Friday, September 19, 2014
For two hours I found myself inside a frenzied Arabian livestock auction, right out of some National Geographic video.
Nomadic Bedouins would herd goats and cattle in a circle like sharks around prey; buyers would interrupt goat owners and commence an impassioned ritual of bargaining and counter-offering; masked women would patiently wait while their husband sold off the clan's precious baby camels as payoff for years of labor.
This was Nizwa's famous Friday Goat Market, held once a week on the morning before Jumu'ah when men traveled in from tens of kilometers away to worship at the nearby Grand Mosque. For herders it's the big pay day, and for the local townsmen it's a chance to pick up that coveted goat to fatten the entire extended family, as this day also happened to be exactly one month before Ramadan fasting.
For more than 1000 years this marketplace has been the crossroad of caravan routes where overseas commodities from Muscat would cross path with Dhofari frankincense from the southern tip of Arabia. Today it remains an open-air market in the most traditional sense, thriving on the ancient trade of livestock herding in a region of the world that's still remarkably tribal even in the 21st Century.
Deals are negotiated in Omani Arabic, but the drama and amusement certainly transcend language barriers, especially if you're tolerant of the local standard of animal treatment. Cattle prod the handlers impatiently, goats thrash about and camels bark at their new owners as they get shoved onto pickup trucks. Everyone gets a good laugh aside from the goats which would soon become somebody's family dinner.
Within 5 minutes of my arrival I was almost convinced to buy a goat.
"Twenty six," this man pushed hard for the sale in reasonably good English, "Twenty six. Very good goat!"
By traveler's instinct I declined ... but at the back of my mind I also calculated that it's actually less than CAD$70. For a live goat!
For a moment I wavered ... wouldn't it be cool to own a goat for a few hours? And then what ... releasing it in the desert? Or gifting it to some random stranger? In any case I decided to keep my 26 Rials and spend it on something more useful. Like 2 nights of hotel room rent.
As in any traditional old-world market, the timeless art of haggling was an intense seesaw affair requiring concessions from both sides. Buyers probed, sellers countered, and everybody else watched on the side for a feel of the day's price fluctuations. These two had been haggling on for a good 15 minutes, until ...
... the prospective buyer turned his back, and the seller chased him down! But instead of lowering the price and closing the deal, the seller lectured the bargain hunter in a serious tone then pulled his prized bull out of the sale. Deal or no deal, the man stood his ground.
For city dwellers like myself there's much to learn about the essential skill of goat inspection, checking its teeth for nutritional issues and grabbing the hind leg beside the crotch to gauge its fat reserves. Inspection was generally swift and business-like, as most of the livestock would change hands by 10:00 and the auction would wind down.
All around the market cash and goats changed hands, and the new acquisition would be towed away or tied onto an unattended pole should the new owner decide to shop for some more. Stealing someone else's goat wouldn't even cross the mind. Eventually the sheepish little guy would be brought home, butchered according to the practice of Dhabihah and appear at the family table for the next 3 weeks. Those large droopy ears are cute, but one really shouldn't get emotionally attached with the main course.
This was before the whole coronavirus scare and every child around came to admire these gentle giants, loved by all Omanis for their durability and life-giving milk in harsh environments, not to mention big money camel racing. Only a few years later 50 people died and Omani camels were specifically identified as carriers of the MERS virus.
On top of all this the herders would occasionally lose control of their cattle, and bystanders would dash out of harm's away as naturally as avoiding motorcycles at a crosswalk. There's a bit of Pamplona in the atmosphere and was definitely not for the timid.
This was the perfect time and place for people watching, as men dressed their best for the upcoming Jumu'ah at the Grand Mosque sporting gleaming white Dishdashas and beautifully embroidered Kumma caps.
Most intriguing were the Bedouin women in black, draped in their loose Thawbs and hiding their faces behind the distinctive Omani Burqa. Getting a good picture of these women was risky business given the conservative tribal culture in this land, and I had to be careful with my camera etiquette, often employing stealth techniques taking blind shots at waist level.
In Canada I do see Burqas once in a while as a statement of religious observance, but in this desert climate one can easily appreciate the sensibility of a pieces of clothing that can protect the face against the hot sand and dust, and possibly provide some minor UV protection as well.
These Bedouin women had probably worn the Burqa for most of their lives, at least from puberty onward when in the presence of any men outside of the immediate family. The local non-Bedouin women however dressed somewhat more moderately, only covering their hair with the Hijab and leaving their faces exposed.
Fancy the Kumma (3 men on the right) or the Massar (2 men on the left)? While both are considered national headdresses of the Omanis, I generally saw a lot more Massar in the desert regions of Central Oman and more Kumma closer to the capital city of Muscat. After all the Kumma is an East African invention, imported into Muscat through centuries of seafaring tradition.
It was here that my solo trip unexpectedly turned into a social adventure as I bumped into fellow backpacker Jose, the only other foreigner in the crowd. I had a rental car; he didn't. He had a few days of experience around Nizwa and Muscat; I didn't. It was natural that this Canadian and a Spaniard decided to travel together for the rest of the trip. We decided to separately finish up what each of us wanted to see in Nizwa, before meeting up again at noon for a drive to the nearby towns.
Just outside the auction grounds there's another small market for those without enough money for a live goat. This is one of the largest Souqs in the Arabian peninsula after all, and goods of all varieties streamed in from different corners of the Middle East. There's the aforementioned Souq for goats, a Souq for pigeons and quails, a Souq for handicraft, and a Spice Souq among others.
I was surprised to find a Fish Souq in the middle of a desert, 150 km from the nearest coast. Not sure whether this was tuna or shark, but the kid was clearly a Real Madrid fan.
There's also a Souq dedicated for dates of all types, many locally grown from the date palm groves at the peripherals of this oasis city. To this date Nizwa remains Oman's powerhouse for date cultivation, 1400 years after it was originally established as the capital.
This little roadside stall gave me my favorite meal in Oman, better than any sit-down restaurants I encountered in Nizwa or Muscat. Grilled meat and flatbread has always been the traditional food of the Arabian desert, and the Omanis do it really well with their Mashawi.
Look at this juicy kebab of lamb with spiced garlic paste in the Mashawi, two for 800 Baisa (CAD$2) at the street corner before the masses headed for the Grand Mosque. No unhealthy carb fillings like rice or French fries often found in the Turkish or Greek versions, just charbroiled lamb, fresh veggies and oven-roasted bread.
Even the locals concurred that this was good stuff! I had to shrug off these feral-looking cats to meet Jose back at the Souq entrance. That afternoon we would journey to the medieval villages of Tanuf, Al Hamra and Misfat al Abryeen, before returning to Nizwa for the night.
Thursday, September 04, 2014
This ancient city, and the magical small towns in its surrounding countryside, were my main reasons for visiting Oman.
You want medieval Arabian towns built of mud bricks? Check! Magnificent fortresses of UNESCO World Heritage fame? Yes! An open-air marketplace of goats and camels supplied by nomadic Bedouins? It's got all that too, plus more.
To be fair Nizwa isn't a household name outside of Oman, itself an obscure country to most living outside of the Middle East. The capital city of Muscat is probably best known, especially to wine lovers for its namesake grapes. Even Salalah is somewhat better known regionally as the land of frankincense.
But Nizwa, an ancient caravan stop among the deserts of Central Oman, hasn't really made the international scene since the Middle Ages. It was once a great centre for learning in the Islamic world, and to this date remains religiously conservative and somewhat superstitious. That's night-and-day for me traveling in from aspiring postmodern and liberal Dubai.
Even today, Nizwa and neighboring Bahla retain the dubious reputation as the epicenter of black magic. Mention to your Omani coworkers about taking a trip there and they'd make jokes about you being turned into a donkey. Of course for me that's more of an attraction than a deterrent.
Failing to secure a long distance bus ticket from Dubai (coincided with the holiday of Isra and Mi'raj), I took the detour of a 9-hour bus ride to Muscat, then renting a cheap Nissan Tiida and sped into Nizwa in 2 hours courtesy of Oman's world-class highways. I arrived on Thursday night after Maghrib (Friday morning in Islamic terms) as the local men all gathered around the Grand Mosque for evening prayers.
This is the oasis city of Nizwa amidst its groves of life-giving date palms, sustained by an ancient system of ingeniously engineered underground aqueducts channeling water from beneath the rugged Hajar Mountains. This was once the ancient capital of Oman some 1400 years ago, and more recently the base of tribal insurgence against the Sultan of Muscat in mid 20th Century.
Dinner at the popular Bin Ateeq was somewhat underwhelming -- traditional seating on scruffy carpets with worn-down cushions, bland reheated food, and inflated prices compared to other local joints I later came across. This plate of Qabooli Laham (2.2 Rials / CAD$5.7), a local variant of biryani with braised mutton, could have been spicier even to this foreigner. But that wasn't the time and place for fine dining -- I was looking forward to getting some rest in preparation for a full day of sightseeing tomorrow.
Inconveniently located 5 kilometres from the Souq, Majan Guest House was initially chosen because it was the only place that bothered to return my emails. The price of 12 Rials (CAD$31) for a single room with bathroom, air conditioning and breakfast was very reasonable for affluent Oman, and the next night I did come back, with my newly acquainted Spanish friend, for a twin room for 15 Rials (haggled down from 17).
Fried eggs, toast, juice and coffee for a filling breakfast before setting out. Little did I know that I would need all that extra energy for visiting 5 different towns on the busy day ahead.
My number one priority within the old town was the Friday Goat Market, a bewildering open-air Souq which became one of my favorite memories of Oman and will be the subject of the next article. Number two was the mighty circular fort of Nizwa, defender of this crossroad of caravans between Muscat to the north, Buraimi to the west and Dhofar to the south.
Pictured is only the top third of an enormous cylindrical tower rising 30m above the ground, not to mention a foundation that burrows another 30m underneath. The present structure was built in the age of gunpowder artillery of the 1600's, hence the thick defensive walls with crenelations designed for cannons and muskets.
The only access into the fort is through a narrow and purposely winding passage full of death traps, amusing to tourists in peacetime but nightmares to would-be invaders as floor traps would open up beneath the feet and scalding concoctions of date syrup would be poured from above. A permanent supply of precious water was automatically available as the fort sits atop an underground stream. Any way you look at it, this place was, and probably still is, ready for battle.
The caretaker of the fort was in a jovial mood and gave me an English language guidebook for free, color-printed on glossy paper and all. This would be a short day of work for him as the entire town would soon close down, at 11:00 every Friday morning.
As impressive as the Fort of Nizwa was, that afternoon I came across the even larger and more spectacular Fort of Bahla, built entirely of mud bricks, 40 km to the west in the next town. At the time it was still undergoing its 25-year-long conservation repairs and could only be admired from the outside. That was one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites I visited in Oman, the other being the ancient canals of Falaj Daris.
Starting at 10:45 the Fort started to close, along with virtually every store in the town centre, as men came out from every neighborhood in response to prayer calls cracking out of the speakers of the Grand Mosque. All men congregated beneath the glittering dome of Nizwa's historical mosque and prepared for the weekly Jumu'ah.
With much of the population gathering at the mosque, it was the perfect time to explore the quiet authenticity of Nizwa's historic quarters, packed with alleys after alleys of rustic mud brick houses. Nobody aside from clueless foreigners like myself would venture out underneath the midday sun in August, when the temperature consistently rises above 40 degrees Celsius in these desert regions.
The affluent middle class had mostly moved to newer neighborhoods, leaving behind the underprivileged in these traditional dwellings of ancient mud walls and heavy wooden doors. Sooner or later these entire blocks of medieval history will be torn down in the path of progress, in a renewed city now boasting a university and a cluster of industrial operations.
Vestiges of Nizwa's glorious trading past live on in the pre-modernized East Souq, a claustrophobic maze of half-covered bazaars filled with the aromas of Dhofari frankincense and rosewater. Gathering at the Souq's courtyard was a group of elderly men with their prized hand-polished rifles, apparently some sort of local gun club.
My eyes were caught by the exquisite workmanship in these silver Khanjar daggers, a formal accessory worn by all self-respecting males in this traditional society. I almost wanted one except for the prices of OMR300 (CAD$780) ... and the potential inconvenience of flying back to Canada with an assault weapon in my luggage.
The Khanjars and traditional pottery were all fascinating, though I elected to shop for an easy-to-pack scarf to take home to my wife. Three hours at the Souq was definitely time well spent especially at the action-packed Friday Goat Market, which in itself made my visit to Nizwa worthwhile ...
Thursday, August 21, 2014
This was a solo trip I never thought I would take on. And by the journey's midpoint, I wasn't traveling solo anymore.
Oman had never been on my radar as a traveler, which is probably also true for most travelers I know.
So what the heck was I doing there?
At the time I was on short-term assignment in Dubai, which was as non-traditional as it got in the Muslim world. My coworkers always joked that it was the Las Vegas of the Middle East, where underground booze flowed freely and money could buy all sorts of pleasurable delights so long as you didn't do it in public.
As a foreigner it's easy to adapt to such a liberal and forward-looking city, which was (and still is as of 2014) striving to truly become a first-world metropolis in both infrastructure and personnel. But as a traveler I cringed everyday at the rapid Westernization of the city and yearned for something genuine and conventionally Middle Eastern.
So I frequented places like the fishermen's moorage on the creekside, photographing their Dhows and getting invites for tea on their boats as I craved for that last remnant of pre-globalization in the world's most rapidly developing city. I knew that I had to leave Dubai to find the Middle East I wanted to see, before my short-term assignment ended.
That's when I realized that the more conservative Sultanate of Oman was within striking distance from Dubai, the legendary capital of Muscat being a half-day's bus ride away. And the most interesting part of Oman IMHO, the landlocked desert regions of Dakhiliyah and Dhahirah, were also accessible by long distance bus. Within days I put together a trip plan, called a few places in Oman in advance and hopped on a bus to Muscat.
Originally I wanted a bus ticket to my ultimate destination of Nizwa, but the religious holiday of Isra and Mi'raj was on and tickets in the direction of Nizwa/Salalah were sold out. At the end I settled for Muscat as a jump-off point for the trip, where I would need to rent a car and drive to Nizwa for the first night.
The 6 hour bus ride turned into 9 hours as the Omani border customs was flooded with thousands of Emiratis and migrant Indians waiting to cross. As a Canadian I had to hand my passport with a "handling fee" to my bus driver in the hope that he'll return it stamped for admittance. We didn't get to the lunch stop until 14:00, and it was close to 17:00 when we finally arrived at the Ruwi neighborhood of Muscat.
This complete stranger insisted that I take his picture. Being merely several hours removed from the frantic pace of Dubai, laid-back Muscat felt a world away with its friendly locals and historic architecture. My first day here lasted two hours as I picked up my rented Nissan Tiida and hurried off to Nizwa, but on the third day I came back, along with a Spanish traveler I picked up in Nizwa, and explored the city in more depth with his guidance.
For 2000 years this has been one of the world's famous trading ports, where civilizations collided and jostled for control of the maritime trade routes between the East and the West. The Persians came and went, and so did the Portuguese and the Ottomans. The grandeur of the forts and palaces in existence today still reflects the city's great wealth and power in the 18th Century, when it controlled territories as far away as Zanzibar.
The Portuguese made their mark in the 16th Century with impressive fortifications such as the al-Jalali, still standing guard at the outer edge of Muscat's old harbor to this date. The Corniche below the fort has recently been adorned with a curious collection of foreign sculptures including a Chinese carp, reminding of the city's glorious past as an international trade hub.
Sheltered between two Portuguese forts is the one unmistakable landmark of the city, the boisterously golden and blue palace of Sultan Qaboos. Despite being the nation's most photographed sight, the courtyard outside the al-Alam palace was practically devoid of tourists during our visit, which was quite a shock as I had grown used to Dubai.
Having some free time we drove by the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, one of the largest in the world and the only in Oman that opens its doors to non-Muslims. Here my Spanish companion pointed out one inconvenience about Oman for backpackers -- public transportation was difficult to come by, and it's nearly impossible to get around without renting a car.
My favorite place in Muscat was the old Souq of Muttrah, said to be one of the oldest marketplaces in the Middle East by virtue of its location at the Corniche of this ancient trading port. While its outward appearance has no doubt changed through the centuries, even after 2000 years it remains a dark labyrinth filled with the exotic aromas of frankincense and spices.
But what I loved most about the Souq was the genuine slice of daily Omani life on display. Here I learned to appreciate the multi-ethnic nature of Muscat, seeing Omani children growing up with Pakistani ones while their mothers joked and laughed from the nearby market stalls. That's quite the opposite from the closed, tribal towns and villages around Nizwa ... but I'll talk about that in the upcoming articles.
Just look into the dark sparkling eyes of these children. They are the future of Oman, and will decide whether the country will remain the sleepy backwaters of the Arab world it has been for the past hundred years, or to be developed into something more influential in the model of nearby UAE or Qatar.
At the end I stayed for only one night, my last night of the trip, in Muscat, optimizing my time in the fascinating desert region of Dakhiliyah instead. That first evening I drove 200km straight to Nizwa and settled down at a local guesthouse, in anticipation of the famed Friday Livestock Market of Nizwa the next morning.