Sunday, December 13, 2009

OMAN & National Day


Driving into Oman was a pleasant change after driving on the flat of Qatar as we wound our was through the mountains down to the coast. Apart from the lack of snow on the mountains we could have been driving down through the Desert Road towards Wellington at the height of summer.

We stopped at Al Khaburah partly because we saw a signpost pointing to a Fort which looked interesting and the prospect of lunch in the township was high on the agenda. The Fort was a 19th century mud-brick one that is, as we came to appreciate, a common feature of Oman overlooking the seafront with line of sight to forts along the coast. I left Joy in the car and walked around the fort to take photographs when I was called over by an Omani family who were standing outside their beachfront home talking. They invited Joy & me to join them for lunch. Apparently this invitation is a basic tenent of Ibadism, the Omani sect of Islam.

I initially deferred but they insisted so I got Joy and returned to meet them. Joy was ushered into the house where she was introduced to the women of the family, including the blind 107 year old Great-great grandmother who, our host’s son said, had told them all about Hitler and W.W.II.

I was entertained in the entrance room until our host returned with a plastic cloth which he laid on the floor along with a coffee pot and cups. Soon after bowls of food arrived - rice, baked goat, foul, onions and fruit and the invitation to eat. Our hosts supplied two plates saying the Joy would be eating with me and, after I was introduced to his wife,mother and the sons, Joy was ushered into the room and encouraged to eat.

Our hosts left us as other family members arrived from Muscat and were to be welcomed in other parts of the household. Joy & I finished eating and took our leave to resume our drive to Muscat another two hours down the road.

Arriving in Muscat we drove past the Grand Mosque the Sultan had built and donated to the people of Oman.The mosque is a huge complex that can host over 20,000 worshippers and which has the largest chandelier in the world - 8 tonnes of crystal and light - we booked into Naseem’s Hotel on the waterfront at Mutrah - the old commercial centre of Muscat. The area was a bustle of activity with the souq, cruise ships and the Al-Lawatiyah mosque all close at hand. The area is picturesque with the Mutrah Fort perched high above the town on a hilltop that jutted into the park below giving a strategic coverage of the port entrance and offering protection to the township.

We prowled the souq that evening looking for bargains and watching the stall holders persuading the passing tourists to buy Omani caps, perfumes, carvings from India, local handicrafts and other nic-nacs in the time-honoured way we have gotten used to here in Doha.

The next day we walked along the corniche watching the locals fishing for the colourful fish that darted amongst the rocks of the area. We gazed up at the fort and the huge incense burner that sits on another headland opposite the fort as we walked to Riyam park. From there we ambled back to the souq,had another pry around the place before driving around the headland to old Muscat where the Sultan has his palace nestled between the two forts - Al Jazirah and AlJalali -that guard the town. We had planned on visiting the museums in the area but found them closed for Eid - inshalla!.

From there we drove along the coast, past small villages huddling in hill sheltered coves, to Al Bustan, a fishing village and the site of the Al Bustan Palace Intercontinental Hotel and the offices of the Governate of Muscat.

That night we were treated to the sight of a woman totally shrouded in her abaya selling products on a TV channel while a gecko crawled its way up the wall of our hotel room.

The next day we drove inland back to UAE. The road twisted through the mountains and desert until we turned off to the old capital of Oman, the silversmithing town of Nizwa. This proved to be a fascinating place with a goat market, silversmithing souq, pottery and handicrafts souq all huddling around the walls of the Nizwa fort and mosque.

We prowled around the stalls for a good two hours and explored the fort which had a very informative museum inside that gave us a great insight into the history of the area and the different industries that had evolved over the centuries in the township.

Leaving the town around 3.00pm we drove on through the wind eroded, twisted rocks of the interior toward the border. As we got higher into the mountains the wind became more obvious and, at times, forcing us to slow to a crawl and, at one point, stop, as the sand swirled up out of the desert and across the road obscuring the road and traffic from sight for minutes at a time.

We crossed the border and headed back to Al Ain for the evening. The next day we dropped in on Bruce and Louise Devene before heading onto Abu Dhabi for the day prior to flying back to Doha the next afternoon.

On arrival in Abu Dhabi we discovered that it was UAE National Day celebrations which meant that the streets were filled with SUVs covered in transfers of the Emirs, red, green and black hearts and slogans declaring the owner’s love and pride of being an Emirati while the skies were filled with a huge flag hauled by a giant helicopter and the corniche was awash with people draped in UAE flags, coloured clothes and caps as they walked to the accompaniment of the sound of numerous SUV horns blurting support for the UAE.

A far far different atmosphere to that which we are used to back home when Waitangi Day becomes a dark and somewhat depressing exercise in protestation rather an a celebration of nationhood and identity.

Back in Doha the State too is gearing up for its celebration of Nationhood on the 18th of December.

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