Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Tales of Slavery from My Time in Oman, and Racism from the Weekend

Once upon a time there was a slave in Al Batinah, who had a little house that belonged to his owner, where he lived with his wife, who was also a slave and who had the same owner. This man related that when he would come home, if he saw the assa (stick) of his owner leaned up against the wall of house, he could not enter his house, and would think about killing himself and throwing himself into the nearby sea. He was a Muslim, and yet, he was not freed, and why he would think of killing himself?: but for shame. For that assa stick lined up against the wall meant that his owner was in the house having sex with his wife. This is one story of slavery from Oman not so far from the past, related to my Omani husband by a former slave.

My Omani husband also had a friend whose father was considered a very great man. I don't think he was a racist man, for he married a freed (maybe he bought her freedom from her previous owner?) slave woman from Africa, and stayed married to her until the day he was laid in his grave. This man was from Nizwa. However, his children, his sons, they were not the same as their father, some of them, and I don't mean in terms of skin tone. For some of the men's children resembled their father, in that their skin was the colour of burnished copper or oatmeal, and some of them, especially one son, took after his mother, in that his skin was the colour of ebony, and gleamed. But I mean, in their manner of hearts, for in how other people treated them, the sons who were fairer thought that they were higher, and as their father fell ill, the darker son became but servant to his brothers in their household. As he came to give my husband a drink, my husband thought it strange, because at this point, all slaves had been freed in Oman, and although some chose to stay with their master's family, this boy was too young to have been of that generation. So he asked the neighbor's after him, and found, he was not a servant, or a slave, but their brother. But from his skin, the brothers treated him as their slave.

In my Omani family, in-laws great wide net that they are, a tribe spanning from the mountains down to valleys and way towards the deserts, our Sheikhs had slaves, and the Rasheeds had slaves, but my husband's father did not, for he was a religious man, and gave up worldly possessions even of his own birthright, to pursue knowledge and Islamic studies in far away countries. So it was strange for me, that to one of my husband's brothers from another mother, a freed slave attached himself to our close family, until the day that he died, asking for what he could do for my brother-in-law. My brother-in-law used to be very traditional and got used to having someone to do as he asked, even that was a free man, and to this day, I find their relationship to be very confusing. Part of me is disappointed in my brother-in-law, and part of me is disappointed in the freed man ---who did not know what to do with his freedom, beyond serving a man his master had not liked overmuch.

My old driver when I lived in Al Athaiba {he drove a taxi and was the most trusty Omani taxi I ever knew} had been a slave in the east of Oman, near Sur. He had been a translator, overseen other slaves on the farms (nothing as harsh as in the Bahamas or the U.S slave work in the fields he assured me), and would play music and sing for his owners family at weddings and to entertain guests. He could read and write, which many Omanis, let alone slaves, could not, and for this reason, when he was freed, he found a good job, and bought his family a land in Al Athaiba. He is a funny man, very smart, and retired now even from driving a taxi.

I had a teenage male Omani student back when I taught English. He had the finest hand in Arabic calligraphy, and seemed to be the bridge between the sexes in my mixed classroom. My female Omani students seldom felt comfortable engaging in conversation exercises with the boys, unless he guided both groups in the activity. He was very smart, funny, and he was African-Omani from Muscat.  Obviously, he had never been a slave, and maybe his parents weren't but probably his grandparents were. When it came time to give presentations (orally) the subject was holidays and of course, for the girls, whenever there was a traditional song to be sung, because of Islamic modesty, they couldn't, so he kindly sang the words for them, and translated, so I'd know the meaning. I never meant to cause him any pain at all, but when it came for it to be the other boys' turn, and they had a song, they asked him to sing it. He became very angry, all of a sudden, and said he wasn't a singer.
As many slaves were employed as singers and dancers, I wondered then, if the girls willingness to mix with him socially meant to them, he was basically non-sexual in nature, since they could not marry him, out of tribal or family racism. Maybe it was simply he was a good person, and maybe I am wrong, but his offense stands out in my mind, as righteous.

People tell me this new Oman, this new generation doesn't see divisions, but I am not so old, or that traditional, and I do. I think it is changing, but that it is not gone, even from the young, and I see people, still teaching hate and scoietal division/segregation to their children.

The other night I was at a wedding. My husband's friend was finally, FINALLY, getting married. He is an African-Omani from Batinah, and when we were poor newlyweds, who  could barely afford diapers and formula, he helped us out financially, so when he asked to borrow money to pay for a wedding, we lent him from our house savings. So of course, we were invited. The bride's family is African-Omani from Muscat, but the bride was pretty white. My husband says his friend asked for a white wife, and didn't want to get married to darker girls who painted themselves white. I was like, meh, maybe he's a little racist, but he helped us before in life, so... who am I to judge, who has always been white, around people who were also white, and didn't even grow up in my non-Muslim country wearing hijab until late into independence and adulthood, and who has been considered by some as "privileged" and "old money" {although let's face it, old money and titles don't exist for us anymore and we work hard}. And in Oman,  my husband himself and our little nuclear family, are none of that. We aren't "Sheikh Family" or "Rich" or "Wasta-people".

But at the wedding, entering, (I brought my three year old daughter) I felt hate coming off of people. They took me for being Omani, not being Western, by mistake. I was shoved, was purposefully given slight social rudeness, and I thought it bizarre. I have a lot of African-Omani girlfriends and they don't act like this or their relatives. The worst though, was my poor daughter.

She loves weddings. She loves going and dancing with the other little girls all in their party dresses. Little girls kept coming up to her and saying salam and their mothers would come and take them away from her. I thought maybe they were just wanting their kids somewhere else but then they would let them run off to play with other kids.

One woman, she took my daughter's dress, and sneered, and did something with the fabric, like whisking it away like she didn't approve of the 4 omr party dress from Rameez even though many girls had nicer dresses much the same, so it isn't like we over or under dressed or something.

It made me really sad, and I am sure the bride isn't like that, but we left early, after only 20 minutes.

I swear I never think I am better or prettier than another woman because of skin tone and I have never ever taught that to my children---in fact I've always thought of finding someone extra dark (but super good person) for my daughter to marry to teach racist tribe members a lesson (although I would never actually arrange a marriage for my kids). To me race doesn't matter at all. In Islam, it is only something to marvel at, a reason to mix and to travel and know the world that God has created. So it really hurts when people I'd fight for, hate me, for being as I am, thinking I hate them, for something I would never do.

My husband says his friend wanted a whiter wife so their kids wouldn't face racism---that it has nothing to do with what is beautiful or attractive to men. I think that is a poor excuse, but then, I think darker is more handsome 80% of the time, so maybe I am racist for that? I don't know, but I think racism would stop affecting African Omani girls if African-Omani guys refused to accept that as an excuse NOT TO MARRY darker women. I mean, I know white Canadian-Muslim convert guys who all have Arab, Pakistani, Indonesian or African wives (not white girls). So the racism isn't coming from there. I know Omani men, who are fair, whose wives are ethnically African. So it isn't coming from there.

If it is truly resentment for slavery, I understand. Slavery is an awful ugly thing most often done wickedly. I would be a terrible slave I think. But Islam teaches us that the wrongs even of someone's ancestors, are not inherited by blood, so casting this reverse racism downwards, casting it unto your own race, and unto other races who have nothing against you, that, I fail to understand. Casting it unto innocent children who do not see divisions, is an evil, and that, I fail to understand.

Background: Oman abolished slavery in 1970. UAE abolished slavery in 1964. Yemen and Saudi Arabia abolished slavery in  1962. Qatar abolished slavery in 1952. In 1942 Ethiopia abolishes slavery. In 1928 Iran abolished slavery. In 1865 the US abolishes slavery. In 1897 Zanzibar abolishes slavery. In 1807 the British begin abolishment of the slave trade through-out the British Empire, starting with the U.K. (in 1848 a treaty was made between Muscat and the British Empire to suppress the slave trade and in 1873 signs a treaty with Omani Zanzibar for the same).


Anonymous said...

I would not want someone "extra dark" to marry my children. Similar color to them is ok, it'll be more harmonious. I'm not racist, but I would not want them to marry someone extremely different. It's not just about the skin color, or face features or body size.. there's more to it. It's about personality, mindset.

Omani Princess (not Omani...yet) said...

Of course, I am not being serious when I said I'd try to convince my kids to marry anyone, regardless of skin tone, but I'd find that satisfying to know, that it would miff racist people.

I don't think Id' have find them someone "the same" or "similar" in skintone, although mindset, is something else entirely. I don't believe "mindset" and "beliefs" and "goals" are determined by skin colour, more or less if ski colour seems to determine mindset, it is usually from social norms and culture, than anything "genetic" or "physical".

I married some "extremely different" from physically, skin-tone-wise, and culturally, and I am happy. Those aren't the determinants of a happy marriage or love or being able to succeed in society---even in Oman;)

Carola said...

Hi, by azar i did find your blog a few months ago and .... Girl i really enjoy reading you. I'm not muslim, omani or anything , I'm just a curious person . About your last blog post , its sad when people put barriers for skin tones or whatever ... Life is made of this variety of colors , scents, flavors, cultures this is what make it worth to be lived.
A big hug from Chile... Yeah I'm latin hhhh movies always say that we are the drug dealers or the whores... i can understand stereotypes a bit hhhh

Anonymous said...

The first story is so sad subhanallah :(

Omani Princess (not Omani...yet) said...

Carola: I always think of Spanish women as hard-working, not whores, and with great food;) and family orientated. At least all the South American and Mexican girls I have ever known I have been. not one whore or drug dealer or gang member;).

It is beyond sad to me when people do that, especally to children, who have the ability to create culture, not suffer from it...

Anyways, thank you for reading and being curious:)

Anonymous said...

That's just one wedding. I hope there are many more to come that you'll enjoy. Maybe if you stayed longer or made acquaintance with some ladies, it would have done a difference? Or next time you could bring along someone - a friend or a lady from you husband's family. Then in worst case you could gossip together and look down on other ladies lol Of course you are not like that though :)

Personally I don't go to any wedding at all. Skipped a bunch of them.