Editor’s note: Emma Wright is a volunteer program coordinator at the Al Amana Centre in Oman (which hosted the Ansari Institute’s recent spring break student trip) through the Episcopal Young Adult Service Corps. She is seeking ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and will return to the US to begin seminary at Yale Divinity School this fall.
On Wednesday, April 1, I woke up to the news that Muttrah had been identified as the epicenter of COVID-19 in Oman and would accordingly be isolated from the rest of the country until further notice. The souq had already been closed, but now all shops and restaurants would be closed except the pharmacy, Muttrah Health Centre, and a few of the shops selling food. Police stood at every intersection and patrolled in cars to enforce the instructions to wear masks and stay home unless absolutely necessary. Overnight, the once bustling city of Muttrah fell silent.
Thankfully, I am an introvert, so my experience of being isolated at Al Amana Centre in Muttrah was not as bad as it could have been. However, time grew slow; days turned to weeks; weeks turned to months. Peaceful solitude became anxious isolation. This once rejuvenating retreat became a suffocating confinement.
I spent 75 days trapped in Muttrah before the lockdown was finally lifted. If you’re having a hard time imagining how long 75 days is, it included my 25th birthday, Easter, Mother’s Day, Pentecost, the entirety of Ramadan and Eid. I had a fever and was too sick to leave my bed for 17 days. I finished 10 books, learned to do a handstand, tried desperately to focus on my work and Arabic studies (often failing to do so), and cried every single day. Black Lives Matter protests captivated national and international headlines, and I watched the police tear-gas and shoot my friends with rubber bullets on Facebook Live. I cried harder. And then I stopped because a white woman crying about racial injustice doesn’t solve anything. And I began a period of focused internal work against racism. My isolation became a liminal space of sorts; a private threshold in which I could explore my own mind and all its dark corners.
Through reading books, watching documentaries, and meeting weekly on Zoom with my family to discuss racism, I am working to understand the racial injustices I never learned about in school. And I am paying more attention not only to how I view race in America but also in Oman. During my 75 days in Muttrah, I did not see another white person. Every time I set foot outside my house people watched and stared; I had lost the privilege of anonymity. And yet, despite being the extreme minority, I still possess unearned power because of my race.
In Oman, my light skin color, my English language, and my American passport give me absurd privilege compared to other migrant workers. On the first day of the Muttrah lockdown, I was able to talk my way through the police boundary to go to Lulu’s Hypermarket but Asok, the Al Amana Centre driver who is Indian, was immediately turned away. The protests in America were written about daily in Omani newspapers, and they have sparked new discussions for me with my Omani friends about racism.
I believe the US, and indeed the world, are in a season of transformation right now. An American friend said, “This all feels like the apocalypse.” And in fact, the word apocalypse comes from the Greek apokaluptein, meaning to uncover or reveal, so in a sense, yes, something deeper is being revealed, especially for white Americans who might be seeing the expansive racial injustices of our nation for the first time. For me, as a Christian and soon-to-be seminarian, racism is not a political or social issue—it is a God issue. And anti-racism is a daily spiritual practice. Antiracism is also a tool for strengthening interfaith relationships. The conversations I’m having with my Omani friends about countering racism as people of faith has not only deepened our mutual trust but expanded my understandings of Islam, Christianity, and God.
When the streets of Muttrah were finally unblocked, I leapt across the threshold with joy and relief. I am exceedingly thankful for the freedom to shop at grocery stores, order takeout, drive along the coast, exercise outdoors, and visit friends in person. But one of the strange phenomena of liminal spaces is that even when others perceive you to be the same, you, by definition, emerge changed. I do not feel like the same woman who woke up to the Muttrah lockdown on April 1. I feel changed. A professor once told me, “Transformation happens when we are not in control.” So perhaps I have the lockdown to thank for thrusting me into a liminal space of self-critique and discovery. Perhaps all of us who are facing uncertainty or mourning a previous way of life will discover that we are, in fact, standing on the edge of a new threshold, an opportunity for transformation.
Originally published in the Al Amana Centre’s summer 2020 newsletter.