beer bizarre

So a few weeks ago, I wrote about activities that are considered haram is Muslim countries in hopes of teaching friends, families, and followers about the interesting country we currently call “home.” Here I am at it again. But this time it’s about a product Rob and I have a deeper affinity for (at least more so than bacon or speeding on the highway)– beer!

Oman is one of the Muslim-majority countries that allows non-Muslims to enjoy libations. Whether it’s because they want to increase tourism, relish the taxes generated from alcohol sales, or just because they are open-minded, I don’t know what the reason is. And quite honestly, I don’t really care why Oman has an open alcohol policy. But I am happy and thankful to live here just the same because sometimes, a nice cold Belgian beer or a tall glass of South African Shiraz is just the antidote required after a long day.

So, here we are in a slightly dry country learning the ins and outs of how to purchase a drink which requires a bit of work.

First, you need to get a liquor license. Yes! A LICENSE to buy. And to get said license, you need to first become an Omani resident. With that resident card in hand, you then go to the police station with a smattering of paperwork (including a letter from your employer that states your salary as you’re only granted permission to spend up to 10% of your salary on alcohol). Once you’ve paid a fee, signed some documents, and submitted passport-size photos you are granted a license.

 

And…you’re nearly there.

Alcohol is hidden in shops with blacked out doors and no windows! Like this:

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Dodgy, right?

Once through the doors you arrive in a mecca (bad choice of words) of alcohol products. Beers. Wines. Spirits. Oh my!

Most beers are sold by the case (because why buy 1 when you could buy 24?). But you better be satisfied with your choices because your liquor license authorizes you to spend only up to a specific amount of money per month and not a rial more. This limit (which is listed in your license and tracked without error) makes shopping for alcohol a planned activity. Questions like How many beers do we have at home? or Do you think they’ll prefer red or white with dinner? are actual conversations people need to have before entering through the bulky black doors.

The other thing we’ve learned is–you don’t waste your purchase power! If you are allowed to spend 50 OMR ($129/€116) per month, you spend it! You spend ever baisa (read: cent) you have been allotted because your unspent limit doesn’t roll over from month to month. And since you can’t just go and pick things up when the last minute game night is planned–you’ll need to hoard a few drinks in your cupboards. You need a mini stockpile to get you through the dry month of Ramadan or those evenings when you invite 20 people over for dinner so you can offer them a caipirinha or an after dinner drink.

And once you understand the license, the limit, and the planning issues you’ve got one more thing to consider. How do I get it home? The secret is the black plastic shopping bag. It is this miracle item (accompanied by your receipt and license) that allows you to transport your purchases home (the only legal place you are allowed to consume) without anyone knowing what you’ve got in there. Yeah right!

For tourists and those out and about, alcohol is available at hotels and restaurants around the city… at a price. I think a delicious (yes, I’m being sarcastic) Budweiser or Corona will run you about 2.5 OMR ($6.5/€5.8) so your best bet is to have a drink at a friend’s house.

That said, the country has a NO TOLERANCE policy for drunk driving. Driving under any influence of alcohol can result in immediate jail time and huge fines.


Anyway, we’ve got it all sorted out. We’ve now got a mini stash for your upcoming visit (hint, hint).

On a side note, I’m not sure if I should have called this post the Beer Bizarre or Beer Bazaar because buying and drinking alcoholic beverages in Oman can be a bit of both!

pork, the other white meat

Every country, culture, and religion has rules. Each group has behaviors that they deem wrong or abhorrent. In Arabic, they have a word for it–haram. To do something that is haram is to do something forbidden, offensive or objectionable to Islamic law. In other words, you are participating in an act that is considered “against Allah.” As an American Catholic, there are loads of things that are considered forbidden or taboo in my country, culture, and religion. For example:  I don’t eat dog. I don’t steal or cheat. I recycle. And I try really hard not to speed. You get my drift… don’t you?

In Oman, rules are much the same as I’ve experienced in other countries: Don’t break the law, be respectful, pay your taxes, blah, blah, blah. For us, this translates to simple rules like: don’t run red lights, cover your shoulders and knees, and pay your electricity bill. So honestly, I’m not too bothered.

But last weekend, my personal desires and cultural experiences conflicted with those in my host country. For Rob’s birthday, he had requested a full breakfast with eggs, toast, potatoes, and… yup! You guessed it–bacon! We desired a haram product.

Though the Sultanate of Oman follows Muslim traditions outlined in the Qur’an, this beautiful country is totally open to my different views. Even though Omanis don’t drink beer or eat pork, they’ll allow me to as long as I do it in a respectful and private manner. But how do you buy food respectfully?

Not far from our house (in a small expat bubble) one can find the Al Fair Supermarket which, I have come to find out, is a mecca for all things imported! Between the Aunt Jemima’s syrup, Pillsbury cake batters, and vast array of junky cereal options, I could find many American and British comfort items our family desired… at a (rather astronomical) price! But walking through the doors of Al Fair, it was not the cereal and syrup on my mind. The rumored “Pork Shop” was what I was after.

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Hidden away in the back corner of the meat section is the “Pork Shop”. With only a sign on the wall as a guide, this room allows me, a non-Muslim expat, to purchase items that my religion, political affiliations, and culture do not view as wrong.

But what I saw upon entry was not what I had imagined. What I thought would be a small smattering of bacon, sausage, ham, and pork chops was, instead, a room teeming with other stuff.

What shocked me more than the prices (bacon purchase: 220 grams/8 ounces for 2.5 OMR/$6.5/€5.8) were the shelves of this small space. The middle aisle and shelved walls were festooned with products that I have seen on most American supermarket shelves– Jell-O, Heinz beans, Jiffy corn muffins, Hunts soup, Pop-Tarts, Fruit Loops, marshmallows, and similar quick consumables! What the heck were these items doing in the “Pork Shop?”

So I came home and started on a quest for answers. How many products have I purchased without knowing what they were truly made of? I came across this interesting article written by Ifrah Jimale (a Muslim who tries to educate herself about American food products). In her post, Jimale talks about how hard it can be for Muslims to navigate a western grocery store because so many items included pork derivatives (mostly gelatin). Little did this consumer know, but a number of center-of-the-store food companies have begun altering their food recipes to accommodate for global migration trends and dietary needs. Apparently, recipe revision is the reason some Pop-Tarts are found in the junky cereal aisle in Muscat and not in the “Pork Shop.” How thoughtful for companies like Kellogs, Heinz, and Mars to substitute beef gelatins or petroleum for pig products–um, eww!

All that learning behind me… I got my bacon! I came home, cooked a fabulous breakfast followed by another haram item– beer (though I’ll write more about that later!), and had a lovely birthday weekend.

When all was said and done we had nourished our bellies and our brains. Learning a lot about center-of-the-store food was an eye-opener for this mama. But learning how open my host country is to allowing me to consume products they view as haram was a priceless education.

 

a week in Oman

Today marks the first whole week we’ve been in Muscat, Oman. The flights from Amsterdam – Abu Dhabi – Muscat were easy peasy though Rob’s beard caused some issues and required extra security checks (sigh).

Within 24 hours of arrival in the country, our shipment arrived and a crew of hot and sweaty men emptied the container, delivered everything to our 3rd floor apartment, and unpacked hundreds of boxes (did we really have that much stuff?!) Within a week, we had everything put away in it’s new home (where did I put the coffee again?!?!) and are just trying to figure out where to place all of our artwork.

This week has been a whirlwind of businessy stuff. Rob completed medical checks, received his resident card, and participated in a boat load of orientation work. The kids and I continued to get things settled and made friends with the neighbor kids (who just moved here from China). At night, we explored the city’s vast malls as we stocked our fridge and pantry with necessities.

Each adventure out of the house has been an exercise in patience. Our waze GPS has been helpful but when she urges us to turn right, we’re not sure which right she’s referring to as intersections include a menagerie of right turns, most of which lead you on to some expressway or on to the wrong side of a concrete divide. We’ve definitely spent more time going in the wrong direction than in the right one!

New staff orientation visits have included drinks (read: beer!) at the American Club, a traditionally lavish meal at Kargeen, and our Australian buddy, Peter, inviting us to visit the fish souk early Saturday morning.

The fish souk near the port in Mutrah (about 15 minutes from our house) is a real working market. Though smaller than I had imagined, it gave me a real insight in to the size of Muscat (small) and the Omani people (friendly!). The vast amount of fish (tuna, squid, shrimp, shark, lobster, mackerels, and sardines) was impressive, but the genuineness of the place was unmatched. We tromped through salt water strewn floors and negotiated our purchase with Omani men perched on small benches (the occasional cat eating a small fish at their feet). For 1+ kg of tuna and 1 kg of shrimp, we walked out having spent just under $20 with the idea of dinner quickly taking form in our mind.

Just a few kilometers down the road, we were enjoying fabulous views of beaches, forts, and mountains all while trying to add as many locations to our GPS as places we have to get back to!

Can’t wait to see what fun week #2 brings!