There was once a young boy attending a posh school in England. Classmates would jeer at his brown skin, at his shy, reticent nature.
Where do you come from, they’d ask.
The Sultanate of Oman, he’d reply.
Where the heck is that?
The boy would whip out a map of the world and point to a piece of land located between East Africa and India.
Here! This is where I come from, he’d point firmly.
Years later, the young boy, Qaboos was to become the Sultan of Oman, the man who put his country on the map such that no one would dare ask where it was!
Oman, tucked away between big brother Saudi Arabia and little brother U.A.E was my country of choice. And this post is about my recent visit to Oman-3 years after I’d left it to return to India. When I’d first arrived in Muscat, I’d found the sight of the brown, barren mountains depressing. Today it’s these very mountains that have become my most enduring memory of Oman.
Friendships can be defined by how long they last. By that yardstick, Oman and I go way back-further than the four years I spent there as a tour guide, further than the three years that I spent missing it tremendously. Even further back….a past life, perhaps.
Visiting Oman this time round was like finding a piece of a jigsaw puzzle somewhere in my heart-a puzzle comprising myriad memories, images and conversations of all places visited and yet to be visited. The years just faded away like wrinkles off a freshly-ironed piece of clothing.
Muscat, the capital is so charming with its whitewashed low-rises nestled amidst the majestic mountains, it’s not hard not to like this city. Muscat means ‘anchorage’ and the city is a natural harbour. Colonists came and went and yet none was able to conquer the country. The Portuguese tried, though and were promptly driven out by the Imams of the Al Yaruba dynasty. And sure as hell, the Portuguese landed in India soon after. Look at the map and it’s clear why.
Oman is India’s neighbour just across the Arabian Sea and everytime I fly into either city, I can’t help but think that the “unlikely event of landing on water” may not be that unlikely at all. So I intently watch the stewardess give safety instructions on how to inflate the life jacket. And when I do arrive safely, I let out a soft “Al Humdullilah.”
Muscat is one of the cleanest cities in the world, and it’s ironic that it’s mostly an Indian cleaning staff that keeps it that way. Oman’s road network is tremendous and yet, you have access to Oman’s first black-top road, Riyam Road, nearly 2 kms long, and offering spectacular views over Old Muscat, the Sultan’s futuristic Al Alam Palace flanked by the two Portuguese forts of Jalali and Mirani.
Follow the Riyam Road and you’ll head straight into old Muscat, past the Bait Zubair Museum with its private collection of traditional Omani clothing, jewellery and weapons and perhaps, one of the best photographs of Sultan Qaboos (*sigh*). But the loveliest part of Muscat is the traditional fishing village of Sidab that lies along the road to the stately Al Bustan Palace Hotel. The little village, though, is no less modern than its urban counterpart in greater Muscat, yet, in many ways, is representative of Muscat’s humble beginnings.
Muscat’s coast offers clean beaches worthy of a good swim, and Qantab is a popular weekend destination for locals. Picnicking is what Omani folks do best, that is when they are not playing football. Entire families will drive down to beaches and wadis in their Toyotas and unpack large amounts of food. Meat will be washed in the falaj (an ancient water channelling system carved out of mountains) and grilled on a wood fire. Much revelry will follow; little children will wave out to tourists, women will gossip and the men will be men.
Out at sea, though is another adventure altogether. Venture out in the morning hours and you’re likely to spot schools of dolphins frolicking about the speed boats full of tourists that race to catch up with them. And if you’re very very lucky, on a cool winter’s day you might even spot a whale.
Back on land, head into the city along Muscat’s superefficient expressway and you’ll reach the Grand Sultan Qaboos Mosque, Oman’s largest and one of the most beautiful in the world. I’ve been here countless times on my tours, and yet, I can never say I’ve seen it all. There’s always something new to discover; how the sunlight falls along the corridors through the carved windows, or how the shadows of the columns line up to create a sun-shade effect, or how there’re always some new flowers to find in the superbly landscaped gardens.
If you’re in the Arab region, you’re likely to find a souq. Muscat’s Muttrah souq doesn’t at all disappoint. It’s where frankincense and attar mingle with the smell of zaatar and preserved lemons. Where you can buy a pashmina and find silver jewellery to match with it. Move away from the touristy sections and you’ll find local women in abayas haggle over the price of household goods and the older men gather to chat over kahwa and dates. Muttrah bazaar is more local than any other Arab souq, and that’s what makes it special.
Muttrah was a separate city altogether until 50 years ago, locked away at sundown behind giant doors during the reign of Sultan Said bin Taimur, the current Sultan’s father. Then Sultan Qaboos came along and threw open the doors to Muttrah and old Muscat. He brought all the wilayats of what is Greater Muscat today, together, and turned Muscat into the capital. He rebuilt his father’s Palace and today, you’ll find government buildings built in the traditional style flanking the Al Alam Palace. This is the administrative capital of Greater Muscat.
My visit to Muttrah and Muscat, in general was further enhanced by an enjoyable people-watching experience as I sat in my favourite cafe by the corniche, sipping on pomegranate juice. Muscat is so diverse, in terms of culture, food, and people. It is multi-culti, to use the German short form for multicultural. It is so quaint and yet so progressive. It’s like finding the perfect blend of spices in your favourite rice dish.
Muscat’s openness and warm and welcoming nature are so endearing, it makes me want to return again and again. You fly two hours and before you know it, you’ve arrived. Oman is too close to my heart to ever qualify as a foreign country. It’s just like arriving home.