26 years ago (1995), my first Accidental Expat experience, with the accompanying ifs and buts, was no glossy, glamorous paradisal adventure. The reason, there was no invasive deluge of pictures / vlogs / blogs on WhatsApp, Instagram, Google (at least in India), Yelp, Tik-Tok etc…to hold my hand in the hit-and-run learning experiences in an oil-rich unknown land. Now, when I look back the paucity of too much information gave me ‘new eyes’* to admire and critique the hits and misses and the family came away richer in experience and relationships. Whatever tidbits I collected wrapped Oman in a ‘Painted Veil’* making it obvious that, “If a man doesn’t have what’s necessary to make a woman love him, it’s his fault, not hers”. Substitute ‘woman’ for country and the onus was on me.
May 1995: The silent munching at the dining table was torpedoed by husband’s announcement about moving to Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. Heads collided, literally, in search of the much pencilled school Atlas to view a country sharing borders with Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Yemen. Our twelve year old son’s retort, “Who lives in a shoe’ on the shoe-shaped land, elicited a vocal ‘Why Not’ from daughter, five years his senior. A gloomy ‘Why not USA, Canada, Europe’ and votes cast, 80-20 in favour, with me still sceptical of taking the Middle Eastern route to wealth. The reason for my hesitancy were visions of enervated queues of visa applicants in front of Middle eastern embassies, rain or shine, in the Diplomatic area (Chanakya puri) New Delhi. Thankfully, as husband reiterated, the Company would handle the nitty-grit
Frantic to know more about this new land, before committing myself, I turned to friends and acquaintances. Somehow it never occurred to me to check out the British Council Library, New Delhi (I was a member then) for books on Oman. I had limited, or frankly, no-knowledge of the Oman-Colonial connection. Dubai was a popular tourist and business destination for Indians whereas Muscat, thanks to its oil discovery, was, like me, in the queue.
A chance meeting with Indian visitors from Oman bolstered my confidence. The couple’s children’s strong American accent made me question “Were they studying in the American School’. The answer “No, the Indian School” stumped me. Second beamer was an assurance that there was no mandatory cover-up for women akin to Saudi Arabia.
Muscat went up two notches in my ‘Perfect’ list.
By now I was hovering in an illusionary Middle-Eastern world of gold trinkets, dollars and luxuries. My husband’s frequent calls (he had left a month earlier) reminding me to bring the ‘chakla-belan-tawa’ (rolling board, rolling pin and frying pan) did not dent my fantasies. He was too busy settling in new job and place to worry about ‘house’ items. It was still 1995 and a Middle Eastern country. To add to the bizarre, our daughter insisted on packing her stationary case with pencils, stapler, erasers, geometry set, sharpener, much to the amusement of the Omani customs officer. “What man!! You are coming to the Gulf”.
Arrival in the Land of Plenty: On scheduled date and time we (children and me) boarded an Oman Air flight from Palam Airport, New Delhi, to be instantaneously engulfed in a surround sound of Gulf banter and ‘perfumes of Arabia’ of returning labor, housewives and first timers. The cacophonous short flight, mere two and half hours, was replaced by the sprawling austerity of Seeb International Airport (since then revamped) supervised by the stern eyed ‘Men in Dishdashas’ (Omani mens’ dress). Watching my country folk zombie-walk to the counters, an unseen scenario in India, I had a trepidation that this was a prelude to revelations of the in-transient kind.
An Unknown Land:
It was an ‘Open Sesame’ moment with husband’s Chrysler Intrepid mutating into a mechanised ‘Magic Carpet’ whooshing past the famous Sultan Qaboos Mosque (under construction), past newer vistas and housing complexes, a mix of old and new, lavish gardens interspersed with colourful flowers, swaying palm trees (learnt later that they were transplanted), spiffy and polished roads and roundabouts with poles adorned with buntings, banners, multi-coloured lighting…a near ‘royal’ welcome in a modern Arabic world.
This was no Arabian desert land of oases and camel riding Sheiks and Begums with belly dancers swaying behind them or fierce looking tribesmen wielding swords and bayonets to chase away intruders. This was a welcoming clean, green Middle Eastern City with roundabouts adorned with ethnic pottery structures, wide four lane roads, fancy cars, and no pedestrians. The Sheikhs and Begums were there, not in traditional transport, but zipping past in luxury sedans and SUVs.
Unknowingly, we had timed our arrival to coincide with the 30th year celebrations of the ascension of Sultan Qaboos to the throne of Sultanate of Oman and what was termed the transformational years of the country. A good omen for a fascinating association with an unknown land.
The India Connect… The surprise element
On the drive to our residence our daughter piped in “It all looks so familiar” sounding the bugle call to get into action. Sure enough a few weeks later I hit the jackpot when my husband’s colleague lent me Wendall Phillips ‘Unknown Oman’. Wendall writes that in the 1800s Oman had one foot in Arabia and the other in India. Indian merchants or Banians ‘dominated the markets or suqs and Indian money was in circulation’. The continuous interaction in trade from ancient, to the Mughal and the Colonial periods connected the two countries. I knew that Indians, in the present, were wending their way to the Gulf since the oil discovery ( courtesy the visa queues) but was clueless about the centuries old links. Danish explorer Carsten Niebuhr mentions that around 1765 there were about 1200 Indian families. In 1836 J.R. Wellsted described these Banians as constituting “a body of the principal merchants of Masqat”. There was a Hindu temple in Muscat of Indian ‘Banian’ tradespeople.
Intrigued by these new learnings and connections, I borrowed books from libraries and acquaintances. … Arabian Sands a 1959 book by the intrepid explorer and travel writer Wilfred Thesiger who traversed the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula between 1945 and 1950 documenting the lives of the Beduin. This book is considered classic travel literature. My list also included The Land of the Frankincense by Tony Walsh and various Coffee table books on Forts, Birds, flowers, trees, plants, butterflies of Oman, the souqs and cities and history of Oman and what ever I could lay my hands on. I wished then that I had done all this reading before coming. But it was better late than never.
I was nowhere in the league of these adventurers and writers and my findings were limited to drives to coastal cities, Sur, Sohar, Salalah, the mountain strongholds of Nizwa, Bahla, Rustaq, Ibri, the numerous villages, wadis and farms around drivable distances. Each place and visit highlighting the Subcontinent connect. The trek/drive across the Empty Quarters, in the footsteps of Wilfred Thesiger, was on our itinerary but somehow 5 years was too short a period to see and do everything.
Wherever we looked there were Indians….In malls, schools, businesses, wet markets, offices, salons, services…trying to be different from the next Indian. With time it became clear that one had to be Fevicol resilient to make a place for oneself in this consortium of Indian pretentiousness.
My favourite story was about an Indian banian Narottem, who saved his adopted country and his daughter from a Portuguese General who had wanted to marry his daughter, (Portuguese were in Oman from 1515 – 1650). Narottem, a hardcore businessman did not want to antagonise the Portuguese and loose his lucrative business as official supplier to the their forts, Jalali and Mirani. He convinced the Portuguese Commander that the ammunition stores at Jalali Fort needed refurbishing and set about reducing the stocks without replenishing it. At the same time he informed the Ya’aribah (Muscat Ruler) about the garrison’s plans of feasting on a Sunday. With the stage set, Narotem executed his plans for the wedding. On the designated Sunday, with celebrations in full swing, the Ya’aribah attacked the fort defeating the inebriated Portuguese. Fort Jalali was recaptured and in gratitude Narottem and his descendants were exempted from paying the jiziya or poll tax (paid by Non-Muslim subjects) and accorded other benefits including the construction of temple in Muscat. There were more anecdotes of Indians and the royal family and their closeness. ‘It looks familiar’ riddle was falling in place.
The 1970s oil boom opened the floodgates for professionals from the Sub-continent to set base in Oman. This also led to ‘we are better’ attitude. My first article ( Indian Women in Muscat ) published in FEMINA, India, in 1996, let loose the cat in the hamper of rivalries. I was told I had selected the ‘wrong’ women and that there were better qualifiers. This ‘advice’ continued when I was writing the Khaleej Times Supplements. My choices were frequently disapproved of and subtle hints dropped of deserving candidates.
Generally, for a North Indian all Indians from south of India are South Indians. It was here in Muscat that we came to know the classifications, the difference aided to some degree by language and biases . A Tamilian (from Tamil Nadu) would whisper ‘never to trust Mallu’ (Kerala resident). In turn the KR would warn us against Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh resident. The merry-go-round continued and we just nodded continuing with our social forays.
South Indians were equally baffled as for them every North Indian was a Punjabi (from Punjab State) or New Delhi and here the state wise Indian diasporic tussles were strenuous to keep pace. Minor differences aside, we made lifelong friends, a family away from homeland, being there for each other. Our British neighbour was curious to know about my relations with the Indian Muslim neighbour. We were living in a compound of four identical villas occupied by this British couple, a Bohri Muslim family from India, an Armenian couple and us, Hindus. There were no religious barriers and now when we reminisce we can say that the Oman years were the pleasantest years of our lives freeing us from preconceived notions.
The side reel was the shenanigans of few ( from India), who had entered the Sultanate in the first flush of the Oil boom (1970-80). Most were working at jobs they were not qualified for and evaluating success in terms of Company furnished villas, unending weekend dinners, concerts, art exhibits, Quiz shows, and vacations abroad. Few months on and the intrigues and plots lend credence to the saying that one can take a person out of a country but not the country out of a person…warts and all. Watching them I would wonder if I was still in New Delhi or any city of India.
The Silent majority…The resilient lot, managing-scenes-from-behind, the secretaries, sundry office workers, nurses, grocery store owners, house helps, shop assistants, the fringe sitters, the orange uniformed labour converging on beaches, parks, markets of Ruwi, Muttrah, Al Khuwair passing away their time dreaming of home and families waiting for monthly pay checks.
The pattern was visible in other nationalities…. groups within groups depending on husbands job etc. A young American with her friends, all PDO (Petroleum Development Oman) wives, referred to themselves as ‘Prozac Princesses’ looking for activities, instead of anti-depressants, to fill their days. With house helps, nannies, cooks at their disposal they felt redundant and Muscat was not a ‘western’ city.
Untangling the India web:
I untangled myself from the Indian social web as I was here to know Oman and its people. Within few months I was working as Supplement Writer for Khaleej Times, Muscat. This was by luck as the person handling this job was returning to India. This was the break i needed and I met with Omani local professionals, the rich and the working class and my hesitancy turned to respect and acceptance. Their eagerness to learn, to make use of their new wealth to compete with the world was inspiring. An Omani friend wanted her son, then 4 years old, to learn English and Computers and become an IT expert. To her ‘India has the best export commodity…. English speaking population’. We were fellow- walkers in the Oman Rose garden, Qurum, and she would eagerly await to learn more about India.
The younger generation were the change makers as they had the best of new Oman, enjoying financial freedom unlike previous generations who, before the oil discovery, had lived the life of abstinence.
The Unseen Half:
The more I explored the more I felt like “Alice in Wonderland”. In 1959 WENDALL PHILLIPS (UNKNOWN OMAN) had written ‘In terms of personality, of economics, of politics and of civics, there are no women in Oman; women exist in numbers always greater than men, but their existence is domestic and servile only.’ Again he says, ‘It has been truly said that the respect in which women are held by the men of a community is in direct proportion to the community’s level of culture and that level rises with the status of women. But this is a lesson that Oman has still to learn’.
This was my first time interaction with ‘wrapped’ women. The cheerful note was that the Omani Abayas were not black but in colour and patterns. Sultan Qaboos had encouraged women to wear colours, to drive, take up jobs unlike certain neighbouring countries. Strolling in the Malls and markets I would wonder who was purchasing the expensive designer wear, the beauty products till I learnt that the ‘Abaya’ was external covering meant for outside as in their homes, private parties and functions they flaunt their acquisitions. Once at my frequented salon the beautician had to admonish me to sit still as I was fixated on watching the ‘uncovered’ teenagers, mothers and aunts prepping up for the evening Iftars.
Another ‘hesitancy’ was the tradition of four wives. First time when I beheld the tableau outside a departmental store… an Omani alighting from his SUV followed in hierarcal order by his wives and kids in identical clothes. Seeing in person is a different experience from reading and when few days later I had a chance interaction with a young lady at a friend’s dinner party I realised that it helps not to generalise. She was the fourth wife. “I get the love and attention of the entire family and lesser responsibilities”. According to her the youngest wife was usually the educated, westernised person who would accompany the husband on his social commitments abroad and within Oman. This does not mitigate the fact that there might have been others in similar situations enduring hardships.
By 1995 the ‘women in numbers’ had crossed the threshold towards social and economic advancement. When I first met Fawziya Al Maskiry I was intrigued. Here was an Omani woman whose collection of English poems Tender Breeze, (published 1996), was the first book of English poems to be penned by an Omani. Her poetry was inspired by ” the beauty of my country and the wisdom of His Majesty who has provided women with equal opportunities to participate in the development of our country”. Oman …..Bridging the Gap
Fawziya, was a surprise. She was a Press Officer in the Information section of Oman Telecommunications Company (Omantel) for the last eight years, a poet and a foodie. Her lyrical description of the preparing ‘Potato Chops’ made me drool. I hope her book was published as at that time she had been looking for publishers. “I get a tremendous amount of energy when I accomplish something. I know some things are impossible in life but that rarely gets me down”.
I met with another Fawziya, a businesswomen and an entrepreneur, Fawziya Al Araimi who had represented Oman at the special session of the UN General Assembly ‘Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century’ in New York. Talking about her experiences with women from different corners of the globe she found “women of Oman on equal footing with the rest of the delegates.”
In five years, 1995-2000, I met with and interviewed Omani women working in Government and private offices, heading family enterprises, artists, educators, fashion designers and boutique owners equally at home in traditional and modern world.
There were quirky encounters. On our first cross country outing to Salalah in Dhofar region, we were invited by an Omani friend to his house. Later, I learnt that the Omani gentleman had made an exception. He introduced us to his three wives and children, who came trooping down the stairs on cue. While talking (they could in broken Hindi/Urdu) the eldest wife (younger than me but looked older) put her hand on my stomach “Khalas’ (finish) seeing my two children. I was surprised and said yes. She sympathetically smiled glancing at her four children, the second wife’s three and at the youngest expecting her second child. SALALAH–THE FRANKINCENSE TRAIL
Another instance I cannot forget was when an elderly Omani lady stalked me down the road. This was in Qurm, near our residence as I was walking down to my friend’s house, a few blocks away. Thankfully I was swifter and younger and managed to enter my friend’s gate. Later I came to know she was mentally disturbed as her husband had recently ‘married’ her Asian maid. I could well imagine her state of mind. Also decided to drive down even for short distances.
Nineteen years later (2019), Omani writer and academician Jokha Alharthi punctured the ‘silent numbers myth’ by winning the prestigious Man Booker International Prize for her novel CELESTIAL BODIES. A story about family connections set in traditional ‘Omani village slave-owning society’ and moving into a modern present of a rich Arabic culture.
We learnt to respect and appreciate the cultural differences.
A few days in the city and our son came up with “I know why it is called Muscat”. “It is a Muslim country and there are so many cats that is why it is called Mus-Cat” It was our first time seeing so many cats hovering behind dustbins or sunning themselves on parapets. I told him to remember he is a guest. On another occasion during our first Ramadan, when expats and visitors are advised not to eat in public from 6 am to 6 pm fasting period, we were in the market and my son, without realising, was munching a chocolate bar. An Omani gentleman gently admonished him and accepted my apology.
Food was not an issue as we were not strict vegetarians and enjoyed meat except for beef. A minor faux pas occurred when children had to eat from same platter as the Omani host family. They were hesitant but seeing husband and me scooping out the food the children silently rallied around and we enjoyed ourselves.
I had been advised by an Indian friend about mandatory ‘no-flesh’ exposure for expats and tourists. Sleeveless dresses, tank tops, shorts were frowned upon though visitors often ignored the advice. At first it was disconcerting to watch fully clothed beachgoers frolicking in the waters. My brother, visiting from Cyprus, rubbed his eyes thinking he was in a different time zone. Eventually we got used to it as there were clubs, private pools and certain beaches reserved for personal dress fancies.
The Sub-continental wedlock connect between Omanis/Pakistanis/Indians and education in India were the threads binding us to the host country. The late Sultan Qaboos had studied in Pune and Indians loved to talk of how President Shankar Dayal Sharma (visited Oman in 1996) was received by the Sultan personally at the airport. When asked, the Sultan said that he had come to receive President Sharma his teacher in Pune and the personal reception was out of respect for his ‘Guru’.
We went looking for the ‘American accent’ Indian School:
As we trooped into ‘Indian School-Muscat’ the initial excitement of air-conditioned classrooms turned into scepticism for the children. There was more of Indian + Indian accents. The real American School was an option but it was choice between degrees of adjustments. The then Principal of St Columba’s Delhi, I had gone for my son’s transfer certificate, had suggested letting my son continue in Delhi. The Principal had been a guest at the Indian School Muscat and felt that the children would not be able to adjust. (Daughter was studying in the Convent of Jesus and Mary). But like me the children were excited about a new country. The initial hiccups translated into maximum use of the resources…..Sports, camps, international exchange programs till daughter proceeded to USA for college and we returned to India in time for son’s 12th Boards and later to USA for Undergrad studies.
The Middle eastern dream of ‘Gold coins’ was proving as chimeric as ‘Open Sesame’ wonder word. There were no shortcuts to riches as along with success stories of locals and expats there were tales of hardship. First few months I stood for hours at the living room window, gazing at the distant crumbly mountains in varying shades of Purple, the colour of royalty, luxury, power, and ambition. But all I could see were the inhospitable ‘barriers’ transmitting their stoicism into the people helmed in between the jutting peaks and the seas.
I watched the next door elderly Omani couple with their Philippina help or listened to the shrieks and laughter of young Omani boys scaling the boundary wall to pluck ‘Imlis’ from our compound tree, …..and wondered what it must have been like before modern luxuries and gadgets. I read accounts of how in the past Omanis braved the heat and dust of scorching summers before fans or air-conditioners entered their homes. Thankfully my husband was General Manager in a company of one of the top Conglomerates of Oman so we had the best of lives.
By the time we left in October 2000 the scene was different.
“We have to get our driving licenses and fast”.
Sure enough a simple task turned out to be a full-fledged driving lesson, what with right hand driving, reversing through drums and slope test. Husband, with 20 plus driving experience, failed twice for simple reasons and me (12 plus) once. I could hear the tongue-in-cheek responses to our queries. “We told you so’, “check the inspector’s mood”. My favourite was ‘They always fail you a couple of times before giving the License. ‘Ramesh was lucky, he managed in one go.’ I felt a nincompoop in front of Ramesh the Genius.
Driving in Oman was a different game altogether. Unlike India there was no cutting lanes or sneaking in through gaps and maintaining a particular speed, giving way etc. Our driving instructor would holler his peculiar instructions and they still resonate, especially his yell ‘Dab Lo’…meaning ‘pick up speed’ the minute I hesitated at a roundabout. His brother was more friendly. After a heavy downpour with green foliage visible on the barren mountains he lamented….’As long as the mountains remain arid there will be oil.’ Generally, Omanis would freak out at the slightest drizzle and rush towards the flowing wadis and springs. But this was one person who preferred a dry country. Finally we got our licenses on second attempts. Driving lessons aside I had slight reservation in interacting with the male instructors. In India one would treat them as someone helping you whereas in another country the conundrum of ‘friendly’ or ‘patronising’ would leave me obmutescent. Thankfully the lessons were over fast.
As usual we heard a litany as to why Indian expats had to go through this torture. Thanks to our dubious country brethren exploiting the earlier rules of getting Omani driving license on the basis of their India license. They got forged ones from their hometowns. I think we Indians are self destructive no matter where we set base.
One task completed and a Toyota in my name, the next step was to look for a full or part time job. Before arrival I had been assured that my English speaking and writing prowess would help. Six months later my English did not open doors as I was competing with Indians and also a strong Gora (European/American) native English Speakers’ eyeing the best placements. Neither was I bold like this Indian lady who boasted that she walked into a certain department, presented her credentials and was hired. The missing link was certification or professional degrees. Some took the long route through British Council or teaching programs or Indian Universities correspondence teaching courses. Teaching and social work were not in my ambit. I was eyeing a breakthrough in the journalism field. Luck favoured when the Supplements Writer for Khaleej Times was leaving Oman. It was a freelance assignment and suited me leaving me with children for different activities.
An incident still rankles. During research and interviews for my feature on Omani Silver ornaments Nizwa ..hidden mystique of antiquity I met with an Omani collector, from a prominent business family. During the interview he offered me a job as Supervisor of his ‘mini’ museum. I was dumb-stuck or rather flabbergasted as at that moment to my ‘naive’ old-school mindset, it had sounded like a proposition. He insisted he was serious and I quickly made an exit. Few days later there was a Brit handling the collection.
Once again a lesson learnt to ‘never generalise’. Perhaps the most profound mistake we make is to believe/follow blindly what we are handed down to be gospel truth. It takes courage to refute or form personal opinions.
Muttrah Souq 1996 and Sur seaside.
Summing-Up: Muscat in Arabic means ‘a crumbling city,’ but to me it was anything but that. The praises and nomenclatures heaped on the city/country by travellers over centuries added to its freshness and to me it was ‘An eastern sensibility cloaked in western accoutrements’. The country, under the guidance of Sultan Qaboos (1970-2019) was experiencing a metamorphosis from a life of abstinence and family planning to one of economic abundance.
The List is Endless: The puzzles were sliding into their slots and mis-steps were steps to being an Indian abroad full time in a Middle-Eastern country. The ‘intimidating’ layers slowly peeled off as we traversed the interiors, the cities & citadels learning the history of hardy sea faring people; the fabled megastars… Sinbad the Sailor ( Sohar), the Queen of Sheba ( Salalah); of Frankincense, (Dhofar region) till now a Biblical gift for Baby Jesus; the proud fierce mountain tribesmen of the Al Hajar Mountain range, the highest in the eastern Arabian peninsula, whom the Europeans could not subdue but accepted as partners in progress; the incandescently positioned Corniche, the Marine Drive of Muscat, spied upon by the Portuguese Forts, Jalali and Mirani; the ancient city of Muttrah enclosed by a massive Gate that at one time allowed only people with passes or ‘lanterns’ to enter after sunset; the real Oman of souks, the maze of cobbled lanes and alleys, the Sultan’s Palace and Portuguese homes, the fjords and the Wahiba Sands, forts and the palaces, the ‘monsoon’ land of Salalah, the omnipresent mountains nestling wadis and brooks, the Jebel Shams and the roses, the Falaj and date farms; of jinns & ghostly houses in the city, Black magic in villages, spirits on lonely roads……
- The Painted Veil a 1925 novel by British author W. Somerset Maugham. The title is taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s sonnet, which begins “Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life”.
- Pico Iyer…“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate.