Friday, February 29, 2008

Of cabbages and kings

I recently came across a Sultan Qaboos fan club of sorts and promptly enrolled as a supporter. In the process I found that a large number of the fans are not Omani, or indeed living in Oman.

People in Dubai tend to be derisive about its gentler neighbour (and it must be admitted that a lot of the things they say are true). But of all the people I met in my three years in Muscat, not one was able to leave without a backward glance. In contrast, more than half the acquaintances who've left Dubai have shaken its dust from their feet in disgust or weariness.

It is hard to convey to those who worship the gleaming towers and swank nightclubs, the sense of time and substance that Oman offers. I worked as hard and the same long hours that I do in Dubai (in fact I had a six-day week), but somehow I always had time to do it all and more. Everyone should live there once, though perhaps not more than three years – more than that, I agree with the detractors, will probably make you catatonic.

I want to beg the tourists wandering through Bastakiya clutching leaflets to visit Oman. Because that is where it is, the Arabia they've come to see. Living, breathing Arabia at its most honourable, in its element. The boat-builders in Sur do it for a living, not as museum workers guarded by a visitors' centre. The frankincense harvested in Dhofar is piled high in the souqs for Omanis to buy as part of their monthly shopping, not just for tourists. These are working souqs. As of a year ago, the Muscat-Dubai bus still had its kahwa-maker handing out free cups of spiced coffee before the six-hour journey to the border – in that gesture lies the spirit of the country, the "essence of Arabia", as their tourism department chose to call it.

The first time I went snorkelling in Fujeirah, I secretly howled with laughter at the raptures of my fellow visitors. This elaborate trip to see coloured fish yielded almost nothing compared to any random beach in Muscat. At Bandar Jissa there were whole schools of them swimming around my ankles in water a foot deep. On a casual swim at PDO beach, sea turtles could come right up to you. Glancing out of a cafe window on a desultory evening, there could be phosphorescence flashing like lightning in the water. I've seen dolphins cavorting far out at sea on a mundane weekday, while driving to a meeting.

The refreshing flash of blue as the road wound between hills was a feature of my daily life. And every day the sun floated up ceremoniously from behind ranges upon ranges of mountains – right outside my bedroom window. Bored winter afternoons could be enlivened by climbing old hill trails that rose almost from your backyard, until you reached a place where there was nothing but orange, pink and grey stone in every direction and were subsumed into a monumental calm that was there before you and will remain after.

The only thing I am subsumed into here is a colossal lethargy, broken occasionally by impotent anger at injustice. (The races mingled benignly in Oman, so the septic, jagged edge of racism was unfelt until I got here. It was in Dubai that, for the first time in my life, my writing encountered the thick brick wall formed by a concept called "native English speaker".)

When I leave here I don't think I will take anything but the friendships I made. It is unlikely that I will feel the kind of affection for the place that moves me, six years and many leagues later, to pay my respects to the head of the Sultanate. These things are reciprocal, you see.

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