Socks, Truth, and Cultural Anthropology in Nizwa, Oman

We hardly ever wore socks. The summer temperatures soared into the high 110s and the sun reflected off the white and beige architecture, penetrating every particle of open space. Our feet were the only area of our bodies afforded the luxury of near-nakedness. Sometimes, however, the walking trips around Oman made sneakers a necessity and one day, in a rare moment of air-conditioned respite, a classmate took off her sneakers to reveal her brightly- colored, striped no-show socks. At that sight, our Omani academic director dissolved into laughter, pointing and asking what on earth those items could be. Despite my heat-and-dehydration-induced irritability, I was able in that moment to see these very American socks from his perspective and laugh along with him.

Young women on a beach

Bridget Hansen (far right) and CLS students.

While a small moment, this anecdote is truly representative of my experience this past summer as I expanded my linguistic and cultural horizons studying Arabic in Nizwa, Oman through the U.S. State Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship program.

I have always wanted to travel and experience more than a quiet Midwestern life. This desire and thirst for knowledge was abetted by a spiritual and intellectual journey to find my place in the world that included a three-year hiatus from higher education. In time, this journey led me back to UIC, the study of Arabic, and ultimately my travels to Oman with CLS. 

My journey to knowledge has been assisted by UIC mentors who have offered me both encouragement and unconditional love. Faculty members Molly Doane, Jennifer Tobin, Nancy Cirillo, and Elizabeth Powers (and countless others) helped me build self-confidence, assisted me in clarifying my academic goals, and supported my ongoing self-discovery—and growing linguistic abilities—before, during, and after my summer in Oman. 

The Critical Languages Scholarship program provides intensive, immersive language training in 13 languages deemed critical to U.S. security interests. Eligible college students may be at any stage in their education and recipients must demonstrate dedication to their language of choice and commitment to its usage in their future careers. A wide variety of majors are represented in the program. 

I am a senior undergraduate anthropology major, planning to get a PhD in cultural anthropology. I shared my summer with a psycholinguist, aspiring writers, criminologists, a human ecology major interested in food production among refugees, a medieval historian, and many others.

Bridget and Esma

Hansen (right) and friend Esma at a falaj.

From Sunday to Thursday, I spent my mornings in four hours of formal and colloquial Arabic class, my afternoons speaking with a native language partner, and my nights pouring over homework (sometimes up to six or seven hours’ worth!). Each Thursday afternoon, the program provided us with various cultural activities, almost always in Arabic, from calligraphy to exploring an Omani falaj (the country’s fresh water system). On the weekends, if we could manage, my classmates and I would visit another town or explore a nearby mountain with rare vegetation, though oftentimes, we instead found ourselves sleeping on piles of homework! 

After living for a month in Oman during the long, hot, hungry days of Ramadan, I shared Eid-al-Fitr—the feast of the breaking of the fast—with my new colleagues and friends. At about 8 a.m., we arrived at our teacher’s family home where there was a massive spread of sweets in the center of the living room. We were instructed to sit and then were presented with a huge plate of what looked like bread dough—actually ground-up goat and rice—called arsia, as well as ghee (clarified butter), and a stew. Family and friends arrived and the feasting began amidst joyful greetings and hugging and kissing of both babies and women of all ages, shapes, and sizes. Life was flowing from every direction unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Before I knew it I was laughing and speaking all the Arabic I knew, not even knowing if what I said really made much sense. But it was magic, as I felt my fear drift away and my heart open. I became fully present, and part of this wonderful stream of life. 

My two months living with 23 other Americans in the small village of Birkat al Mouz was a very special chapter in my life, inside and outside the classroom, in which I experienced frustration, elation, awe, and amusement—over everything from the truly foolish things that divide us, to the absurdity of American athletic socks.

Speaking of socks, it was the laughter more than anything else I encountered—from the challenge of mastery over Modern Standard Arabic and its dialects, enduring the overwhelming heat while wearing culturally-conforming clothing, to the joys of all the new tastes, sights, and sounds of Oman—that will stay with me forever. No matter what kind of cultural, language, or personal barrier I encountered, the ability to laugh at myself and with others always seemed to return the disparate elements of the world back into their natural balance. Laughter reminded me, always, of my own place and humanity.

Bridget and friends at dinner

Hansen (standing, right) with American and Omani friends.

I miss my Omani teachers and friends—some of the most open, kind-hearted, welcoming, and present people I have ever met and had the pleasure of calling friends. The common error of measuring other cultures against the “progress” or “modernity” of American culture puts Arab and other Middle Eastern peoples into a false binary of terrorist or victim. Either way, this results in the same outcome and strips away their humanity. The Omanis I met were complex, multi-dimensional individuals experiencing life through the lens of a very different culture, language, and worldview.

Though I would love to write that my summer provoked some kind of paradigmatic shift, allowed me to uncover the “Truth” about Arabs and Muslims, and changed my life forever, I cannot. This would be a disingenuous and futile representation of human experience. While my view of Omanis, as well as of myself, has expanded dramatically, I have not discovered “Truth,” but rather have reaffirmed the knowledge that, more than anything, I love getting to know and understand other human beings, that people are people no matter what spices they use to flavor their food or their lives, and that I love tasting all these flavors.

Photos courtesy of Hansen