On Saturday, June 6th, 2015, I was able to take part in school day trip to Nizwa fort, in Oman’s old capital city of Nizwa, and Misfat Al Abreyyin–a 4,000 year old continuously inhabited village. It was about a two-hour drive away from Muscat. Our driver, Munthir Al Nomani, was dressed very casually. It made me ask him about shorts. I had thought I read something in the notice that we were to dress more formally. I had pants. It was hot, very hot. I was mistaken about the pants and long shirt. I couldn’t change into shorts, but I did bring a t-shirt, so I quickly changed in the van. There was a short burst of protest from the guys–because of the girls–who said nothing. But I was fast, and did so with my back turned–while sitting up front with Munthir.
I had moments of difficulty trying to bond with the other students in the program because of 1) my age–twice as old as most of the others; 2) being the only African-American man (I think); and 3) being the only one from Queens College.
We drove through valleys past the Jebel Hadr–or Rock Mountains الحاجر جآبآل . I had never been to the Grand Canyon, but I imagined this was a taste of something like it. The road passed between openings carved from the rock. I could see the patterns continue across the ghost of the missing rock from one side to the other.
We arrived first at Nizwa fort and souq (market) outside of it. It was an imposing sand castle right out of the Star Wars planet of Tatooine. (Except instead of laser cannons, there were ancient iron canons of the Earthly kind, still totally cool!) They varied in size. There was a very tall cylindrical tower within the outer walls of the fort.
Everyone split up and/or went with their clique or on their own. I was on my own. I love exploring, so I went inside of every room and tried to open every door. There were old artifacts, presumably authentic from the fort’s past. One room, a granary, had large woven containers.There was one building that was more exhibition oriented with items behind glass enclosures. The walls of every room were the same–an old Pueblo New Mexican Adobe material that reminded me of old western towns from Wild West movies.
There was a market or sooq, outside of the fort proper, filled with textiles, cultural souvenirs, meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and much more. I met a very friendly young man named Salim Mohammed–I first asked him directions to the bathrooms after noticing his ornate fuchsia detailed raiment, the national attire, kumma and dishdasha. He kindly walked me all the way. So we struck up a short convivial conversation about both our aspirations for the future. We “whatsapp”ed each other and parted ways. I found some of my classmates for our planned departure. My roommate Matt, a U.S. marine, bought a very stylish and expensive, ceremonial Omani dagger. It is traditionally worn, on special occasions, by men tucked into the front of a decorative sash around the waist.
Our groups met back at the van to head to the ancient village of Misfat Al Abreyyin. It was a steep climb up a stark moonscape-like barren desert mountainside. I imagined the van was giant beast of burden, loaded with it’s human passengers and gear, it sounded alive. Our driver carefully shifted the gears as he gingerly rounded each sharp turn to a higher altitude. The pressure changes in my ears were not slight.
At the top of the rise, we were let out to wander and explore مسفاة العبريين Misfat al Abriyyin Village on our on. We were told that it was okay because of the historic nature of the village, but to be careful about taking pictures of the village folk. I asked whoever I wanted to take a picture of beforehand. All the adults refused, but one high school student and small boys with him posed with me for a photo.
I wanted to take a picture of a young man and his donkey when I was in Misfat al Abriyyin. But he flatly refused. I found this photo on Instagram taken by someone else who visited the village in February 2015.
We all walked along the easiest paths that took us past some abandoned buildings, homes, garden plots between a series of terraced high cliff enclosures that had date trees, bananas, papayas, and other fruits and vegetables growing. Each enclosure was fed water by an opening connected to a narrow concrete irrigation channel running the length of village.
It felt strange to be in other peoples’ space. But our school guide said the village people understood because the government gave the town a historic designation.
Everyone I passed, children, men, women, regarded me with discretion and respect–politely greeting me in some cases, A salaam alleikum; giggling, in the case of the children, a boy and a girl, running off, eyes filled with questions and wonder at the tall black stranger who smiled at them with camera in hand. An elderly woman in the distance, spotted me on my way out, and shouted at me–presumably to not take her picture. I was too far away to have done so.
I was the last to make it to the bus to head back to Muscat. We drove down the hill back to the valley below. We stopped by a local restaurant first to enjoy a meal and a brief repose. Nizwa was a dream to explore. I hope I was as good a guest as the Nizwa people were gracious hosts to me.
The road to Nizwa from the Husin Al Khaleej Hotel (where some of the students were put up by the school, Center for International Learning) in Muscat. It reminds me of the old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road movie series that were always entitled “the Road to ‘Somewhere'”.
I watched a lot of Arabic television during the time we were told to stay indoors because of the tropical storm, Ashooba. Click the linked text to hear some Omani music (Omani Men Playing Traditional Music at Muscat Festival 2011! ), that I, unfortunately, never got (Al-Bar’ah, music and dance of Oman Dhofari valleys) to hear live (Traditional Omani Khaleeji Arabic Song- فرقة عمان الحربية بلاد لمجادي ).
You can watch this video to learn more about the Sultanate of Oman (سلطنة عمان).
Click this link to watch a video about the experiences of other students at the Center for International Learning where I studied Arabic at the beginning of the summer.
The Omani Empire was part of the system of trade routes linking Europe, Africa and Asia that came to be known as the Silk Road, on land and sea. Queens College will be hosting a number of events as part of the Year of the Silk Roads. Professor Serenity Young played an important role in putting together the program. (I took her class on the Silk Road in the spring 2015 semester.) For more information about upcoming events, see the Year of Silk Roads website.