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.
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 a 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.