Omani Culture: Overview & Aspects
Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007
The Sultanate of Oman has confirmed its abilities through its cultural associations (1) and clubs, theater groups (with 17 independent theater ensembles), 46 music bands (2), (incl. the Oman Symphony Orchestra), as well as traditional folk music groups, state libraries (3) particularly the Library for Manuscripts and Documents that has gathered over 4,300 manuscripts since its founding, the oldest dating back to the year 1228. The museums also contributed to the cultural events of the year, especially the National Museum, the Museum for Natural History, the Children‘s Museum and the Sultan Ahmed Museum. Worth mentioning are also the exhibits of traditional handicraft, the book exhibits and a special series of books by Omani writers with the logo of the “cultural capital.” It was a year of more or less checking everything that the Sultanate of Oman had supported and implemented in the areas of education and training. These achievements are all the more to be appreciated because a young nation did them, which in 1950 had only 500,000 people, in 1980 a million and in the year 2006 barely reached a population of three million. It also testifies to the dominating relative tolerance that consolidates the unity of the population in its great diversity, because it is composed of 75 % Omanis (mostly Arabs, the remainder Baloch, Pakistani, Bengali, Indians and Pilipinos). In the northeast of the country live also Omanis of East African origin (Zanzibar) who also speak a Swahili dialect. The cultural relations between Oman and the culturals it borders has been an continuing and living reality since antiquity. After Islamization, even as early as the time of the Prophet, Oman‘s growing sea power was decisively involved in the spread of Islam to India and China. Archaeological excavations that have been pushed forward by the Sultanate for the last three decades have brought clear historical evidence of this close cultural exchange. Many of these Archaeological finds can be seen today in local museums. They contribute to historically conscious generations growing up in Oman in social and cultural tolerance. In his recently published work, “Historic Mosques and Shrines of Oman” the architect and historian Paolo Costa (4) wrote, “The Islamic and Ibadi society in the interior of Oman is an harmonic unity in and of itself. This is evident in the firm social structure based on the ancient tribal order. It is also geographically defined between the desert and the costal region. “These harbor, especially the most populated area of Al Batinah, a large number of social groups of other religions (Baloch, Sunni, Persian, Indian and Shi‘ites from Bahrain, as well as further Shi‘ite sects in the South, i.e. the Dhofar district). Up until a century ago, a small Jewish community also live there.” Despite this mosaic-like spread of communities and their associated cultural enrichment in language and literature, in religious sites and traditions, Ibadi Islam (5) remains the dominating political and cultural power in Oman. The Arab culture also remains dominant without suppressing the other cultures or barring international cultural influences. This is testified to by the lively involvement in international cultural events, including the participation of the “Salalah Theater Company” at the World Cultural Festival in September 2004 in Germany and Oman‘s taking part in the Frankfurt Book Fair. Of particular value was Oman’s participant as the only Arab country in the “39th Smithsonian Centre for Folk life & cultural Heritage’s Festival,” Washington‘s largest cultural festival. The public was enthralled by the Omani dances, songs and traditional costumes. An active cultural movement is also in progress in Oman its self; from the holding of various festivals for film, theater and lyric poetry to critical debates about what it is that is dominating culture and society in the country. A new generation of intellectuals, writers, and poets have grown up in the country itself, who are committed and critical of the outdated traditional and customary way of thinking standing in the way of social development. One of these rising young intellectuals is the Omani poet Seif El-Rahbi. At the end of March 2007 he was staying in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he was honored for his works. Afterwards, on March 27, he expressed himself in the Arab newspaper, Al -Hayat (6) about the role of Omani intellectuals in Omani society. He also discussed the role of other Arab intellectuals in
treatment by Dr. Isam Haddad
(1) The government supports native cultural associations and centers like the Cultural Club and the Oman Society for Fine Arts, as well as those of other Arab and foreign communities.
(2) There are 23 music schools in the Sultanate.
(3) To date, there are 48 independent libraries in Oman.
(4) The book “Historic Mosques and Shrines of Oman” written by the architect and historian Paolo Costa, was published by the “Ministry for Foundations and Religions, and was translated from the English into Arabic by the scholar Dr. Abdallah Al-Harassi.
(5) Ibadi Islam began in the 7th century A.D. (i.e. in the first year of Hijrah) in southern Iraq and spread over wide areas of the Islamic nation, as well as in Mecca and Medina. It lost strength and influence with time because of internal disputes and battles between the centers of power, the caliphs and the local seats of power. It did remain, although, the dominating political power and religious denomination in the interior of Oman, in Hadramaut (Yemen) and for a few tribes in North Africa (from
Libya to Morocco). Ibadi Islam established itself in Oman as the dominating political and religious power.
(6) Page 26 : Interview with the Omani poet Seif Al-Rahbi in Jeddah
Almost a third of the population are pupils and students
In 2006, 75.8 % of the population was able to read and write; 83.1 % of them were men and 67.2 % women. At the end of 2005, the total number of schools was 1,120 (142 of them private schools). The total number of students was 602,000 (25,000 in private schools). The number of state educators was ca. 29,000 Omani women and men. Along side the Sultan Qaboos University with a total student population of 13,000 (2004-2005), there are today three private universities in Nizwa, Sohar, and Dhofar, plus 15 private specialist colleges, with 13,778 students registered in 2003-2004. Additionally, in the academic year 2004-2005, ca. 12,820 Omani male and female students were studying abroad. The thousands of girls and boys enjoying vocational training in various training centers should also be taken into account. These are supervised by different ministries and sponsored by local and foreign private firms.
Interview with the Omani poet Seif Al-Rahbi in Jeddah
ALHAYAT: in one of your articles in the cultural magazine “NIZWA” you blamed Arab academics living in Muscat for the cultural decline in Oman; furthermore, your estimate of the possibility of a cultural rebirth in your country in the near future sounded very pessimistic.
AL-RAHBI: What I have experienced from the countrymen of other Arab nations, particularly graduates of some Egyptian universities, is the opposite to the direction that we represent and are trying to propagate in “NIZWA” and in other magazines. We expected and hoped that they would stand with us with articles and proposals for reforms and renewal of our society, which is turned in towards itself and is dominated by Salafitic thought. Their articles were very negative. Many have come to terms with the dominant culture that is long outdated and ineffective. They stand opposed to any kind of renewal and further development of the Omani culture. That led to fierce debates and discussions about these academics and their role in the cultural scene in Omani society. And despite all that, the enlightenment and renewal movement has proceeded, and to our gratification, not without a certain success.
ALHAYAT: How would you describe your relationship to Omani poets and writers?
AL-RAHBI: Many of them, poets, storytellers, and writers, are friends of mine. I would like to draw attention here to a new phenomenon; there is a group of writers, novelists, and essayists in Oman that are following new paths at the Gulf as well as pan-Arabic level that should be closely watched. There is virgin territory, even for academics and professors of literature in the area of academic research. There are examples in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In Oman it is all about truly progressive fundamental work on the Omani as well as Arab cultural level.
From the newspaper, ALHAYAT No. 16062
from March 27, 2007