Certain cities/countries grow into you and for me it is Sultanate of Oman…the land of golden sands, wadis and for adventures unknown. 25 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 Sultan Qaboos bin Said ( July 1970 -January 2020 ) and 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 professional itinerary and relegated to the never-never land for visits. So, when my husband announced over dinner 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 of co-passengers. 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 encounter 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 a certain fakeness to the scenery and my intuition was correct as later we learnt that the palm trees were transplanted along with the soil and flowers. Well, it also proved a point….Omanis love green spaces and Muscat was/is a recipient of municipal awards for the cleanest city of the country.
A few miles down the single tar road connecting the International airport to the city, I was still looking for sheiks. But here 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) 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. The rugged landscape dominated the lives of the people and one can imagine the plight of residents before electric fans and air cons entered households and commercial buildings.
Along with being nature-blockers, these mountains preserved the country from invaders both from land and sea. Wendell Phillips in his book ‘UNKNOWN OMAN’ mentions the Eastern Hajar Mountains as ‘diaphanous and opalescent rising out of the pale blue waters of the Indian Ocean’. The popular tourist attraction, the Jebel Akhdar or the ‘Green Mountains’ and its highest point, the Jebel Shams or the ‘Mountain of the Sun’ protect the terraced fields and fruit orchards of North Oman before curving 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 majority of Indians driving in Oman is strenous as it 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, passed along a natural horseshoe-shaped rocky cove guarded by Portuguese forts, Jalali and Mirani towards Corniche flanked by British and Portuguese constructions and the quintessential Muttruh souq. The souq was a wonderland of mystical Arabic ambiance of cobbled alleys and old houses, wafting frankincense and attar smells, the hawk-eyes and kohl-lined eyes piercing 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.
The Muscat of 1995 was a juxtaposition of the traditional and modern with varied repertoire of heritage matching its geographical diversity. The hassle free pace of life was aided by opulent and glitzy shopping malls displaying products from around the world, bounteous parks, schools, colleges, theater, hotels, extending coastline… encouraging one to explore and cherish.
The country was going through tremendous changes… ‘something to be believed’ as our neighbor expressed it. He had come in 1980s and was witness to the developments. “There was only a single tarmac road between Muttrah and Muscat that meandered past Riyam cliffs, past the power station and previous head office of Muttrah Cold Stores and southern edge of Riyam Park”. He continued…” Entry into Muscat had been via three ancient gates, the Bab Al Mathaeeb, Al Bab Al Kabeer and Al Bab Al Sagheer that would be closed at night. Only people with lanterns were allowed access. Now we can freely drive through the gates”.
Within days my favourite haunt was the Muttrah souq. I would spend hours walking around in its cobbled lanes lost in the world of antiques, silver artifacts, Arabic perfumes and general items.
We moved into a villa in Qurum, (behind Qurum Natural Park or the Rose Garden). Every evening, around 5 pm, the old almond tree in our garden would be transformed into a meeting place for parrots and crows. They would start swooping in from adjoining areas and if all the branches of the tree were taken the unlucky ones would squat on the wooden fence or the tiled roof. Their high-voltage chirpings sounded like heated discussion and we would play guessing games as to what the topics could be. It was in the second year of our stay, 1997 winter, that the tree fell. It had rained heavily that year and I suppose the rotting roots could not withstand all the buffeting around. Along with us the parrots and the crows sure grieved for their perch. We could see them circling around and even though they found an alternate place in the neighbor’s garden, I felt it was not the same.
The five years, 1995-2000, were years of discovery of a country shaped out of a rustic and vibrant topography. There were trips to other cities, Salalah in southern Oman, the home of frankincense and Queen Sheeba; Nizwa, Sur, Bahla, Sohar and other villages and cities where the ‘historical recitative whistles through the whitened bones of somnolent ruins.(Henry Miller in REMEMBER TO REMEMBER)
*”There was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” is a popular English language nursery rhyme.