The Believer. How to be Good. The Words of God. Understanding Islam. In the waiting of room of Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman, religious books were stacked tidily on the wooden shelf. On a plush sofa, Naeema, a veiled volunteer, was talking animatedly about holiness and goodness, exhorting every soul to give, forgive, share. Her rhetoric was spellbinding. Had I listened raptly I would have found that elusive staircase to heaven. But after a red eye flight, I certainly wasn’t seeking salvation. Instead, I was eyeing the golden dalla (traditional Omani tea pots) and the ruby red dates heaped on a carved bowl.
“Ask me anything about god, goodness, culture….” Naeema coaxed the visitors. “May I have the coffee, please?” I muttered to Mazin al Abri, the guide, who graciously poured coffee in a paper cup and offered dates. “Dates first,” he insisted. “The coffee, please,” I persisted. “No. In Oman, you first chew the date and then sip the coffee,” Mazin explained. There’s nary a speck of sugar in the Omani coffee. Ever. Chew dates first. Then, sip coffee. That’s unusual, I talked under my own breath and noticed the Mosque’s golden dome that shimmered like a jewel sewn on sky blue. To say a prayer, I walked barefoot in the mosque built of 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone and which houses the world’s second largest handwoven carpet.
In Oman, a nation with 3 million humans and 8 million date palm, the ancient and the modern meld seamlessly. Hills scrape the sky, valleys reside in the earth’s heart, sand dunes ripple and little drops of water sculpt exquisite stalactites and stalagmites in the caves. A 2,000-year-old falaj (canal) system meanders through the land; in the sea, turtles, whales and dolphins gambol. In the souqs, Bedouins still thrive on barter and the urban sellers forgive the hagglers. Frankincense trees bleed aromatic resins and date palms are planted to commemorate the birth of a son. Ancient rulers used boiling hot date syrup as ammo against enemies and present ruler, Sultan Qaboos, ushered modernism.
Between the ancient and the contemporary, I decided to go back in time. To Al Hamra, an old town built on tilted rock slab, which lies in the Dhakiliya region. Also known as Hamra Al Abriyeen with reference to the Al Abri tribe that lives there, Al Hamra has some of the oldest preserved mud houses in Oman. A labyrinth of slender alleys and lush date farms lead to Bait Al Jalal, the oldest mud house in Al Hamra. What must have been a luxurious edifice is now in ruins—windows have crumbled and walls have fallen, but in the 500-year-old mud house, even the debris looks splendid. That, however, was not the only mud house in Al Hamra. In a rich trader’s two-storied mud house the arches have frayed in the harsh sun, but the carvings on the old mango door have withstood the weather.
Not too far away is the Al Hoota Cave, one of the largest cave systems in the world. The entrance has a sinkhole, but what lies inside can leave anyone breathless. No one carbon dates the caves. Perhaps it began thousand years ago. Perhaps a million. But what one knows is that for millions of years little drops of water have been trickling off walls and forming stunning stalagmites and stalactites. Within the dark confines of Al Hoota lie Nature’s incredible limestone artistry.
Still on an ancient history spree in Oman, I drove through Izki, an ancient city which was once an active trade route; Misfah, a village seemingly hewn out of rock. Mud houses hang precariously from the edges, but they sure are sturdy, for they have existed for centuries; Wadi Ghul, a spectacular deep canyon in the mountain range out of which rises Jabel Shams, the highest peak in Oman. I was dizzy with driving through dirt track around a sorrel landscape, my throat was parched, my skin tanned, my hair tangled, and my stomach growling with hunger. I drove to Nizwa Souq to dig into the famed Omani halwa which is made of sugar, ghee, nuts, cardamom, saffron and starch (interestingly, the halwa has no flour). In Nizwa, the air was heavy with whiff of dates. So many dates. Red. Brown. Orange. Yellow. Fat. Slender. Elongated. Dates wrapped in chocolate. Dates pounded with sesame. Dates as syrup. The old capital of Oman houses a gun souq where burly men sit barefaced amidst muskets, blunderbuss, rifles and carbines. On request, a turbaned, wrinkled man picked the musket, mustered ire in his eyes and posed for the camera.
The gun was not loaded. Laden with history, I took the track to Hail Al Shas (The View). Perched on the top of a mountain, here the sky lives just an arm’s length away; here in the silence you can hear your heartbeat and the swish of a dragonfly’s wings. I spent a night with the dragonflies. And the stars. In Hail Al Shas, peace was everywhere. Illuminated by the stars. And the warmth of Omanis. There’s something in the loam of Oman. Perhaps warmth. Perhaps respect. Perhaps history. Perhaps everything. I am ready to pack a burgundy head scarf and a bucket of sunscreen. The 50-degree Celsius heat no longer bothers me.