Certain cities/countries grow into you and for me it is Oman…the land of golden sands, wadis and for adventures unknown. 18 years is a long time to forget and move on but it seems only yesterday we were readying for the epic flight to Muscat, the capital of Sultanate of Oman. (1995 -2000)
October 1995…The plane sashays through poof ball clouds, camouflaging jagged intimidating mountains glistening in the early morning sun, as it prepares to touch down at Seeb international Airport, Muscat. We would be seeing more of these mountains, omnipresent, eccentrically layered, at places sandpapered, brittle, ready to fall apart at mere touch, chameleon-like changing color with every slant of sun.
Our entry into Sultanate of Oman coincided with paradisiacal weather, by Oman standards, as October onwards the hot air or the mistral disappears from over the mountaintops. Unknowingly, we had timed our arrival with the 25th year of ascension of the present Sultan Qaboos bin Said and the country’s National Day celebrations. The country was eulogizing the metamorphosis into a new era engineered by discovery of oil and the Sultan’s commitment to his people. The buntings and multi hued lights stringed along pillars and atop buildings added to the festive ambiance and after sunset Muscat turned into an Arabian Nights city with lighted minarets, streets and buildings.
The Middle East, except for Dubai for its glamour and shopping, had never been on our travel itinerary and relegated to the never-never land for visits. So, when my husband sprang the news of us of moving to Muscat, Oman, he was greeted with skepticism. Three heads poured over an Atlas, Google search was unheard of in 1995, searching for the geographical position of the land we would be setting base in. There it was, cavorting alongside Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Yemen and the shape, ‘more like a shoe’, was not very encouraging. “Who lives in a shoe?” questioned our nine-year old son to be reminded about the ‘Old Woman who lived in a shoe’* by his elder sibling. After much deliberation a hands-down vote clinched the issue in favor because it was still ‘foreign’ and gateway to other travels.
Personal misgivings pushed aside, attired in best of finery and attitude, we boarded Gulf Air flight for Muscat. In a booking error the three of us, husband had left a month earlier, were allotted separate seats in a packed flight. It was tough three hours in a never-ending surround sound of cheap deodorant, sweat and high decibel buzz. A collective sigh on a smooth landing and we disembarked to queue inside a neat, air-conditioned arrival lounge, an ideal setting for tourist-friendly gentrification.
We did something we had not done in a long time. Stand in a queue. In a way there was no getting out of it as it was said more in eye language and gestures than in word and there were no breaking lines and ‘me first shoves’. At that time it did not register but it was to be a phenomenon we would meet throughout our stay: the fine-tuning of Indians. Visa and customs formalities over, my books flipped through, a casual check, and we exited to find husband beside a deep red Chrysler Inteprid. The day was made for our son… on seeing a real version of one of his dinky cars and I could guess he was mentally composing a letter to his school friends back home.
Dazzling aquamarine sky, laundered roads (saw them being washed at night) bordered by layers of multi-hued flowers interspersed with date palms of one height and color…it was picture postcard scenery. I surrendered to the sanitized surroundings far removed from the romantic notions of a desert land of camel riding sheiks and swaying begums. On second thoughts there was certain fakeness to the scenery and my intuition was correct as later we learnt that the palm trees are transplanted along with the soil and flowers. Well it also proved a point….Omanis love green spaces and Muscat is a recipient of municipal awards for the cleanest city.
A few miles down the single tar road, connecting the International airport to the city, I was still looking for sheiks. But what I saw was a generic city of tree-lined roads, flower bedecked fancy roundabouts embellished with jars, teapots, books and forts, ‘white’ brick buildings, construction was fairly recent as this was a new developing city and from the air-conditioned confines of the car all very welcoming even the protective mountains. The country, except for the wadis or valleys and the coastal plain, is mountain dominated and in Muscat the rocky wall blocks any cool breeze entering the city. One can imagine the plight of residents before electric fans and air cons entered households and commercial buildings.
The rugged landscape dominates the lives of the people with the mountains along with being nature-blockers preserved the country from invaders both from land and sea. Wendell Phillips in his book ‘UNKNOWN OMAN’likens the Eastern Hajar Mountains that meet the sea directly in an apparently unbroken line of precipitous cliffs, as diaphanous and opalescent rising out of the pale blue waters of the Indian Ocean. The crusted jagged mountains, the Jebel Akhdar or the ‘Green Mountains’ and its highest point, the Jebel Shams or the ‘Mountain of the Sun’ of North Oman protect the terraced fields and fruit orchards and then curve towards the West (Musandam) onto South East (Ras al Haad) with Central Oman as its epicenter. The Arabs refer to this section as a ‘man’s spine’ and the flat lands of the Batina region (coastal plains) as the stomach or ‘bread basket of Oman’. The area to the west of the hills, the Dhahira, is the back bone while further down South the mountains of Dhofar have their own agenda turning into shades of green from June to September and presenting an awe-inspiring facet of Oman.
Muscat in Arabic means ‘falling place’ but the undulating sky-line of buildings and rolling clouds, present an image of a place vying for attention. Mountains aside, a few days in Muscat and ‘It is so familiar” refrain was constant till we hit upon the reason. It is so sub continental or Indian minus the cows and insensate traffic. In the 1800s Muscat was said to have one foot in Arabia and the other in India ‘with the suq or market dominated by enterprising Indian merchants’. In 1995, in addition to the Indian population, Oman was a potpourri of assorted smells and sounds of different nationalities making themselves at home and a year later I too joined in the chorus “Muscat just grows into you”.
Getting a driving license turned out to be a full-fledged ‘war game’ what with right hand driving, reversing through drums and slope test. My 10 years of driving were inconsequential as I failed once in the road test for a ‘fast turn’ or was it a ‘slow turn’. There were no dearth of advisors and collaborators-in-distress with ‘We told you so’, “you must always turn at the right time”, “check the inspector’s mood” or “I was lucky and managed in one go” the last making me feel a nincompoop. Still I was few notches better than an acquaintance who got her license after seven tries. To most Indians, driving in Oman means following traffic rules, no cutting lanes or sneaking in through gaps and maintaining a particular speed, giving way etc.
With driving license safely tucked in wallet and a Toyota Camry as gift from husband, I was on the road dropping children to school, meeting friends over coffee or simply discovering Muscat and its twin, Muttrah. The connecting road between the new and old cities passes along a natural horseshoe-shaped rocky cove guarded by the Portuguese forts, Jalali and Mirani. The road leads on to the Corniche flanked by British and Portuguese constructions and the quintessential Muttruh souq. The mystical Arabic ambiance of cobbled alleys and old houses, wafting frankincense and attar smells, the hawk-eyes and kohl-lined eyes pierce through your lost soul armour and you’re in the Land of Sindbad the Sailor.
Muscat harbor was the ‘most picturesque place in the East’ for Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy of India from 1898-1905. Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese seafarer (1507) found Muscat ‘…a large and very populous city….there are orchards, gardens and palm groves with pools for watering with wooden engines…..’ Later on he would ransack the city, burning and pillaging, destroying the Arab fleet and laying the foundation stone for Portuguese take over of the city.
As for me the five years, 1995-2000, were years of discovery of a country shaped out of a rustic and vibrant topography where the ‘historical recitative whistles through the whitened bones of somnolent ruins.’*
*”There was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” is a popular English language nursery rhyme.
* Henry Miller in REMEMBER TO REMEMBER