and it is also the government that finds jobs for them when they graduate.
Before throwing out the document, however, I paused to admire a few out-of-place fragments of scintillating rhetoric. Then I realized where these gems of English prose were coming from. The students must have obtained a copy of the document I had passed to the wise patriarch in the upper levels of the ministry, and which he had distributed. The students had then revised it, inserting other topics, and reconsidering a few matters, but basically what they were angrily thrusting under my nose was my own words.