Something for Everyone in The Turtle of Oman

The more I read and talk about The Turtle of Oman, a new book authored by Naomi Shihab Nye, the more I see the many layers that it contains. Of course, it speaks well to its target audience of young adults. For this demographic, it touches on the ways that young folks’ identities and understandings of “home” are fluid, and often confusing. Shihab Nye also infuses everything with her wonderful way of looking at the world, best shown by the lists that Aref makes of interesting facts he learns. Consequently, The Turtle of Oman is filled with lots of thoughtful and fascinating ideas for young adults to ponder.


A Moffet School student’s brand new copy Photo by Emily Ganser

But, there are many other dimensions of Shihab Nye’s new book; the one which struck me hardest was the way that Aref (our young protagonist) is a metaphor for contemporary Oman’s negotiation of tradition and modernity. Essential for understanding this metaphor is that Oman only really started modernizing when Sultan Qaboos came into power in 1970, and still maintains most of the traditional culture that predates his ascendence. For example, almost all Omani men still wear dishdahsa outside, only now the streets are paved, electrical wire runs overhead, and they get great cellular reception. It should be noted that maintaining a traditional lifestyle is difficult in country that wants to be global, because there is constant exposure to what many consider non-traditional-Omani culture. The Turtle of Oman speaks beautifully to this national struggle by having Aref pulled in two directions, that of his parents and that of his grandfather, referred to as “Sidi.” Aref’s parents represent globalizing Oman; they speak lots of English and are traveling to Michigan to obtain higher degrees. Sidi symbolizes traditional Oman; he lives in a pre-Qaboosian house, tells Aref all about the time before electricity, and he seems to know every man around. Aref is the product of these two influences, and Shihab Nye’s book is his journey to reconciling the two sides.


The only problem with my above analysis is that it simplifies Omani history by ignoring that Oman has exemplified a vibrant, multicultural society for centuries. For example, to see the influence of East Africa and South Asia on Omani culture, one needn’t look further than traditional Omani food and music. So, while the previous paragraph is helpful in simplifying The Turtle of Oman, the book actually touches on the fact that, while Aref’s journey may seem groundbreaking and totally unfamiliar, he is actually going down a path well-traveled by other Omanis throughout history. Like I said, there is something for everyone in this book.


-Max Dugan, Program Coordinator

Naomi Shihab Nye’s Amazing Concert


The Takht and Philadelphia Arab Music Ensembles Photo by Danielle Nowak

It might seem a bit late to write about Al-Bustan’s last concert (it took place on December 13th, after all), but it has been on my mind because I heard about it all holiday season from my parents. You see, my parents have very little experience with Al-Bustan concerts, Naomi Shihab Nye, the Takht Ensemble, the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble, or the Moffet Drummers; thus, when they came to our last concert they were pretty blown away. And then when holiday season comes around and relatives are sharing news, the amazing concert that just happened gets talked about a lot, which is why am I writing this blog post now, and not a month ago.

Of course, the concert itself really was quite amazing. The Takht Ensemble was, per usual, spectacular. I have seen them perform so many times at this point, and even now they still manage to make every song unique to the moment. They really are an exceptional group of musicians, and we are lucky to get to see such world-class talent create tarab in Philadelphia.


Naomi Shihab Nye reading with musical backing by Takht Ensemble. Photo by Danielle Nowak


Additionally, the Philadelphia Arab Music Ensemble and the Moffet Drummers lit up the room, and, from a personal perspective, warmed my heart. As the on-site administrator for both groups, I have had the privilege to watch both groups grow exponentially over the course of a semester. After all of work that each group put in these past few months, it means a lot to see them do such a great job.

As amazing as the concert as a whole was, the real scene-stealer was Naomi Shihab Nye. I do like her poetry a great deal; it is socially conscious while still remaining beautiful and transcendent, and she has this optimism about humans that induces hope. And all of that which is good in her written work shines even more brightly when she reads it. To illustrate her charisma, there was a moment during her final poem, “Gate A-4,” when the whole room seemed to lower into another level of quiet, because they were so focused that they forgot to breathe (my theory, not empirically justified). If you’re curious about her work, check out Gate A-4 or A Valentine for Ernest Mann, along with her extensive published works.


Now I’m just looking forward to our next performance!

– Max Dugan, Program Coordinator