America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

Into the Land of Frankincense and Myrrh

The following is a post from AUA Mosaic Fellowship recipient Heather Saenz. Heather is spending a year in Oman, working with Omani youth through AMIDEAST and AIESEC. To find an amazing volunteer opportunity, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today.

My name is Heather Saenz. I’m American from here* and there**, but soon will live far away in Salalah, Oman.

“For my father and mother

who introduced me to Syria

(Beirut and Jerusalem, Easter 1966)

and for Iason

who allowed himself to be introduced

(Aleppo and Beirut, Easter 1996)”

– Garth Fowden, introduction page of “Qasay’r Amra: Art and the Umayyad Elite in Late Antique Syria” (2004, UC Berkeley Press)

In 2007, my life and relationship with the MENA region was forever changed by one 15-minute slide.  This journey began in an ordinary college lecture hall in California with an unassuming name (ARTS2K: Visual Arts of Islam) and the most moving work of Islamic art which I’ve ever encountered – Qusayr’ Amra.

Hand-drawn map from my travel journal of Bab-Touma Square, Damascus, Syria: Week #1

Qusay’r Amra (circa 711-15) served as an estate of the Umayyad elite and their entourage on the fringes of the present-day east Jordanian steppe. From my eyes as a second-year art history student, the site’s designs embodied the complexities and intertwined influences of the Islamic world. Frescos of Greco – Roman nudes, Zoroastrian astrological zodaics, Greek inscriptions, and Iranian-style royal portraits unite from wall-to-wall as a testimony to the region’s cultural identities. Little did I know, I would follow the words of my favorite research text and defiant pleas of my parents to Damascus, Syria three years later.

Visit 360 Qusayr’ Amra Virtual tour– the closest experience to the site from home and a personal favorite.

Akin to my impressions of Qusay’r Amra, the nation’s mélange of cultures, religions, languages, and politics. On the bus stop on my way to class, I stood above an ancient Roman arch, between a medieval church and a street noted in the Bible located across from a modern mosque and an occasional goat market. Syrian and Iraqi Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi from the Iranian tourists on route to the many shi’a shrines, and the incessant honking of Shami traffic roaring in the air. My days were spent chatting with Kurdish teenagers about music in juice shops, eating Iraqi shwarma in Jeramana, attending and throwing countless birthday parties, and singing 1960’s French chansons every afternoon to George, the aging grandfather of my friend Yanal.

Keys of my past, present, and future homes: (Clockwise) key of my room in Oman, San Jose public library card, my mother’s home in Campbell, CA; Mount Holyoke key, my father’s home in Gilroy, CA; luggage key, bike key, and a lucky keychain from Mexico

Salalah, Oman will be my introduction to the Gulf region and its contemporary culture. The city is located near the Yemeni border along the Indian Ocean coast. In antiquity, it was hailed as a vital maritime port between India and Jerusalem on the Red Sea. In the 21st century, Mehri and Jebeli tribes, Arabs through-out the region, east Indians, and Baluchis call Salalah “home.” In one week, Salalah will become my new home.

For one year, I will be working with Omani youth through AMIDEAST and AIESEC as the first female member in the Dhofar region. How do the perspectives of Omani identity differ between a Gujarati teenager and Jebelli-speaking shopkeeper? How will my young Salalahans represent their tribes and language groups? And naturally, how will I survive the notorious driving of the Gulf?

If Damascus is, in the words of Nizar Qabbani, the “city of jasmine,” Salalah is the city of frankincense and immense change. As an AUA Mosaic fellow, I anticipate sharing the experiences of young Salalahans and my journey in the land of frankicense and myrrh.

* Native American     ** Mexican

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