The young, tall Omani – immaculate in his neatly pressed green dishdasha – was absolutely right. I was tired, red-eyed, yearning for a shower and, above all, utterly lost.
Faithful to my long-standing tradition of not planning my visits ahead (aside for a number of places that I wanted to see), I did very little research prior to arriving in Oman and, as it was immediately clear as soon as I stepped out of the plane, even the little I did had been wrong.
To start with, a quick Internet search led to assume that, upon arrival, I’d have made my entrance in the country through a new, shiny airport terminal with bus connections downtown and plenty of comfy chairs to kill time before sunrise. I must’ve ignored the future tense used for all the verbs in the website I read, for when I arrived the new terminal existed only as a building site and it was to the old one – a dated, tired structure with two constantly inundated loos, one coffee shop and a pathetic aggregation of fast food joints optimistically called Food Court – that I arrived. I also assumed that an airport hotel could’ve provided me a day room, a hope that failed to materialise for there weren’t any hotels around, as I discovered in a fruitless search that only yielded the location of the Muscat Customs and got me stopped by a police car.
It was at that point, waiting in the airport while weighting up options – or, rather, realising that I had screwed up – that the young Omani approached me. Yes, he said, there weren’t any airport hotels in the area, and the few close by where expensive, but he knew one that costed half as much as the Holiday Inn and, by happy coincidence, this hotel happened to be near his house and he was all too eager to take me there. Sometimes I can’t believe my luck. Smiling, I declined.
Many sleepless hours later I caught a cab to the Muttrah Corniche. The driver, an old Omani, drove his Toyota sedan on the speedway, shot out the window an impressive amount of gob and optimistically took residence on the outside lane, his Japanese car quickly reaching twice the speed limit. Still, we were overtaken left right and centre by almost everyone, mopeds included.
The Corniche had a soothing, refreshing effect on me. It was early morning and the rising sun painted the scenery with incredible golden hues: the mountains glimmered in a series of reds and grays streaks that I thought only Mars could have, while the sea was transparent close to shore and dark blue further away. Low buildings huddled between the sea and the rocks, plastered in a blinding white or covered in blue majolicas.
Muscat was a refreshing change from the standards set up by Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha or Manama. The local ruler, Sultan Qaboos, had always resisted the temptation of joining the dick-measurement contest that’s all the rage in the rest of the Gulf. The result is that the waterfront is still like it used to be fifty years ago, without the flourishing of preposterous skyscrapers that, for instance, clog Abu Dhabi.
I was almost alone on the Corniche. A few Indian migrants were busy fishing, employing an ancient-looking system with lines without rods; meanwhile, small troops of Western joggers overtook me, huffing puffing in their Under Armor-branded lycra.
The harbour seemed fast asleep, a few wooden dhows gently bobbing about not far from a massive yacht, quite possibly owned by the Sultan, and a few rusting warships. Further offshore, ships cruised along, seemingly without a purpose, while seagulls looked on.
An invisible dichotomy seemed to separate the Corniche and its manicured gardens to the roads stretching left and right from it. There, the tarmac was potholed, the houses dusty and poor. Being a Friday, shops were shut, leaving only hand painted signs to inform passers-by of the nature of their trade.
I walked alone, past fragrant bushes in bloom and beautiful palms, under the watchful eye of the Sultan depicted in gigantic posters hung from walls, while Omani flags fly in the gentle breeze. A woman emerged on a terrace, dusting its floor, and briefly waved me and another lady who was seemingly doing the same job on a much grander mansion on the other side of the road. Then they both made a hasty retreat, leaving me alone with the constant stream of traffic along the Corniche road, with each taxi briefly honking their horn in hope to raise my interest.
Qaboos bin Said al Said, ruler of Oman since 1970, when he ousted his father in a palace coup, is everywhere. I’ve seen this habit everywhere in the region, from the EAU to Syria to Egypt, even though it’s, admittedly, the first time that I see the dictator’s profile being hung from private homes and businesses. What does this mean? What does hanging these picture – Qaboos in Army fatigues and high uniform, in Navy outfit, in traditional garb – signify? Not long ago this country was revolting against his rule, engulfed in the swells of the Arab spring. Omanis took to the street, asking for jobs and freedom. Now the city is peaceful, and Qaboos eyes me from every corner, as do the country’s flags.
What’s the purpose of these very public displays of affection? Gratitude to a monarch who has listened to the demands of his people? Tentatives of appeasement from a citizenry keen on seeing the end of the rain of tear gas canisters and not ready at all to see them being replaced by bullets, as it happened in Libya, Egypt or Syria? I don’t really know but the evidence is that Oman is not joining, in the ugly column of the daily news, Syria, Yemen or Egypt. That surely must mean something.
I reached Muscat proper with the distinct feeling of being on the set of 28 Days Later. I lost myself in a maze of winding roads where modest compounds enclosed in walls progressively left space to grander buildings guarded by armed soldiers and surrounded by fences adorned by large brass plaques bearing the royal emblem. I crossed the large, dystopian public square outside the National Museum, surely thought with oceanic gatherings and majestic parades in mind; today, it’s mine to enjoy and share with a troop of Indian cleaners who shyly reply to my waves.
I sat on a nearby bench, under the shade of a palm, admiring the manicured lawns where my bench lied; apart from a few stray dogs howling up above, on the cliff, no voices resounded. The dogs, and cars. It was a Friday, the holiest day in the Muslim week, yet traffic wasn’t much thinner than on a normal business day at rush hour. Locals drove their large SUVs up and down the road, tackling the winding bends with verve. Where are they going? Why isn’t anyone out and about, enjoying the breeze?
I set off again, looking for an entrance to the Muscat castle, and failed. There wasn’t anyone around to ask and by that time I was starting to realise that walking wasn’t high on the Omani’s list of favourite activities, at least not as much as driving, a feeling that got more ground as I witnessed a taxi stopping on the road, four indicators on, to allow its passengers to get out, snap a quick picture of the rugged coastline, and then set off again. I guess they’d feel at home in LA.
Muttrah, where the old souq is, had more lively feel than Muscat proper; people strolled along the Corniche, and a few shops were open, mostly bars offering coffee or fresh juice. Still, of the hundreds of businesses that normally crowded the medina, only a handful were making business. I wandered aimlessly in the empty alleys, tailing and being tailed only by tourists and the occasional foreign worker. The Omanis remained elusive, appearing only to board their cars or to slip into one of the many mosques, whose adhan resounded from corner to corner.
I looked for inspiration further afield, past the only major aggregation of locals – faithful awaiting outside a mosque, chatting and holding hands together – in a maze of small alleys. The smell of cooking food filled the street, a mouth-watering whiff that came and went while I shifted aimlessly in the neighbourhood. For the first time since I landed, earlier that night, I felt like making headway into understanding the Omanis and the way they lived, but it wasn’t going to last, and it didn’t.
Out of nowhere an elderly man appeared, confronting me with a deluge of Arabic in which I could only make out the word ‘residential’. His hands, though, were much more understandable as they made wide, sweeping gestures aimed at me. He wanted me out.
The man followed my retreat until he reached the same mosque on the Corniche where the locals were still out, chatting. He climbed a set of stairs up to a side entrance, still keeping an eye on me; I waved – in provocation, I must admit – and predictably got back another sweep of the hand. Go away, this is not your place.
I stood by the sidewalk, gathering my thoughts, and yet another taxi stopped by, the driver scanning me with an inquiring gaze. I shook my head and smile and he left at once, not before waving his hand backwards, over his shoulder, in the international go-to-hell gesture.
Suddenly I had enough of Muscat. I wanted to like this place, I wanted to fall in love with its orography and cityscape, wanted to herald it as a refreshing change from the consumerism of Dubai, but I couldn’t. I must’ve been unlucky and, surely, I’ve committed some faux pas that more culturally aware visitors wouldn’t be likely to fall into, but there and then I was ready to call it a day. I bought a bottle of water at a corner shop and set off on foot on the road to the airport, not even bothering to shake my head at the incoming honks from speeding taxis. After a few kilometers I met a group of Indian youths, standing on the lookout for a baisa bus, a shared taxi. We crammed in the back of the Toyota minibus, alighting by the overpass next to the airport; up there we went, looking in silence at the sun setting on another day in the Middle East.
A few hours later I was on a plane, leaving the Arabic Peninsula; a breathtakingly beautiful land which, apparently, I always fail to understand.