Arabs Unseen: Omani is on a journey of self-discovery

Mutassem Al Sharji gave up a safe job as an economist in Muscat to set up a forum to exchange ideas, a venue for scholarly engagement that not even the most sophisticated software could do.

Mutassem Al Sharji started the Enriching Experience, a social enterprise for intellectual discussion. Issa Bin Saleh AlKindy for The National
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In his book Arabs Unseen, Mohammed Mahfoodh Alardhi, the executive chairman of Manama-based Investcorp and chairman of National Bank of Oman, profiles several of the region's entrepreneurs, with an emphasis on those with a social orientation. This week, The National is publishing four of the profiles. Today we feature Mutassem Al Sharji of Muscat.

To be sure, social media can be a boon to one’s career and a fast and efficient way to keep up with the news. But at what cost do we live our lives online? What is it that we forfeit for the speed and convenience of the internet? Is there something special, something essential even, about the face-to-face encounter? Could it be that this – the company of our peers, interaction in the flesh, talking and listening to other human beings – is as important to learning, to the growth of the mind, as the information itself?

Mutassem Al Sharji, for one, believes that it is, and it was that conviction that first led him to venture off the beaten path – to leave a safe career in economics for the opportunity to embark, as he puts it, “on a journey of self-discovery”. Where exactly that journey would take him, Mutassem could hardly have known. But of one thing he was certain: he had to go. Life had become far too comfortable, too predictable and too easy, and if his destination was uncertain, Mutassem knew well how to get there.

“Ever since I was a kid, my passion has been intellectual growth,” Mutassem told me during one of our conversations, explaining that it was his father, a petroleum engineer and a man of wide-ranging interests, who opened his eyes to the joys of learning. “He was my first teacher,” he recalled. “We grew up in Muscat, and he had built in our house this enormous library. He always encouraged us, me and my siblings, to use it – to read as much as possible.” Although an engineer by profession, his father was well versed in a variety of other fields, he says – geology, linguistics, religion, biology and more. “He actually memorised the entire Quran. It took him 15 years.”

That love of learning rubbed off on Mutassem, who shared his father’s innate curiosity about the world. “I took his advice to heart,” he says. A voracious reader, Mutassem too devoured every book he could get his hands on – everything from eastern philosophy to Greek mythology to poetry and works of literature. As a student, he was always at the top of his class, with perfect marks on every report card through the fifth grade.

“But it’s interesting,” he says. “I was also a bit of a rebel. At one point, I started thinking, you know, what am I trying to prove? And that’s when I stopped studying.” Of course, Mutassem’s curiosity never abated, and though he seldom prepared for his school examinations, he didn’t need to: so well-read was Mutassem in general that he managed to remain in the top three of his class through graduation.

When he was 18, Mutassem set off on a trip that would change his life. Never before had he left Oman. Indeed, for all he had read about different countries, for all of the places his imagination could conjure, he had only ever truly known his own home. His family, his friends, his classmates: all shared the same language, the same religion, the same set of experiences. To really grow as a person, he would have to leave the comforts of home for another culture, and upon graduating from high school, Mutassem decided to do just that, choosing to attend a university in Australia. It was a big step.

Soon he was on his way to Perth for his freshman year at Curtin University of Technology. “When I arrived, I made it my mission to seek out people of different backgrounds with different ways of thinking, different cultures and religions, and not only in the classroom, but through sports and social activities as well.” One of the most memorable friends Mutassem made was a young Chilean student named Francisco. “He influenced me hugely,” remembers Mutassem. “He was very open-minded, very tolerant of others’ views – and he pushed me to think differently myself.”

Mutassem excelled at Curtin. Having found support for his studies from Oman’s ministry of higher education, which covered his tuition for the entire four-year programme, Mutassem took full advantage of the opportunity. A major in finance and strategic economic analysis, he studied hard and did well in his classes. But just as importantly, he managed to make new friends, and to carve out time for volunteer work.

Four years overseas had done Mutassem good. Far from home for the first time in his life, he’d learnt to adapt to a new environment, to see the world with new eyes.

Personally and professionally, spiritually and emotionally, Mutassem had matured; he knew what he wanted; he understood who he was. And yet, upon his return to Oman, the way forward was anything but clear. During his last semester at Curtin, Mutassem had received a job offer from Oman’s telecommunications regulatory authority. The agency was looking for an economist. The salary was good. The hours were reasonable, and the alternatives were few. “So I accepted it,” he says. Things went well enough for the first year. But Mutassem soon realised how much he was missing. “I wasn’t stimulated intellectually,” he says. “And I was too comfortable.” While many people would consider comfort a good thing, his years of practising karate had taught Mutassem to avoid it, he says. “Discomfort strengthens the spirit.” Anxious to find a way out, Mutassem spent his free time in self-reflection, searching his thoughts for what it was he should do with his life, and after filling several notebooks, he finally arrived at a realisation: “that I needed to do more”, he says. “I wasn’t going to occupy a space on this Earth just to do a job that pays well.” Still, leaving, he knew, would not be easy. “In this part of the world, there is so much pressure to do what’s normal,” he says. “So much authority telling you what to do and what not to do.”

Nevertheless, Mutassem had made his decision; he would go his own way. “I knew I wanted to become a motivational speaker and a writer,” he says. “I didn’t know how I would do it; I just knew that I would.” Then, one day, he got a call from a friend: “He asked me if I would give a workshop to university students.” Seized by the doubt that he couldn’t do it, Mutassem hesitated. “I thought about how I didn’t have much experience as a public speaker,” he says. “But then I remembered that for much of the past year, I had been telling myself I was one, and I knew that at some point, I had to walk the talk.” Adrenalin pumping, his voice shaky, Mutassem agreed to do the workshop, and that decision, he says, “changed my life forever”. Less than two years after leaving his government job, Mutassem has reached more than 1,000 people with his inspirational talks and training programmes.

But it’s a discussion group called the Enriching Experience that demands most of Mutassem’s time. The idea for this pioneering social enterprise was hatched, he says, in February 2013.

It occurred to Mutassem that if he could just cultivate the right environment, the right setting for scholarly engagement, he could offer something not even the most sophisticated software ever could – a chance to take a step back, to ignore, for a moment, the myriad digital distractions of our ever-connected lives, and silence the noise. “In essence, to have discussions in a manner, and with certain values, that would ensure the best experience in terms of sharing and receiving knowledge for all,” says Mutassem. Of course, as with any out-of-the-box idea, it was hard to know if what he had envisioned on paper would actually work. So Mutassem decided to run it by a test audience of his cousins. “Not knowing what to expect or how the meeting would turn out to be, we all decided to give it a shot,” he recalls. “Three topics were put forward for a vote on which should be the focus of the first meeting’s discussion.” Together, they decided on a time and place: 4.30pm at Barbera Café in Bait Al Reem, Muscat; and thus was born the Enriching Experience. “By the end of the meeting, each and every one of the participants had recognised they had this enormous potential to learn and share knowledge – potential that wasn’t apparent before the meeting,” recalls Mutassem. “No one had seen the greatness that lies within themselves.” Buoyed by the successful results of that first meeting, Mutassem and his cousins continued to meet every two weeks. At each meeting, they rotated the role of chairperson, who suggests topics for voting and moderates the discussion in keeping with a set of seven values, the first letters of which spell out the word LITERAL: Love to seek knowledge; Inclusiveness of everyone; Tolerance of all ideas; Respect for one another; Appreciation for everyone attending the meeting; and Love to share knowledge.

To help participants uphold those values, the chairperson passes around the “ball of wisdom”, says Mutassem, explaining that only the person holding the ball has the floor to speak. In this way, he says, the meetings endow participants not only with new knowledge, but also with the confidence to express themselves before an audience of their peers – something that many of them had never before done.

“I think the idea of tolerance is not very strong in this part of the world,” he says. “People tend to have their views, and they usually aren’t open to others, especially with regard to topics considered taboo, like faith and politics.” With the Enriching Experience, he says, Omanis have a forum in which they can speak freely, debate issues, and learn. Mutassem has no illusions of replacing Facebook. But he does believe that in a world so saturated with social media, there is a growing awareness of the value of the kind of face-to-face interactions facilitated by the Enriching Experience. Given that social media is a global phenomenon, the Enriching Experience has the potential, he believes, to expand internationally. “My vision, my hope,” he says, “is that this will help encourage people to formulate their own opinions and to share those opinions.” It’s especially important, he adds, “that we start with young people. This can help lay the foundation for a more tolerant society.”

An unseen star of the Arab world, Mutassem Al Sharji made his way in the world on his own terms. Driven by a hunger for knowledge, and a desire to share it, he weathered the pressure to stay in a stable job, and instead, struck out on his own. Although the Enriching Experience may never achieve the world-spanning reach Mutassem envisions, its mere existence is a testament to the power of imagination and the impact one person can have.

* From the book Arabs Unseen by Mohammed Mahfoodh Alardhi, copyright © 2015. Published by arrangement with Bloomsbury Publishing India.

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