Friday, January 12, 2007

Jinns And Indians

Between Muscat and the Hajar mountains in the east and Salalah in the far southwest conrner of the country there is pretty much nothing. I admit I'm just assuming that because I was sleeping on the bus as it skirted the infamous Rub Al Khali (the Empty Quarter) which, on the maps at least, is exactly that. A place once favoured by ancient cartographers as it allowed them to be lazy and let their imaginations run riot with proclamations of "Here be Dragons!!" But the region of Dhofar, of which Salalah is the capital, is certainly very different from the east. For a start it's much greener because it gets brushed by India's Summer monsoon with a misty drizzle (locally called the khareef) allowing a greater profusion of flora. One could almost imagine being in southern India (except that here instead of having to watch out for stray cows on the road it is the camels you have to keep an eye out for), an impression reinforced by the large number of expatriate, mainly Keralan, workers. (I had an interesting chat with one such worker whilst waiting for a museum to open. He had been working here for the past 10 years and has a wife and two young children back in India who he sees only once a year. Yet he is happy with his lot as his children are going to good schools and he is saving for their higher education, something he, as a relatively unskilled worker, would not be able to do back home. In fact he seems to be slightly mocking of the Omanis who, according to him, are obly interested in eating, sex and having an easy life, but who will get a rude awakening when the oil runs out and they find out that they are not qualified to do anything. A point of view I am am prone to agree with from the little I have seen here. But enough of that, back to my rivetting description of Dhofar!) The place isn't just different because of its ecology, but also its people who are more likely to betray Oman's colonial past when they ruled over parts of the east African coast.

The Dhofari coast had been a rich and prosperous region even in classical times, mainly due to a single tree, Boswellia sacra, that only grows in the particular climatic conditions found in the southern Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa. The gnarly, unassuming tree lacks the physical presence that its fame would demand. The sap of Boswellia was used by many pagan religions in their rituals and its value was comparable to that of gold. When brought back to Europe by the crusading Franks it was named after them and called frankincense. Funnily enough, despite frankincense being one of the gifts brought to Jesus by the three kings it was the rise of Christianity that dealt the greatest blow to the frankincense trade as its use was frowned upon by the church because of its pagan associations. There are several ancient sites connected with the frankincense trade dotted around Dhofar such as Wubar (which I didn't visit as it's too out of the way), Al Baleed and Khor Rouri. I particularly enjoyed the latter, not because of the ruins (your standard low walls) but because of its site by a brackish lagoon separated from the sea by a narrow sandbar between two cliffs. As soon as I saw it I decided to spend the night there on the beach. It was a glorious place to just watch the waves breaking, or to read a book (which at the moment is The First Circle by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn that I have been carrying around with me since Islamabad), or to watch the abundant bird life supported by the lagoon: terns, gulls, herons, egrets, storks, ospreys, flamingos and plenty I don't know the names of. At one point three local youths came down to the beach for a bit of horsing around and I got to talking with them. When they discovered that I was planning to spend the night there they became alarmed and worried for my safety, not because of thieves, murderers or tsunamis, but because of jinn. At first I thought they were having me on but they were in fact very serious. Here in Oman jinn are not the kind portrayed in Disney cartoons and are still very much feared for the harm and mischief they can cause (Bahla is the jinn capital of Oman and apparently I was dicing with death by free-camping there). The only way I could get them not to forcibly carry me off was to convince them that I was on good terms with jinns and that ajnabi (foreigner) flesh isn't very tasty to local jinns.


Ex-Shammickite said...

I am enjoying your descriptive posts about your travels, what you see, who you talk to, your modes of transport etc. I'm very envious!
Questions: I assume you are travelling alone? Have you had much language difficulty... I'm assuming you are originally from UK? Some of your earlier posts mention brum... yes, I know where that is, I'm a Brit too. How long have you been away?
P.S. see my latest post regarding Robbie Burns Day.... I bet they don't have THAT in Oman!

Martin Stickland said...


I found you via Ex-shammickites blog and her offerings of cold haggis! I am a shammickite now (living in Combe Martin) but that's another story!

Wow! lucky you having such an adventure, I like your writing style and you are a wealth of information, if it was me blogging from around the world I would probably just write 'Camel, sand hot today' but you have made a great effort!

I wish you well and I will try pop back soon to see how you are progressing.

Kind Regards


Ex-Shammickite said...

Hi Erik: thanks for your long bloggy comment. Just thought you might like to know that it's been snowing here most of the day, some ice pellets and freezing rain too, making the roads slippery.... so enjoy those hot places while you can. I see Martin has been in touch... he's completely whacko! I'll pop in again soon, stay warm!