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Rock Music Oman

Professors Rasmussen & Bailey Shake Things Up

For two weeks in January, fifteen William & Mary students, Professors Bailey and Rasmussen, and video/photo chronicler Pablo Yáñez, immersed themselves in the geology, history and culture of Oman. And not since Bjork emerged from the sand to “shuffle around the tectonic plates in her chest” in her Mutual Core video, have geology and music come together to such astounding effect. The program, “Natural History and Culture of Oman” (also known affectionately by its participants as Rock Music Oman) was the first study abroad collaboration by Christopher “Chuck” Bailey, Chair of the Geology Department, and Anne Rasmussen, Professor of Music/Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Their vision resulted not only in a great plan coming together, but also a model for future interdisciplinary collaborations. It took perseverance, creativity and time, though. In fact, just about the same time Bjork was releasing that video that the process began.

Sum Greater Than the Parts

It started in 2010-2011, when Rasmussen conducted a few research trips to Oman while on sabbatical. It Oman offers wonderful opportunities for a study abroad experience. It has been a maritime crossroads between South and Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the Mediterranean and Arab World for centuries, and Omanis have a rich distinctive culture and a vibrant traditional arts scene that reflects longtime interactions across the desert and around the Indian Ocean. “Globalization has been going on here for thousands of years. It’s a place to study the world,” says Rasmussen.

Inspiration struck while driving through the countryside with her family.

“My husband, who is a geologist, kept pointing out one fascinating thing after another,” Rasmussen remembers. So I got together with Chuck Bailey and said, ‘You’ve got to get on this Oman vector.’”

Bailey understood immediately. “Oman’s ophiolites offer a geologic experience unlike any in the world.”

It turns out the Oman ophiolite -- stretches of land that expose rocks from the earth’s mantle-- is the most exposed and the largest in the world. 

“As a structural geologist, I’m very interested in the architecture of the earth, how the earth’s crust is put together and how it came to be that way,” Bailey explains. “I wanted to better understand the processes at work that took this chunk of deep mantle and actually thrust it up onto the continent.”

Bailey also thought it would be an interesting lesson in sustainability. “This is a desert environment, with only 100-200 millimeters of rain a year – 1/10 of eastern North America,” Bailey adds. “The Omanis have had to be very smart about water resources, how one grows crops, even how one dresses, so I think this could be an extraordinarily eye-opening experience for W&M students.”

With Bailey now intrigued, in 2014 Rasmussen secured a grant from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington, DC, to bring a group of W&M student musicians for 10-12 days in Oman. They studied Omani music and performed three concerts.

Bailey scheduled his own research trip at the same, accompanied by W&M Geology Department Research Fellow Alex Johnson ’13. Bailey and Johnson would conduct their research during the day, exploring sites like Wadi Bani Ghai, “Then we’d come in from the field, clean up, change our clothes and meet up with Rasmussen’s musicians at concerts,” Bailey recollects. Bailey found that although the ophiolite was what attracted him originally, he realized that “Omanis were so warm and embracing that it would be a spectacular place to bring some W&M students for a field program. We realized the sum would be greater than its parts and had the idea to combine the natural history as well as the culture.”

Rasmussen and Bailey met with countless Omani and U.S. officials (including the U.S. Ambassador), geologists, musicians and higher education officials, asking for advice about logistics and protocol and ways they could pull it all together. Although Rasmussen had extensive connections and experience in Oman and the Arab world, it was still a serious undertaking to create a new interdisciplinary experience. “I wouldn’t have done it on my own, frankly,” Rasmussen admitted.

Once they returned to the U.S. they realized they needed collaborator to turn their vision into a true study abroad experience. 

Working with the Global Education Office

“For the next year we sent around various emails and had meetings with the Reves Center for International Studies, who have been incredibly supportive of our fantasy to do this,” Rasmussen explains.

“The Global Education Office (GEO) was pleased to partner with Professors Bailey and Rasmussen to support the Oman program,” says Sylvia Mitterndorfer, Director of GEO. “We were able to provide institutional support and structure in line with W&M faculty-led summer programs in the areas of program administration, scholarship, finances, risk management, and student support.”

That support came in the person of Ebony Majeed, newly-hired Global Education Special Programs Advisor, who learned on her first day at Reves, September 17, 2015, that her task was to make the Oman trip a reality in time for a January 2 departure. “My job was to handle the nitty gritty and figure out how to turn it into a fully-supported W&M study abroad program.” Majeed is quick to give credit to the groundwork Bailey and Rasmussen had already put in place.

“Planning for Oman had actually begun a year ago,” recalls Majeed. “Key was the relationship with the Center for International Learning (CIL) in Oman. Rasmussen knew people from her research and CIL became the hub around which the program was planned. CIL took care of the on-the-ground and day-to-day cultural components.”

Working together, the structure was set, from registration and marketing to designing pre- and post-trip courses and projects. The program was open to all students across campus, not just those with a Middle Eastern Studies or music background, so the participating students ended up being a diverse group. Disciplines represented included geology and music, but also neuroscience and classical studies, and all class years were represented. Majeed thinks its diversity was one of the strengths of the program and was especially pleased that in such a short time they were able to provide an opportunity an eclectic group that even included a couple of seniors. “It was their last chance to go abroad. They hadn’t been able to go earlier in their career.” 

Making it Accessible

In addition to the grant from the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center, Rasmussen acknowledges another indispensable source of support: “This trip was underwritten significantly by the James H. Critchfield Memorial Endowment, which typically has supported Middle Eastern studies, and particularly Arabic language abroad.”

The James H. Critchfield Memorial Endowment Scholarships, administered by the Reves Center, provide support for study abroad programs in the area from Egypt eastward, including the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf and also for the Indian Ocean basin, including programs in India and Singapore.

Lois Critchfield, former Reves Advisory Board member, is actively engaged in her support the program and met with the students before they departed. Majeed confirms how indispensable that support was.   “Everyone who requested assistance received it. She made this happen. Without Lois Critchfield this would not be possible.”

Things You Just Can’t Teach in a Classroom

The students arrived in Muscat on January 2nd and spent four days in the capital before embarking on an eight-day tour of northern Oman’s mountains, deserts, and coastal ecosystems. Their trip ended back in Muscat where they met with students at Sultan Qaboos University, the U.S. Ambassador to Oman, and a members of the Omani press corps.

Chuck Bailey kept a blog of the experience and captured both the pace, scope and the magic of the program:

“Here’s a sampler from one day in the Rock Music Oman experience: on January 7th we were in the city of Ibri, and started the day early as our host Sultan al Farsi took us on a lively tour of the goat market, the souq, and the restored Ibri fort. That was followed by a lecture at the Noor Majan Training Institute by visiting scholar Bradford Garvey on Omani music. After lunch we toured Al Sulaif, a ruined and partially restored fort/town, that’s perched on tilted Tertiary strata overlooking a broad water gap. In the afternoon we loaded into our magic yellow school bus and roared out into the western desert to the Muzayanat al Ibl (think of it as a camel beauty pageant). Our host Sheikh Ahmed took good care of us as we received the VIP treatment, meeting the prize camels and their proud owners. As the sun set we headed back to town for an evening of folk dancing and Omani cuisine inside the walls of the Ibri fort. Our event-filled day ended after coffee, dates, and conversation with Sheikh Ahmed. A most amazing day.”

Field experiences on the trip included day trips to Wadi Mayh, Wadi Bani Khalid, Wadi Shab, the Ghubrah Bowl, and the Bronze Age beehive tombs at Al Ayn. Bailey’s colleague Dr. Abdullah al Ghafri taught the group about the falage [canal system] during a walking tour at Birkat al Mouz. 

A model for future programs

At a Geology Department brown bag in February, students from the trip presented a slide show of their time in Oman. Their enthusiasm and sheer joy from the experience alternated with a serious and detailed explanation of geologic features and history.  

For Bailey, one of the takeaways is just that: “The experience showed diversity this planet offers – in rocks landscape and climate – but also in culture. I hope this is the beginning of something we can continue to do at W&M, something really unique where we can combine geology and the environment with music, culture and history.”

Mitterndorfer and Majeed see the trip as a successful model for the future, establishing processes and best practices for other short-term programs. It also was an example of how faculty and GEO can combine forces to create something great.

”The Oman program’s innovative interdisciplinary approach with geology and music as themes of inquiry, provided students a wonderfully unique opportunity to engage with a culture and country that many students would otherwise not had the opportunity to explore,” says Mitterndorfer. “This is W&M’s only faculty-led program in the Middle East at a time when engagement and mutual understanding is critical and other study abroad opportunities in the region are very limited. As we seek to make study abroad accessible to all students who are interested in such experiences, we know that financial and time constraints prevent some students from participating. This program provided a special opportunity thanks to the generous scholarships from the Critchfield endowment as well as timing over winter break.”

But perhaps Rasmussen should get the last word about the value of this remarkable study abroad experience: “These are things you just can’t teach in a classroom. You can show lots of pictures of the great experience you had and so forth, but it’s not the same.”