In search of understanding a culture that many of us may know little about, 20-year-old Janelle Thixton traveled across the world to satisfy her curious mind. Last August, the 2009 Eastern High School graduate returned home after spending two months in the Middle Eastern country of Oman. Last week she flew 24 hours back to Oman where she will live with a host family for three and a half months.
Thixton said she'd been interested in studying the Arabic language post 9/11. "I wanted to understand the script and what they (Muslims) were saying. I wanted to be able to understand it for myself, instead of what everybody else was saying," she said.
Thixton said she "fell into" studying the unique language during her sophomore year at DePauw University when her schedule was full. "I didn't have room for another class, but then my advisor told me I didn't need calculus and would be able to take Arabic," said Thixton. Things seemed to fall into place from there. A professor informed her about the Critical Language Scholarship for studying abroad, for which she applied and received a full ride to explore the Middle East.
Thixton traveled with 50 adults from the U.S. government to the Mideast last summer. Stepping off the plane, she said, was an immediate culture shock. "First of all it was so incredibly humid," she said, describing the unbearable heat of Oman saying it felt like they were "swimming in soup." The average temperature is 107 degrees, and easily rises between 115-120 degrees.
"Another thing was that we arrived on a Friday, which is everyone's day off, that was overwhelming," she said. She said they visited a hypermarket shortly after landing, which is like Walmart times three.
Thixton talked about the Omanian people being very laidback and generous. "It's a friendly culture, there's very little violent crime or even property damage. I felt very safe there," she said. While there she began wearing their traditional clothing, which consists of an abaya and head scarf. "They were always very kind. I noticed when I began wearing their clothing that it definitely opened conversation."
According to Thixton, complimenting one's appearance is not important in the Muslim culture. "They don't really understand when you tell them 'you look nice today,'" she said. "But you don't want to compliment something in their house either because they will just give it to you!" She said the Omanian way is to show respect to their guest. "When they demand to pay for something, you must let them do it, they consider it very rude if you don't."
A sort of "social policing of behavior" also exists. "You get arrested for yelling at someone, it is not tolerated," Thixton said. The Omanians have a code of conduct that must be abided by the Omanian people. Thixton added as an American she was semi-exempt from this rule. Although, she did state that Americans who act unruly are told to leave the country immediately.
During her last week in Oman, Thixton was proposed to by the owner of the juice shop her friends frequented. "While we would wait to get our drinks we would talk to him," she said. Thixton said the Egyptian owner wanted a Visa to come to the U.S, at one point even asking her to marry him. "I just sat there in amazement and then quickly left...we will not be going back to that shop again!" she said.
The man's behavior violated his country's code of conduct. "Men and women have separate spheres. He was not only outstepping his professional grounds, but intruding on me personally," Thixton said. "It did, however, make for a good story," she laughed, adding that she posted the awkward scenario on her Facebook page.
Thixton also touched on the tradition of women wearing the veil. The majority of Muslim women wear a veil, or most commonly known as the hijab, that covers half of their face. The literal meaning of hijab is to cover or screen. The hijab frees women from being thought of as sexual objects of desire or from being valued for their looks, or body shape rather then their minds and intellect. Women make the choice to wear the veil, but are often forced to defend, not only their decision to cover, but also their religion in the U.S.
"It is a choice. Women have the right to cover their face...cover their body, they choose. In the U.S., one is suspected if you wear the veil, in Oman you will be ostracized for not wearing one. The key here is the freedom to choose," Thixton said.
Part of Thixton's studying abroad course this semester, while back in the states, is to talk about her experiences in Oman to students and encourage them to take a foreign language. "I hope this motivates students and interests them in the world and other languages," she said. "I want them to know that if I did it they can do it too, there are resources available."
Thixton said going to Oman has taught her to have a greater respect for other cultures and a better perspective on the world. "It's important to keep in mind when traveling we are not better or worse than anybody else. The Muslims just live differently than we do, and to call them 'less than' is pure ignorance," she said. "I treasure the culture and treasure the Omanian lifestyle. I found something beautiful in their simplicity and can't wait to go back."