Alia Al Farsi is one of Oman's leading artists, and through her brushes she hopes to share her love of the Sultanate with the world.
In the past year Alia has had three solo international exhibitions, in Japan, France and Belgium, where she got to share her Omani faces and paintings mounted with antique Omani jewellery to an impressive array of visitors, including a member of the Japanese royal family. Her work centres on Omani culture and people, so it was a point of pride for her to be able to share this internationally and let other people learn about the Sultanate.
"I want them to have an idea about Oman, about khanjars, our jewellery, the people," she says.
Alia has long been passionate about painting. As a child she liked art, but it was hard to find books on art in Oman, but her father would get them for her from abroad. He also took the family on long road trips, from Oman to Turkey and back, and once from the UK all the way back to Oman, stopping at many museums and galleries along the way, which inspired her even more.
After a successful career with the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, where she ultimately worked as a section head, Alia decided it was time to dedicate herself to her art full time. She retired in 2008, and by 2009 had her first solo exhibition, held at Bait Al Baranda. It was the first of several in Oman. She has also had her work in group shows in Sweden, China, Germany, and throughout the Middle East, in addition to the solo exhibitions.
Alia, who also has an MBA and is the mother of two teenagers, attributes her success to being confident and daring to pursue her dreams, and also to some of her family, and a couple of very supportive men in her life, her husband and father. While some men hold their women back, Alia was lucky because they believed in her and encouraged her to paint.
"There are a lot of successful women in Oman. But they don't like the media or any attention. It depends on their husbands. It's the problem with the husbands or the fathers or the family. I'm really lucky with my husband," she says.
She's also been inspired by other Omani artists, including Anwar Sonya and Hassan Meer, and some of the women in her life, such as her mother and sister, who is a fashion designer. She encourages young Omani women to follow their dreams, have confidence in themselves, and do something they are passionate about.
Writing role models
Sami Jaffer is tall, muscular and no doubt masculine. But beyond his looks he has a softer side, and a desire to create strong role models for girls. While it may be easier for men to write about men, Sami decided the main character is his first novel would be a heroine, a girl who goes on a quest and overcomes many challenges, both physical and mental.
"There are not a lot of heroines in children's books that are more than just girls who stay at home. The idea was to capture the strength of the feminine," he says.
His book, Pharha's Quest, features a girl who rides alligators and ostriches, meets witches and fends off angry men, and spends nights alone in an unknown wilderness. She is fearless and strong, and doesn't let the fact that she's just a girl prevent her from achieving her goals.
In the time since Sami began writing Pharha's Quest, which was published last month, there have been more heroines in the media, but there is definitely room for a character like Pharha, too. While Pharha does end up with a male travel companion and helper, she is the true heroine. She also meets other strong women who help her on her journey.
"What have they got as role models? Not many and they're not promoted when they get into positions of power. Those women don't promote themselves very well because they're afraid. I felt like that was part of the reason."
Sami's stories also have a moral angle, dealing with character weaknesses such as possession, guilt, fear, and impatience. In Pharha's Quest, the aim is to teach the importance of having patience to be able to overcome challenges and achieve goals, rather than getting frustrated. He says it's a message that's especially needed for young people today.
As a man writing a female heroine, Sami did leave aside some details, such as things about her hair, and wrote her more as a warrior woman than as a feminine character.
"I tried to think of what the girls were like at that age when I was in school. They hated the boys. I wrote her without being too girly. I tried to skirt the details so I wouldn't have to think too much about being a girl. Especially when they're young, you should let kids grow up as they want to be. Some will be more masculine and some will be more feminine. It doesn't matter whether it's a girl or a boy. That was another idea I was trying to implement. In this tribe the women are the warriors and the men stay back. You can be a girl and be masculine and you can be a guy and be feminine," Sami says.
One of Sami's inspirations is his mother, who is also a writer. He says she is strong and determined, especially when it comes to fulfilling her dreams of being published. Rather than waiting for the right time to come around, she just went ahead and did it. "She starts it and gets it done. That was pretty cool of her," he says fondly.
Defending those with disability
Aisha Baabood dedicates much of her life to helping people with disabilities and their families. A pillar of strength and determination, she turned her own struggle as a mother of a child with a disability into a way to help others in Oman.
When her son Omar was just 11 months old, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. The doctors told Aisha he would most likely die, but she was determined not to let that happen. She moved from Salalah to Muscat to provide him with the best possible treatments and therapies both in the capital and abroad, and thanks to her commitment and dedication, he's now a normal 10-year-old. Now, as the head of the Family Support Group for Disabled Children at the Association of Early Intervention, she helps other families facing similar challenges learn how to provide for their children.
"It's not just for Omar. It's for all the children. We have to take the steps to integrate them and let them live with dignity," she says.
A lecturer in the English Language Centre at SQU, she also advocates for students with disabilities, and is working to improve services for them, as well as provide better testing to identify others with disabilities so they, too, can benefit from teaching methods tailored to their needs. They are currently assessing 24 students to identify their needs and then they will provide them with assistive technology and train them on how to use it.
"We're lagging behind in terms of the services for disabled students. I decided to try to help. I was focused on uneducated parents, providing financial aid or medical advice, but I found students with disability here at SQU were getting lost without any kind of help. It's good that we accept them, yet we don't offer them the proper services," Aisha explains.
She admits it can be a struggle to convince other faculty of the importance of her cause, and finds that some don't want to teach students with disability, but she doesn't let that deter her.
"It's so difficult to change people's mentality," she says.
Aisha says the thought of her mother inspires her to continue the struggle to help people with disability. Her mother left Salalah with her three children and moved to Kuwait so they could be educated. She taught Quran classes to support the family. "When I was five years old she told me there were no guarantees in life, and never to rely on a man. Education is your future. She taught me so many things," she says.