Author Archives: cburgess

The Desert and the Coast

The next big excursion was to the Eastern coastline of Oman.  Our first destination was a Bedouin camp in the desert of Sharqiya Sands where we would spend the night.  This small look at Omani Bedouin culture was interesting, because while they were certainly less conservative than your average Omani (a fellow student claimed to stumble on one smoking hash while wandering up a sand dune), they tended to maintain the Omani attire of dishdasha, mussar, and kumma.  It was a very different experience than meeting the Palestinian Bedouin later in the trip.  These Bedouin were definitely decently well off from being able to monetize their lifestyle for the benefit of tourists, in contrast to the Palestinian Bedouin of Khan al-Ahmar who were reliant on aid.

We split into groups of four and each of us had a Bedouin driver in a 4×4 SUV of one kind or another.  We took a detour to go offroading on the sand dunes on the way and ride surfboard and snowboards down the dunes.  The Bedouins seems to legitimately enjoy themselves careening around the desert as much as we enjoyed being passengers in the experience.

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The night in the camp was pleasant enough with one of the Bedouins bringing out an oud and singing as we sat around the central pavilion.  A couple people found scorpions in their sleeping quarters, and I found a camel spider, so we got an upclose look at some of the desert wildlife that night, but it was easy to sleep after the long car ride.  In the morning we took a camel ride before returning to our vehicles to make our to Sur.

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Because of Oman’s nautical traditions (as I mentioned before, it wasn’t uncommon to see antique navigational equipment in Suqs) and maritime colonial empire, there is still a decent shipbuilding industry in Oman.  Granted, I think its probably more targeted at rich customers who can afford ornate dhow-style yachts they were building.  We visited one of the shipyards and were able to crawl around the innards of a pretty massive wooden ship.  Another completed one was moored near us in the water.

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We also visited a maritime museum with one of the more interesting people we met that trip.  The guide at the museum was older man of African descent who spoke a thick dialect and had a penchant for jokes that most of us had difficulty understanding.  He’d speak at length in Arabic about the history of the Omani nautical tradition and then suddenly home in on whichever student looked most intimidated with a barrage of questions or a riddle or joke in Arabic.  This ended with students shuffling around trying not to be the one called out in front of the others.  What I could understand of it was pretty informative, and the museum itself was interesting.

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Later that night we left for a turtle sanctuary at Ra’s al-Jinz.  A bus carried us out to the beach where we were met by a biologist who guided tours at the sanctuary.  Even though he was walking the sandy beaches at night, he was also dressed in the Omani national attire.  I think one of the most fascinating things about Oman was the homogeneity of dress.  The dishdasha is mandatory uniform for government employees, so you see it in all kinds of places you might not expect.  Even amongst Omanis in the private sector its pretty ubiquitous.

We were there at the right time of year to view turtles giving birth .  Unfortunately, we couldn’t really take any pictures because the flash would disturb the birthing mothers, but it was a pretty interesting experience to watch the mother turtles in various states of digging holes to lay their eggs, in the process of laying their eggs, or working on burying them.  I knew intellectually how massive they were, but it was another thing to see it up close.  And their movement was slow, but measured and deliberate, and maybe a little desperate.  They had dragged themselves far enough from the ocean to lay their eggs away from the reach of the tides while in labor, and were now forcing flippers which really weren’t designed for digging to dig these massive maybe five foot deep holes.

 

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The next trip brought us to less urban locations in the al-Hajar mountains in Oman.   We stayed in a hotel in the al-Jabal al-Akhdar nature preserve and also visited Jabal Shams (the highest point in Oman while we there.

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We started our trip up the mountains into the al-Saiq plateau and to the old abandoned village of Bani Habib.  We hiked down to the wadi that housed the old village through an orchard filled with apple, pear, and pomegranate trees. After spending some time exploring the village.  We traveled to another small village where rosewater was produced, and got to see where it was made.  Surprisingly the 1 litre bottles of rosewater that we saw being sold were all produced in a tiny two room building a few men and three kilns.  On the opposite side of the scale, the terraced fields full of Damascus roses were massive and extensive.  A walk along the canals around the village showed some other agriculture was well with fig, mango, and other fruit trees set up along the way.

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Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountain), and especially the Sayq plateau, are quite green because of the additional rainfall neat the coast and an elevation the keeps the temperature much better for agriculture than the rest of Oman.  As a result, there is a lot of terraced agriculture in the villages scattered around the area.  The extensive falaj canal and cistern networks optimize the additional rainfall for irrigation. The falaj network is even more impressive at Misfat al-Abriyyin where water cascade down through channels in the village and into aflaj that wind around the mountain.  The hike here was beautiful, and its incredibly impressive how intricate and amazing these ancient irrigation systems are.  Its sometimes easy to forget some of the things that people thousands of years again were able to accomplish.

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The hotel was nice, but unimpressive, although we did build a fire around back and sit around on carpets listening to stories and riddles in Arabic. The rest of the mountain range is much drier than al-Jebel al-Akhdar, but has its own stark kind of beauty. The height of Jebel Shams was pretty impressive and I was happy to see a cairn on top of the summit.  Its interesting how Picts in ancient Scotland and Arabs in ancient Oman could have such similar customs separated by such distance. Aside from a brief stop at a Bedouin village most of the rest of the trip was spent driving and hiking in the mountains.

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It was a great excursion, and probably the most lush vegetation that we saw the entire time we were there.

Adventures in Muscat

While in Oman, we made two separate trips to Muscat.  One was me and about ten other students travelling on a free weekend on our own via taxis, and the other was through the program.  They were both very interesting and very different trips.

On our independent trip we booked some surprisingly cheap hotel rooms near al-Qrum.  Seven of us went Scuba Diving, something I’ve never done before, and I have to say, it was one of the best experiences of my life.  The water in Oman was clear and it was, again, surprisingly inexpensive.  I don’t have much to add, because its kind of a difficult experience to put to words, but it was incredible.  Much like the rest of that trip though, it was interesting how substantial an expat community lives in Muscat.

Everyone working at the dive place, which also hosted fishing trips and a variety of other aquatic activities, were non-Omani.  They were mostly British, with a smattering of South Africans and an Australian, but not a single Omani.  The one Arab working there was Moroccan, but held British citizenship.  After visiting several bars (the only place this was really possible in Oman), it became clear that Muscat was actually a fairly popular destination for people from commonwealth nations.  People working in the financial sector, IT, engineering, and presumably some people involved in petroleum, basically had their own section of the capitol where the high end hotels were.  Looking around the Maritime center, which also housed a yacht club, there was a pretty strong looking tourism industry very much targeted at English speakers.  There were of course some Omani visitors to this section of town, many of whom were there to drink it seemed.

It was unsurprising in retrospect, but at the time, it was a bit weird how segregated from the rest of Muscat, this section of the city was.  It was almost like stepping into another country, the mirror image of certain neighborhoods in London.  We had interacted with non Omanis before.  There were plenty of non Omanis in Nizwa and some in al-Manah as well, but they were ethnically connected to Oman (East African or from the Indian subcontinent) and typically in lower class jobs.  Here, the foreigners seemed to be much more equal in stature with the Omani citizens.  There were of course still some lower class migrant workers, but short of accidentally wandering into a Bengali restaurant that catered primarily to migrants, I’m not entirely sure where they were.

The official visit to Muscat through the program was, for obvious reasons, a much different experience.  We saw more traditional sites and everything was much more guided.  We started the trip by visiting the Royal Opera House in Muscat, which was incredible.  Its a more recently constructed building, built because the Sultan is apparently a lover of classical music, but it looks inside and out very much like a mixture of the Middle East with some of the more opulent buildings in Europe from the 17th and 18th century.

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We stopped by one of the bigger malls in Muscat that was pretty decked out in Western stores, which was kind of uninteresting, except for the opportunity to grab some Western style coffee.  Omani coffee is great, but sometimes you want your qahwa in a big cup with no cardamom and lots of milk.   I did note that there were what looked like Malaysians, or maybe Filipinos working here, which is not something I really saw in elsewhere in Oman.

We also briefly saw the Sultan’s Palace, but weren’t able to enter at the time.  Its a beautiful building, very different in style from pretty much any other palace I’ve ever seen.

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Probably one of the more educational stops was to Bayt al-Zubair, which was a smaller private museum run by the al-Zubair family.  Unfortunately, pictures weren’t allowed, but it had separate sections that had a huge amount of information about each of the regions and cultures of Oman, a good deal of history, and a huge coin collection upstairs.  I’m not terribly numismatically inclined, but I love history and the culture section put a lot of the trip before and after into context for me.  Later on, I actually did a history program on the school radio in Arabic about the cultural interchange between the Indian subcontinent, East African coast, and Oman proper, and this was a pretty good starting point for getting a grasp on that.

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One the second day of the trip we visited the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which much like the opera house, was incredible.  It really brings home how much wealth the Gulf States really have.  Aside from some random trivia about it having the second largest carpet in the world and 14 meter chandelier, I really feel like pictures will say a whole lot more about this places.

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After the Mosque visit, we took a trip out on the water for the afternoon in a huge motor driven dhow and just kind of rode up and down the coast and did some swimming in the ocean.  Not really educational from a cultural perspective, but a beautiful look at the geography of the coastline around Muscat.  Plus its hard to turn down diving off a three story boat into the sea.

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The last part of the trip was to Muttrah Suq.  Its a pretty big market that can be a bit disorienting, especially at night.  According to wikipedia, its one of the oldest and most important suqs because of its location on the way to India and China.  I did some haggling here, which I feel is a great way to increase your proficiency in Arabic, and I managed to get a decent price on a dishdasha, massar, and kumma (the national dress of Oman) for myself and a khanjar for my little brother.  It was a pretty interesting display of people and items.

They had everything from little grocery stores to places specialising in nautical items or incense. They also had people from everywhere though.  One of the girls on the trip was Somali and another was Bengali, so between them they spoke Afsoomali, Swahi, and Bengali in addition to English and Arabic, and all of those languages were in steady use.  There were people of African and Baluchi descent whose ancestors had been in Oman long enough that they were pretty much Omani and wore dishdashas, and other guys who looked pretty much the same, but as more recent immigrants, were dressed in pants and polo shirts.  There were plenty of Arabs from all over Oman selling things as well.  It was pretty interesting just to sit and watch the chaotic interaction of all these different people.

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In the morning, we left back for al-Manah, but even that part of the trip was nice as Muscat is largely surrounded by mountains.  Both trips to Muscat were good in different ways and kind of served to illustrate alot about class and ethnicity to me.

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On Singing and Burgers

So I’m skipping ahead to talk about a show we did yesterday for the local Omanis. We had about a week to prepare and I volunteered to sing and cook. There were some people doing presentation on topics like Islam in America and American Sports, but I had to do a radio broadcast the next day so didn’t feel like doing another presentation in Arabic the day before. The Omanis did a sword dance and brought Omani food and all in all I think there were about 200 of them in attendance.

One of my fellow students was doing graduate work in ethnomusicography and had lived in Jordan with the Peace Corps for three years, so she took charge of the music front and set up choral arrangements of “Fog el-Nakhel” and “Tala Min Beit Abuha.” It worked out well considering several of us had no choral experience and she did a good job of smoothing everything out and explaining where we needed to improve. She also added insight and context to the songs that we might otherwise not have had. I’m pretty sure that without her the music part of the show wouldn’t have happened or would have been completely terrible.

Some students had also decided to do hamburgers as a stereotypically American dish so I decided to work with them on that. Getting the materials together was interesting. The patties were made out of mince, which is close enough to ground beef, garlic, salt, pepper. We decided to do sliders to keep costs down, so we used sliced baguettes as buns. We failed utterly to find American cheese product, so we went with cheddar instead. And lastly we set up a condiment and toppings tray with ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce, and tomato.

The burgers turned out alright, but very few Omanis actually tried them. I’ve noticed that sometimes Arabs seem reticent to try other cuisines. I’m not sure if its for cultural reasons or possibly has something to do with Halal, or even if this is true in most areas of the Middle East. But I have noticed that trying to convince Yemeni friends to eat certain kinds of foods can be a trial and Omanis seemed similarly disinterested in burgers. Maybe I’m just misinterpreting the entire situation and our burgers just looked awful, I’m not sure. The people who did try them seemed pretty enthusiastic, so there’s that.

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The other part about making the burgers that was a bit disappointing was just trying to get access to a kitchen. We talked to a few different people at the school and they all seemed receptive and said that we could use the kitchens, but apparently none of them let the kitchen staff know that. So we’d talk to the kitchen staff and they’d try to block us at every turn. We had to talk to the administrative staff and the kitchen staff several times and basically only got access to the kitchen at the last minute. After we finished with the kitchen, I went through and broke everything down, cleaned everything and put it up, and sharpened the knives we used, and the kitchen staff seemed less skeptical after that. It was just an all around frustrating experience.

Other than the food and songs, some other students did presentations and recited a poem. There was a calligraphy competition and some crafts booths set up. Everything turned out well, and where it didn’t, it was at least interesting I guess.

Trip to Nizwa

So our next excursion was to Nizwa.  Our hosts were emphatic that we should go early Friday morning and see the goat auctions at the Suq.  There was a plan amongst the group to try to buy a goat ourselves for a house pet, but that fell through pretty quickly.  I’m sure it provided valuable haggling experience for group members looking for it, but I think it might have been for the best.  Besides limiting exposure to livestock, I don’t know how long responsibility for the goat would have been shared.  I definitely wouldn’t want to be the one stuck on goat duty for the rest of our stay.

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Other than the auctions, the Suq was a pretty interesting experience in general.  I didn’t end up buying anything this time around, but sifting through shops in the alleys of Nizwa was kind of fun.  The contrast between old school bags of spices and pulses and shops boasting refrigerated was striking, and there were all kinds of ‘handmade’ goods.  I’m sure a lot of the craftier stuff was handmade by Omanis, but there was definitely some Made in China products as well.  It seemed large at the time, but later adventures in other Suqs showed me that Nizwa was actually middling at best.

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One thing I noticed about the stalls is that many carry the exact same items.  I’m sure there is some competition in price that differentiates different stalls at different times, but I also wonder how much of their business is from repeat customers.  How many of the stalls rely on long term relationships with customers and how far do those relationships go back?  I imagine location and visibility are also quite important.

After the Suq, we visited the Fort at Nizwa.  Its a pretty big castle, but what’s really interesting is that you can tell it was built as a military fortress rather than some rich lord’s private mansion like a lot of the castles in Europe.  The layout of the fort is incredibly confusing so that even if attackers breached the walls, it’d be difficult for them to even navigate the castle.  Many of the halls are narrow to be used as chokepoints and in a lot of cases the windows are extremely narrow downward facing arrow slits.  One of the exhibits talked about how instead of boiling tar, they would pour boiling date syrup from their date stores on attackers from murder holes.  In addition to date storage, the castle was actually built on an underground river so that it had access to a water source in case of siege.

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Nizwa used to be the capital of Oman and I think that the fort might have been a factor in that.  Having an impregnable fortress on your side give you an edge in holding power against rivals I’d imagine.  Nizwa itself has a pretty decent population, according to Wikipedia its around 700,000, but I would have guessed it would have been substantially less.  I’m guessing that figure includes some of the surrounding areas. There’s also a university there, a good number of our Omani language partners study there.

The last thing we did in Nizwa was visit Falaj ad-Daris which is the largest Falaj in Oman and the third largest in the Middle East.  It provides irrigation for much of the surrounding area.  There’s not a whole lot else to say about it, but that the area around it is beautiful.

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Location, location, location

So I think our first trip away from the dorms was to buy groceries at Lulu, but the first real trip away was actually next door to Manah.  Its probably close enough to walk to, although any time during the day would probably be an unpleasant walk.  Its actually a really nice temperature here most of the time, presumably because the mountains all around us are shielding us from the humidity.  However, its still hotter than I’d like it to be if I have to be doing anything outside for any extended period of time.  Late in the day is actually really good weather for playing soccer.  To bring things back though, its fairly close by.

We took a brief trip to Manah to look around because the town is fairly old.  The first stop was the fort of Fiqain and Falaj beneath it.  We really only saw the outside of the fort, but it was a cool introduction to Oman.

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From there we wandered around the old city of Manah.  There was a huge Tinoor close to the entrance that would be used to cook massive amounts of food at one time.  The rest of it was largely just exploring ancient buildings and alleyways, but it was interesting anyway.

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I wish I had taken more pictures, but this should give a pretty good idea of what Old Manah looks like.

Other than that, there’s a smattering of restaurants, coffeehouses, laundry places, and smaller cold foods stores in Manah.  Around the dorms, there’s very little.   There’s some farms scattered around and smaller residential areas and a pretty cool looking mosque.  I’ve taken a a run out to it, but I didn’t bring my cell phone, so maybe in the future, I’ll snap a quick picture of it.  Its close enough that we can hear the Muezzin from the dorms, which is nice because he’s got a pretty good voice.

First Post from Oman

So this is my first post from Oman, one of several I will be making for today.  I’m not really sure what to write for a first post, so I figured I’d write a little bit about the trip and some general things I’ve noticed, and maybe a bit about the blog in general.

The actual time in the air for flight was probably only about 14 hours or so, but taking into account delays and switching flights, the trip probably took closer to 20.   It was pretty pleasant overall, though cramped.  Its been a few years since I’ve been on a flight, so I had forgotten how little room you actually have, but on recent flights they have movies, music, and TV built into an LCD screen so that kind of makes it a bit better.  After that, it was about an hour and a half from the airport in Muscat to our living facilities on the outskirts of a dusty little town called al-Manah.

Al-Manah is a bit remote, but very nice.  Its got kind of a stark, austere beauty that reminds me of parts of Texas.  There are date palms everywhere, and we are surrounded by mountains.  The college itself is a bit closer to the main part town, but the dorms are within walking distance of a smaller segment. Both the college and the dorms are set up for basically just us.  There are 30 of us here, and while they have different classes throughout the year I think, both the campus and dorms are only meant to service thirty people at one time.

The nearest city is Nizwa which is actually the capital of ad-Dakhiliyah, and is actually where we do what little grocery shopping we need.  We can get around by the school’s buses, or if drivers aren’t around, taxis, but we have are small restaurant with seating set up next to the dorms.  Laundry is also onsite, and we have a gym and a swimming pool.  Because water infrastructure relies on truck rather than pipelines, the pool was actually filled up by repeat trips from a truck.  Water for showers and sinks and laundry presumably comes from a cistern of some kind somewhere, but I’m not sure where it is.

One architectural feature that I’ve noticed since I’ve been here is how en vogue defensive elements are in the buildings.  Most of the bigger residences I’ve seen are walled off and even some of the smaller ones.  Our dormitory is actually surround by its own wall with its own gate, but it seems fairly common where we are.  I should have taken a picture of that actually, but it only now occurred to me, so I’ll edit later and add one.

So, walls, but also, crenelations.  I’ve seen a preponderance of walls in other areas like Italy and even in some areas in the U.K.   I don’t think I’ve ever seen anywhere near as many crenelations any where else I’ve ever been as in Oman.  Its on hotels, houses, shopping centers, and even the airport.  For me personally, it seems to be pretty unique to Oman.

Another student and I were talking about it, and we came to the conclusion that while some of the walls and the crenelations are for show and style, they evolved out of a past need to protect yourself from nomads if you had a farm or residence too far from a walled town.

As far as the Omani people go, they are in general some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  There are many Asian migrant workers here and even quite a few Arabs from elsewhere, but you can always tell an Omani by his Dishdasha and Kumma or Mussar .  I don’t think I’ve met a single Omani who was not wearing one, and the only time I’ve seen them outside of one is when playing sports with them.  I think its a way of asserting and maintaining cultural identity in a country that is both flush with migrant workers from elsewhere and competing a largely Westernized world.

Everything seems to be going fairly well except for some technical difficulties.  Apparently Sprint locked my phone from using other SIM cards and I was unable to get Sprint service here, so phone service was non existent.  I’ve hopefully just fixed that, so my Omantel SIM card should now be functional.  There are wifi based text and calling apps that I can start using when I can receive confirmation SMS’s so that’s a substantially cheaper option.  However, Wifi at the dorms is touch and go.  It seems to work okay when no one else is on it, but when 30 people are all using it at the same time, it slows to a crawl.  The school itself is much better; that’s actually where I’m posting from now.  I also, decided to leave my laptop at home as I was traveling light, but I now suspect that may have been a mistake.  There’s nothing to be done, but deal with it at this point.

My original plan for the blog was to post once a week, but that has clearly failed.  Now I’m thinking that I should post multiple times a week and focus on individual events.  I’ll also post a few extra times to catch up on things I haven’t posted yet.  I also need a better title, but that’s less important.

I’m going to end this post with a few random pictures of where I’m staying.

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