arabic ability: wahit, ithenaen, thelatha, arba, hamsa….halaas
sanity status: Eschewing tp, Gulf-region countries embrace the colon-hose method of toilet hygiene. This means that every toilet on the Arabian peninsula is invariably always really wet, and the fluids’ origin always ambiguous.
“Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi–Oman is not like them,” Ali, my cab driver insisted on our way from the airport. Given that I saw greenery and mountains, and it was raining at the time, it was easy to agree. Plus I was really tired.* He explained to me that while the people of these other Gulf countries are from the desert, Omanis have a long history of settlement in the region. “Oman was empire!”
*Since my Saudi housing is in a hotel of flats whose rates dramatically increase over holidays, a few days before we had learned we had to move out during the break. Yes, only just to move all our things back into exactly the same rooms upon returning. My company pinches pennies with pliers, then pinches the pliers. Having packed, it was only as I was about to depart with roommates to Bahrain, to catch from there the 2nd leg of my journey to Muscat the next afternoon, that I was informed that I could have spent one more night in my accommodation. No matter. Instead we had a rich meal, got hammered in an empty bar on a Monday night and I spent 13 hours catnapping in Bahrain international after unsuccessfully (persistently…egregiously…sloppily) arguing to be shifted to an earlier flight.
Shortly after de Gama’s epic voyage, the Portuguese established a host of fortified trading posts along the coast of Oman, taking control of the lucrative maritime trade in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Eventually, Omanis from the mountainous interior, where large, Omani-style forts and walled cities had stood for centuries, mounted a resistance and evicted the Portuguese from Oman by 1650.
Spurred by success, the swift Omani fleet continued to push the Portuguese south. Eventually Mombasa, Zanzibar, and all the posts down the east coast of Africa to Mozambique were Oman’s, in addition to a parcel of territory in what is today southwestern Pakistan, across the gulf of Oman. Of course, dominating the slave trade had a lot more to do with the drive for commercial empire than opening new markets for Oman’s famous export, frankincense (incense).* But meanwhile, extended contact with these regions contributed to the spread of Islam to East Africa and to Central and even East Asia. Sultans soon found Zanzibar so appealing, they ended up abandoning Oman, and the weakening empire split in half (the Oman half went to the “loser” son of a 19th century sultan). In the 1970s, with Omanis revolting against their sultan, the British, with assistance from Iranian forces, supported a coup that installed the sultan’s son as ruler in 1975. (harsh, no?)
*Some also chew bits of frankinscense, which is sap from a particular type of tree, as it’s said to help with weight-loss. It tastes like an unsweetened, extra sticky gummy-bear made of pine might. Myrrh is from Yemen, but it’s very similar…I know you were wondering.
In 2010, though, the UN Development Program voted Oman, out of 135 eligible nations, the country that had developed the most since 1970. Much credit is given to Sultan Qaboos’ stable, nearly 40-year reign. (“Don’t discuss his sexuality,” says the guidebook.) Surely the exploitation since 1970 of the world’s 24th largest oil fields (5.5 billion barrels) and 28th largest natural gas reserves, in a country of less than 4 million people, had a lot to do with it as well. Today 1 Omani Riyal ≈ $2.50 (or 10 Saudi Riyals).
Tourists in Oman generally head for the Wadis, the many rugged, remote, and eminently navigable narrow valleys that snake between its mountains. At the edge of the Arabian plate, geological uplift pushes ancient seafloor beds dramatically upward into jagged, barren peaks, the highest on the peninsula. The canyons make Oman one of the world’s famous off-roading destinations. I saw none of them. Lacking the foresight/funding to reserve a 4×4 over the Eid holiday, my venture in Oman was not the well-planned roadtrip the country deserves. Damn.
Muscat is not really a city, it’s a 40km wide region squeezed between the mountains and the coast. Districts of the city are divided by intense, rocky outcrops which only recently were penetrated by roads–not long ago, one traveled between these districts by boat. The name Muscat is derived from the old town, where today all the government offices are located, with Sultan Qaboos’ enigmatic palace in the center and 2 old Portuguese forts flanking the harbor on the hills. Plans are apparently afoot to knock down many of the structures here and turn the area into a sort of Omani-Epcot of pseudo-historical buildings.
A few kilometers west is Muttrah, the old commercial port, featuring the fish market (closed for renovation), the souq, Muscat’s only (not all that) cheap accommodation, and a couple of the sultan’s yachts (he dislikes sea travel). West of that, stretching for many kilometers is Qurom and the new town, where all of the modern shopping, hotel and embassy facilities are located. Beyond Qurom is the airport, one of two in the country. Muttrah is where I stayed too many nights, Qurom is where I spent too much time. Freedom from Saudia is fun regardless.
My first night, after visiting the souq (satisfyingly labyrinthine) and sampling the local cuisine (familiarly schwarman), my flatmate and I elected to get a drink at one of Muttrah’s harbor hotels. The bar was upstairs, in an L-shaped room densely packed with chairs all facing a small stage at the nexus. It was dark, and no one was there. The frilly red curtains blocking the windows and the furniture arrangement should have been obvious hints. But the bar was serving. We sat down next to each other with tall cans–did you know Amstel exported a non-light beer? Digesting this astonishing new fact, and then a second time, a few locals began to filter in, mostly electing chairs in the back, none too talkative. The TV was changed to a channel broadcasting a scene inside what appeared to be a brightly lit disco. On stage, young 8s, 9s and 10s in tight-fitting jeans, skirts, blouses and tanktops…really, whatever they wanted to wear, danced/bounced reservedly with each other–where were the men? Waiting for something to happen, the song finished, then a new stage with new girls appeared (“Ah, so that’s the whole point of the channel.” One penny dropped.) A more ebullient man in front of us pointed at the screen, practiced his English. “Iraqi girls. This start after Saddam is finish!” (USA! USA!) He took a drink. “But this recorded.” He nodded towards the stage. “This fresh. Moroccan.” He beamed.
It’s strange in retrospect, but my friend and I became concerned about how we might make our imminent escape without being rude. Then the fresh arrived. A large man took up a tune on the electric keyboard, and 3 tightly-clothed young women, flesh bulging profoundly from all the wrong places, made-up as if with Van Gogh’s thick oil paints, began dancing subtly in front of each half of the room. The kitchen then produced platters of what appeared to be cold, diced, ballpark franks (alcohol, then prostitutes, why not throw in pork as well? the haram hat-trick) for the entranced patrons. We couldn’t make our escape fast enough. As we left, for some unclear reason one of the men sitting behind asked us not to go. Plenty of fresh to go around, I suppose.
The next day we witnessed the deluge of Muscat. Going for a late breakfast at a tourist trap perched just above the souq’s main entrance, it began to lightly rain. Three teas later, no end in sight to the drizzle, I went to look back at the souq entrance and saw that the path into the market had unfathomably became a shallow rapids system. The next couple hours entertainment consisted of watching the water rise railside with enthusiastic local onlookers, anxiously peering to see what new materials the waters would carry to the sea from the stalls of unlucky, ill-prepared shopkeepers uphill. Each time a dumpster appeared, flowing to the sea, the crowd would clap in unison and cheer. It was shocking how high the water rose, how formidable the current became, given the low intensity of the rain. Even after the rain stopped, the stream continued down what had hours before been a completely dry path–it didn’t dry up for a few days. We learned that this was the most rain Muscat had seen in either 4 or 10 years, depending on who you talked to.
After a few days of city meanderings, hotel bars, hollywood productions*, closed museums (Eid holiday…you’d think tourism sights would adopt the opposite business strategy…then again, who comes to Oman for the museums? Or just who comes to Muscat?), neighborhood friends**, and generally waiting for a roadtrip to develop, the cavalry arrived.
*Trying to figure out what the hell the crowd was making of The Rum Diaries and the American Dream in crisis added a little bit of enjoyment to an arc-less (pointless?), if amusing movie. By the third one, “I’m watching this film…in Oman??!” ceases to add anything to the experience.
**Eat a meal in a Bengladeshi restaurant, act polite and demonstrate some vague interest in the homeland, and suddenly you have new best friends. Can you imagine if you actually use the home phone number they insist you take, then double-check that you haven’t lost each subsequent time they spy you from afar in town and approach with great enthusiasm. (“Hello?…Yes, hi ma’am, I just arrived in Dhaka. Your husband gave me this phone number when I ate at the restaurant where he works a few years ago in Muscat…can I come stay at your house?”). Does it say more about reverse racism (“ah, they are white…and friendly! We must cultivate this contact as they are surely well-connected!”) or the standard treatment that less-privileged immigrants are subjected to in the Gulf countries?
It was my understanding that the trip was to head into the mountains for a few days of camping and seeing wadis. My friend and I had ventured into the souq at the last minute (not enough time to prepare? yeah, pathetic), each purchasing an absurd mat to ward off mountain chill after we’d confirmed that indeed there is no camping gear for sale. So I was quite surprised a few hours later when our entourage pulled up at a beach camping area perhaps 100km east of Muscat.
Go with the flow. Anticipating inquiries (“what is this moocher doing here?”) I gathered wood like a beaver on Ritalin. A large beach campfire, with grilled meat and vodka/arak shared among company is always gonna be a fun experience. Shenanigans aside though, returning to Muscat the next day without having seen a wadi and realizing that the outdoor adventure I’d hoped for wasn’t going to materialize was a mild disappointment. I hadn’t done enough to make it happen.
Did you know that Shaggy is alive? Can’t say that I’d thought about it, but the night we came back to Muscat he was having a concert in the garden at the Intercontinental. Wherever he’s been the last ten-odd years, he certainly hasn’t been writing new songs or acquiring talent. At the time “Shaggy’s in Muscat!” seemed like a perfectly reasonable argument for shelling out $60 plus the inevitable overpriced drinks. In retrospect, I’m not sure why it was. Still, a cash-bar lawn concert featuring a known artist is at least something we’ll never find in Saudia. Much of the concert seemed to be him posing on stage with an arched eyebrow while someone else’s more recent music blasted through the speakers. I heard later that he tried to bring a retinue of girls back to his room and was stopped by authorities, it being Oman, and he being not Akon.
Given that Muscat is so close to Dubai, I figured that these kinds of shows with recognizable western artists must be common–they come to Dubai for an obscene performance fee, then surely just hop over to Muscat for another show to make it worth their while. However, I was told by someone in the events-planning business that this isn’t the case at all because Omanis won’t pay for the tickets. Apparently last year the Brazilian national team came to Oman for an exhibition and everyone complained about a ticket price of 2 riyals.
The only reason that this is surprising is because of the sheer number of luxury cars you see locals driving around in Muscat. On the 2km Qurom corniche, Omani youth drive back and forth in the evening and on weekends in front of the big Starbucks in their Lexus and Mercedes and BMWs. However, like most of the world, there’s a lack of job opportunities for young Omanis. A local told me the truth–young, often jobless Omanis get together, vouch for each other on personal loans from Muscat banks (based presumably on someone in one of their families having a good job), then drive over to the UAE and purchase cheap luxury cars that have been refurbished after accidents (at least on the outside…) . He told me that many of these young people driving around can’t even afford gas; they take it from their parents’ cars. In a small village in Oman it’s not uncommon to see multiple fine German automobiles parked outside the smallest of homes. When the cars break down, the youths are left with nothing to show for their loan, and no real way to pay it back except through the benevolence of family.
With a few days left in Oman, I decided to go into the mountains to Nizwa. The largest city in Oman not on the coast, Nizwa was the historical seat of power for imams, who exercised strong political influence in the country’s interior, rivaling the sultan and even inspiring rebellion until the sultan eliminated the office of the imam in 1964. The fort at the heart of Nizwa dating from about 1650 is one of the most famous and well-preserved in the country. The main tower rises over 30 meters and is 36 meters across, making it the largest in Oman. The guidebook says all the accommodations are actually a few kilometers outside the city on the highway to Muscat. In all wisdom I figured this was just lazy researching, and earned myself a couple hours of fruitless meandering, pack on, for my expertise.
From Nizwa I also managed to visit the smaller town of Bahla 40 km hence, famous for its own, allegedly pre-Islamic era fort (perpetually under re-construction) and the 12 kms of walls around it, as well as being the capital of Omani jinn magic (root of “genie”); Oman is famous in the Gulf region for its dark arts. Apparently people come to Bahla if they need a curse placed on someone, among other reasons–descriptions seem a bit like how voodoo is commonly described by those who haven’t actually studied it, though. (Here’s a bizarre, related video with surprise ending! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WpyM3qeBj0)
My last day in Oman, I returned to Muscat. Refusing to withdraw any more riyals in an arbitrary display of fiscal austerity(/embracing the zeitgeist), I was “forced” to walk back for 30 minutes in a torrential downpour after yet another movie. There’s something self-indulgent about deliberately experiencing unpleasantness, maybe therapeutic or purging. “Forgive me now, universe, for allowing my fb profile to go rogue. Forgive me, oh universe, for paying for Tower Heist.* I know you will–see how I suffereth.”
*How many comebacks does this make for Eddie Murphy. And Ben Stiller, not just representing the little guy but actually SAVING the little guy–why can’t he just settle for saving his audience who, like me clearly, can’t help themselves?
Sidewalks made of puddles, streets turned to rivers, it occurred to me in my sopping Sambas, well, at least Saudia’s really, really dry, if perhaps in too many ways.