Murray, Julia


Name: Julia Murray
Language: Arabic
Location of Study: Muscat, Oman
Program of Study: Center for International Learning (CIL) in Muscat, Oman- Arabic Intensive Summer
Sponsors: Center for the Study of Languages and Cultures

A brief personal bio:

I’m a rising junior majoring in Arabic and Philosophy, with a minor in Theology. I have been studying Arabic for almost two years and have recently gotten involved in writing for the Arabic newsletter on ND’s campus, as part of the Arabic club. In addition to the Arabic club, I am involved in SUB on campus and I am the liturgical commissioner for my dorm, Howard Hall. I have been lucky enough to have been able to travel to eleven different countries, but this summer will be my first trip to the Middle East! I am so excited to explore Muscat and work on my Arabic in Oman this summer!

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

My biggest expectation for this opportunity is to be immersed in the Arabic language; I look forward to learning about Omani culture and food and interacting with locals, but the reason that I am applying for this grant is to learn the language. I am extremely passionate about the Arabic language and I believe the only way to really learn a language, with all of its depth and nuances, is to immerse yourself in it. As I’m seriously considering applying for an Arabic Ph. D. program after undergrad, I want to study as much Arabic as I can during my time at ND. The main reason the SLA is so important is because I missed that first semester of Freshman year: the SLA would allow me to do an extra semester so I would be able to take 4th year Arabic. I really want to improve my language skills (especially speaking, as I think that is my weakest area) while I am in Oman.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

I am really hoping to build my vocabulary during my time in Oman and perfect some of the grammar concepts of the language. I am also looking forward to pick up some of the dialect, as we only study fus’ha Arabic at Notre Dame. Learning the dialect would be really great as I hope to able to work with native Arabic speakers in the future, doing counter- extremism work, and this would allow me to communicate with them in a much more casual, familiar way. In addition, I am looking forward to learning “every day”, colloquial phrases while in Oman, which I may not pick up studying at an American university.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

  1. At the end of my summer study abroad, I will be able to speak, read, write and listen at a level of proficiency equal to one semester beyond my current Arabic coursework placement at Notre Dame.
  2. At the end of my summer study abroad, I will know some local dialect vocabulary and be able to use colloquial phrases in conversation.
  3. At the end of my summer study abroad, I will have significantly improved my understanding of the major grammatical concepts of the language. 

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

I will be arriving a few days before classes start in Muscat in order to begin getting accustomed to the area and explore a little bit. I have also located a Catholic Church in Muscat which I plan to attend weekly, which I think will be great for building unique vocabulary and for interacting with local people. I also plan to write a blog in Arabic on my own in order to help develop my writing skills and share my travels with Arabic speakers from ND. Although I will be keeping this blog, my Arabic blog will allow me to use vocabulary that I learn while I am in Muscat and it is something that I can add to for future travels in the Middle East.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: 

Ahland wah sahlan min Oman! I started classes the Center for International Learning (CIL) in Muscat, Oman on Sunday this week! In Oman, because Friday is the Holy Day of Prayer, the work week runs from Sunday to Thursday.

On Saturday, we had a tour of the city of Muscat, beginning with the Bait Al Zubair Museum. This museum was a house of the Al Zubair family and now hosts many objects from their personal collection and other pieces of Omani history, including stamps, coins, weapons, traditional clothing, etc. There is also a building on the property in the style of traditional Omani houses, which are much less modern than the houses today. Until 40 years ago, most places in Oman did not have electricity! After touring the museum, we stopped in the gift shop to get fresh squeezed orange juice- a specialty in the Middle East!

After Bait Al Zubair, we went to Muttrah Corniche, the old city of Muscat, right along the coast. We were able to walk the grounds of Qasr Al Alam (His Majesty’s Royal Palace) and see the old city gates. We also got to explore the Muttrah Souk, a traditional Arab market. They sell many traditional Arab things like scarves, incense, perfumes, and traditional clothing for men and women. In the market, we got a chance to bargain with native Arabic speakers! Initially, they tried to speak to us in English, but when we kept speaking in Arabic they finally began to respond to us in the language. The souk was one of my favorite things in Oman so far- there are so many beautiful scarves and enticing smells, we could have stayed for hours!

Classes run from 8:30am until 1:10pm from Sunday to Thursday and are really intense, but I’m learning so much! My first class is reading and writing where we have been reading about Ibn Batuta, a famous Arabian explorer and will be presenting tomorrow on another explorer of our choosing! After that we have our grammar class, and then media. In media we read articles in Arabic on current issues (Women’s rights in Saudi Arabic, terrorist attacks in Egypt, etc) and then discuss them in our speaking class, which is the next period. We also learn a lot of media vocab in our media class and are encouraged to read the local newspapers with our new words. This has been a really great way to practice my reading skills and engage with the local culture.

This weekend we will take a snorkeling trip on Friday and then visit the Grand Mosque on Saturday. I will be sure to write about it next week! Ma’asalaama!

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

Ahlan isdiqa’ii! Every day after classes, we have either a meeting with our PF or a cultural activity from 2-4 pm. Today we learned about the Omani custom of coffee and dates. Men and women were split up in different rooms and shown how each would perform this custom.

For women, a large rug is laid out on the ground and the women sit around in a circle, with platters of fruit, dates (dried or fresh, depending on the season) and Omani coffee. When the guests arrive, they are greeted at the door by their host with “Assalaam alaykum” meaning “Peace be with you.” The guests reply “Wa alaykum assalaam” meaning “And with you peace.” The hostess then inquires after the guest and their direct relatives: father, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, grandmother, etc. The answer to this question, every time, is “Alhamdu lillah”, which is loosely translated to “Praise be to God!” This is a common answer meaning many things, one being “I’m satisfied”.

In almost every Omani situation, “Alhamdu lillah” is the appropriate and polite answer, sort of like “How are you- fine” in the US. How are you? Alhamdu lillah. How is your husband? Alhamdu lillah. How is school? Alhamdu lillah. How is your cat? Alhamdu lillah.

After the hostess has greeted all of her guests and they are seated, a small bowl of water is passed around the circle and all of the women dip the fingertips of their right hand in to cleanse them. In Arab culture, the left hand is seen as dirty and so the right hand is used for almost everything, especially in situations where you are eating or drinking. While everyone is washing, the hostess begins to cut the fruit that will be served: it must be cut in front of the guests so that they know you are serving them fresh food. If they receive it already cut, it shows that it is from the day before or earlier.

When all of the women have washed their hands, the dates are passesd around. We had dried dates at our coffee, but it is almost the season for fresh dates and those are also sometimes served! You receive the bowl with your left hand and take one date with your right hand, squeeze the seed out onto the rug (still with your right hand only) and then eat the date. I had never had a date before but I really liked it- it is a little leathery, but very sweet! At first you should take only one date, but usually women will have three. It is customary to take an odd number of dates (1 or 3) but considered rude to eat more than 3.

When everyone has had their dates, the coffee is served next. Omani coffee is served black with no sugar and in very small cups. It also has a unique flavor as it is spiced with cardamom. When you serve someone coffee in this setting, it is polite to fill the cup only halfway. This is an invitation to drink slowly and enjoy your time visiting. If the cup is full with coffee it symbolizes that your heart is full of hate towards that person and they should drink their coffee and then leave. A good hostess will always pour you more coffee when you are finished until you signal her that you are done by shaking your cup at her, which she will then take from you.

After coffee, (freshly cut) fruit is served to the guests on platters. It is appropriate to take one piece at first and, again, polite to eat no more than three pieces of fruit. If the serving plate begins to look empty, the hostess must cut more fruit to fill it as it should always be full. In the same way, if you do not have something in your hand, your hostess will insist that you take another piece of fruit and might even put one in your hand: as with everything else described, it is extremely rude not to accept any of this hospitality. Once everyone is done eating fruit, the hostess will invite the guests to stay for dinner. Although you can refuse, you must say something like “Maybe next time” in order to be polite, and your hostess may insist two or three times that you stay before you leave.

During the duration of this custom you must be talking! There should never be silence during coffee and dates! Even if you have already asked and you know the answer, you should be inquiring about peoples relatives, school, their house, etc. Again, the standard and polite answer is “Al hamdu lillah”.

The last part of the coffee and dates custom is incensing the guests before they leave. A small metal goblet is filled with incense, which they burn and incense your clothes and hair with. The hostess will put the incense burner underneath your clothes and hair, as you should be well- perfumed before you leave the house. The smell lasts for a very long time!

It was really cool to see and experience the coffee and dates ritual, even if it was in the context of the school. That’s all for today… ma’asalaama!

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

This morning we travelled to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (jama’a) in Muscat. Upon entering the grounds of the mosque, you are struck immediately by the beautiful gardens framing the huge golden dome that sits over the men’s prayer hall. The white sandstone that covers the mosque is so immaculately clean and beautiful. It really is beautiful.

We got a tour from a woman who works at the Islamic Information Center at the mosque. First, we deposited our shoes into cubbies and then proceeded to the women’s prayer hall. The women’s prayer hall (capacity of 600) is much smaller than the men’s (capacity of 6,000) and much more plain, though still extremely beautiful. They have a very plain brown and coral colored carpet, but absolutely magnificent chandeliers and stained glass windows. The chandeliers are from France and made of Swarovski crystals while the wood for the amazingly carved doors is Burmese. The marble in the prayer hall is all Italian, and only the stained windows are Omani. After this, we headed into the men’s prayer hall.

While I expected this to be a beautiful room, I was absolutely taken aback by its stunning beauty upon entering. The magnificence of this room cannot be captured in pictures, although I wish I could share it fully with you all. There is a huge chandelier of Swarovski crystals that sparkles and lights up the whole room, and it was the largest chandelier in the world when the mosque was completed in 2001. There are many smaller chandeliers around the hall, but they are nothing compared to the central piece. Surrounding the chandelier are gorgeous designs and calligraphies in cool blues, greens and white- it’s an extremely calming and peaceful color scheme. I cannot possibly describe all of the beautiful things in the men’s prayer hall, but the carpet is certainly worth mentioning.

The carpet in the hall is the second largest in the world (it was the largest, until a mosque in Dubai created one that was just a few square centimeters larger). It is filled with beautiful patterns, designs and Qur’anic calligraphy. It was woven over 4 years by more than 10 women and was brought to Oman by aircraft in 57 pieces and has more than 1 billion knots. It is absolutely gorgeous and (obviously) HUGE. It’s really quite an impressive thing to marvel at.

One of my favorite parts of visiting the mosque was making ablutions (wudhu). Wudhu is a ritual washing that Muslims perform before praying in order to be in a state of ritual purity before God. If you pray without making wudhu, your prayer is invalid. The women’s ablution room is separate from the men’s, as you must remove your hijab and roll up your sleeves to properly make wudhu. While cleansing, you wash each part f your body three times starting with your hands, then your right hand up to your elbow, your mouth, nose, face, hair, ears and then your feet. It was kind of strange to make wudhu, though our guide was very helpful in telling us how to do it properly, but it was also a cool experience. It’s a very beautiful idea to me, as a pretty devout Catholic, that you should cleanse your physical body, along with your soul and spirit, before approaching God.

After making wudhu and seeing a bit more of the grounds of the mosque, we went into the Islamic Information Center for coffee and dates (see my earlier blog post if this is unfamiliar to you!). During this time, our tour guide allowed us to ask her questions about Islam and the mosque and it was really wonderful. She clearly has a great passion or her faith and sees it played out in her daily life, which I have a lot of respect for. She also was very clear about women having equal rights in Oman and how important she thinks that is for society and how her religion supports that. I know that is a controversial topic, so for now I’ll leave it at that. Overall, it was a really beautiful experience at the mosque and I’m so glad I got to go.

Salaam for now!

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

So today I’ve decided to blog about why I decided to wear the hijab this summer in Oman. For those of you who don’t know, the hijab the name for the headscarf that Muslim women are required to wear, according to many Muslim scholars (some would argue that this is not required by the Qur’an, but that is a whole other blog post- maybe even dissertation!). Hijab also refers to the broader guidelines for Muslim women’s dress- this includes covering everything except the round of your face and your hands. Women should also not wear any tight clothes that would show their figure and their clothes must be opaque.

There are a lot of different ways to veil (this is a more normal term for wearing hijab, it doesn’t necessarily mean you cover your face). While some women in countries like Afghanistan and Iran wear a burqa (this covers your whole body, including a mesh netting over your eyes), the most popular way to veil in Oman is by wearing a hijab that covers your hair and neck and an abaya, a long (usually black) cloak, which I am wearing in this picture. There are so many gorgeous abayas here with fun designs, patterns and embroidery. The one I’m wearing here has some gorgeous gold embroidery on the sleeves! These abayas are actually really comfy in the heat here (it;s usually around 110 degrees!).

Before I talk about my own experience, I want to give you a short history of the hijab. Veiling actually predates Islamic culture in the Middle East: covering your hair and body was a marker of social status and respectability in Middle Eastern cultures, and was practiced by many early Christians and Jews. Women who did not veil or were scantily dressed were usually thought to be prostitutes or easily sexually available. The veil died out among Islamic culture over time but made a resurgence in the mid- 20th century as a reaction to the Westernization of Nasser’s rule in Egypt. In the mid-70’s we saw the Sahwah movement among young Muslims who were trying to reconnect with traditional Islamic values- widespread veiling soon followed in the Middle East and with Western Muslims. Especially in Egypt, the veil also became a powerful symbol of anti- Westernization in the Middle East, after many oppressive regimes which were supported by Western governments. The most salient example of this is the resurgence of the veil which was encouraged by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. So now the veil is extremely popular in the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia in Islamic cultures. It is also fairly popular for American and European Muslims, though not nearly as much as here.
Some people feel very strongly that the veil is a means of oppression of Muslim women. The common Islamic and Qur’anic argument for the veil is that women’s bodies naturally embody temptation, carnality and sin, so women must be the moral conscience of society and cover their bodies to protect them from the stares of men. There is a hiadith from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that states, “I have not left behind my any fitnah (temptation) more harmful to men than women” (al-Bukhaari, 5096).

Some feel that this argument teaches women to be ashamed of their bodies, as they are presented as evil and impure. Others take issue with the veil, not for it’s inherent purpose (modesty) but because there is an inequality between the requirements of dress for men and women. While women must cover almost their entire bodies, men must only cover from their navel to their knee. However, while many take issue with the hijab, others see it as a very liberating thing in the lives of women, especially within the context of the highly- sexualized Western culture.
The veil can be a very liberating thing for many Muslim women, in many ways. Firstly, it moves the attention of men, and others, away from physical beauty and forces the focus on their intelligence, wit and other internal qualities. Men cannot base their judgements of women based off of their physical appearance which allows women to feel as though they are respected and treated the way they are not because of their outer beauty, because of their inherent sanctity as humans. In this same way, the hijab, especially the burqa and the niqab, allow women to escape being seen as sexual objects, which is a big problem in Western culture (I really am not interested if you say this is not a problem… it is). There are no billboards here with women in bikinis trying to sell me a car or a phone (because that makes sense…). But there are also not men who are cat- calling women or staring at a body that is not theirs to see. Perhaps this is my devout Catholic showing, but I am a strong believer that your body belongs to you and to your spouse, and no one else should have the right to see it. As Jason Evert says, you should not lift the veil on your body until someone has lifted the veil on your head. I think the idea of the hijab really embodies this ideal.

On a slightly unrelated note, the hijab can also be liberating in that it allows for a sense of identity and belonging. Muslims can recognize other women by their hijab and they can also feel as though they are a part of something, just by what they’re wearing. Maybe you think that is a bad thing, but I see some good in it.

I decided to wear the veil this summer for a few reasons. First, I wanted to be immersed in the culture here and part of that is covering your body appropriately, but also, almost every Omani woman covers her hair- it is part of my assimilation into the culture into which I am being received. Second, my blonde hair is a bit conspicuous. If my blue eyes and white skin wasn’t enough to draw some extra attention, I didn’t want to give any more reasons for it. But third, and most importantly, I want to work with Muslims for my career in the future. I would feel really wrong going into their culture and religion and spouting off an opinion on the hijab if I had never experience wearing it myself. It is important to me to understand the experience of the women who I want to work with in the future.

My experience wearing the hijab in Oman has been wonderful so far. My female Muslim professors have really appreciated that I have decided to wear it for the length of my stay in Oman and that has been really encouraging. I have also enjoyed having something in common with them and the other women I have met here in Oman. It makes me feel as though we are not really so different, although we come from very different parts of the world and societies.

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

Today we ventured out to Nizwa, a city about two hours from Muscat that has been continuously inhabited for almost 4,000 years!

We began our journey at the Nizwa Fort, which is a large castle built in the 1650s and restored in the last 50 years to look like it’s original state. It’s pretty massive but also really, really cool. Besides walking around the roof and outside, there were also a lot of cool exhibits inside, including traditional room set ups.We also got to see the prison, souk and ablution rooms that would hav been used during the time the fort was in use. After walking around the fort for about an hour, we headed over to the Nizwa souk (a traditional Arab market). Here, Kailey and I bought some clay incense burners and frankincense to burn in our apartment (the smell of incense is everywhere in Oman, and pretty wonderful and addictive!). It was fun to barter and speak with the natives who worked at the souk and it was cool to see all of the beautiful things they had for sale- clay incense burners, beautiful silver coffee pots, and stunning silver jewelry.

After the souk we travelled another hour in a bus to get to the old city of Nizwa, where people are still living and thriving! We hiked around the city and got to see the gorgeous landscapes, some old ruins, the houses people still live in and the aqua ducts that run through the city. We hiked around for about an hour and half, taking in all the beauty that couldn’t possibly be captured on camera… but I tried!

Overall, it’s been an exhausting weekend but also amazing! I’ve had such a wonderful chance this weekend to take in all of the natural beauty and vastly different landscapes scattered through Oman as we also visited Wadi Shab, a swimming spot in the middle of the desert (it’s worth googling, it’s pretty gorgeous). I never imagined the country would be this naturally gorgeous and I’ve kind of fallen in love with it.

For now, isdiqa’ii, ma’asalaama!

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

Today, as I approach the end of my trip, I want to write a little bit about the little quirks and idiosyncrasies that make Oman the special place that it is.

One really distinctive thing that you notice immediately in Oman is the way that the men dress here. Almost every man in Oman wears the traditional dishdasha and the kuma. The dishdasha is a full length garment (like a tunic) with long sleeves, which is usually white, but some men also wear it in other neutral colors. The kuma is a cap, again, in a neutral color, that usually features some beautiful embroidery. If you want to read more about the hijab and abaya that women wear here, please see my previous post on that!

One quirky thing is that they don’t use napkins here (which seems especially shocking, as at traditional Omani restaurants you eat with your hands!). Instead, at every restaurant we’ve been to (except at the Ritz), they have a box of tissues on the table for you to use as a napkin. Also, I would love to introduce this country to paper towels because they are almost nowhere to be found. In most bathrooms they have sinks and soap, but no towels or hand dryers; luckily, because of the heat, your hands air- dry pretty quickly!

I would also like to take this opportunity to air my grievances with the traffic laws in Oman… First, there are roundabouts everywhere, which in theory I don’t have a problem with. However, no one uses turn signals when they are going to exit the R/A and people from both the inner and outer lanes exit the roundabout with no warning and no way to tell who is exiting and who is continuing on. “Why does this bother you, Julia?” you might ask. Well, on to my second grievance: there are no crosswalks anywhere in this great country. So you basically have to guess where cars are going and run across the street to cross and say a little pray that you’ll make it across alive. And we have definitely had some close calls with some speeding drivers. Usually we try to cross at the same time as the locals because they seem to have somehow figured out the most opportune times to cross: it’s a mystery how they’ve done it.

Another interesting thing about Oman, which is very different than the US, is that everyone loves their political leader, His Majesty the Sultan Qaboos. Sultan Qaboos took power, as absolute monarch, in 1970 after overthrowing his father and quickly became a beloved ruler as he totally changed the country for the better. As of 40 years ago, most homes in Oman lacked electricity and there were 3 schools (all for boys), but now the country is thriving, living at a wonderful standard of living and boasting about 1500 schools, for both boys and girls. Needless to say, Sultan Qaboos has brought many, many great things to the Omani people and they definitely show their love for him!

I think that’s all for today… Ma’asalaama!

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

I learned so much during my time in Oman, both about Middle Eastern culture and the Arabic language. As far as language learning, I learned a few new grammar concepts but, more than that, I really got a solid grasp on grammar concepts I had previously learned but definitely had not mastered. Arabic grammar is really tricky and has a lot of rules (and exceptions to those rules!), so this time at CIL helped me a lot in memorizing and learning those rules and nuances. Also, my vocabulary increased IMMENSELY: we had about 100-150 new vocab words EACH WEEK, which means I learned hundreds of new words during my time at CIL. In addition to that, interacting with my peer facilitators and other locals helped me pick up some new vocabulary, including learning some Omani dialect (each region in the ME has it’s own distinct dialect, which is only spoken, not written).

Culturally, I also learned so much more than I could have hoped for before starting my experience. You can refer to my previous posts if you’d like to read more about Omani hospitality or clothing. But even the smaller things were fun to learn, like groups of women shouldn’t laugh loudly in public, as it’s seen as being flirtatious; the same concept applies to sitting in the front seat of a taxi. Another interesting thing is that it’s only appropriate to use your right hand in most situations, like handing something to someone, receiving something, writing, drinking, eating, etc. The left hand is seen as dirty and is sometimes referred to as the “toilet hand”. Omani culture is definitely really different from that in the US, but I loved my experience there.

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

Overall, I had an amazing experience in Oman. Initially, I was very anxious about getting accustomed to the new culture, being surrounded by a language I was just barely basic in, not knowing anyone there and the heat! However, I bonded really well with my flatmates and the others in my program at CIL and I learned to love the Omani culture and customs. We found our favorite restaurants quickly, with waiters and owners who were happy to help us practice our Arabic, and we saw so many parts of Oman, which were vastly different from one another. We had tons of opportunities (which we took!) to practice our Arabic with locals, in taxis, at the souk and, of course, with our teachers and peer facilitators. I’m so glad that I chose to go to Oman over Jordan: Jordan of course has amazing things to offer to Arabic students, but I was happy to be in a place with a dialect that was slightly purer and to a culture that was a bit more traditional than that in Jordan. However, I do hope to travel there in the future!

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

Firstly, I plan to use my new language schools to enhance my departmental experience at Notre Dame. There is only so much you can learn in the classroom, and so I hope to use these new skills I learned being immersed in the language to contribute better to discussions and other activities in class. I’ve really solidified most of the grammar concepts that I’ve studied at Notre Dame and I’ve greatly improved my speed of speech and pronunciation.
Secondly, I hop to be able to contribute something about Omani culture to the Notre Dame Arabic Club’s culture nights! I’m not sure exactly which part for the Omani culture would best fit into this environment yet, but it is a seed of an idea that I have!

Lastly, I hope to use these new cultural experiences and language skills in future studies abroad in the Middle East and (hopefully!) Northern Africa. Now that I know appropriate ways to greet people and interact (especially as a woman), I would feel much more comfortable going into these cultures, though they are all certainly unique. And of course, I now feel more comfortable speaking to native speakers as I’ve had such wonderful practice and experience doing so.

One thought on “Murray, Julia

  1. Hi, Julia. I found my way here via searching ND references to Oman, and very much enjoyed your contribution here (your summer language profile, that is). I particularly appreciated your discussion of the hijab (I work and frequently live in the Gulf, and am often tempted to try it). Best, Charlotte Cable (class of ’01)