dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

Oman Journal {Day 2}

A view to the Gulf of Oman (Photo: Nathan Elmore)
In January, I spent two weeks in Oman studying Christian-Muslim relations through a graduate program partnership between Hartford Seminary and Al Amana Centre. This is a narrative dispatch. You'll find other dispatches here.

 

Oman Journal: Inside Understanding

{Day 2} Metaphor, Impression, Example

 

Metaphor

Doug Leonard, the director of Al Amana Centre, had taken us on a brief walking tour of the complex surrounding the palace of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said in old Muscat. Afterwards, we found ourselves eating a late lunch at a Western-friendly restaurant along a small beach cove -- the kind of place where lemon mint drinks were routinely being sipped and German and Italian were being spoken all the while oil tankers glided by on their way to America, I presume. While driving back to the Centre, Doug noted the surrounding jagged mountains -- almost in passing -- saying that, although tan and seemingly sparse, these mountains burst forth with all kinds of green vegetation when the rains actually come.

There are latent seeds in the ground, he said.

As a Christ-follower, immediately I was swept into the engrossing narrative described in the Gospel of John -- the one where a Samaritan woman’s impromptu encounter with Jesus prompts him to offer her living water. Of course, as the story goes, Jesus the Jew and this woman from Samaria start discussing which mountains, religiously speaking, are best for right worship. At which point Jesus responds, transcending the conversation about religious mountains. It's a moment where we see Jesus neither condemning the woman's faith tradition nor commending her faith as entirely true. Then, in another transcendent moment, he says: “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23).

It is as if any mountain, or person, is capable of bursting forth from tan to green when living water is involved.

Impression

Even on Day 2, as we wandered here and there trying to lose the jet-lag, a very particular impression could be felt: Omanis had somehow developed this identity and character which are able, rather authentically, to hold in dynamic tension competing forces. So, on the one hand, Sultan Qaboos comes to power in 1970 and ushers in a period of rapid modernization, including infrastructure, health care and education. But on the other hand -- in contrast to a place like Dubai, for instance, with its blatantly hyper-modern excesses -- Oman has mostly preserved and maintained its traditional culture during this social “renaissance.”

With one glaring exception: instant coffee. Nescafe, it seems, is slowly taking over the territory once undeniably ruled by "Omani coffee." (I am tempted to insert a sad-faced emoticon here, but I will resist this insidious temptation.)

On the religious pluralism front, though Ibadism is the prevailing expression of Islam in Oman the conciliatory mood of Ibadis toward Sunnis, Shias, the Christian communities and Hindus is well-described in this statement by Michael Bos, the former director of Al Amana Centre: "As we survey the sweep of Oman's history, a defining characteristic has been its ability to avoid an oppositional identity that defines who one is in terms of who one is against. One of the marks of Oman's identity is who the country is able to include rather than exclude."

Which raises the question: Would this open disposition suddenly change if the oil wealth ran dry and the basic economic-political climate shifted? Probably not is my initial impression.

Example

As the Islamic call for prayer was being summoned at sunset, we were once again riding along the brand new roads of old Muscat. Doug pointed out the beach sands along another small cove. He remarked that it was the burial site of several Christian missionaries from the Reformed Church in America's Arabian mission, which dates back to the 1890s and which focused on starting and operating hospitals and schools.

In his 1989 essay "Roots of Muslim-Christian Conflict," Mahmoud Ayoub describes colonialism, missionary activity and orientalism as three forces previously used by the West "to prevent Muslim unity at all cost." Ayoub says that a "spirit of triumphal superiority" has "dominated missionary activity for most of its long history," especially since the Protestant Reformation. He even quotes the Arab scholar Omar Farrukh as labeling Christian mission work in Arab countries "altogether evil" because of its linkages to political or economic purposes.

Yet even as I cast a glance over to the sands in which these missionaries were buried, after hearing their particular stories I couldn't resist the positive thought: There, right there, is an example worthy of emulation. These missionaries had -- by faithfully serving Omanis as doctors and nurses, school administrators and teachers, and notwithstanding the complex motivations of "conversion" -- contributed to the common good of Oman's 20th-century development. In so doing, they had earned the honor of being buried, as Christians, in a predominantly Muslim land.

Later, falling asleep, I would remember that Al Amana Centre "pursues opportunities for cooperation that contribute to the common good of the communities in which we live." Now I knew where this humble example was coming from. It was right there under the sands.

nfe

The Song of Machpelah is an interfaith writing project borne out of Christian-Muslim exchanges, experiences and ongoing study. At Machpelah, God willing, in small, medium or large ways a living song will arise. And it is a composition being put together by both Christians and Muslims. Peace by piece. For more on the project, go here.