Culture Shock Oman: Modesty in the LR
By Kevin Stoda, Dhofar
Although I have traveled to or lived in more than 100 countries over the past 4 decades, I still run into culture shocks. (This is part-and-parcel of my personal lifelong learning project in any case. In short, I am committed to learning about new places, ways of life and different ways of thinking.) Culture shocks used to take me down—get me depressed for quite some time. However, nowadays, I usually try to take the bull by the horns and turn things around as fast as I can, i.e. chalking such “shocks” all up to experience and to the fact that the planet is filled with thousands of cultures. If we are all going to get along, we have to be tolerant and open to different ways of doing (and thinking about) many things.
I want to share the following anecdote about an experience in a men’s locker rooms at a major international hotel chain, a hotel which is not far from where I live in Salalah, Oman. I do this—not because the incident in itself is all that profound--, but rather, it is how I responded and began to search for explanation behind the “culture shock” and how I sought to recover from it which are a model for what I suggest you follow when living and working abroad, especially in the Arab world.
The Arab world is far from being a unified culture. This is something almost any guidebook will note. Such a situation is inevitable when one considers that there are some 22 countries which speak Arabic or Arabic dialects as their primary language of communication. Nonetheless, even though I have lived and worked in Arab countries most of the past 15 years, this diversity within the Arab world is something that I can forget or fail to take into context from time to time.
I need to note that I have worked in Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE since 1999. In addition, I have traveled to other Arab speaking lands--as diverse as Syria, Bahrain, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, and Lebanon. I should also explain that in most of these countries, I have undertaken my favorite hobby: swimming. For various health reasons, I have undertaken swimming to relieve stress and to tone muscles.
SWIMMING IN ARABIA
Quite obviously, swimming procedures for females in the Arab world are certainly more proscribed than the procedures for males. In many of the stricter Islamic countries, women must swim fully clothed. Whereas, men can simply wear shorts in most places. On the other hand, bikini shorts are out in most any place for both genders and men often need to cover themselves with at least a robe or t-shirt when leaving the area of the pool or the beach.
Of all the Arab lands I have swum in, the one where I swam in the most often was Kuwait. This is, naturally, because I lived in Kuwait the longest—five whole years. I swam year round there on the Persian Gulf—either at the sea or in the municipal public indoor/outdoor swimming pool in Salmiya.
That particular public pool in Salmiya, by the way, had an enormous men’s locker room—where one could both shower and change. Within this particular locker room, life functioned as would be the case in most public locker rooms I had grown up in back in the USA, my homeland. An individual simply changed from one’s street clothes or swimshorts (and visa versa) in front of one’s own locker. In other words, there was no area for private locker space, e.g. with private doors for individuals to change or dress behind.
Sadly, most Arab countries do not usually have public swimming pools, like Kuwait had. This is likely due to the modesty of dress and garb for which much of the Islamic world is renowned.
SWIMMING IN OMAN
On public beaches in Oman, the situation is quite similar to that found in Kuwait and other Gulf state Arab countries. However, the Dhofar region (where I live now) is known a bit more for its conservative and traditional rural lifestyle. Nonetheless, I, myself, from January through March of this year swam at Haffa Public Beach in Salalah.
I would often bicycle 2km from my house wearing a swimsuit, t-shirt, and sandals to the sea. I should note that such behavior (of wearing shorts) is totally acceptable for Westerners living in this tourist city of 150,000. There have been enough foreign visitors, tourists, and workers over many decades to this part of the Dhofar region to create an acceptance for men wearing shorts—even away from the seaside and away from the football pitches.
At the sea, other swimmers, even a few fisherman, and I would take off our shirts and swim in the waves at the Haffa from late October through March. More fully clothed women and children would occasionally swim, too.
Alas, by April each year the waters around Dhofar begin to get rougher--and starting in late June people are no longer even permitted to swim in the sea due to safety concerns. This is due to the rise of Monsoons coming off the Indian Ocean.
Finally, in late April, after getting beaten by the strong waves one-too-many-times, I decided or chose to become a member at the local Crown Plaza Resort. The offers a health club, pool, tennis and golf. This was the first time in nearly 25 years that I had decided to join a private health club, so I tried to watch what others were doing so as not make any faux pas. Nevertheless, one Friday evening this may, I was blindsided and almost became angry.
A SHOCK OF MODESTY
During the weekdays, I usually swim in the mornings (before work), and after my swim and shower I often found the men’s locker room all too myself. However, on weekends, I often came later in the day. On the fateful Friday night in question, I went swimming around 6:30pm and later found myself back in the men’s locker room.
Initially, when I walked in, I was likely the one who should have been most upset or disturbed. This was because other members of the club—probably youthful ones who did not know any better—had hung up their underwear, clothing, and robes in front of the showers and not in the lockers nearby, i.e. as decorum would have them do.
As I readied myself to shower, I went with my key to my locker and took out the resort’s towel which I had borrowed when I had arrived earlier in the evening. Next, I entered the shower area and pulled a curtain closed. At that point when I showered, I was still wearing my swim trunks. Meanwhile, I had left my towel hanging at my locker rather than across from the showers, i.e. because the inconsiderate youth had disgracefully left their belongings occupying that space.
Upon finishing the shower, I was still wearing my swimwear. I walked a few yards back to my locker where now another man was standing. He was trying to put clothes on under a large brown-grey dishdasha (robe). I didn’t think anything about it at the time. I quickly began to dry off with the towel I had hung over my locker door a few minutes earlier.
Next, I took off the swimwear in order to continue drying myself more thoroughly and in order to change relatively quickly into my street shorts. At that moment, another local Arab who had come into the small locker room turned and went out quickly. Within a single minute, I found myself confronted and attacked by a loud angry Arab, who was wearing blue squash shorts and shirt, yelling at me, “This is not your home. This is not allowed. It’s unacceptable.” He almost seemed to be wanting to hit me and wanting to grab me and throw me.
This man had apparently been called in because he could speak some English. Neither of the two men worked for the health club. Despite my attempts at quiet protest at such a treatment, the loud Arab repeated his mantra four more times, “This is not your home. This is not allowed.”
When I enquired with justification where and how I should change my clothes, the man had no insight to offer. He simply repeated, “This is not your home. This is not allowed.”
I proffered the solution, “Perhaps I should change in the toilet stall.” However, the man did not condone this either.
With the towel placed quickly over my waist, I put my shorts on—with the angry Arab man’s outrage ringing in my ears. Quite obviously, the man felt he was speaking for all Arab’s in the Health Club.
I felt unfairly targeted and abused.
HOW I PROCEEDED
Initially, my anger almost got the better of me. I entertained thoughts of complaining and demanding my money back for my membership immediately. I proceeded with all my belongings to the check-in desk and asked to speak to the manager, who turned out not to be there. I then asked for a pen and paper and wrote up an “incident report” and asked the manager to call me back over the next few mornings. In the report, I asked the manager to look into what had happened and to take time to explain to me the cultural context of the verbal assault I had just faced. Moreover, the bottom-line for me would be “What did I need to do in order to change clothes and not feel like a donkey when I left the club each time?”
At the reception, I also asked for the name of the manager, and I was informed that his name was Yosef. I asked whether he was from Oman and was told he was not. He is from Lebanon.
A few days later, I finally received a phone call from the manager. By the time, I had finished that call with the Health Club Manager (Yosef), it was clear to me that culturally speaking, the Lebanese Arab was baffled by the behavior of the local Arabs. Yosef said he would look into the matter and get back to me. In the meantime, Yosef made the suggestion and provision that I change my clothes in the massage room area until the matter was cleared up.
Interestingly, on my subsequent morning visit to the Health Club, I ran into Manager Yosef from Lebanon for the first time personally. After hearing my description, Yosef had to ponder and ask himself aloud, “How do the locals change?” It turns out that Yosef had only worked in Oman for 8 months and was not aware of any local locker room behaviors that were different from Lebanon and Oman, i.e. until the incident in the locker room occurred the week before.
Next, we met with a long-term Omani staff member at Crown Plaza who came to the locker room and discussed locker room protocol with him. The local Arab explained that what I had done in the locker room was haram (forbidden) locally. Our next question was to ask how local Omanis change and use the locker room.
I won’t go into any more details here but this process of interviewing a local person to become-in-the-know is someone that everyone needs to contact after one has experienced an incidence of culture shock.
In conclusions, I just wish to suggest that next time you, too, experience any form of culture shock, try these steps:
(1) Recognize that getting angry or emotional may only escalate stress and pain in the long term—as well as in the short term. In other words, fleeing or fighting are not your best choices.
(2) Try to write down and rehearse exactly what happened so you can talk to others about it. Do this immediately after the incident or incidents so that you don’t get into the habit of collecting cultural stresses that will blow up later in unanticipated ways.
(3) Decide what is most important for you to achieve some sort of closure or resolution to the stresses and shocks. For example, I decided to focus on three points in my initial letter to the manager and I stuck with them for several days until some sort of solution to my stress was found or achieved. These points were (a) inform the manage what occurred, (b) ask the manager to help me find a solution so I could continue to be a member and go swimming, and (c) find out what the underlying cultural assumption about behavior was.
In the case referred to in this lengthy anecdote above), I discovered that the local definition of “Arab Modesty”, i.e. as defined by locals here in Dhofar, is quite different than in Kuwaiti or Lebanese locker rooms for men. In short, not all Arabs nor all Arab cultural practices are the same.