Oman: Scents of Arabia

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A long coastline flanked by deserts and mountains, lush wadis, souks brimming with artefacts, sumptuous cuisine and warm hospitality, Oman embodies the exotic Middle East. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY get a whiff of Omani culture as they unearth its connections with India

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‘Zilip Kumar, Zhammi Kapoor, Rizhi Kapoor, Dharmendar, Zeenat Aman, Salman Khan’, our driver Waleed Amir rattled off names of Bollywood stars faster than his Landcruiser. A month-long visit to Bangalore in the 1980s had made such an impression on him that he repeated ‘MG Road, Cubbon Park, Mazhestic’ like a password that would unlock the doors of our friendship. And to profess his love for all things Indian he launched into ‘Pardesi pardesi, jana nahi’. It was funny; in Oman drivers had Bollywood videos on their smartphones, Indian restaurants were as popular as Arabian eateries serving curries and ‘khadak chaya’ while barbershops sported images of Shah Rukh Khan! Though the impact of Bollywood is palpable, Indian cinema has only recently taken note of Oman.

Vikram’s popular song Excuse Me Mr. Kanthaswami was filmed in Oman at Al Sawadi, Sohar beach, Qantab, Yacht Club and Oman Dive Centre. En Idhayam from Surya’s Tamil film Singam was shot at Qantab Beach near Muscat and the old capital of Nizwa. More recently, bits of Once Upon A Time in Mumbai Dobara were shot at Qantab Beach, Qurum Corniche, Muscat’s Central Business District and the luxurious Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, a destination by itself. With the last schedule of Aditya Chopra’s Priyanka-Ranveer starrer Gunday slated to be filmed in Oman, curiosity about the Sultanate is on the rise.

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But Indo-Omani relations go way back than Bollywood. For centuries the two countries were linked by trade, with grain, teak and spices from India exchanged for frankincense, dates and perfumes from Oman. This was the legendary land of Sinbad the sailor, born in Sohar in the north and the Queen of Sheba whose summer palace graced Salalah in the south. It was frankincense from Oman that she gifted King Solomon and what one of the three Magi carried to infant Jesus. Flanked by the Gulf of Oman, Arabian Sea, Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter) and the Al Hajar mountains between coast and desert from Mussandam to Sur, these barriers protected the country from foreign invasions and kept its culture largely intact. Oman’s only link to the world was by sea…

Oman’s trade links with Indo-China and strategic location at the Strait of Hormuz drew the Portuguese to seize control of the lucrative Indian Ocean trade. After a brief occupation of Oman’s coastal areas, they were finally expelled in 1650 leaving behind a slew of seaside fortifications that were further developed by Omani rulers. Today, Muscat’s troika of forts Jalali, Mirani and Muttrah besides the Muttrah Souq stand testimony to the Portuguese presence in the Gulf.

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The earliest migrants from India were traders from Gujarat and one name towers above all – the House of Khimjis. Traditionally dhow merchants from the coastal town of Mandvi, they reached Sur by the mid-1800s. In 1870, Ramdas Thackersay set sail from Kutch to Muscat to expand the family business to nearby ports. His son Khimji Ramdas, laid the foundation of one of Oman’s largest business groups that has an annual turnover of $1 billion. Over time they adopted the Omani way and Khimji’s grandson Kanaksi Khimji was conferred the title of Sheikh by the Sultan!

Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, schooled in Pune and France, used the country’s oil and gas reserves to usher in a wave of modernization in the 1970s, as the country opened up to trade and tourism. It embraced people from Delhi and Dongri to Kozhikode as Kutchis, Malayalis, Balochis and Bangladeshis stood shoulder to shoulder with Omanis selling wares in souqs and building the nation’s infrastructure. The fact that immigrants make up a third of Oman’s 3 million population, speaks volumes of its inclusiveness.

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Our guide from the Khimji House of Travel announced ‘I’m Mohammad bin Dawood bin Khamees al Zidjali. That’s my name, my father’s name, my grandfather’s name and the name of my tribe. We have 500 tribes, as many forts and seven hundred types of dates in Oman’, he said with a smile as he took us around Muscat. The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque dominated the buzzing capital with sights like Royal Opera House, Bait Al Zubair Museum, Al Alam Palace and Muttrah Corniche. Mosques, shops, hotels, wherever we went, sweet Omani hospitality would present itself with a platter of dates and cups of kahwah, Omani coffee without sugar or milk flavoured with cardamom.

Low-lying buildings in earthy tones of sepia and off-white summed up the quiet humility that is Oman’s hallmark. Unsullied by the obsession of some countries to build skyscrapers and hotels that are ‘the world’s tallest or biggest’, in Oman it’s tough to find buildings higher than the minarets of the local mosque! Ostentation was not the Omani way. Raising your voice, honking on streets or even expressions of anguish and exasperation, things that come naturally to people in India, are frowned upon. Music icons like Salim Ali S’aid are at best considered ‘gifted amateurs’. The Omanis can disarm you with their modesty and understated charm.

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The most famous Omani singer in India is undoubtedly the young girl Asma who participated in Sa Re Ga Ma Pa in 2009. The daughter of well-known Balochi singer Mohammed Rafi al-Belushi, she was sent to India for music training against her mother’s wishes. Her father motivated her to participate but ended up getting a divorce. When Salman Khan hugged Asma and gave her an affectionate peck on the cheek, her father saw it on TV and promptly brought her back to Oman. ‘Here, the culture is very different’, explained Mohammad. ‘It’s not radical, nor liberal… it is modern yet conservative.’

He continued ‘Today if people want to experience traditional Arabian hospitality where do they go? Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, there’s problem everywhere. Saudi Arabia is orthodox. Dubai is too liberal and cosmopolitan. After a few days, people say, now what? But Oman is a perfect balance of development and tradition, offering great diversity.’ Here, Turkish, Persian, Lebanese and Omani flavours have coalesced into a composite Arabic cuisine, best experienced at restaurants like Al Tarboush or Kargeen Garden Café with flavoured sheeshas (hookah) and mixed grill platters.

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The 1600 km long coastline, dotted by plush seaside resorts and hotels, is ideal for swimming, kitesurfing, diving and sportfishing. The coastal highway from Muscat weaves past old towns like Qalhat to the dhow-building hub of Sur. Wade in picturesque wadis (fresh water streams) in cool emerald waters or take a dhow cruise in the fjords of Mussandam for snorkeling and dolphin watching. Witness the amazing spectacle of turtle nesting at Ras al Jinz. Go dune bashing, sandboarding and quad biking at Wahiba Sands while staying at the plush Desert Nights Camp. Scale Oman’s highest peak Jebel Shams, described as the Grand Canyon of Oman. Try caving, explore amazing sinkholes or just relax by the white sands of Fins Beach.

Hypermarkets are lined with boxes of dates and Omani halwa while souqs brim with silver trinkets, Turkish plates, ornate Moroccan lamps and traditional souvenirs like khanjars (ornamental dagger) in silver or leather. Heady smoke emanating from majmars (incense burners) signal stalls selling frankincense. Eager salesmen lure passersby with daubs of perfumes like the ethereal Water of Salalah and Amouage.

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The warmth of its people is a perfect foil for Oman’s rugged landscape that bears the starkness of Ladakh and the aridity of Rajasthan. If you’re considering a desert trip this winter, try Oman. Because travelling has never been easier! A 1-month tourist visa normally costs 20 Omani Rial (Rs.3200), but to draw more travellers, a 10-day tourist visa costing just 5 OMR was introduced. Direct flights to Muscat from Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Kerala offer a quick escape for Indian tourists. With a generous 30 kg limit in Oman Air shoppers are making full use of their baggage allowance! Over 2.21 lakh Indians visited Oman in 2012, indicating a 35.6% hike over the previous year.

As we cut across the corniche towards the scenic harbour, a sportscar graciously stopped and the driver smiled, gesturing us to cross the road. It’s easy to see why it is a good Oman!

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 2 February 2014 in  Sunday Herald, the weekend supplement of Deccan Herald.

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2 responses »

  1. Hi, read this in a hurry, and I am going to read it again. I was thinking of writing on similar lines on my blog. U have done a great job !! Very well written and well observed and captured. Well done !

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