Some of you may have heard of Internations, a global social networking group which is active in many countries throughout the world, including Oman. I joined because a friend invited me to a Karaoke night and it was easier if I joined, rather than attended as her guest. I did not use my membership to its full advantage, mostly because I prefer less contrived ways of pursuing enjoyable interests and meeting like-minded people.
For those who do not know me or who are new to my blog, I took myself off to the dusty heat of Arabia between 2017 and 2019, after having secured a two-year contract to work in Oman. Put simply, it was a blast. I started blogging my adventure, but when I realised I was living what had been a lifelong pipedream (or, to fully embrace the culture, a shishadream), I closed the laptop and lived in the moment for two years. Blogging my time there would not do it justice. The book is in progress, readers.
Spring 2018. Still winter in Oman, which is like a British summer. Unusually, I had booked a place at an Internations event which was the grand opening of a new hotel. In true Omani style, it was not just aesthetically pleasing, it was aesthetically knock-you-off-your-feet dazzling and feel underdressed even if you were in a ballgown. Oman is still catching up with the Western world. In many ways it does not wish to catch up, as it has its own culture, traditions and religion. However, ex-pats are needed for their expertise and so an amount of westernisation is necessary, if they are to be lured into overseas jobs. Also, the tourist industry is on the incline, in preparation for the inevitable decline in the oil industry. The point is, when there is something new in Oman, the bells and whistles are melodious, harmonious and clean as a – well, whistle.
The rooftop of this sparkly venue was warm (expected) and fragrant. I collected my free drink and wandered around the edges, taking in the view of other shiny venues, brand new roads boasting several lanes and in the distance, a skyline of mountain silhouettes. At some point I turned around to face the other attendees and soon found myself indulging in repetitive party talk. ‘One hour tops,’ I told that anti-social part of me that was bored already and indeed, at that magic hour, I asked the hotel to call a taxi for me. Then a charming man (we will call him Floyd J Kasembe), sporting a suit in an elegant shade of blue, started chatting. He told me that he worked in the Tanzanian embassy in Muscat. I told him that I worked in a school in Muscat and that I had just called a cab. We swapped numbers and I went home.
We dated for a couple of weeks and he continued to be charming. I spent those two weeks pondering on my feelings for this man. He was smiley, chatty and polite but unlike the hotel where we met, he failed to dazzle. I visited his apartment after a week, on the clear understanding that we were still only friends. Upon arrival, he clearly found this concept challenging but accepted it nonetheless and we even managed to laugh about it. After another week, he invited me to his apartment again.
‘Are you sure that’s a good idea?’ I asked, with a suspicious smile.
‘It is fine,’ he replied with a reciprocal smile, ‘I know the boundaries!’
And off we went to his apartment.
He might have known the boundaries but he crossed them anyway. He was lean, muscular and easily overpowered me. The feeling that someone is about to force you into something of the most intimate nature against your will, is bleak. The realisation that it is actually happening and you are, simply, too weak to stop it, is akin to your soul being scooped out, teaspoon by teaspoon, until it is all gone and you have nothing left. I could see a photograph of his young daughter on the far wall of the room. After the obvious invocations, such as desperate pleas to stop, if not for me then for his own sake and so on, had not worked, I cried that he should think of his daughter. I am somebody’s daughter I told him. Don’t be this person – does your daughter deserve that I asked him. He said nothing. It was as if he heard nothing. I looked at his eyes and they seemed to see nothing. Look at me! I shouted. He seemed to feel nothing until it was ending. I would never get back what he had taken. But then a new fear exploded right inside my heart, I believe. What would he do with me now? I wanted to get so far away from him that I would have needed a rocket to achieve such a distance. Instead, I stayed very still and a small voice said:
As a single white female in a country that – despite its continued efforts to give women more power and value – still did not place women on equal footing with men, I did not feel inclined to report this despicable act. And after 7 months of living in a faraway place, I had not yet formed a strong enough bond with any one person to entrust such confidences. However, I returned home to the UK for the next school holiday and sought out a trusted friend on whom to offload. I don’t want to know he stated, over my opening gambit of Cris, a bad thing happened to me in Oman. Nothing more was said, but clearly he knew what I was going to tell him. Is that not the worst part? Just as I have done here, I would have spared him any detail. In fact, there would have been a tenth of the detail conveyed here. Given that clearly he knew what the bad thing was, it hurts to this day that there was no compassion shown. Intentionally or not, he made me feel as if I had done the bad thing. I understand that it is difficult to hear bad things, but I thought I had chosen someone who would prioritise friendship over his own comfort. I moved on and reached out to another trusted friend. Gareth, can I tell you about something that happened to me in Oman? I’d rather you didn’t, he replied. Just as with Cris, I said no more, but this compounded the original hurt with Cris tenfold. I considered the first rejection unfortunate, but the second chipped away at the last remaining shred of self-respect remining within me, after the brutal removal some months earlier.
Consequently, I buried the trauma deep inside my psyche and endeavoured to continue with 2018 as if it was still one long, unbroken line of harmony. As my doctor in Oman had informed me I had stupidly high blood pressure and even stupidly higher cholesterol, I continued with a healthier lifestyle of regular exercise and a frugal diet. Yet I felt ill and tired most days. Eventually I paid my UK doctor a visit and she asked many lifestyle questions and a few surprising ones, like had I had a relationship with someone from an African subcontinent? I said that I had not and she arranged for a very general blood test. I thanked her, smiled and rose to leave the room. I stopped as I reached the door.
‘Is everything ok?’ she asked, as I turned round to face her.
‘I was raped by a man from Tanzania 5 months ago.’
I had buried this so deeply that I did not even make rational decisions afterwards, like having an HIV test. It did not even occur to me that my chronic fatigue could be due to HIV infection. It did not even pop into my brain when she mentioned African subcontinents. She was the first person I told and it was the first time I applied the word ‘rape’ to what had happened to me. She was visibly shocked but not in a judgmental fashion. She was kind, caring and compassionate. I pity the patients after me that day, because she supported me until my tear ducts ran dry. If only I had known that a virtual stranger would have given me so much more support than two close friends.
But now I had to face a new fear. It was just a couple of days before I was able to get an HIV blood test, but long enough for me to feel desperate. I reached out to a friend who lives with HIV. His love and support was tangible, but when I received the negative result, I felt a mix of elation that I was not infected and guilt that he still had his diagnosis. He laughed when I told him. You’re clear! Celebrate! I’m so relieved for you!
I did celebrate. A bit too hard. Here in the UK. Back in Oman. It went on a bit too long. I was partying harder than I had ever partied. I was still running every day, though. Never mind ‘couch to 5k’, I was running 10k every day after work in temperatures between 30C and 40C. I seemed to be able to drink and not suffer a hangover. A friend told me I was continuously sweating out the toxins with my running! With hindsight, I realise that this was not a continuation of a celebration; moreover, it was a response to the stripping out of my sense of worth. I continued to run because it seemed to stave off the hangovers. I was not in control. I had always been able to have fun without the excesses of drinking.
I stumbled across a wonderful live music scene of which I became a part and as a result, I also became part of a solid, yet fun, friendship group of beautiful, like-minded musical souls. Gigs and open mics were a weekly event and house-parties were almost as common an occurrence. It was at one such party that I drank too much for the last time. I did not pass out inebriated, but as I had seemed unable to resist the full-bodied notes of a fine Merlot, I accepted the host’s offer to stay over instead of driving home. A handsome Omani (we will call him Azaan) who was a commander in the Royal Oman Navy had gone to some efforts to woo me for much of the evening and despite his charm, good looks and high rank, I was not interested in anything beyond friendship. I was surprised that he followed me upstairs when I headed off to my temporary accommodation for the night. He informed me that he was staying over also and would be in the room next to mine. At the same time I noticed that he had a glass of wine in each hand. As I looked he laughed and said:
‘Oh – sorry – you must be wondering why I brought your unfinished wine up! I thought we could finish it here … ?’
I was quite tired but I agreed to spend another 10/15 minutes chatting and sipping red wine in his room.
I recall putting the wine down after about 5 minutes and saying I felt very tired and needed to go to my room. I recall him laughing and saying I had barely touched my wine. He added that I could sleep in his room. I was perched on the edge of one of two single beds but near the top where the pillows were. He leaned forward from the other single bed, propped the pillow against the wall and told me to rest my head.
I suspect I was asleep seconds later as I recall nothing else, until I awoke to this evidently charming, but actually vile, man on top of me. I was no longer perched on the edge of the bed, with my head resting on a pillow against the wall, but lying down. I do not know how long this situation had been going on, but with the memory of failing to overpower my previous attacker resurfacing, I froze for a moment and pretended to be sleeping still. Taking him by surprise, I succeeded, with one colossal shove, in pushing him off me.
My reaction was identical. Reporting it was futile, especially when it involved a highly regarded member of the military. I did have good friends, but unlike Floyd, Azaan commanded more respect than he deserved within this friendship group and I was a relative newcomer. It remained locked away, like the last one, until around a month ago. I visited Oman and was reunited with a dear friend. We had one of those nights where there simply is not enough time to say everything that needs to be said and you have to stay up till 4am. Much was covered, from not sleeping for the whole night to why did you and Jonathon break up? And then – the time seemed right – I unlocked the box containing ‘the Azaan secret’. I chose well, this time. She showed me more compassion than I could have imagined. And she has experienced worse in her life. And now I know why I struggle to sleep for the whole night.
Last year I was studying for a post-grad qualification and within one of the many modules was a reference to the Johari Window, which is a visual representation of what we know about ourselves and what others know about us:
I hate what those men did to me. I have a new facet now. This new facet can be quite dark, quite sad and quite angry. I try very hard to keep it under wraps, because it was borne out of things that are quite firmly in the bottom left hand corner of the Johari Window. Unless I am willing to share my experiences with friends and family, I cannot inflict the darkness, sadness and anger of this new facet upon them. But perhaps I have taken the first step towards moving these secrets from ‘Façade’ to ‘Arena’ (see above), by writing this. I will not be sharing this post elsewhere, so my audience is limited. It is a start.