Monday, February 4, 2013

The Blog Test

Last year, I was offered the position of Online Content Editor at a leading daily newspaper in Muscat, Oman. As part of the interview, I had to write (amongst other things) two blogposts each for four articles that had been picked for me from the newspaper. The articles were about the high rate of accidents caused by local cab drivers, an all-female Omani sailing team, the Indian economy, and the disappearing coppersmiths of Pakistan.

Horror Stories from the Middle East
Growing up in Oman meant that stories of ghastly car accidents and the people who died in them were as part of your growing up experience as first lipsticks and first shaves. Maybe you remember them too. I once heard about young international school students – recently graduated seniors – who were drag-racing a few hours before their graduation ceremony. They died. Maybe you also remember the young Indian School Muscat boys who died somewhere along the Qurum highway when their car spun out of control and crashed into a pole? Their car caught on fire, and they weren’t able to get out because their legs were trapped under their collapsed dashboard. All the big papers in Oman carried pictures of their charred bodies still strapped to their seats on their front pages, and they quickly had to apologise for them in the public backlash that followed. I remember I saw that picture in the newspaper an hour before I took my first driving lesson. It had frightened me. My own brother was left paralysed from the chest down after his car fell down a hill on the way to Nizwa. What a way to grow up, hunh?

The Misunderstood Tarmac Monsters of Oman

Orange-and-white honestly scares most regular drivers in Oman even more than the dark-red-and-white of the nervous beginning drivers. Orange and white are the colours of the taxis here. I have been driving in Oman for almost 10 years, and I’ve driven extensively in America and Canada even, but I have noticed how I always seem to keep my car a little bit of a distance away if I can spy an Omani taxi with my own eyes or in any of the mirrors in my car. It’s become a subconscious thing even, like how the puny kid in school learns to make way for the school bully. Turns out though that bullies are often misunderstood and only need to be tackled head-on. Not a recommendation for the road though, but maybe these taxi drivers are not to be feared after all. Maybe they just need to be heard. Maybe they drive too much, maybe they don’t earn enough which is why they have to drive so much. Over 60% of the traffic offences in Oman are caused by taxi drivers. Why? Maybe it is time to really look into the lives of these people and see what is going wrong.

Trailblazers This Side of Arabia

What my family remembers from when they first moved to Oman in the late 70s is wide expanses of dust. A few buildings here and there but really just dust. I grew up not really interacting with any Omanis personally. I had an Omani family as a neighbor for a few years, but I could never really play with their kids beyond head shakes and crude kiddie sign language. It’s just how things were. The only other Omanis most expats ever really interacted with were the men minding the stores and the officers at the airports. People like that. Which is why I feel a funny sense of pride every time I now run into young Omani women working the hypermarket counters, and we can smile and even joke in our own English/Hindi/Arabic mix. My father never fails to remark at how proud he feels whenever he sees young Omani girls so confidently working everywhere he goes. At the shops in the malls, at government offices, even in his own office. The women of Oman are becoming global citizens. They take pride in their personal and professional lives. They have started steering their own ships. They can even sail now.

Stereotype Busters

I spent 10 years in North America. Most of those years came right after 9/11. I was a young Muslim kid then, and the anti-Islam onslaught that often used to dip in and out of anti-Arab and anti-Middle Eastern and often times outright racist sentiments confused me. It still does. Particularly how people used to say that Islam oppresses women. And to be honest, every time I had the opportunity to say something in return, I would bring up Oman. I grew up here and would use its example. I would say, but Oman is an Islamic country. Its ruler has even said that a country that ignores half of its population wastes 50% of its potential. When HM Sultan Qaboos first came to the throne, he established a school for girls where there had been none before. The women of Oman have inheritance rights, and they also get a dowry from their husbands. That is according to Islamic law. Omani women have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, flown aeroplanes, and raced horses in the desert alongside male competitors. Oman now has its first female sailing instructors. Omani women are everywhere – in the air, in the desert, on the seas. Take that, stereotype!

Fashionable Money

I have an Indian friend. She grew up with me in Muscat and has been living in America for over 10 years now. A couple of years ago she posted something close to this as her Facebook status: “…wants to go for vacation to a place where the dollar is strong and the accents are exotic!” My response was, “Kerala?” My friend had laughed (virtually). She’s part South Indian.

These have been some of the benefits of growing up Indian overseas. We’d earn in stronger foreign currencies and then be able to purchase more in India. What a system, it made us rich(er)!

But maybe this is just how people who are from countries where their currency is weak deal with things. They leave their countries to earn in better values. In dollars, pounds, euros. It’s become a tragic status symbol now to say ‘dollar’ with a pseudo-American accent that one is never able to perfect. It’s even been a stereotype in India for many years now – the arrogant but silly non-resident Indian who looks down upon the Indian rupee. Have I ever been grateful while in India for my family’s foreign currency savings? Yes. I plead guilty.

Creative Accounting

I do not have a background in finance. Sure, I took some accounting and finance courses at university in the United States, but I don’t really have much of an understanding of how these things work in the long run. I taught myself the basics of personal finance from a book when I got my first full-time job in America. I remember how learning to manage my own money had felt – exciting! I also felt appalled at how simple it was to save money and how being smart with finance was more about making changes in one’s lifestyle.

Does that apply to countries? I won’t pretend to understand national level economics, but I do remember how the financial crisis of the United States forced the government and the people to face that maybe they spent too much and saved too little. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential elections, I remember Barack Obama always saying that America’s financial problems could not be cured overnight because they had developed over a period of time. Maybe India needs to follow that approach with the rupee too. But I wouldn’t know really, I am not an expert in these things.

Exploitation Along the Food Chain

Every time I have come across fun items overseas that looked suspiciously Indian, I would locate their tag to confirm where they had been made. If their tag ever said ‘Made in India’ or even ‘Made in Pakistan’, I would drop any ideas of buying that item. Everybody knew that these items from my homeland and related countries were marked up ridiculously high in foreign countries. I can get this 20 dollar piece for like 200 rupees in India, I would tell myself. That’s like 4 dollars. And it’s true. It’s depressing if you think about how that happens. I don’t know if there aren’t any laws in the countries were these artisans live or if existing laws are just not implemented, but these highly skilled workers who work in cottage industries and pass their trade down generations get exploited by everybody. They do all the work by hand and earn almost nothing for the effort that goes into it. Most live hand to mouth and probably don’t even realize how much money middlemen and suppliers and folks along the food chain make at their expense. It’s frightening. Almost makes me want to buy from them directly.

Rage Against the Machine

I often wonder about people who produce art in any form – paintings, drawings, songs, movies, handicrafts, ideas even – and why they are exploited. I don’t know if this is a curse of the Industrial Revolution which changed the way we assess and value the skills of an individual. The Industrial Revolution changed the way industries functioned. Skills that could be measured by numbers and produced instant tangible results were given the most importance. That is why math and science suddenly shot up in importance, and the arts started being looked down upon. One had value if one could fit in somewhere along the production line, if one could take orders and produce products over and over without fail and without question. That brought down the artist who had been valued in the age before the Industrial Revolution whose job it was to ask questions and provide meaning to this rat race that our world has become. You can find these artists in places like Peetal Gali in Karachi whose art is slowly dying because the government doesn’t consider their contribution to society important anymore. It might look like a case of laissez-faire at first, but maybe it’s a symptom of something much worse.

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