Tag Archives: Oman

Thesis Tableaux, Part 1 – Gathering the Materials

As I sit, here at my kitchen table in a very suburban and bourgeois locale somewhere near Princeton, a masochistic satisfaction has taken hold of me, surrounded by the paraphernalia of my upcoming enslavement to a single, unified, and laborious paper-writing process:  the thesis.  Maybe as a means to preserve this beginning moment for myself, so that I might look back fondly upon it in future years, or perhaps to share the mound of work, at least metaphorically, with those of you enjoying a voyeuristic pleasure in my pain, I will document here what I perceive to be the major milestones of the process.

. . . like the setting of a B-grade horror film . . .

The subject of the thesis will be a monograph of the life of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s more scurrilous Companions, al-Mughirah ibn Shu’bah, who was a very early convert to Islam but was also involved in one of its more spectacular and formative legal/moral cases.  More to follow, in future installments of this thesis-production narrative, on al-Mughirah and his doings.  Now, onward to the writing process itself, onward to the first of the milestones I plan to document.

What more necessary milestone can there be than a beginning?  And how better to capture it than with a photograph, a tableaux of the materials, most of them visible, that I have heaped around me to spur me toward beginning this paper’s production?

Here I list the visible and invisible elements of this project, in order of importance:

1.  Computer.  Modern man cannot write, let alone research, without said device.  My choice:  a slightly feminine but perfectly serviceable white MacBook.  Unseen on the computer are perhaps 30+ files and scans from various encyclopedias that will contribute to the project, along with an entire searchable Arabic-language database of scholarly works that I will (at some time in the nebulous future) exhaust of all references to my subject.

2.  Coffee.  ‘Nuf said.  Cup courtesy Anthropologie, though meant to match a small collection of blue-glazed crockery purchased in Morocco and Oman.

3.  Books:  Most of this is background reading, rather than primary sources.  The primary sources will be in Arabic and I will access them online, for the most part, verifying them in volumes kept at Princeton’s library.  A preliminary search tells me that al-Mughirah is mentioned directly, in various hadith traditions, about a dozen times.  These secondary sources, along with primary-sources exegesis from later (but still rather Medieval) Islamic theologians and historians, supplement the direct mentions of al-Mughirah only partially.  The rest of his life I plan to reconstruct via hypotheses I derive from what various factions or various armies were doing during the blank spaces in his life.  Today my goal is to put all of these secondary sources into a bibliography and, maybe also, to comb through indices and mark/excerpt the direct mentions of al-Mughirah that each book contains.

4.  Stick-’em notes.  An archaic tool, but necessary.  When I have indexed a direct mention of al-Mughirah, I don’t want to have to go through the process of looking it up again.  I will therefore both a). copy the specific mention into a word document arranged by subject or time-period and b). affix a stick-’em note to the original page so that I can find the quote quickly in its larger context if necessary at a later time.

5.  Example theses.  My advisor provided two example theses from recent MA candidates.  I’m going to double check the formatting of their bibliographies prior to creating my own.  In the end, hopefully minus coffee stains, my thesis will look as fat and happy (and professional) as these two do.

6.  Chair, table, and especially cushion on chair.  The writer requires a certain degree of comfort.  But not TOO MUCH comfort.  The cushion eases the pain of a flat wooden surface squashing buttocks.  The table and chair will keep the writer more alert than, say, the couch or the nice big leather arm chair just purchased for more leisurely reading.  Chair/table/placemats/seat cushions courtesy IKEA.

7.  Woven baskets on wall.  No direct correlation with the thesis, other than ambiance in an otherwise milquetoast white pre-fab house.  Baskets from Nizwa, or perhaps from Morocco.  I forget.

8.  Voo-doo doll.  (Parti-colored feathers visible between largest stack of books and copies of previous theses).  Just in case.

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Dhow Construction

Fishing boats in the inner harbor, Sur.

The port of Sur, Oman is one of the few places in the world still engaged in manufacturing traditional dhows, the famous merchant ships of Arabia with slanting lateen-rigged sails and stitched, rather than nailed or pegged, fastenings for their wooden plank sides.  Used for many centuries as the main cargo and fishing ships on the Indian Ocean, plying routes from Africa to India and all up and down the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, these vessels recall a pearl-diving, pirate-infested culture now largely subsumed by oil revenues, Ferraris, and a smattering of folks still interested in traditional culture (mostly tourists and Omani/Emirate/Bahrani/Kuwaiti history-buffs).

The hand-carved scrollwork on the back of this dhow displays some beautiful lacquer.

Sur is a great destination for the traveler interested in seeing dhows because the huge inner harbor is lined, near its entrance, with various dockyards and carpentry shops planing the boards, tarring the decks, and building, from the ground-up, ships propped on slanting rails ready to be launched into the water.

The workshops aren’t necessarily ‘open’ and no guided tours are available but people in Sur are friendly and will gladly show a tourist around.

A worker at the dockyards builds a scale model as a plan for a new dhow.

What is, perhaps, NQR, about the entire industry of dhow building — now largely outmoded by fiberglass fishing boats and huge metal-hulled cargo ships — is that most of the production depends on the interest of western tourists, our fascination with a romantic image of the orient that includes swarthy pirates and the travels of Sinbad (who hails, traditionally, from Sohar, just up the coast in Oman).  One wonders if any but a few dhows, moored as cultural relics, would exist if it weren’t for western tourists wanting to go for a dive, a swim, or a party picnic aboard these high-decked beauties of a time gone-by.

My children aboard a dhow, ready to go snorkeling. This one appeared to have been built with pegs rather than sewing. It also had a diesel motor rather than a lateen sail. Sort of a quasi-dhow.

 


Distance Makes Bootcamp Grow Fond

Not that I wasn’t fond of Oman when my family and I enjoyed the awesome experience of living there for a year, but now, looking back through photos, some of the more mundane or even unpleasant aspects seem better.  Take our present experience of New Jersey traffic for instance. The rudeness of drivers here almost makes me wish for the super-sonic speeds and random construction zone lane-changing of Oman, always accompanied by smiles and good manners.  Or the heat.  Miserable to live through an Omani summer, but O, the winter — 80F with balmy sunshine every day!

In addition to the steps and the beach where bootcamp was conducted, I linger over the fine remembered taste of Costa Coffee (seen in background) not to mention the pleasant swaying of so many palm trees.

Even this photo, seeming rather barren, rather boring, inspires a moment of NQR reflection and remembrance.  It was at the base of these steps, along a stretch of Muscat beach sometimes left dry by the tide, sometimes washed over knee-deep by blessedly cool water, that my wife and I and a goodly number of our friends and acquaintances — mostly expats, though my buddy Aflah became a regular attendee — tortured ourselves every morning by attending a bootcamp physical training session led by two crazy South African gentlemen.

Ahh, I look at the steps and wish I could return to those mornings:  waking up with a light mist of sandstorm or mosquito-fogging (an expelled concoction part deisel, part napalm) floating in the air, temperatures hovering around 90, 95F at 5am, picking our way down these very steps, sometimes awash with kelp and little crablike critters, slipping, tiptoeing to keep our shoes dry, waving the beam of a flashlight in front of us to avoid stepping on anything truly unpleasant.  Then gathering in the dark with the other masochistic morning bootcampers, a quick jog down beach, a stretch, and a return to the real heart and misery of the morning.  Usually it went something like this:  1 minute of a randomly chosen but inevitably brutal exercise, the easy ones being push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, the tough ones impossible combinations of twisting, pushing, prying, jumping and generally getting wet sand into every crevice of the body; then a quick shuttle-run sprint down to a line drawn in the sand; another minute of a different but equally painful exercise; a second sprint to a farther line in the sand; a third exercise; a third and final sprint to the farthest of the lines.  Rest.  Repeat.  Sweat.  Repeat.  Charge into the water (maybe bringing gallon jugs to fill and then lift in a final burst of calesthetics or isotonics).  Return home dripping, sandy, but well-worn and well-woken for the day’s chores and pleasures.

Thinking back on it now, such mornings seem almost perfect, although a little bird in the back of my head still chirps a reminder about bleary-eyed cursing that occurred during, and especially en route to, such bootcamp fondnesses.


The National Symbol of Oman

While Oman’s true national symbol is the khanjar, a wickedly curved knife in a gilt silver scabbard still worn on formal occasions (equivalent of a black-tie dinner for us in the West), a close second might be the Incense Burner.  The Frankincense trade originated in southern Oman, Salalah Governate, and therefore, in almost any local market the smell of burning incense quickly overwhelms a visitor whose palate is unaccustomed to such a fug.

Three-storey incense burner at Riyam Park. If lit it might serve as a nice emergency lighthouse for shipping in the Gulf of Oman.

As part of the national effort to enshrine the Incence Burner, several years ago the Muscat Governate erected a giant white statue of a burner on a headland between Old Muscat and Mutrah, in the vicinity of Riyam Park.  When visitors first drive past this monument, heads turn.  Is it a spaceship?  Modern art?  A relic of some misguided brutalist 70’s architectural campaign?  It’s weird, sure, but soon it blends into the background, a part of Muscat, a landmark useful for navigating around town, with people saying stuff like:  “You know where the Incense Burner is?” rather than “Near Riyam Park.”

One might think this is weird, sure, Not Quite Right, certainly.  But we should remember that an Omani is likely to find our kitschy American fascination with something like the World’s Largest Ball of Twine or a huge statue of a spoon and cherry equally odd.


Meat from the Earth

One of the more privileged moments of my family’s time in Oman was being invited during the Eid to celebrate a traditional dinner with the extended (very extended!) family of one of our friends in Sohar.  For the shuwwa, or grilling, the family employed a traditional technique called the Tanoor, an earthen pit in which carefully herbed and wrapped meats are grilled/smoked underground overnight.  This technique will immediately seem NQR to a western audience, accustomed as we are to eating from the anti-septic (but chemical-laced) confines of our mass supermarkets.

The pictures I present here, of the process of the shuwwa itself, should demonstrate not only the technical aspect of how the procedure is undertaken but also the sense of community, the involvement of the larger kinship group in this tradition.  It would be similar to the Thanksgiving Holiday in America, but only adding a hole in the earth and meat we raise and slaughter ourselves.  The Eid is a holiday at the end of Ramadan in commemoration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on God’s command.

Photos / explanations:

Reed-wrapped meats along with a selection of greens and herbs to add moisture and flavor.

The earthen pit, coals very hot, before the meat and herbs go in.

More herbs, better shot, some of these gave the meat a very savory flavor that stayed with me for days: smoky, heady, delicious, different.

By the lights of a luxury SUV pulled close to the earthen hole, dinner and herbs are lowered by the men into the prepared oven.

Once it goes in, the hole is covered with a sheet of metal and then with a thin layer of soil. If any smoke escapes, then too much air is getting in, the meat will cook too fast and dry out. A true seal over the meat allows it to smoke/roast to perfection.

When it is ready, after a day, the men of the family dig it up. (The women wait in a separate area to receive the meat, carve it, finish its preparation and divvy it up among the families.)

When finished the herbs and wrapping are charred but the food inside is juicy and wonderful. (Actual photo of meat missing, I was too busy eating!)

 

My friend Abdul Azziz (whose family is depicted in the photos above) kindly sent two complimentary photos, the first reveals the meat after it is unwrapped, the second shows a much bigger tanoor, where up to fifty wrapped packages can be cooked at once.  He also notes that this type of shuwwa is particular to northern Oman and parts of the UAE.

The cooked product of the tanoor, with garnish of local herbs.

A bigger version, holding up to fifty wrapped packages.


Detail in a Photo – Mutrah Harbor

 

Map of the hike, meandering up-and-down trail in light blue. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The capital area of Muscat, Oman, stretches lengthwise along the sea for several tens of kilometers in either direction but only extends into the interior of the country a kilometer at the deepest.  This is mostly because a range of bare, jagged mountains looms between the narrow coastal plain and the wetter (mountain watered) interior regions that surround Nizwa, Rustaq, etc.  A corollaries to this close-at-hand range of mountains is the presence, very near the urbanized areas, of great hiking and astonishingly isolated wilderness.

One instance of this hiking is Trail C38, which begins in the village of Riyam at the backside of the Incense Burner Park (on the corniche between Mutrah and Old Muscat) and delivers a hiker, after some fairly difficult climbing, into the alleys behind the old souq in Mutrah.

When we think of hiking in the US, images of lush green forests, maybe a few meandering hills, perhaps even the Appalachian Trail come to mind.  But this, on the other hand, especially if attempted anytime between April and November, is a different sort of hike altogether:  hot, dusty, with rocks sharp enough to accidentally cut a palm or forearm placed by the hiker for stability on the ledges or cliffs.  Hikers should be wary to bring water, sunscreen, and a realistic estimate of how far they will make it along the trail during the heat of the day.

This description, though, doesn’t do the hike complete justice.  Admittedly it is not as satisfying as a hike up one of Oman’s wadis where a clear pool or even a waterfall might serve as a reward, but the views from the summit of the trail and the delivery, at the end, into the secret lanes behind the souq is certainly worthwhile.  Where else, for instance, can someone look over Mutrah Harbor with such calm?  Where else can someone see both sides of Oman with such clarity:  the new/urban and the ancient/traditional?  That these two elements coexist so well in Oman is truly a significant feature of the country, one that should be noted as Quite Right and compared to other places, like Dubai, where the new overshadows everything and the heart of the country is no longer its own; or, like Riyadh, where the tension and resistance against modernity is a much more palpable current.

Mutrah Harbor, as seen from Trail C38.

Here, in this photo, one can see quite a lot of Oman: starting in the background, above the mountainous horizon, a glimpse of the Gulf of Oman, which connects the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean; cut into that far hillside, a new project expanding the port facilities leaves a scar of ashen land; below it the white-washed stucco buildings, some of them centuries old, gild the corniche boulevard along Mutrah Harbor; there, behind a layer or two of security and with guard boats around it, Sultan Qaboos’ yacht is often moored (the small cruise-ship on the right-hand side of the bay); even closer, two traditional Omani Dhows, transport and fishing vessels, recall the heydey of Oman’s Indian Ocean trading Empire, which included parts of the African and Iranian and Afghan coasts as well as strong links to India;  then, on the hill in the foreground of the harbor, below the level of the camera, a 16th Century relic of Portugeuse occupation nests above the corniche, medieval and lordly, although again testifying to Oman’s former glory as the Omanis were one of very few examples of successful indigenous resistance to colonialism; then, in the very foreground, the jagged cliffs themselves, empty, barren, dusty and forelorn except where a view like this breaks upon the intrepid hiker!


An Original Odor

A few, a very few roadside hotspots have the power to ‘attract’ (or repulse) a traveler via smell alone.  This is one.  And its perfume (in comparison to Western notions of soapy, sometimes fake, cleanliness) provides a very compelling moment of NQR.

Fishermen heave at the drying tarps to roll up their catch.

In the Musandum Penninsula of Oman, just south of the city of Khasab, we drove past a beach where local fisherman had been drying their catch, millions upon millions of small minnows.  The smell from the beach was absolutely rancid, but the process itself proved to be fascinating and ingenious.  It involved the close cooperation of somewhere around twenty fishermen, each with separate boats, separate nets, separate small Toyota trucks used to haul their equipment, but with one shared, central task:  drying the fish.  The collective activity of these men, their cooperation rather than competition, speaks to a totally different cultural expectation than our capitalism.  Certainly they are all in it for profit, at some level, but the ties of kinship and mutal support that likely drive their cooperation are certainly alien to the western idea of how work ought to be performed.

Late afternoon shade falls over millions of dried minnows.

The fishermen were very clever in placing their drying mats.  In full sun during the height of the day for maximum drying benefit, the shadows of the nearby cliffs fell toward and then over the mats at just the same time as the sardines reached an acceptable level of dryness.  This allowed the fishermen to work in the shade, a vigorous hour of activity rolling up mats, whacking fabric to dislodge stuck fishies, creating huge piles of sardines.

While, admittedly, the process employed many modern conveniences — toyotas, synthetic plastic tarps, fiberglass hulled boats with diesel engines — an element of the primordial process remained:  the fish whacking sticks themselves, usually pieces of driftwood found on the beach.

Plump sheik displays his handy fish-whacker.

If it weren’t for the smell, I might have been tempted to jump in and assist!


A Beautiful Stillness

When we think of the Middle East, our stereotypical idea includes a lot of color, action, vibrancy.  Perhaps that is where the romance in the romantic notions of the region comes from:  the contrast against what we perceive to be our own staid, stable, sometimes dreary (certainly climactically chillier) versions of existence.

But this photo, which I choose to share mostly just because it is beautiful and I’m feeling, at this moment, still and quiet and happy with the world, should show a different, wetter, more stable and simple idea of life ‘over there.’

Maybe it’s not just life ‘over there.’  Maybe it is life as a whole . . . or the way we want to see it, to look at it.  Pulsing and full at times.  Quiet and contemplative at others. Always with the possibility to reveal, somewhere, a hidden gem of gracefulness.

I challenge you, dear readers, to probe your set ideas and to discard most of those that come with labels.  That’s what I’ve been tryingt to do here, at NQR. 

There’s always another story, another perspective.  There’s always a way to find beauty around you (or at least a good chuckle).  Either of those two things will dull the edge of the worst dangers in our world.

Rainy day view through an arch in the Frankincense Museum, Salalah, Oman.


More Odd Business Names

To continue the theme, begun before Thanksgiving, of oddly named business establishments in the Middle East . . . here are three (somewhat scatalogical) additions.  The funniness, the quirkiness here, the NQR, must be mostly attributed to our Western perspective in reading and understanding.  Certainly these names haven’t been invented just to be funny.  They pass, unnoticed, through the daily lives of many thousands of people.  So we must conclude that it is us, not them, with a skewed perspective.

Eye-catching Acronym

The first, Mohammad Ibrahim Law Firm, bills itself (on its website) as a ‘highly adequate service.’  As if this weren’t oxymoronic enough, it also announces its presence to greater Muscat, Oman, via a largish billboard overlooking the main Ministry District overchange.  This billboard attracts a fair amount of attention, at least from Westerners, because it uses the firm’s initials as a handy moniker:  M.I.L.F.

Just in case you're wondering, 'Coq' means 'chicken' in French.

The second, on a street corner in Rabat, Morocco, is part of a successful chain, like KFC for Francophiles.  Our hosts in Rabat assured us that the chicken is very good.  The billboard certainly doesn’t appear to be ashamed of itself.  We never ate at any of these locations, unable to overcome our own, more Anglicized, interpretation of the name.

Candy, anyone?

And, finally, what must certainly be the most bizarre and unattractive of all the odd names we encountered throughout our travels . . . this sweet shop in Abu Dhabi.  We snapped the photo while driving along the street, having seen the sign, then grabbing frantically for the camera, before (just barely) managing to get the photo as traffic whisked us away.  What, on earth, were these folks thinking, the owners (or their English translators/consultants) when they put together their brand and their billboard?


Middle East Water Issue

I think I’ll tell this Not Quite Right story through pictures, rather than words.  Just a few clarifying details upfront:

1.  This is not your standard Middle East water problem.

2.  No children were harmed in the process of taking these photographs.

3.  Mughsayl Beach is located about 40km southwest of Salalah, Oman, about as near to Yemen as a person can safely venture now days.

 

My son, Wesley, checking out one of many 'attractions' at the Mughsayl Beach

 

I join Wesley. We can see down into the hole to a rather frightening depth and can feel a breath of air on our hands.

 

Ya, Allah! -- a better scare than any ride at Great America!