Enjoying Omani Hospitality and Keeping Kosher
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
I love the Middle East, it’s cultures, heritages, histories, and peoples. But outside of Israel, my travels here have always been difficult. I am Jewish, and as a visibly observant Jew, my presence has never gone unnoticed. I get cold stares and unwelcoming glances, and I can feel the distance engineered between myself and those around me. So with these experiences in my mind, I was completely astounded when we arrived in Oman. As the many people we met with have repeatedly said, Oman is a country that respects peoples of all faiths and welcomes them with tremendous warmth. Coming from the countries directly involved in the conflict, it was liberating and comforting.
Our first night in Oman we were graciously welcomed into the home of Sheikh Abdullah al-Rawas, the former chairman of the Omani Chamber of Commerce. His home was immense and very beautiful, and we were welcomed into his sitting room where the fellows introduced themselves and talked a bit about their studies. Soon we were joined by the former US ambassador and current US ambassador who similarly inquired after our backgrounds and about the nature of our program. As there are eleven fellows accompanied by Professor Rosenblum and his assistant Nashwa, it was difficult to maintain a group-wide discussion, and we moved into the main hall for a wonderful dinner. Upon first entering the room, I was astounded by the tremendous amount of food laid out in front of us. Maggie, our guide throughout our travels in Oman, had told me previously that it was Omani custom to welcome guests by providing an abundance of food far beyond what will be consumed as a gesture of welcome, but I was still shocked by the incredible spread in front of us.
The other fellows were delighted by the foods in front of them, and began to sample the different dishes. For me, the task at hand wasn’t as simple. As a religious and observant Jew, I have taken it upon myself to observe the Jewish dietary laws, called “kashrut”. It’s become a joke on our program that outside of Israel, what can be consumed by myself and the two other fellows who observe “kashrut” is bunny food, uncooked vegetables and bread composed of essentially only flour and water. So when I looked at the Sheikh’s spread of food before us, I had difficultly finding things to eat. Because it was our first day in Oman, and I didn’t know just how wonderfully different Oman was from where we’d come from, I wasn’t particularly keen to announce that I was Jewish and that my dietary restrictions made it nearly impossible to enjoy the Sheikh’s hospitality. I had the great honor of sitting across from the Sheikh, but I also had the great task of being able to follow my beliefs while not insulting a man who showed us tremendous hospitality by inviting us into his home and feeding us. Hospitality is of course one of the greatest cultural practices among Arabs, and refusing hospitality is a tremendous insult.
I begun dinner by discretely ritually washing my hands and quietly saying the blessing over bread. Almost immediately the Sheikh noticed how little I had on my plate and urged me to sample the many wonderful dishes in front of me. One of the fellows sitting next to me, aware of my predicament (and conveniently fluent in Arabic) immediately jumped in. He explained to the Sheikh that I was Jewish, and had certain dietary restrictions that limited my ability to enjoy what he had put before us. I was a bit nervous, attempting to understand my friend’s Arabic, and immediately tensed up upon hearing “yehud”, the Arabic word for Jew. To my immense surprise, the Sheikh communicated back through my friend his understanding, and explained the various salads and vegetable dishes on the table in an attempt to find something I could eat other than bread. He explained how important it was for all peoples to get along, especially since we all have come from the same father, from Abraham. His gesture had a tremendous impact on me, and not only demonstrated how engrained in Omani culture acceptance and respect are, but about how important they are to be able to enact change.
The tremendous strife and pain prevalent throughout the region will only disappear when all peoples make the attempt to understand and respect one another and build towards a better future for all. Oman is far from being a perfect country, but the values it holds are instrumental in helping to engineer a brighter future for the entire region. Many told us in our time in Oman that creating peace in the region was of the utmost importance to the Sultan. With the creation of the coalition government between Fatah and Hamas, the election of a right-wing conservative as Israeli’s next president, the re-election of Bashar al-Assad, and the election of President Sisi, it is of the utmost importance that others in the region start working towards creating an atmosphere of respect in their own societies.
Jennifer Koshner is a member of the 2014 Ibrahim Cohort.