Eid Mubarak! It is the first day of Eid and has been one of the most overwhelming yet fascinating days of my trip so far.
Another word to describe this day? Food hopping: going from house to house and trying different dishes. The best way to manage this? Eat very little at each house. You WILL be asked to eat something everywhere you go, so to save yourself a stomachache, ration the amount you eat at each place.
I groggily woke up at 5 am because we had to leave the house at 5:30. Before leaving the house, my host father gave my host brothers and me each a Rial (as on Eid, people give children money (called eidi). The money, I was told, has to be new, as this holiday also represents starting anew. Also, don’t say no if people offer you money; it’s considered rude– fine with me! I actually made 7 Rials, which is $18.18!!). Everyone staying in the house greeted each other with “Eid Mubarak” and were dressed in their finest new clothes. My host father carried an assa (a decorative cane used for formal occasions) from my host mother. This morning she showed me how to wrap my hijab; I felt very Omani!
We drove into the interior part of Bahla to visit my host parents’ uncles house. The whole family was meeting there to start out the morning as he is the oldest in the family. As we drove to the house, I got an opportunity to see more of Bahla. The town is small and old. We drove by the fort as well as parts of the old wall. There are many small local shops packed together and we also passed by a bottle factory (which from the outside looks like a house). A new entrance gate to Bahla, designed by Sultan Qaboos, is currently being built, and we drove near that as well.
We came to the residential area, where most of the houses, with walls around them, sit on narrow streets. Many of the gates were open and I could see groups of people outside coming together for Eid.
At the uncle’s house, the women went to one room while the men, through a separate entrance, went to another. Now the fun began! Or by fun, I mean, more awkwardness and learning about Omani culture. I followed my host mother as we circled the room to greet people. Most people reached out a hand for me to quickly grab and each asked “Kaif halish” (how are you). In response I would either say “alhamduhlillah” (praise to God) or “bikhayir” (well) and would receive an “alhamduhlillah” in response. This was how all the greetings went between most people. I’m not sure if people even listened to the response as the conversation was the same with everyone!
My host mother led me to an area against the wall. We sat down there and I saw the two cousins my age. Whew! Some people I knew! Of course, though, they quickly got up to say their hellos (many shook hands, but if people were close they kissed on both cheeks. I tried to count how many kisses on each cheek, but for each person it was different. Still trying to get the hang of it). Everyone kept moving around to talk to different people; even the small children went around to shake hands. I asked my host mother what to do (if I should stand up to greet people or walk around) and alhamduhlillah, she said I can stay seated and got me brown sugar tea. I tried to blend in as I watched all the commotion. The women kept their abayas on and their hair covered but I could see that many had makeup on. The young girls did not have abayas and wore party dresses and sparkly shoes (though older girls leave their shoes at the door. This has been done in all the houses I have been in so far).
They brought out plates of rice with meat on top and people crowded around to eat. I had a little bit even though I wasn’t hungry yet and then they brought trays of fruit out. So much food at such an early hour! In about 45 minutes, however, my host mother told me it was time to go, so we said our goodbyes and went back to the car.
The next stop was for Salah (prayer). We went to a mosque only used for Eid. This mosque, however, was very interesting because it is not what I imagined as a mosque. It is a huge dirt lot which allows people to get together to pray during Eid. My host father and brothers went to pray while my host mother and I stayed in the car (as women do not go with them to pray). I saw women in a lot of the other cars near us. I saw men walking by also carrying assas as well as khanjars (traditional decorative Omani dagger). Fun fact: Sultan Qaboos went today with other foreign ministers to pray in the mosque in Muscat (and anyone could come and pray in the back!).
At about 7:20 am, my host family returned and we went to an area right outside the praying area. My host father explained that this area is a mini Souk only during this time at Eid. Imagine a dirt lot with some small stalls (or blankets on the ground with the items on it) with people selling toys and food. We walked by the stalls (set up because children just got money for Eid) and my host brothers bought a few toys. There were also a few small blow-up rides. Most of the people here were men, but there were also some women, all with their hair covered and abayas on. I was told that they also have Omani songs and dance but we didn’t stay for that.
Next stop? Al Hamra, the village that my host mother is from. This was about half an hour away and was beautiful. The area is very old and has the mountains as a backdrop. In fact, Jabal Shams (meaning “mountain of the sun”), the tallest mountain in Oman, is right next to this village.
We went to my host mother’s parents’ house and again, the men went into a separate area than the women. We walked to the back of the house to a shaded paved area. The weather was cooler here and quite pleasant. On the side was a big table covered in dates (as they grow them in their farm) laying in the sun to dry.
We sat down on a mat after saying our hellos and were served milk tea and haris (a wheat and chicken porridge). A few younger girls came and sat around us and laughed (though not in a mean way) as I tried the different dishes. We talked in broken English and Arabic for a bit. Many of them were wearing bright sparkly traditional Omani dresses.
After about 15 minutes we went inside to a room with a carpet on the floor and cushions all along the walls. In the center of the room, on the mat, lay a big tray filled with plates of fruit, sweets, dates, rice, and tea. Feeling overwhelmed, I sat down and tried to talk to some people. Everyone kept moving around and greeting each other as more people entered. Right as I started to feel comfortable with the current seating arrangement (I knew the people next to me and started to feel less nervous) everyone got up and moved around. It was like a stressful game of musical chairs. There were lots of babies and they were passed to different family members. I got to hold two! Then they started to cry…
I talked in Arabnglish (Arabic+English) to one of the sisters of my host mother and met a few girls my age. Luckily many people spoke some English, so I was able to communicate a little bit. All the women kept their hair covered, but most took off their abayas, revealing beautiful and ornately decorated Omani dresses. An interesting part was when the parents of a groom-to-be came into the room to talk to the bride-to-be. The women in the room started ululating and shouting. It was very exciting– and confusing as I had no idea what was going on.
My host mother told me to go outside to see the cutting of the meat. I saw a headless deer hanging and then man cutting it showed me its body as he pulled off the edible portions and put it in a bucket. Then a girl showed me the cow that they had just killed. Its head was lying in the corner and a man was digging out its insides. There was blood streaked on the ground. As interesting as it was, I hope I don’t have to see that again; I started to feel a bit nauseous and went back inside away from the smell of blood. What is cool about the killing of the animal, though, is that it is expected that more well-to-do families normally give some of the meat away to those less fortunate.
Inside I talked (kind-of) to a few more people and watched as people came in and others left. My host mother told me it’s time to go and we crossed the street to visit one of her brothers. He just got back from Algeria (he worked in the embassy there) and he bought a new beautiful house. The inside had stained glass doors and was nicely decorated. We sat on the floor around yet another tray filled with sweets and fruit. We were only there for a short time.
Our next stop was for me, actually. My host parents were really nice and wanted to drive up a smaller mountain so I could see the view. We drove to Misfat Al Abriyeen, a village on the mountain, which is mostly inhabited by farmers. This is a very old village and we walked through old corridors between the houses to an area that looked over the mountain. Alongside the mountain were many date trees. They were planted through terrace farming techniques. A stream ran alongside the edge on the mountain and opened into a pool in which young boys were swimming. This area was so beautiful: the water surrounded by date trees, and just past that, the view of the landscape and at the bottom, wadis. I was told that stream water (on the mountain) is used for everything: farming, washing, bathing, drinking, etc. I was surprised at how green everything was. We saw a few tourists (I suppose because it is so beautiful) as well as some small pots hanging from windows (I was told that these clay pots contain cool water for people to use).
We headed back to Bahla, and on the way stopped for a quick bite. My host mother gave me a traditional Omani sandwich: pita bread with cheese and Omani potato chips inside, and rolled up like a tortilla.
On the way back, my host brother taught me some new Arabic words and sang the song “Gangnam Style”. It was so funny. Most of the stores we passed were closed as during Eid, businesses stop (except for some mall stores in the big cities). In small villages, however, nothing is open.
Before going back to the house, however, we stopped at another point to look at the view of Bahla. I was so surprised at how green Bahla is (because of its many farms). I was also surprised that the fort is so big.
We went back to the house and my host family went to nap for a bit. I went to the living room to hang out with my host father’s parents and we drank Omani coffee and ate dates and other fruit. We sat around until about 1:30 and then some other family members came over. We hung out for the rest of the evening and different dishes were occasionally brought out.
I know I said I didn’t want to see any more dead animals, but I did see more. Since my host family is very big, they killed two cows for the occasion. Killing the animal is done by men, but they said I could come. I figured I might as well as it is an important part of Eid. They brought the first cow out and tied its legs together and then put it sideways on the ground. Then they cut its neck and skinned its body… yeah, you get the idea. I felt very sick watching the whole affair and couldn’t watch the killing of the second cow. Later the women chopped up the cow into small pieces to be cooked. I’m still a bit shaken from watching the killing as it’s the first time I have ever seen something like it. The boys there, however, had no problem watching it and were excited for the event. I suppose that since it happens every year, one gets used to it.
One thing I found interesting and quite different from the US is the way in which the meat was handled. In the US when handling raw meat, at least from what I’ve seen, people are very careful to not let the blood or raw meat touch anything. Here they killed the cow in the yard and as they carried its parts, blood dripped along the path (sorry for the graphic details!). They chopped the meat on the porch (on a tarp, but meat still got on the porch) and the women chopped the meat in their nice outfits. No gloves were used and some children picked up the meat and it was no big deal. I’m not saying that this method is inferior to that of the US, just that it is very different.
Later, more family members came and to make a long story short, the women sat together and talked. I had no idea what they were talking about for most of the time and started to get exhausted. We had dinner (beef) and though it was cooked well, I kept thinking about watching the cow die. It will take a while for me to be able to eat beef again.
We sat around for a little more time and people gradually began to leave. I’m exhausted; it was an exciting, stressful, and rewarding day. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!