My bosses in their infinite wisdom happened upon the idea that I would be the best candidate (or at least the best candidate who said yes) to go on a trip to Oman to train some clients. As I have never intended to get any closer to the Middle East than a trip to the Saudi Pavilion during the 1992 Expo in Seville I have spent the past couple of weeks fretting about what clothes I should wear and - most unusually for me – who I might offend.
Armed with ill fitting trousers and borrowed long sleeve tops I headed off on Sunday to Heathrow terminal 3 watching people en route to Lagos, Delhi and Bangkok wondering at my folly of being caught in a good mood and actually saying yes to this venture.
While all of the ladies at the Oman air check in desk wore very hats with strips of veil like material attached hanging down on in a strip over their shoulders, none of them were Omani or had ever been there. The cabin crew were all Filipino and the pilot English. None of the English speaking passengers could understand the cabin crew’s English announcements over the loud speaker while the pilot made no attempt to speak to the passengers in Arabic.
Oman also appears to be a mini-hub - a poor man’s shopless Dubai, and most of the young Australian and English passengers were transit passengers racing towards the next flight to Thailand or Melbourne. What I found fascinating about this mix of Arab and Anglo passengers was the totally different attitudes we have developed towards public space. On the overnight flight the young Anglos acted as if they were at home or on a friend’s sofa. They sprawled over each other in a desperate attempt to get comfortable, exposing limbs, feet, lower backs and muffin tops. They lay over friends and lovers with a total lack self-consciousness creating a mess of bodies, flesh and flip flops. The Arabs stayed in their seats, didn’t remove their shoes and many kept their jackets on. A woman may have rested her head gently on her companion’s shoulder but it never got further than that.
We also have greatly contrasting attitudes to dressing in heat. We seem to cover as little as possible while they cover as much. The desire to expose flesh in the face of the glaring sun is something that, as a Scot, I can strongly identify with. Sun is a most unusual experience for us and when it happens we discard tights, roll up sleeves and trousers, some of the more uncouth among us even expose hairy bellies and old tattoos. A quick survey of my own summer wardrobe last week to this trip proved that I had no suitable light long sleeved ankle length lightweight clothes and I do not regard myself as a naked sun worshipper of any shape or form. However for an Australian sun is as daily an event as for an Omani and a cursory glance at the Australian colony in Fulham , West London will show you that faced with tiniest hint of sun they wander around as if they haven’t quite managed to get out of their bed properly or put much more on than their underwear. Almost every Omani, man or woman, wears a full length robe. It has made me wonder what is the optimum number of years before a culture adapts its style of dress to a specific climate and if climate change makes Scotland warmer are we in for even more of the assault on our eyes that is the topless fat hairy pot bellied lobster coloured Old Firm supporter that my hometown is full of on a sunny day in June.