Fourth Prize Peace Corps Fund Award: Peace Corps Poems by Earl Huband (Oman)

 

Earl Huband

Earl Huband (Oman 1975-78) worked for the Oman Ministry of Education. During his first two years, Earl taught 1st – 6th year English 4th–9th grade) in Bukha, a small Musandam fishing village in the northern part of Oman, near the mouth of the Persian Gulf. During his third year, Earl worked in Salalah, the capital of Oman’s southern district, splitting his time between teaching English and serving as assistant to that region’s Chief English Inspector. The following are a few of the 28 poems he submitted.

The Journey from the Interior

Airborne over the Batinah plain,
we skirt the coast en route to Bukha,
a small Musandam fishing village
near the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth
of the Arabian — not Persian —
Gulf: these Arabs never say Persian.

This Sky Van, this bumblebee of planes,
this flying buzzsaw bears the number
nine — one — one emblazoned on its wing.
We’re bound to land in a gravel field
about the size of a needle’s eye.

Our pilot — this rough but debonair
sky cowboy — must thrive on scaring hell
out of unsuspecting Volunteers.
God help us as we zoom down between
the peaks of these forbidding mountains.

He tells us that Bukha has no roads,
that the only way in and out is
in this abominable Sky Van,
or days by dhow to the nearest town,
beyond the local national line.
I and my parachute are green — green!

A Village Initiation Rite

“Sabaah al-khair,” the emissary
greets us. “Sabaah an-noor,” we reply,
emerging from the Sky Van’s belly
into the heat of the landing strip.
Our landrover, roaring, spews gravel.

Lurching, we rumble past a building,
largest in the village. “Mustashfa,”
our guide points out, smiling. I look blank.
“Hospital,” Sally whispers, hissing.
My ears redden in the noonday sun.

The jeep grinds to a halt. We enter
the local education office.
“Ahlan wasahlan” — “Welcome, welcome,”
booms the voice behind the largest desk.
“Ijlis, ijlisu” — “Sit down, sit down.”

Sitting. Talking. So many voices,
so many faces, the sweat trickling
around the backs of my ears, burning. —
What? What? What? — I hardly have a clue,
and I’ve pledged to live here for two years!

A Primer on Global Awareness

“Mister Earl, this is Mister Musa.
He’s the new geography teacher.
He is Sudanese.  From the Sudan.
You know where the Sudan is, of course.”

“Yes, of course.  The Sudan.  Africa,
isn’t it?  To the west of Egypt.”

“Aha! — Musa, it would seem that Earl
is not so good in geography.
Perhaps tutoring can be arranged. —
Your schools do teach geography, no?”

Remarks Overheard by Accident

“Salim, my friend, my soul is troubled.
When I heard they were sending him here,
I was afraid that this would happen.
They promised me I would continue
to teach some of the English classes,
that he’d be the English Inspector.
Now they tell me he’ll teach all of them.”

. . . “Yes, of course his English is better.
But I’m a professional teacher.
I know how to instruct these children.
He is young. He lacks experience.
The children take advantage of him.
It is not good for school discipline.
These Volunteers America sends
to educate the rest of the world,
they are so naive, so innocent.”

. . . “No, my friend, I have no choice in this.
If I make trouble, they will find out
I am from Palestine, not Jordan.
They will send me home.  What can I do?
I am a teacher. I teach English.”

Understanding the Village Terrain
From the west ridge above it, Bukha
spreads out in the bed of the wadi
beneath the Musandam’s ancient peaks,
those desolate, bare-rock, mountain walls.
The narrow gravel runway bisects
a barren chunk of the river bed,
cut off by the mountains at one end,
the other blunted by hot beach sand.

At the harbor’s edge, the small jetty
curls like a thumb out into the bay,
protecting the boats of the village.
A mile across the bay lies Jadi,
the smaller village, the closest source
of well water still sweet, fit to drink.
Joining the two, a tenuous strip —
barely passable by landrover —
abuts the base of the Musandam.

I swim from the end of the jetty
back along the Bukha waterfront
where the children play in the water
in front of the handful of small shops.
One day, after swimming, I pass by
a fisherman working on his boat.
I ask, “What if I should try to swim
across the bay, Bukha to Jadi?”

He turns and stares across the water.
“As you wish. But something will eat you.”

A Tale of Concern for One’s Fellows

After a fine evening meal, we sit,
the expatriate Arabs and I,
on the porch of the teachers’ quarters
late into the night, telling stories. . . .

Nodding toward the village, Esah says,
“Mister Earl, do you know this story?

Once upon a time there was a man
whose home was falling down around him.

This man spent his time trying to fix
all the other homes in the village.

“No?  This is your story, Mister Earl —
the story, I think, of your Peace Corps.”

A Special Religious Observance

Ramadan — literally, “hot month”.
From ramad, “the state of being parched”.
This year it’s living up to its name.

I’m not Arab, but I do teach here,
so I must not eat or drink at school
for the sake of my students. Thank God
the school days are shortened in this heat.

A punishing day — I grow dizzy.
The school’s stern, hawk-nosed old janitor,
devout Muslim that he is, leads me
into an inner room, prepares me
tea.  I drink, thankful, feeling guilty,
knowing he’s watching. From where I kneel,
I look up into his eyes. He smiles.

16 Comments

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    • Thank you Bonnie, not only for this most encouraging feedback, but also for other comments you have made about my work. Good luck with your own writing, and kudos for winning the North Carolina Poetry Society’s Poet Laureate Award earlier this year.

  • These poems are powerful and instructive. I love the insights they offer into understanding of another culture; I admire the poet’s observation skills and ability to capture his memories of Oman in a language that brims with empathy, humility, honesty, and humor (as in…”As you wish. But something will eat you.” ). Bravo!

    • Thank you, PW. I often went swimming when I was in the Peace Corps. And there were sharks there, although I was later told that there had been no shark attacks around my village in recent memory. There was a place to the north of my village called Goat Island, nearer the Strait of Hormuz, that had so many sharks that we volunteers wondered if it was a breeding ground. None of us dared go in the water there. Shortly before I joined the Peace Corps, I saw the movie “Jaws”. Bad timing: I never went swimming near my village without thinking of that movie.

  • I loved Earl’s poems! I was with him in Bukha and his stories brought me back to a wonderful and warm experience in Oman. I would love to read more!

    • Thank you, Mary. I hope to publish a book of my Peace Corps poems at some point. One such poem (not included in the 28 that won this prize) won 2nd place in the McDill category of the North Carolina Poetry Society’s annual poetry competition earlier this year. It’s called “In the Paw of a Muscat Lion”. I would be glad to send you a copy if you would like to see it.

    • Thank you very much, Lois. You might enjoy reading a couple of my replies to comments made here by others. The one, for example, about swimming in shark waters.

  • Such humanity, simply put. One gets a real flavor of this far-off land. Thanks, Earl, very much. I look forward to reading/hearing more.

    • Thank you, Kitty. I started writing these poems mainly to try to make sense of my experience. But the subject matter seems even more relevant to today’s world than it did back then. There appears to me to be such a strong wave of xenophobia in the United States at this time that I worry that many of my fellow Americans will fall into the trap of viewing the Arab world as a monolithic enemy, similar to the way communism was viewed during the height of the Cold War. Yes, we have enemies in that part of the world, and yes there are terrorists willing to kill themselves in order to kill others; but, in responding to the latter, we need to take care not to alienate what I firmly believe are the vast, vast majority of decent, peace-loving folks in that part of the world who just want to have a better life for themselves and their children and thus are willing to live and let live. So, in my Peace Corps poems, I have tried to present most of the Arabs that I met as the ordinary people that I found them to be, really not different at heart from you and me — for example, my poem about the village father who came to me in pain because his son, who had a learning disability, was being called a donkey by the other children.

  • I’ve loved Earl’s stories and poems since I worked with him many years ago. These poems convey his spirit and his soul. He has a generous heart.

    • Thank you, Gayle. I still recall being told, when I was young, that I lacked compassion, which stung, no doubt because there was some truth in it. I like to think that the Peace Corps experience helped me in this respect. In any event, it was very kind of you to say what you did. At its best, poetry can function as a kind of prayer. In my own life, I have found reading and writing poetry to be healing. And, speaking of folks with a generous heart, look in the mirror!

  • Earl nailed the Oman experience! I was there with him and Mary — friends forever — forged together by a unique experience. I would love to read all the poems! I joined Peace Corp after hearing stories about my friend’s sister, Hazel who went to Afghanistan. Great work, Earl! Cheryl Frey Zaidan Oman 75-78

    • Thanks, Cheryl. As I said to Mary, I hope to be able to publish a book of my Peace Corps poems in the not-too-distant future. If I do, I will be sure to let you know. I’ll bet your friend’s sister Hazel who was in Afghanistan has a lot of interesting stories to write, too, if she is so inclined. And probably a lot to say about the current predicament of the Afghanis also.

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