OMAN IN DOUBLE EXPOSURE
I had never really wanted to go to the Middle East. I didn’t trust Islam due to my poor knowledge of it. Hot weather and too much sun do me no good. And yet, my wife Lenka and I set out on a trip to Northern Oman. Despite the somewhat negative attitudes, we were guided towards it by our relentless travellers’ souls and the recommendations of our daughter Petra and a desire to check out the 55+ travel agency (Delfín Travel). Who could have expected that corona virus would get in the way…
Imagine a construction site after overburden removal. Piles of rock everywhere, a flat endless stretch of brown, eroded and dried out land, lots of stones and ancient jagged mountains revealing their geological layers. Kilometres and kilometres of empty space, in which, you suspect, life must be hidden. Our winter landscape without vegetation, leaves or flowers seems pretty bright compared to this. So with these feelings you drive through the first stretches of your journey, really, nothing much… Numbers?
|Area||79K km2||309K km2|
|Population density||135 people/km2||15 people/km2|
|Highest mountain||Sněžka – 1603 m||Jebel Al-Sham – 3007 m|
|Most popular names||Jakub, Eliška||Mohammed, Fatima|
|Average wage||CZK 34 125||CZK 41 730|
Just for comparison, Germany has an area of 357K km2. The largest continuous sand desert – Rub’ al Khali, the Empty Quarter – also stretches into the territory of Oman.
And then you arrive in Muscat and look inside the two main mosques and are astonished with their size, cleanness, and almost ethereal beauty… And from then on, your view of the sandy, rocky and empty Oman starts changing each day. Changing to the extent that it will grab you tightly and let go only on condition that you will certainly return one day. This has happened to us also thanks to the great and well-versed care of our guide, Pavla Koubek Slavětínská, who permanently lives in Oman.
On two occasions, Pavla took us to visit traditional Omani and Bedouin families, respectively. One could not but notice the visible difference with our former experience – for instance, one does not get to meet the lady of the house in person, all the hospitality is in the hands of men and children under their lead. Honestly, we were astonished by the good manners of the children. All the Omani people are nice, cheerful, tolerant, they explain their local customs and you, maybe unwillingly, suddenly admit that with a few exceptions, we could follow their example in terms of human and family relationships.
Not long ago, after 49 years of rule, the enlightened ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, died. In 2016 he was proclaimed the World’s best leader by the UN Economic and Social Council. During his rule he raised Oman from decline and poverty into a golden age. During his absolute reign, his policies have positively influenced all aspects of life in the country – economics, architecture, social and medical care, security, education and culture, the development of remote areas – and it can really be seen. During our ten-day journey through Northern Oman we visited the cities of Muscat Nakhal, Sur, Nizwa, Bahla, Sifat, the village Misfat al Abriyeen, wadis Bani Khalid and Shab and we spent the night in the Wahiba Sands (or Sharqiya) desert. Personally, I think the sights that had the greatest impact on me were the two mosques in Muscat – Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and Al Ameen Mosque, then Jabrin Castle and the market in Nizwa – which is quite an unexpected selection coming from a landscape photographer and rejector of all supermarkets, markets and shops in general.
They are everywhere, in all villages and non-Muslims have forbidden access to them, with the exception of the two great ones which can be entered with some limitations. Imagine the area of a smaller town square, all made out of white marble, where you must take your shoes off and walk barefooted. You could eat from that floor how clean it is. The mosque does not have much in common with our churches and cathedrals. This place of prayer is in an enormously large and empty space yet filled with quiet beauty. Carpets, Arabic calligraphy, gigantic chandeliers from Swarovski or Preciosa all hover high up over your heads. Sharp sunlight alternating with intimate shadow. Every now and again men in white robes, dishdashas, or women in black abayas walk past you. Quiet introspection, peace, perfect beauty.
Probably all those who have travelled at least a little bit have been to a desert. We have. And yet I dare say that there is a big difference between being driven to a desert as a tourist in, let’s say, Egypt, and as a guest of a Bedouin family in Oman. The combination of hospitality, majestic peace and space under the stars in the sprawling kilometers of rolling sand dunes, is simply breathtaking. After the project on Saint-Exupéry, I might be perceiving all this much stronger and deeper…
The Market in Nizwa
Formerly, the seat of the imams, not quite so accessible but today very hospitable, Nizwa probably held the greatest surprise for me. I don’t know how about you, but I really do not enjoy markets with sellers who do not give you a chance to catch breath, keep nagging at you, trying to pull you into their shops and sell you something you do not need at all. Oman takes pride in rose oil and incense, and besides that all kinds of spices, halva, nuts, tea… In any case, the souk in Nizwa is different – you can walk around at your leisure, the vendors, usually middle-aged men in dishdashas, stand there smiling, on entering the shop they might offer you tea but usually they just hold back. And so you take in the smells, colours, sounds. And because nobody is hassling you, you end up buying lots of little things for yourselves and your children.
And What About the Landscape?
Well, I will have to come back for it once again and spend a longer time. Oman definitely has a lot to offer that we would like to see and experience – Musandan peninsula, the geological paradise in the mountains of Jebel Akhdar, and Dhofar, Al Massira island and the coast near Duqm, the Salalah enclave. And camel races! I hope we will manage to do that in the future. For now, enjoy some multi-expositions from the trip to the world of Sultan Qaboos and Sindibad the Sailor.
In Liberec 20.3.2020