Magical Muscat: a Modern Miss Finds Adventure in Oman
Magic Carpet Journals brings you Vladia, whose mysterious prince from the land of Aladdin told her, ĎThese people are magiciansí
By Vladia Jurcova
The humidity and heat hit me in the face as I stepped off the plane. I arrived in Muscat in the middle of the night, so did not get to see anything of the city until the next morning. When I opened my blinds, I almost dropped to my knees. The unforgettable and quite breathtaking view in front of me will always be burned into my memory. Sun pouring over acres of lush gardens, the aqua colored water of the Gulf of Oman, a deserted pristine beach down under the cliff and typical white oriental buildings in the background. The sight left me speechless. Some kind of weird thrill, caused by the incredible beauty before me, crept inside my body. In two minutes, I was wearing my bikini and covered with a sarong for modesty, I was heading for the pool and breakfast.
But I did not feel this way before my arrival. My big concern was that I had not booked my hotel in advance. This was addressed by my new Omani friend, Abu-Jacob, who sat next to me on the plane. Abu-Jacob explained that Oman is as safe as a deserted island. "You can sleep on the side of the road with your luggage under your head and no one will touch you!" he stated. Well, I have to admit that made me feel much better, considering that no one really knew where I was. After expressing my desire to travel to the Persian Gulf, my mother strictly prohibited me from leaving England where I was studying. That did not stop me and here I was in the unknown mysterious land of Arabs, Bedouins and camels, or at least thatís what I thought.
Before 1970, when Sultan Qaboos bin Said acceded to the throne and started building a new, more educated and richer state, people of the Sultanate of Oman lived in the dark ages. Cut off from the rest of the world by the old cruel sultan, Qaboosí father, Oman was an isolated state without any health or school systems. Technology was prohibited as a tool of the devil and the majority of the population was jobless and uneducated, living in fear for their lives. After his return from studies in England, young Qaboos recognized the poverty of his people and the poor standards of living to which they were subjected and decided to put an end to this suffering.
I soon learned that Sultan Qaboos was loved by his people. Abu-Jacob told me, "He is not only intelligent and handsome, but also generous with his subjects." My friend Abu-Jacob, a great story teller, told me several stories about the Sultan and his generosity. They made me wish I could meet this charming man with proud features and a white trimmed beard, but unfortunately that was impossible. The Sultan is unapproachable. He lives in luxury in a marvelous palace, surrounded by hundreds of servants. Actually, Abu-Jacob called them slaves and bodyguards.
My decision to visit Oman was not just the act of random craziness of a bored college student. During my studies in London, I was "adopted" by my lovely neighbor Natasha. She was an African-Italian, but she spent most of her life in Muscat. Listening to her charming stories, I fell in love with this unknown city and longed to see it. My friendís husband, Hussam, was an Omani, and not only that, he used to live the glamorous, rich life of the Sultanís personal bodyguard. His dream life changed when he fell in love with Natasha and secretly married her without the Sultanís permission. He had to leave the Sultanís services. Their love story took them to London where they both were getting an education, intending to go back to their beloved Oman and start their lives over.
After our arrival in Muscat, I said good-bye to my friendly acquaintance from the plane, promised to call and headed into the humid, dark night to yell for a taxi. It proved to be an easy task so I felt much better about being alone. My smiling taxi driver took me to a hotel which I picked randomly (because of the great service on my flight with Gulf Air). The Gulf Hotel in Qurum Heights, a quaint area of Muscat, is located on the top of the cliff with breathtaking views of the beautiful Gulf of Oman. Oman is proclaimed the best secret scuba diving spot in the world, but that and other the secrets I was yet to discover.
As it happened Abu-Jacob became my faithful friend and guide. One day, he invited me for a trip to explore the countryside. On a Friday morning we took off to visit the small village of Nizwa, only a short drive from Muscat. Inhabitants of Nizwa are highly respected among Omanis. These people are magicians," Abu-Jacob explained. "They can change you into a goat or donkey! Be careful not to look into anyoneís eyes!" he warned me. His superstitious sister even loaned me one of the colorful traditional dresses, so I would not draw attention to myself. For the first time, I decided to cover my blond hair to be totally invisible. I already had henna and the pitch dark eye make up, very popular among Omani women. Even my mother would not recognize me now.
When we arrived at Nizwa, we hit the souk at first. Every Friday, cows, goats and sheep are auctioned at this busy market. Hordes of spectators stand by to watch the amusing bargaining between the cattle owners and buyers. There are story tellers telling stories about the people who were turned into donkeys by the local magician. Children listen in fear and adults listen with apparent scepticism, but I knew deep down they all believed the old wise story tellers. Magic was a part of their life and they were respectful of it. Since I did not understand the story tellers, I took off to check out the local handicrafts. Omani women wear hundreds of heavy bangles on their hands and I was dying to buy several of those. I was also longing for the traditional birka, a glittering, embroidered face-mask worn by local ladies, mostly by the older generation in rural regions.
As I wandered through the souk, I lost my guide and my veil and started noticing many glares from local men. Although Omani men proudly wear their dishdasha (traditional male robe) and turbans or small expensive embroidered hats, many women wear a modernized version of the traditional colorful dresses. The dresses are no longer loose and modest, but rather form fitting and fashion forward. Many of these outfits hide mini skirts and tank tops which the modern women wear at home. The strict black veils covering the hair were exchanged for colorful scarves that hang down their shoulders. Many women drive around in fast convertible cars and yell at handsome men who are sipping kahwa (coffee) or eating shewarma (special kebab) at local joints. A blond foreign girl in traditional dress is a rare sight. More heads started turning and a bigger curious crowd began heading my direction. I knew I was in trouble. Fortunately, my considerate host and guide, Abu-Jacob found me and promised to show me a better market for my kind of shopping.
Next, I was introduced to the Old Muttrah Souk, located in Muttrah an ancient port, today a part of Muscat that had not changed a bit over the centuries. Small shops offered a variety of fruits and vegetables, animals, jewelry, souvenirs such as khangar (the traditional dagger that is also featured on the Omani royal symbol) and fabrics. My eyes were trying to take it all in. "This is by far my favorite place!" I exclaimed. This was the real orient; a place where Aladdin would find his magic lamp; a place where bargaining is a way of life and every step takes you back to the past. "Why didnít you show me this souk a long time ago?" I asked Abu-Jacob. He calmly responded with, "I did not want you to get a wrong impression of Muscat. It is a modern city and this market is as old as the city itself." I wanted to scream, "But this is what I wanted to see in the first place." But I understood. These people are proud of their hard work bringing Oman into the 21st century and this hidden old and dirty corner of their city survived only because of their respect for traditions, not to be shown off as a tourist attraction.
The new Muscat is a peaceful, clean city, free of the hustling, so typical of other Arabic countries like Morocco. Muscat reminded me of Abu-Jacob, he was a real gentleman, so handsome and elegant in his traditional silk dishdasha. I would never have imagined that I would find a man in a dress appealing!
Muscat is also a very young city, and thus the architecture is surprisingly modern and preserved considering the damaging forces of nature. This city is a pearl, a green oasis in the middle of the desert. Parks with waterfalls and fountains, lush manicured gardens, flowers and greenery along the highways are the pride of the local inhabitants. Beautiful landscaping is constantly at war with the sand blown from the desert which surrounds the city. The only way to expand Muscat is to move out into the desert. I noticed many abandoned houses on the edge of the city where owners lost the battle with nature. On the other hand, the desert and its enormous sand dunes represent one of the popular pastimes.
Although the month of July is usually very dry, we got quite a few showers during my first couple of days in Oman. Thanks to this rain, my next trip was really exciting because I was allowed to drive Abu-Jacobís brand new Land Rover Discovery across the green water filled wadis (valleys or normally dried out river beds) surrounded on both sides with perpendicular mountains. "Get it dirty!" Abu-Jacob laughed as I was showing off my imaginary formula one driving skills to an Omani man. "Lets shoot some cans," somebody suggested when we got tired of riding in the car. We shot a few rounds from a gun (apparently also a popular pastime) and climbed the mountains while the servants prepared our lunch.
They brought a small goat which they killed and roasted with garlic and spices. Alcohol is not allowed in Oman, so during the lunch Abu-Jacob played guitar and his friends were singing to keep us entertained. I was not sure how I was going to deliver the bad news about my eating habits (being a vegetarian is something unknown to Arabs). "I don't eat red meat," I confided, "I have to refuse to eat the poor little roasted goat." I almost cried when I saw their expressions. "We killed this goat to honor you as our guest, habibi," Abu-Jacob said to me. Although they did not understand why I did not want to dance for them nor eat meat, they politely left me alone.
The friendliness of everyone I met was contagious. The Omani people are extremely generous and hospitable, and it was not long before I was invited to stay with Abu-Jacob's family in their luxurious palace-like-house, that was full of servants. What a dream come true. Although this nation is very hospitable, Islam is a part of every day life (Muslim pray 5 times a day) and modesty in clothing and conservative behavior is a must. I respected their privacy, but I could not pass by the opportunity to experience the fairy tale life and customs of the privileged inhabitants of this country. There are a few things that one has to be respectful of like: taking shoes off before entering the house; always covering shoulders and knees with long loose garments; and eating a lot while dining because it is always expected!
The last one eating, unfortunately, proved to be a real problem for me in Oman. As a European woman I was always on some kind of diet restrictions, therefore I failed to eat enough to satisfy the expectations of my host and his father. They said I should eat more and used to send food to my quarters in case I was too shy to eat in front of them. Although the staple of the Omani diet is marinated cooked meat and rice, they also served a lot of grilled chicken, fish and salad. My favorite dish was khapsa (rice and chicken cooked together in tomato sauce), it reminded me a lot of Italian risotto or Spanish paella cooked with Indian spices. Many influences in Omani cuisine came from India as many cooks in Oman were Indian or Philippine. After each meal, kalwa (very sweet pistachio and honey sweets) and kahva (strong bittersweet coffee) were served by the servants.
Women and girls normally ate separately from men and boys, but if they had a special guest like me, they were allowed to join us. Women had their own quarters in the house. Their rooms were filled with gold, crystal, luxurious fabrics and Italian custom designed furniture that even the White House would be proud to display. Most of the Omani women don't work; although this fact is changing because girls now are allowed to study at universities at home as well as abroad.
My host's father had two wives. They lived in separated comfortable quarters, but brought up all their children jointly. "Don't they hate each other?" I asked Abu-Jacob. "Not really, they just have to get along and my father shares everything equally between them." he responded. Abu-Jacob's mother could not have any more children, so his father asked her for permission to take another younger wife who could give him more children. "Arabs love huge families; family and religion are their highest values," Abu-Jacob said. He also told me that Arabs don't understand how western children can put their aging parents into retirement homes. "It is unheard of in our world!" he said.
With each conversation like this, I learned more about the traditions of this proud nation. I was ignorant of their ways when I arrived in this land of magicians and Sultans, but by keeping an open mind my desire to learn and explore brought me much new understanding. My journey was almost at the end, and I knew that I would never be able to repay my hosts hospitality. These people showed me kindness, consideration and hospitality and never expected anything in return. They opened their hearts and homes to me and showed me their culture, religion and city, the way I could never have been able to experience alone. On my last day in Muscat, my charming prince, Abu-Jacob, drove me to the airport where this amazing fairy tale started. Before my departure, our goodhearted cook came to say good-bye. He fed me well during the past weeks and cried when saying, "Please, come back, Amira." I was crying too, when I simply whispered, "Shokran."
Article by Vladia Jurcova
Pictures by: Galen Frysinger and Vladia Jurcova
In general, a visa is easy to obtain at the border or the airport as long as the visitor is coming from a stabilized developed country. (Mine cost me 6 rial and lasted one month) My lovely room at the Crown Plaza Hotel (used to be named the Gulf Hotel, address P.O. BOX 1455, Muscat, Oman 112) overlooked the beach and pool and included a generous Arabic breakfast and great service.
Gulf Air flies to Muscat from New York and Miami.
Most of the taxi drivers are of the Indian origin and speak English. Many people speak English, although Arabic is an official language.
The hottest months are June, July, August. Temperatures may be reaching 112F (winter months about 85F). The streets are abandoned most of the day as many of the local businesses closed at noon due to the heat and humidity. In summer, the locals come out at night to walk and picnic on the beaches and hang out in the air-conditioned shopping malls.
For information about the local attractions and trips contact: Omani Travel & Tourism Bureau, tel: ++968 701 085, fax: ++968 789 843 and email: firstname.lastname@example.org
There is abundance of pristine beaches around Muscat accessible by car or boat. Surfing and scuba diving facilities are available.
Amira - Princess
Shokran - Thank you
Habibi - Dear
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