Oman ... for the ultimate Arabic makeover

THIS is the story of how I became the Islamic Eliza Doolittle, transformed from a clueless Westerner into something approaching Arab authenticity.

The Henry Higgins figure was a bearded Muslim, executing his task with a fanatical devotion only matched by his patriotism. "My name is Yousuf," he once declared, after driving over a dune field without getting bogged - "Made in Oman, not made in China".

Yousuf's task was hardly enviable, though if he despaired at all it was only in private. Outwardly, he propped up my brittle ego with words of praise and a canny control over the gradual metamorphosis.

He started with a turban, for instance, in a style that caused strangers to compliment me on an impending marriage - my headscarf was, he later confessed, in the "groom way". This turned out to be a stroke of genius, because it bolstered my confidence and made me compliant. Driving into the souk and leading me up into a tailor's shop, Yousuf's eyes twinkled with evident pride. This quickly disappeared when I selected a mismatched kuma and dishdasha.

"It is not like a rainbow we are wearing," he said, pointing out several wise alternatives.

Yousuf deemed my facial hair an insult to the universe.

Now attired in full traditional garb, I felt oddly formal, and when we visited the Wahiba Sands I was scolded for hitching up my dishdasha like a bride afraid of soiling her train. We passed Western tourists and they looked at me with blank incomprehension.

I looked at them with total disdain: Really, I thought, you're wearing pants?

It was out in the desert, by a campfire, that Yousuf deemed my facial hair an insult to the universe, prompting a late-night evacuation to a local barber. They sized me up together, discussing the contours of my face with the seriousness of generals in a war. Then there was a loud disagreement in Arabic and Yousuf fell silent. As there was a razor involved, I felt compelled to ask for an explanation.

"He says that I should not tell him what to do. He says that he can fix it, thanks God."


Fix it the barber apparently did, because it led to a cascade of advanced training in etiquette and language comprehension. Almost overnight I was declared appropriate, or passably inoffensive.

When Eliza became a lady she went to the Embassy Ball; when I became Arabic it was announced that we were going to a bullfight.

We drove to a dusty suburb and pulled off the road. Yousuf adjusted my kuma and nodded approval, content with his work, then led me into the native crowd. I pulled out everything I'd learned, chanting "Salaam!" as men around me chewed sunflower seeds and roared at the violent animal skirmishes.

There was a moment where I thought I was doing pretty well. Then the announcer, flamboyantly brandishing his megaphone, started singling out members of the audience for humiliation. He slumped into the lap of a disgruntled fat man and the man wilted with shame, pointing out the "the white guy" for a substitute target. Yousuf translated, letting out a full-throated laugh as he slapped his knee.

No matter how you dress it up, in the end this street urchin was never destined to be a fair Omani.