December 28, 2017 | Katherine Adams
Ten University of Houston-Clear Lake students and three professors will begin the New Year by boarding a plane bound for a life-changing, ten-day study trip to Oman. The journey, which takes place Jan. 4-14, is UH-Clear Lake’s second annual trip to the Sultanate, and includes visits to most major historic and religious sites in Oman, excursions to major cities and mountain villages, an overnight stay in the Sharqiya desert, and meetings with Omani government officials.
Associate Professor of Anthropology and Cross Cultural Studies Maria Curtis, who will be making her third trip to Oman and a second with UHCL students, said that the average American doesn’t understand how westernized the Arab Gulf countries are. “They’re depicted as dangerous and off limits, but the truth is, many Omani students come to the U.S. or to the United Kingdom to complete their education,” Curtis said. “They share our ideas, our academic aspirations, and they’re often more technologically advanced than we are in teaching and research at times. We share a similar world view and educational philosophy, and our exchanges have been very meaningful.”
The trip to Oman was developed as a result of Curtis’ prior visit there with the National Council on U.S. and Arab Relations. One of the trip’s main learning objectives, Curtis said, was to demonstrate that the reality in some Middle Eastern countries is far different from what is perceived by Westerners and in the mainstream media. “When I was a graduate student, the Arab world was in a totally different period of relative calm,” she said. “You could travel almost anywhere without any problems. But since the Arab Spring in 2011, there’s been increased instability which means there are fewer countries where students might travel.”
Curtis explained that Oman, due largely to its religiously tolerant and progressive leader Sultan Qaboos Bin Said al Said, is ranked as the fourth-safest country in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. “Oman has experienced nearly zero impact from terrorism, and that’s probably attributable to its leader, Sultan Qaboos,” she said. “It’s 47 years old as a country, and it’s got a very unique track record. Internally, Oman is a very stable country. It’s one of the few places in the Middle East where you can see a church, a mosque, a synagogue and a Hindu temple all next to each other with communities overlapping in social life and in the workplace. Oman is a conservative Muslim country, but they have a track record for tolerance, which is actually one of the core teachings of the Quran. It’s really fascinating to see this in action.”
It's part of the reason Audrey Ewer, 21, was attracted to going on this study trip. “I took Dr. Curtis’ Cultural Diversity class and I learned that a mosque, a temple, a church and a synagogue could coexist peacefully by each other, and it’s that diversity that I wanted to see for myself,” she said.
Ewer, who already holds a bachelor’s degree, one master’s degree from UHCL, and a law degree from University of Houston, is working toward her second master’s degree in general behavioral science, and anticipates a spring 2018 graduation. She said that a significant part of behavioral science is the study of psychology, anthropology and sociology. “I was taught by my mother to respect other cultures and learn about them, and I wanted to further my travels on the globe,” she said. “In Oman, I hope to gain more perspectives about the diversity of people, and have experiences I have never had before.” Ewer said she had already traveled extensively around the world, but had never been to the Middle East. “I also teach sociology at San Jacinto Community College South, and I communicate my experiences with my students,” she said. “I like to be well traveled and be around people in their setting. It’s fascinating to read about a place and then see it firsthand. Nothing compares to seeing something with your own eyes.”
“I teach a class called Gender, Media and Diplomacy in the Arab World,” Curtis said. “Students ask a lot of questions about why Muslims are so extreme. I teach students how to read and interpret the Arab media, because we tend to blame the media for everything. They come to better understand the Arab world by following media from the region.”
One of the most important highlights of the trip is a meeting with Oman’s Minister of Culture, a close Adviser of the Sultan. “We are working toward creating a minor in museum studies at UHCL that would combine anthropology, archaeology, tourism and preservation studies,” Curtis explained. “It’s our hope that we can create a long-term bilateral relationship that will allow students to participate in archaeological digs and work in museums in Oman. We’re hoping to build a foundational relationship there so students can benefit and study in Oman for longer periods of time.”
Curtis said that as a woman, she’d always been fascinated with learning about Oman. “In Oman women work, drive, and are highly educated and excel in their careers in highly visible ways. They also enjoy benefits sand maternity policies that support women throughout the stages of their lives and careers,” she said. “The Omani ambassador to the U.S. is a woman, Her Excellency Hunaina Al Mughairy. They are socially conservative and women do dress modestly outside the home, although they aren’t required to cover and there is no ‘religious police’ enforcing clothing rules. You do not sense a lack of women’s rights in Oman, and that’s another attribute of the Sultan’s style of governing and his philosophy about the future of his country. In fact it is just the opposite, they are highly successful and work in all sectors.”
She added that although Omani women were modest in their dress, they were still very active on social media and had no hesitation about circulating images of themselves. “Because it’s a conservative Muslim country doesn’t mean they lack rights or are unwelcoming,” Curtis said. “It’s great to watch students understand that and when they get a taste of it, they’re fascinated.”
For more information about UHCL’s study abroad programs, visit www.uhcl.edu/academics/study-abroad/