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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.