Tuesday, December 12, 2017

In focus


Green paradise in Oman
September 2002 19

The road to Paradise can be a difficult one.

My road to Salalah in Oman filled all the criteria expected of such a road.

Skirting the inferno of the Rub Al Khali I traversed some 600km of the stony plateau of the Jiddat Al Harisis. For the most part this featureless sepia brown plain is uninhabited, indeed its inhabitants the Harisis Tribe seem to have found renown for having their language 'Harasousi' included among the most likely to disappear in the world.

With 600 recorded speakers spread over this vast plateau, the problems of finding someone to talk to must be immense.

Finding gates on the crest of the ascent from the wilderness below was only a little surprising; Oman is such a well-regulated country. Attached to these gates stands a small police station and the traffic slowed for a cursory glance by the policeman manning them.

I wondered nervously if there was an admittance test; if there was, my fellow coach passengers and I were given a passing grade and our driver moved through the gate into the Elysian fields of the Qara Mountains, which surround Salalah like a green velvety cloak.

The morning after my arrival I set out to explore the town of Salalah itself. Close to the main shopping area is the Central Market, which specialises in meat and fish sale. I found the cattle and goats for sale were from the Qara Mountains themselves.

Ahmed of the Bait Zarbaig family was among those selling cattle. He seemed a remarkably contented man for someone who had lost money on his sale.

He explained that he had brought the cow on impulse from a farmer in the mountains for $700. His folly he said was that he had not found out the day's selling price in the market and the $15 he had lost was a small price that would remind him next time.

Ahmed asked me where I was going - "the tomb of Nabi Ayoub" (Prophet Job) tucked somewhere away high in the mountains.

"Come with me I'm going to work near there and I can drop you off" - I showed suitable reluctance before accepting and walked with him to his truck. Off we went.

"Just wait, while I get some clean clothes" Ahmed said; we pulled off the road and around a few turns to his home. Smarter now, Ahmed asked if I had had lunch. Since I hadn't he invited me to join him at the bin Atique Restaurant.

Bin Atique specialises in Omani cuisine and ambiance. We therefore settled on cushions on the floor and frankly after much deliberation I settled on Ground Shark with Coconut Sauce. The shark was dry and benefited from the sauce.

I realised that my day would continue to be in Ahmed's hands when shortly after we left the restaurant he said: "Do you mind if I go to pick my car up and we can go up to Nabi Ayoub in that".

Since I was entirely at his disposal, I agreed. Again we turned off the road and bumping over the plain at the base of the mountains we eventually arrived at one of his relatives homes.

The house was a single storey with a range of outbuildings attached and wandering around were several, almost dwarf, cattle. These were the Jebali cows that along with camels and goats form the principal livestock in southern Oman.

The livestock is left to roam at will and while adding some character to the location they also are having a degrading effect on the vegetation.

The sleek car and driver with a somewhat dishabille passenger now made their up the well maintained tarmac road that led to Nabi Ayoub. Soon we entered into the cloud that envelops these mountains for three to four months a year.

Our speed, despite the excellence of car and road, matched that of a lazy cow - with good reason for occasionally the cloud parted to reveal one meandering, at quite some leisure. If the cloud parted further I was treated to the remarkable scenery that we were driving through.

On either side thickly forested valleys descended, remarkably similar to those in southwestern England. The occasional cow kept the illusion going and it was only the appearance of an elderly herdsman looking quite unlike an Englishman that placed this in Arabia.

Like the cows he was guiding, the old herdsman was slight in frame. His clothing was quite different from the typical crisp white of the Arab Gulf states. Around his waist he had wrapped a Wazir (a single oblong cloth) dark blue in colour that reached midway between his knees and ankle.

His torso was bare; there was a touch of a dandy about him as he had draped his Massar (turban) over his shoulder instead of around his head and his wispy beard was dyed bright orange.

Ahmed called out to him, but it was not Arabic that they spoke, they spoke the language called Sharahi or Jebali. Sharahi is related to Himyaritic, one of the ancient languages of southern Arabia before the advent of Islam.

I fantasised that perhaps Nabi Ayoub, whose tomb I hoped to see, would understand the conversation. Certainly with his thousands of cows and goats he would know this old man's lifestyle.

Ahmed, having been such a good host, seemed genuinely reluctant to leave me at Nabi Ayoub's tomb; but he had work and I assured him that I could find my way back to Salalah.

The venerable tomb has a setting befitting the man described as being fabulously wealthy in livestock. Perhaps he was buried overlooking his estate, certainly the views over the wooded mountains towards the sea are superb.

The tomb is open to all visitors and having removed my shoes I stepped inside. Covered in a glittering green and gold cloth the grave is simple, perhaps reflecting the man's piety in life.

Frankincense smoke filled the atmosphere and opposite the door is a genealogical tree showing Nabi Ayoub along with other prophets of Islam including the two most recent ones Isa (Jesus) and Mohammed.

I discovered Salalah and the surrounding region of Dhofar has quite a number of places associated with prophets (Nabi) and holy men. The town centre has the grave of the Nabi Omran; embedded in rock elsewhere are the renowned footprints of the Nabi Saleh's camel.

To the east of Salalah is the tomb of Shaikh Ali in Mirbat which is a place that oaths are sworn to add credence to them. Further along the coast is the tomb of Nabi bin Hud.

The next day I made an early start for my target was the sea and looking at the city map I saw that a somewhat circuitous route would take me through cultivation.

Walking in Oman can be a dream; drivers are courteous almost to an extreme, cars stopped to let me cross the road almost before I had thought about doing so; "can I help you" became a familiar phrase called out from passing cars.

My desire to see the town on foot was only slightly greater than the driver's shock that I wanted to walk.

Instead of the ubiquitous date palm that is found elsewhere in Arabia, Salalah's palm is the coconut. The coconut has been a staple fruit in Salalah for centuries; the traveller Nasir-i-Khusruw observed them in Oman in the 11th century AD.

The plantations are vast and cultivated alongside the coconut are large acreage's of banana and papaya.

The road took me to the archaeological site Al Balid. This was a trading town from the start of the 13th century until the arrival of the Portuguese at the start of the 16th century disrupted the trade routs round the Indian Ocean, sent Al Balid into decline.

The impressive remains of the mosque gives ample testimony to the town's wealth. The ardent archaeologist will enjoy the site with its tantalising stonework beckoning from mounds of soil.

Close to Al Balid is what appears to be a key centre of women's fashion in Salalah. Numerous small tailoring shops with sumptuous women's dresses in various stages of completion line a street near Haffa Souq.

The main section of Haffa Souq is given over to perfumes and incense. The effect of this concentration of fragrances in an open-air market is extraordinary; the very air seems saturated with an intoxicating mix of eastern spice.

Prime among all the fragrances is frankincense. Prized by all the ancient civilizations and associated with their gods it features in the friezes of Queen Hatesputs temple at Dar el Bari Luxor.

The Greeks described the frankincense tree as being guarded by winged serpents. Remarkably then, this formerly most valuable of products is the gum exuded from cuts in a small nondescript bushy tree that grows in isolated valleys on the desert side of the Qara Mountains.

Jostling for space in the packed shelves in the perfume shops are exotic Arabic perfumes. The heady scent of Jasmine oil mingles with the latest creations of Chanel.

The earthy Oud perfume lingers where the more subtle sandalwood dissipates. Small mounds of 'bakour', a type of manufactured incense, seemed less exotic than the frankincense I bought; perhaps I would be accorded the welcome due to a king by the family and friends who would receive my frankincense as a gift?

Having seen the Khareef Festival grounds on my journey with Ahmed I paid a visit to it during the evening. A whole section was given over to local cuisine.

Innumerable flat breads were being prepared and close by various meat snacks called meshwi were being grilled. I chose Lahm Ibl (camel's meat) and with the kubuz (bread) and enjoyed a truly authentic snack.

Most of the festival grounds are given over to entertainment; a children's funfair with the usual cacophony of sound and light operated along side camel rides.

The main draw of the festival however is live entertainment and since Salalah is being developed as a cool escape from the summer heat in the rest of Arabia the entertainment focuses on Arab singers.

The principal singer on the evening I visited was popular star Khalid Abdul-Rahman from Saudi Arabia. His style was described to me as "Jalsa" which means sitting down, presumably referring to the usual way of playing the Oud.

He was supported by a variety show; dance troupes gave performances interspersed with live on-stage interviews with the stars from the festival.

Khalid Abdul-Rahman's style is a reflective one with vibrato embellishments to the song. Like pop songs the world over the common theme seemed to be love - I wondered if he saw the young children running around and would compose a new song about Eros, the messenger of love.

* Tony Walsh is a marketing and management specialist who is also a travel buff. He has lived in the Gulf - Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - since 1986 and gives regular talks to visiting cruise liners and often leads special interest tour groups.




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