DRACUT -- For a blazing hot nation in the heart of the Middle East, the Sultanate of Oman is full of cool, friendly and peaceful people possessing healthy senses of humor, Matthew Reynolds discovered.

Reynolds, 20, a Dracut native and Tufts University junior, immersed himself in Omani culture last year for seven of the hottest weeks on the calendar, from May into July, as part of a small group of American college students partaking in a program sponsored by the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

While Reynolds was in Oman to improve his Arabic language-speaking skills with an eye toward working for the U.

Dracut s Matthew Reynolds, 20, a student at Tufts, puts on a kuma, a type of hat commonly worn by most men in Oman, where Reynolds lived for seven weeks
Dracut s Matthew Reynolds, 20, a student at Tufts, puts on a kuma, a type of hat commonly worn by most men in Oman, where Reynolds lived for seven weeks last year while attending Sultan Qaboos University to further his Arabic-language studies. I bought this kuma at a marketplace in Muscat, after doing a little haggling with the salesman, he said. I got it for two reals, which is about five bucks. SUN/JOHN COLLINS
S. State Department one day, he also did his part to further the overriding purpose of the educational program, which is to improve U.S. and Middle East relations overall, he said.

Reynolds' Oman experience was such a positive one, he's returning to another Middle Eastern country this spring to continue working on his Arabic, as he tells The Sun while speaking (mostly) in English.

Q: When you informed your parents and friends you were headed to the Middle East and Oman, did anyone say "Oh, man!" Or, "Oh no, you're not!"?

A: When I first told my family, their response was, "Oman, really? What's that? Where is that country?" They were pretty confused. It's a country that not many people in the United States know about. Eventually, my family was OK with it. I told them I'd be with other American students, and the program is run through the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. So I knew I'd be in good hands while there, and my parents really needn't have any worries.

Q: Isn't it regarded as dangerous by the U.S. government?

A: Oman is not considered a dangerous country because in the past few decades, it's been pretty stable. It hasn't had any civil wars, like a lot of other countries in the Middle East have had. It's been under the same sultan for 40 years now, Sultan Qaboos.

Q: How did you choose Oman of all the Arabic-speaking countries?

A: My teacher at Tufts, Haci Osman Gunduz, who is from Turkey, told me about it and showed me pictures and encouraged me to apply to the Middle Eastern Institute. It's just a beautiful country. The Middle East has such a reputation for being violent and unstable, but Oman is its own island of peace. The Omani people were so friendly, I couldn't imagine them getting involved in these huge conflicts that are going on in other countries.

Q: You didn't encounter any terrorist sympathizers?

A: One time, while I was hanging out with a few Omani people, they asked me, 'What do Americans think of Omanis?' I answered that most Americans figure that all Middle Easterners are terrorists. They burst out laughing about it. They have a good sense of humor.

Q: Where did you stay?

A: We lived in a walled students' compound, housing 30 American university students from all over the country, as well as some students from the United Kingdom and South Korea. We were watched over by security guards who lived there, in a small town called Manah, outside Muscat. Basically, it's a small college town where we took a bus every day to our classes at Sultan Qaboos University.

Q: Bus? Not a camel?

A: Yes, some of the stereotype images you may have are accurate. They have lots of sand and plenty of camels. Camels are a big thing. There are goats everywhere, too. But they also have Coca-Cola and lots of American fast-food restaurants -- McDonald's, and Subway is very popular there.

Q: Are women treated differently in Oman?

A: It is a very conservative culture. Women are required to wear an 'abayah,' a long black dress and shawl covering their hair. In public, men and women who aren't family generally interact as little as possible. You wouldn't shake hands with an Omani woman. For the Americans there, it was OK for men and women to talk. Oman is a lot more progressive in some respects than their Middle Eastern neighbors, like Saudi Arabia, where women can't drive or vote. Women in Oman can drive and do pretty much what men can do, though women were given the right to vote only recently. 

Q: Did you form any lasting friendships in Oman?

A: My language partner, a woman named Zahra, a 20-year-old Omani College student, was incredibly nice. She gave me this gift of a dagger, called a "khanjar," which is actually a status symbol in Oman. They're everywhere, including on the official seal of the country. I've also stayed in touch with many of my peers from the Oman program, and many of them plan on returning to the Middle East to study or further their careers. One of them, Yeom Dae-ho from South Korea, recently obtained a job working for a company called GSI Logistics in Abu Dhabi.

Q: How would you sum up your Oman trip?

A: I was so thankful that I got to see this culture -- a part of the world that not many people in America know that much about. We got a chance to teach the Omanis about American culture, and teach some English to local high-school students. Each weekend, we visited famous tourist locations in Oman, watched camel races, camped in the desert, stargazed, shopped in the open marketplaces, snorkeled at coral reefs, and saw the nightlife in Muscat. (I got a chance to) meet people from there, talk to them and improve my Arabic. It was a great experience.

Q: Where to next?

A: From February to the end of May, I'll be studying at the University of Jordan for the spring semester, while living with a host family in Amman, the capital of Jordan. My classes will be focused on formal Arabic, media Arabic and the local dialect.

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