I was visiting the home of an Omani friend in northern Virginia. I was just about to visit Oman for the third time. I wanted to get some background information from him before I left.
There in my friend’s kitchen was his daughter, a high school senior. She was sitting at the table looking through the admissions applications and catalogues for several colleges and universities.
She and I talked about her preferences. She told me point blank that she wasn’t even applying to the university where I taught; it just wasn’t up to her standards, she informed me. Her father laughed and shook his head.
At the time, nothing seemed particularly unusual about this scene. After visiting Oman a couple of weeks later, however, I realized how extraordinary it actually was.
After arriving in Muscat, another Omani friend who worked at the Foreign Ministry invited me to his house for dinner. He had been stationed at the Omani Embassy in Washington for five years and had just returned home with his family the previous summer.
I had often talked with him at various Arab embassy receptions and other gatherings in Washington. He was always well-groomed and witty. It was not surprising that he was popular in Washington; he certainly seemed to know everyone. He was clearly an asset to the embassy.
Before leaving Washington, he had told me that the Omani government actually wanted him to stay in Washington, but he was returning home because he was afraid that his five children were becoming too Americanized. He feared that the older ones would not be able to fit into Omani society if the family remained in the U.S. much longer.
My friend’s house was in a wealthy suburb of Muscat called Qurum. He greeted me at the door and took me into a sitting room. The room was furnished with a mix of things he had acquired in Oman and in the U.S. He asked me about our common acquaintances in Washington. Just hearing about them made him laugh. “I miss all those people!” he told me.
I asked him how he liked being back in Muscat. His attitude became more serious. He looked at me and said reverentially, “Here in Oman, the life is good.”
Just then, his five children burst through the sitting room door, followed by their mother. The two youngest were boys while the older ones were all girls. The eldest I’ll call Jasmina (not her real name). She was thirteen.
Jasmina was wearing a white long-sleeved blouse with a colorful design on the front and long white baggy pants. Her head was uncovered and her long black hair hung loose practically to her elbows.
Her enormous brown eyes fixed themselves on me. She smiled as she quickly came over and sat next to me on the couch. Her words came flooding out: “I can’t stand it here! It’s so boring! I want to go back to America so badly!” She spoke English just like an American teenager.
My friend did not look pleased. He scowled at his wife, but she was preoccupied with the two boys who were shouting and running around.
“Why do you say it’s boring here?” I asked Jasmina.
“Isn’t it obvious? There’s nothing to do here! There’s nowhere for teenagers to go. I have to go to an all girl school, which is totally abnormal,” she said with contempt.
“You can’t even get good magazines here,” she added. “Hey, when you get home, can you send me a copy of Bop?”
This was something I’d never even heard of. “Okay,” I answered a little uncertainly. “Where can I buy it?”
She looked at me with amazement. “At the Seven-Eleven! Where else?”
I could make no reply before the father admonished, “Jasmina, you must not be bothering Doctor Mark. And you must not speak about your school like that.”
“But Dad, the way they teach at school is so boring. They just want us to memorize what they tell us. They don’t want us to ask questions or talk about anything.”
She turned to me and said, “My school in America was much more interesting. I didn’t know it then, but I do now.
“I want to go to college and then to med school. What I’m afraid of is that the school here is so bad I won’t be able to get into a good college in America or into med school at all.” She turned back toward her father, “I am going to college in America, Daddy!”
This was obviously a sore subject. “It all depends on whether I’m posted back to Washington when you’re that age,” he told her.
I had the feeling that my friend intended to make sure that he was not sent to Washington or anywhere else outside of Oman when Jasmina was old enough to go to college. The obvious question that popped up in my mind was why couldn’t they send her to college in America on her own.
As if she could read my mind, Jasmina turned to me and said, “My father is afraid to send me out into the big bad world by myself. He’s worried that I won’t behave myself.”
“Enough!” shouted the father. “Out!”
Within five seconds, my friend and I were alone again in the sitting room. He held his hand to his head as if he were in pain. He was clearly upset with Jasmina. But I thought he was also annoyed with me for being the instigator of his daughter’s outspokenness.
I thought I should give him the opportunity to vent his feelings. “So how’s the family adjusting to life back in Oman?” I asked.
“Jasmina is giving me so many problems,” he said bitterly. “She is not respectful toward her elders. She won’t study her Koran. We stayed in America too long. Now she’s an embarrassment to me.”
“But you know,” I said, “she’s seems very bright.”
“She is very bright,” he agreed. There was a note of pride in his voice. “But maybe she’s too bright.”
Soon thereafter, two of my friend’s brothers arrived for dinner. One of them was an officer in the internal security force. We moved into the dining room where there was a long table with eight chairs. There were, however, only four place settings–enough for the adult men alone.
My friend’s wife came in to say that Jasmina had asked to join us for dinner. Her father’s response was a curt “No!” The wife left the room with a sad look on her face.
Once we men were alone, my friend once more said, with even greater reverence than before, “Here in Oman, the life is good.”
Throughout dinner, the three Omani men took turns with one another in describing to me what a paradise Oman is and how there are no problems whatsoever. I wondered.
When I got back to the U.S., I dutifully went to the Seven-Eleven and bought Jasmina her Bop. I even ordered a year’s subscription for her. She wrote me a nice thank-you note, but I never heard from her or her father again.
About fifteen months later, I again visited my other Omani friend’s home in Northern Virginia. The daughter I had met before who had been applying to colleges was there wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. She was now in college and we had a little debate over whose school was better, hers or mine. An older daughter in law school was also visiting home. She too was wearing shorts and a tee-shirt. Both young women seemed happy and self-confident. They chatted with me about what they might do once they’d finished their education. Both had no doubt that they would be working women. Nor did their father.
I told my friend about Jasmina and asked whether he or our friend in Muscat was the typical Omani father. He shook his head and replied, “I’m afraid he is. He’s not just typical of Oman, though, but of all the Gulf states.
“They actually think they’re doing what’s best for their daughters,” he added, “even if they destroy them in the process.”
“What will become of Jasmina?” I asked.
“He’ll break her. She’ll never go to college. She may even be married off by now. If not, she will be soon. I only hope that the boy also spent time in the West and can sympathize with her.”
What haunts me about Jasmina is that when I met her, she was culturally more American than she was Omani. If she had only grown up in Oman or somewhere like it, she may not have been happy about her future, but she never would have imagined that it could have been different from her father’s vision of it.
Jasmina, though, knew that it could be different–much different. But there was nothing she could do to make her dreams come true as long as her father insisted on imposing his dreams on her.