Oman is not a member of the UAE, although it borders that country, but apparently it benefits from a forward-looking and progressive ruler, Sultan Qaboos. Born in 1940, he was educated in Britain, like many sons of Arab royal families; and when he inherited the throne in 1970, he set about bringing his backward nation into the modern age. According to our tour guide, in 1970 there were only eight kilometers of paved road in the entire country. Now there are broad highways everywhere. Oman is oil-rich and exports petroleum all over the world, but uses its own plentiful natural gas resources to electrify the country. Women in Oman are allowed to drive cars, work in offices, and choose if, when, and whom to marry. Although Islam is the official religion, non-Muslims are free to practice their own religion. Our tour guide was Hindu and vegetarian, and his assessment was that everyone in Oman loved the Sultan. He might have been right about that.
The Old Town of Muscat is beautiful and picturesque, curving around a deep harbor where dhows(traditional Omani craft) and fishing boats and yachts bob at anchor. We first visited the Sultan’s official residence, the Al Alam Palace, walking up a long open courtyard to the palace gates to take pictures. On both sides of the wide path, polished marble walks gleamed like mirrors beneath archways and columns. We saw a blue-clad workman mopping a section of marble as we returned to the bus and suspected that keeping those acres of stone spotless was an around-the-clock project.
The palace sits between two hilltop stone fortresses built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, only two of many such forts along the Omani coast. We wondered, and not for the first time, how the builders managed to haul their quarried stone up the sheer faces of the mountains, much less actually construct fortresses that have stood for 500 years.
When we climbed back on Bus 7 and made our way to our seats in the rear, Gerry turned to me and said, “Buses 1, 2, and 3 went to the souq first, and they’ve bought all the good stuff!” A couple sitting behind us collapsed in laughter, and the wife was still laughing when we got to the Muttrah Souq ten minutes later. No worries. Shops filled with colorful merchandise lined the long covered passageways, and the smell of frankincense wafted out of many doorways. If we’d wanted to buy a khanjar(an Omani curved dagger in a silver scabbard), there were plenty to choose from.
I was tempted by a display of camel sticks, long wooden wands with a right-angle crook at one end, used to give directions to the camel to turn right or left, stop, go, kneel,or get up. But getting the requisite camel into our luggage for the trip home proved an insurmountable hurdle. Gerry could have bought an entire men’s outfit – thobe, ghutra, and egal (see first journal installment for definitions) – at any number of shops, but he wasn’t sure where he would wear it at home. Sarasota Opera might not be the place to introduce this attire as formal wear.
We’d seen exquisite, colorful women’s gowns, crafted like fitted caftans, in several shops during the trip, including some in Dubai that were encrusted with Swarovski crystals, but we couldn’t figure out where women would wear them in these countries, since the abayais required to be black. But then it dawned on us: they wear these gorgeous clothes in the privacy of their homes.
We saw a family of three – mother in full Muslim garb, including a niqab covering her face, and two grown daughters without veils, one of whom was movie star gorgeous – in a fabric shop looking at beautifully colored bolts of silk. I suspect that one of the daughters was shopping for her trousseau. We were told at the outset that we should never photograph a Muslim woman, so I contented myself with a picture of some of the goods on display in the shop. The stricture against photography certainly didn’t apply to the shopkeepers (all men) in the souqor to the young boys who posed for us on the waterfront, donning designer sunglasses to look cool.
Besides eight palaces, the Sultan of Oman has several yachts, one of which was anchored in the harbor at Muscat. At 600 feet in length, I think it’s bigger than some cruise ships we’ve sailed on, and I suspect it’s a lot more palatial inside. Two dhows anchored nearby posed a pictorial contrast between traditional life in Oman and what goes on in the twenty-first century.
From the hill overlooking the Old Town of Muscat, it would be easy to imagine how it looked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when many of the original structures were built. But just outside of town, perched on steep hillsides overlooking the bay, lie the beautiful buildings of the new city of Muscat. Everything we saw dated back no further than 1970, much of it very new, sparkling in the sun. Simple, elegant architecture and white stucco seemed to be the hallmark of the city, although some buildings were painted cream or light tan. Someone told us that, by law, buildings must be repainted every three years. And the police hand out traffic tickets for dirty cars. Car washes must do a booming business in Oman, especially after a rainstorm.
As in the UAE, those they call the “local people” in Oman receive preferential treatment in many ways. Ninety-five percent of public sector jobs are reserved for native Omanis, as are sixty percent of private sector jobs. In order to run a business, you have to have a license; but only local people are permitted to obtain a license. So we saw many shops where one or two people were working, while another man sat behind the counter or in a chair outside the shop door, doing nothing. He was the guy with the license, and he was keeping an eye on how well his tenants were doing with his business. Also as in the UAE, there is no path to Omani citizenship for foreign-born emigrants. It certainly pays to choose your parents carefully in the Middle East.
When we booked this cruise, we’d thought the most interesting part of the trip would begin once we reached India. We were wrong. Our thrill-ride desert safari in Dubai, our exhilarating mountaintop adventure, our first Arabian souq, the unique beauty of the scenery, the clean air and clean streets in the cities, and the warmth of the locals with whom we came in contact – we see this part of the world through new eyes now. And we’re having a wonderful time.
Once across the Arabian Sea, it’s Mumbai and the start of our first visit to India. So stay tuned.
Laurie & Gerry