Tuesday, May 8, 1984

Journey Through Oman

I made this trip, one of the most memorable of my life, for GEO magazine in February 1984 with the photographer Alen MacWeeney. Unfortunately the journey was far beyond my capacities to compress into a workable article. I suppose it deserved a book; they asked for 2500 words, I gave them 10,000. They were at least kind enough to pay me. The piece was never published in English, although a couple of years later it did appear translated, at a sensible length, in the French edition of GEO.

We are in Arabia, to explore one of the most unknown countries on earth. We might as well be exploring a tale by Sheherazade.

In a wild and burnished land where the men wear skirts and women wear trousers, where camels are few and sailors plentiful, the ruler—an old-fashioned sultan—has confined his only son to a remote southern palace alongside the ocean. The son is filled with new and dangerous ideas; sending him abroad to be educated was a mistake.

The country is ancient. Once a colonial empire, its rule extended south and north for thousands of miles along the coasts of Africa and Asia. Its sailors traded with faraway China and a young country called the United States. Until only recently its interior was divided among quarreling tribes. Now the sultan rules absolutely the peoples of those harsh impassable mountains, wind-wracked deserts, and long beaches of wistful palms.

The son bears his captivity for seven years, then decides on a revolution. With secret foreign assistance, he manages a coup. The father is deposed and exiled to a distant kingdom by the sea, where he dies soon after.

The son’s dreams come true. He sells some oil. He lives thriftily. Listening to his people, he builds schools, hospitals, and even a few roads, though the landscape resists them. But soon, thinking the country must now be weak, invaders appear from the west, to stir up a different kind of rebellion within the country.

The son goes among the guerrillas of his enemies. They are his own countrymen, and consider themselves liberators. He offers their leaders security, gold, and top positions in his palace if they will lay down their arms and transfer their loyalty. They obey: it is a lesson in unification his father taught him through imprisonment. And with this new peace, fortified by the presence of his European sponsors, the young sultan’s country grows wealthy. Yet it remains closed to outsiders; and within this antique, modernized, but still pure land, the past lives on.

The tale does not come from The Thousand And One Nights. It is a true story, set in Oman, the last secret corner of Arabia, and it happened in the last two decades. Under the father. Said bin Timur—pushed off the throne by his British-educated son Qaboos in 1970—the country was kept incarcerated in the 17th century. Even in Muscat, the northern capital, there were few cars, smoking was forbidden, and anybody walking around after sunset had to carry a paraffin lamp to avoid arrest.

This November [1984] there will be two weeks of festivities, culminating in National Day on November 18, to celebrate the fifteen years of Qaboos’ reign. The celebrations will draw dignitaries and television cameras from all over the world, but they will see little besides Muscat fireworks and speeches. At the moment the country is open only to the first tiniest trickle of journalists, scholars, and a few motley British tourists—two busloads a year. The Sultan, though broadminded, does not want his country stampeded by women in shorts or vultures with cameras. A photographer and I were very fortunate to be allowed entry.

Oman can be a difficult country to travel within, despite the people’s open-handedness, modesty, and charm. Distances are vast, and outside Muscat there are only two hotels in the entire country. Some areas, like purple-cragged Musandam (which includes the volatile Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil passes), are among the most difficult terrain on the planet, accessible only by helicopter. Parts of the Empty Quarter can still only be crossed by camel and on foot, as Wilfred Thesiger, in disguise, managed during the previous sultan’s reign and wrote about eloquently in Arabian Sands. Oman comprises such diverse landscapes—the sole country where you can explore Arab sea, desert, and mountain life—that it gives the impression of being even huger than it is. We rented four-wheel drive vehicles and walked when we had to.

Muscat has Oman’s only international airport, but still deserves the title ancient mariners gave it: “the most hidden port on earth.” All ports are different; Muscat is tucked compactly into a small cove that cleaves plunging gray mountains, a wedge holding them apart. Until recently, when a road was built over the mountains, the capital was only approachable by boat or donkey. Then a new port was built in a nearby rival cove. But in those long years prior to the coup, every twilight was a dramatic event.

“Twenty minutes before sunset, the dum-dum drums would start to beat,” one oil man, a Briton, remembered. “You could hear them echo off the ruddy mountains. That meant you had twenty minutes to get inside or outside the town gates. Then, at sunset, the dum-dum drums would cease altogether, and cannons would be fired from the two old Portuguese forts that guard the harbor like big sand castles, Murani and Jelali. That last was the prison for centuries, and a sultan in the 1850s used to fire some of his less amiable prisoners out of a cannon into the sea, as a comprehensive way of getting rid of them and discouraging the others. Anyway, once the cannons went off with a roar then all Muscat would rattle and shake, the little pedestrian gate would be shut with a clank and the big town gate, for camels and donkeys and a motor car or two, would be shut with a boom and most of Muscat would rattle and shake again. You knew when it was sunset.”

Muscat today, with its houses of Arab, Persian, Indian, and African design, has changed superficially. A new palace gleams by the water; there are more cars. But with nowhere to spread within its cove, some of the old cosiness, the sheltered leisure, remain. On the radio the announcer—a woman—will give the time as “a few minutes before two o’clock” or “several minutes after,” and road signs advise sagely: Drive Carefully. Do Not Kill Yourself Or Your Friends. A visitor still senses a well-defended, pack-and-jam waterfront place, of whitewashed stone, sedate turrets, climbing alleys, and people ambling in more colorful robes—scarlets and indigos, purples and yellows, along with the basic white and black—than elsewhere in Arabia. And they are more courteous, less aloof, than those in countries farther up the Gulf.

This is the paradox of the Omani character. For so many centuries a closed country, it was well known internationally: at least a bit of that finesse and savoir-faire has rubbed off on most Omanis. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ancient, outgoing seaport of Sur, a third of the way down the coast from Muscat, near the easternmost tip of the Arabian peninsula.

Sur was our first goal, a remnant of centuries when Oman’s empire extended south to Zanzibar and East Africa, and north to Gwadur in Baluchistan. We wanted to explore the interior, too, since Oman is home for two hundred different tribes—most of them extinct elsewhere, many of whom speak their own languages. (The government had promised translators when possible.)

We drove east from Muscat, along a tarmac road Qaboos built three years ago. The route wound inland a couple of hundred miles through a lunar landscape of severe brown hills with mountains endlessly beyond, cooking in the sun. The mountains of Oman are a visual miracle: softened by morning, turbaned in mists, they grow less tranquil and recede with the onslaught of daylight, hardening and brooding through stuporous afternoon heat. In the explosive sunset, they become a range of mirages with birds flitting among them. When darkness finally descends with the abruptness of the tropics, as all light is obliterated from the earth, still those mountains remain, looming blacker than the star-tangled night sky.

It was afternoon as we drove. On promontories stood remnants of watchtowers and forts guarding the rock passes through encircling mountains. Each protected a tiny village. They looked made from moldy cake; many were nearly whole. Sometimes in green dawn light they would rise through mists as if summoned entire out of the past. It was easy to imagine heads peering over the tan parapets, and tribes eyeing each other’s water, women, and herds for a raid.

At one point, seeing a grove of palms to our left and knowing it meant a village, we turned off Qaboos’ road and jounced across a rocky dirt track, then up a dry wadi (riverbed) that was awaiting the winter monsoon. Doves in the palms took flight to scattered voices of children. A woman was coming down the path in swirling robes the color of a peacock’s eye, one arm swinging, the other reaching up to steady the bundle on her head. The village revealed itself: trim mud houses around a larger, older castle with balconies, terraces, ornate wooden doors—I imagined the delight with which amateur archaeologists would fall upon this place—and a central well with falajs (stone water channels) leading through the village. Roosters wandered among the open rooms of the castle. A spreading tree ceremonially shaded the courtyard.

Farther on was a tiny creek, and brambly trees. In the watery shadows of palms, men in work-skirts of deep blue and gold were plowing a field of alfalfa and onions with two cattle, the women helping. One man lifted his two children in his arms and came over, smiling. He said in broken English,”You come to my house for coffee.” We sat on the mud floor of his tiny house while his children watched, giggling, and for a half-hour he spoke to us enthusiastically in Arabic and we replied in English, neither party much understanding the other. But there is something about the Omani willingness to laugh, and the vividness of gesture—his children were growing so quickly, his hands indicated, wasn’t it always like that?—that made our lazy feast of oranges, dates, tea and coffee seem more hospitable in its strangeness. Perhaps we rely too much on the apparent precision of words.

When we left the heat of the day had passed, and birds were singing in the trees. He and his children watched us go, waving.

As darkness descended, the mountains grew more jagged, then stopped altogether. With night we entered the vast Wahibah sands, the road absolutely level, and saw no other cars. We knew dunes were all around—“wide-sweeping, warm-coloured”, Thesiger wrote. The lights of a fueling station indicated we were near the coast. We’d driven for hours longer than the map indicated was necessary; this is normal in Oman. We had nowhere to stay; we’d been told Sur offered no hotels. We hadn’t yet been given our official letters of introduction.

“Plenty damned hotels, sahib,” said the fueling station attendant, who was from south India. “Hotels on the left, hotels on the right. Too many.”

“Which do you recommend?”

“Yes, sir, those hotels on the left are a damned sight better.”

It was nearly midnight when we reached Sur. We expected a less preserved place—we found ourselves in a moonlit 17th-century Arab seaport. A dirt road led us bumpily alongside the water, by a beach and harbor of silhouetted masts and a mysterious profusion of white stone houses and narrow circuitous back-streets. A watchman passed us carrying a lantern, singing softly to himself. Sur was asleep.

If you cannot arrive by water, it is best to enter a seaport in darkness, so the ocean scent, the creak and thrum of rigging, the mingled odors of varnish and fish and ship’s wood, can work on the imagination. But we still had nowhere to stay; the fueling station had misled us; there was not a hotel in sight down these furtive lanes, and the town was so quiet we could hear crabs whispering across the sand.

Before spending the night in the open, it seemed sensible to ask about alternatives, and high on a bluff, well-lit, stood the Royal Omani Police station, looking like an army barracks. Because there’s virtually no crime in Oman, the duties of the police are paternal, almost pastoral. (When the previous sultan visited Scotland Yard and was shown the murder records by a detective, he turned to his aide and murmured, “When did we last have a murder in Oman? Was it before the war or after?”)

A couple of khakied young men, seemingly teenagers, were on duty in the gleaming new office. They spoke no English. We had difficulty explaining our situation by gesture. One man ran off, the other motioned for us to sit. We offered to leave. No, sit down.

In Bahrain a year earlier we’d had machine guns shoved in our faces for photographing a rose. So we were even more alarmed by the sudden appearance of a small man in white robes, obviously turned out of bed on our behalf. He had a bushy mustache, alert eyes, and he looked bulletproof. He was also obviously the Captain.

“Good evening, sir,” he said in excellent English. “And you are—”

We introduced ourselves. An American writer. An Irish photographer. “We’re here for a magazine.”

“Do you have a letter of introduction?”

“It wasn’t quite ready yet in Muscat.” That sentence sounded complaining so late at night. “We were told there might be a hotel.”

He said gently, “I am afraid I have some bad news for you. There are no hotels in Sur.”

“It’s all right, we can sleep in the car, or on the beach—”

“I’m sorry, but that is against the law.” Now his tone seemed to carry the certainty of arrest. “However—” He shrugged. “I hope you will let us offer you our guest house. There are several rooms, a kitchen, a dining room, a living room, three bedrooms. Though it is not luxurious, of course. Will that suffice?”

We were unable to express our relief.

He uttered a burst of Arabic and one young officer sprinted  off into the night. The Captain said, “You must be hungry. Let me have some food brought for you, yes?” Another officer went sprinting.

When the first returned and reported, the Captain looked chagrined. “A small problem. The Inspector-General has left for Muscat with the key to your house. So we will have to break down the door.” He held up a meaningful finger, “Two minutes.” We started to protest, but yet another officer came running up with a key. “Ah, my mistake,” said the Captain. “Perhaps you will join me for a late tea tomorrow morning, insha’Allah? Sleep well.”

The house was modest, clean, and about thirty yards from a lovely private beach on the Indian Ocean. Two minutes after we were left there by our officer, an Indian appeared bearing enough dinner for four men. “More food? No? Good night, sa’abs.”

In Arabia it’s said that the hour between dawn and sunrise is stolen from Paradise. We awoke early enough to get down to Sur’s main beach, wrapped like a prayer shawl around the town, to watch fishermen coming in. Out to sea a couple of dhows rode at anchor like imitation Noah’s Arks. Closer, dories bobbed in the golden light, the men calling news of their catch to buyers on the beach. In the shallows the men clambered out and tugged plastic bags laden with silver fish through the mild surf. On the sand the haggling began. Several hammerhead sharks and swordfish were dragged in, admired, and summarily cut up.

Once a buyer was satisfied with a price, after arguments, dismissals, and theatrical apologies, he summoned one of several men waiting with donkeys, and a lurching basket of fish was lifted and secured on a donkey’s back. The donkey always complained, but when he set off it appeared he was leading his man to market—the clamorous souk in the town square was a quarter mile away—rather than the man leading him. These blinking men on the beach with donkeys were all blind. It was the Islamic social system given meaning: find work for everybody.

In most of the men’s dark faces, darker than elsewhere in Oman, was the history of Sur. Over the centuries, and until only seventy years ago, it was the Omani center of the East African slave trade, as well as the more vigorous traffic in arms and general smuggling. These men with the blood of slaves and slave-traders in equal parts all wore khanjas, the huge silver daggers that are the mark of manhood. They looked piratical; but the businesses of this coast  were established for so many centuries it was hard to see them as anything but professions. Marco Polo visited Sur; its dhows still trade with India, China, and East Africa. “They are murderers and brigands every one,” wrote Sir John Malcolm in 1786. “They are monsters.”

One monster placed the largest starfish I’ve ever seen in my hands, and before I knew it five more of equal size were piled on top.

We followed the donkeys to the souk, already bustling, where the fish were rapidly sold among the pleasanter smells of fresh bread, fruits, and incense. In the open market were corners for silversmiths, barbers, cloth-sellers. It was impossible to hurry, because everyone greeted everyone else by exchanging news and good wishes. The fiercest-looking men in Oman not only shook hands but kissed and rubbed noses as well.

Afternoons we’d wander along the curved beach to the harbor, a shallow inlet where dhows leaned at low tide, being washed by chanting men. Schoolgirls in mustard frocks ambled hand in hand past other dhows being constructed, skeletal arks, from the misshapen wood of the Malabar Coast. These dhows were like shapes out of time, for they have all but vanished from the other shipbuilding coasts of Arabia; there was a gazing-outward quality about the people in Sur, a sense of faraway news that freed them from the tribal squabbling of the interior.
One morning we were taken to meet the local Wali. He’d gone to the capital, so we met with the under-Wali instead. There are forty-five walis, Muscat-appointed governors, though the term beggars their actual powers. They can, for example, forbid you to travel within their territory. We’d certainly not been hampered in Sur by not having called on him, but since in a sense we were his guests, uninvited and unannounced, it seemed politic to do so.

He had one of Sur’s few modern buildings, squarish and plump, by the sea. In an antechamber about twenty men were waiting in postures of importance or servitude. It is to the Wali that all local problems must.be taken at the frequent majlis, or open councils, and some of these men must have had grievances; a few looked like they’d been waiting for hours. (By contrast, a desert bedu can wait for days and still be so cheerful you wonder if you have not arrived early after all.) The walis are the remnants of the traditional Arab hierarchy that extends from sultan down to the local sheiks. So we too were prepared to wait.

Suddenly we were ushered in. The under-Wali looked more piratical, humorless, imperious, and busy, than anybody in Sur. Light-skinned, he seemed young to be the acting governor. We were waved into chairs and the under-Wali sat down beside a desk with an entire bank of telephones, beneath a portrait of Qaboos, surely the most handsome prince Arabia has produced in some time—were he not so thoughtful, he could be a movie star.

The under-Wali ushered in a servant, who brought tea and orange soft drinks. A sweating police sergeant did the translating.

“Can we see whatever we want here in Sur?”

“Of course,” said the under-Wali. “Whatever you want.” Surely this could not be why we had interrupted his activities?

“We have been enjoying the generosity of the Royal Omani Police,” we said.

“The Captain is a personal friend of mine,” said the under-Wali. His brood grew deeper.

“Would you consent to let us take your photograph? Perhaps even outside, by the ocean, so we could include those two gigantic dhows at anchor?”

The under-Wali grinned. “Why not?” He clapped his hands and an aide went hurrying out to clear the way. “But only—” He held up a finger, and the sergeant waited for him to complete the sentence. “Only if I can have a picture for myself.”

When we left the office all the hangers-on pressed forward to shake hands. He swept impassively through, trailing us behind like clumsy acolytes, while one aide carried a chair so the under-Wali wouldn’t have to stand on the beach.

Returning to Muscat, we flew south seven hundred miles to Salalah, capital of the Dhofar province—a third of Oman’s land and only a tenth of her million-plus people. Dhofar is almost like a different country, and until a century ago Muscat could not really claim any power over it or political responsibility toward it. The only link with the rest of Oman is by geography; tribally, culturally, economically, physically, historically, they are nearly completely separate.

Salalah was reminiscent of the Caribbean. Around the low, spreading town of wide streets were acres of green. A perfect beach of untouched white sand, with blustery cliffs rising sheer behind it, stretched for miles along the coast. There was a Holiday Inn of local design, tan stone with fountains and palms, in a quiet grove outside town. It had that soft beach, with its reassuring breezes and porpoises leaping in circlets, all to itself.

Salalah has been the traditional summer home for the sultan of Oman—this coast soothes the heat-withered mind like nowhere else in Arabia—and Said bin Timur so sequestered himself here that in 1955 he’d had to make a grand journey by motor convoy all the way up to Muscat to regain control of the interior from the loca1 Imam. (An expedition described by James Morris in his classic Sultan In Oman.) Here, too, the young Qaboos was kept under house arrest by his father; the coup ended with the old sultan accidentally shooting himself in the foot.

A photo of Qaboos in those years is scarcely recognizable as today’s serene ruler with a silvery beard: it shows a gloomy young man with a drawn face and bushy black beard standing in a web of shadows, before a colonnade of palms leading to the sea. (His father ended his days in a London hotel after two years’ self-imposed house arrest.) Soon, Qaboos built a great white summer palace in Dhofari style—no steel and glass, as in the Muscat palace—around the old one in Salalah. We weren’t admitted, though everybody pointed over the wall at the infamous room of imprisonment—surely an exaggeration of the prince’s circumstances. It seems that Qaboos is spending more and more time down in Salalah; some traditions die hard.

“You can’t blame him,” people said in Muscat. “Muscat in summer is one of the hottest places on earth. The heat will knock you to the ground.”

But there were undying rivalries beneath this apparent sympathy. As a result, perhaps, a couple of times a year Qaboos visits all parts of his country, by car and helicopter. (With Oman’s terrain, it’s always easier for a sultan to visit his people than the other way around.) His father never bothered, until the Imam’s claims of independence had made it necessary.

Up the coast one morning we found the fishing town of Mirbat, with its tall twin forts. Thousands of sardines were spread on the beach to dry, and men sat in the sand mending their nets like diligent seamstresses, pulling them taut with their toes, while boys watched.

The old town, private in its cove, looked down the coast to the blaze of misted cliffs that separate Oman from communist South Yemen to the west (known as the People’s Democratic Republic), whence stirrings of rebellion, Soviet-sponsored, came a decade ago. Those mountains are probably Oman’s roughest terrain, and made the invasion impossible, because they shield the coast from the interior as well, and there are few passes. North of them lies the Empty Quarter. This attempted invasion out of the Red Sea was an Afghanistan that died stillborn, for the Soviets sent only arms to the Yemenis, not men.

It was sobering to see how fortified this coast was, with modem equivalents of crumbling watchtowers along the cliffs. Barracks, too, for Mirbat was the setting for an important battle of the Dhofar war. The few men of the town fought with 19th-century rifles from the parapets of old forts against rebels from the hills, felling one hundred on the brief plain between the mountains and the sea. “My grandfather killed three rebels in the battle of Mirbat,” one boy said to us in perfect English. That war is still sharply remembered on this coast: most men carry old rifles.

It took us two days, along a couple of miles of coast, to find the ruins of Sumhuram, from the 3rd century. Hidden on the sandy, folded shore, they are merely jumbled, low remains. But Sumhuram’s vast headland, green as much of Dhofar, is split by a turquoise river known as the Khor Rori that is really just a long inlet fingering from the sea. Sumhuram looks out to the sea through two symmetrical cliffs, matched as square bookends. A skinny beach, in ancient times only a sand bar, joins them. After the June rains a waterfall in the mountains just behind spills down a plunging cleft into the Khor Rori; Morris calls the place “one of the wonders of Arabia.”

Legend holds that long before Sumhuram, Ptolemy’s ancient city of Abyssopolis and the palace of the Queen of Sheba were both here. (An experienced Italian archaeologist in Muscat scoffed at the latter notion.) Sumhuram, certainly, was the great port of the coast of incense.

Frankincense made Dhofar wealthy, and desirable.  A powder dried from the sap of a stubbly tree, frankincense was required for centuries by the world’s religions, and Dhofar’s is the finest. Vast quantities of gold were sent from ancient Greece, from Rome, from Orthodox Christian churches, so that the same scented smoke might rise from different altars. Caravans bore the powder north and west, and ships bore it east to Asia, where it was equally valued.. Now a perfume made from it, said to be the most expensive in the world, is in the works.

Around us at sunset the light was silver, and white birds went flapping enormously. The stones were bright where they lay unexposed to sun, and charred black where they’d been exposed for centuries. The only sentinels were a camel with lovely mascarad eyes and hooves like floor mops, and thorn bushes everywhere. You could still make out the plan of different rooms—temples, storehouses, watchtowers—overlooking a lacework of meandering creeks and tidal pools with tall rushes. When that limestone was fresh, Sumhuram would’ve been a blaze of white, bursting forth from this headland like a radiant star, flashing in the afternoon sun.

Here, in the circles of mottled rock, must have been offerings to the goddess of the moon, and a view of ships making their way into the now-shallow Khor Rori. Here the queen walked, surrounded by slaves. Traders over the years would have marveled at this same view: to share their wonder was to break bread with the dead.

A fragment of skull tumbled from a rock wall as we clambered over. Ancient seashells were embedded as mortar in the wall. Tiny brown lizards scurried up steps worn smooth. In  the fading light the stones began to glow pink, with some of their original gleam, like the last light of an ancient empire. With the sea’s unhurried majesty and the night closing in rapidly, it seemed that time hung in the balance. Because of Sumhuram’s quiet, because of oncoming darkness and the sense of time raveling away all things, all empires, burying all queens, because the swallows must always have darted across the natural harbor as they were darting now through waning evening light, we felt part of the once-great ruins. Night made us into two more faceless ghosts.

North of Salalah the next day we drove up summits and down valleys of unexpected greenness, this being the dry end of the year. Scarred mountains surrounded us, but we were in pockets of fertility. Creek beds still held water, and herds of camel and small cattle wandered knowledgeably along the steep roads to feed and drink. Twisted, gnarled old frankincense trees grew everywhere—the wild remnants of careful cultivation.

Down odd dirt tracks tents were flapping in the wind, and women in blue or red robes, carrying pots toward their wells within groves of trees, glanced at us with heavy suspicion. The men emerged from the tents carrying rifles, bandoliers of bullets slung at their waists, and waved us away. These were “villages” of the Jeballi—a name for both the mountains and their herdsmen. Today they pride themselves on their independence, and their fierce loyalty to Qaboos, but a decade ago they were the rebels he had to win back from the Marxist Yemenis. Their numbers were divided in that conflict,  though no one today would admit to having fought on the Yemeni side. The Dhofar war had been won only partly by the loyalists among them, and at least as much by small British guerrilla forces (Qaboos is a Sandhurst graduate) and by the infantry of the Shah of Iran, who feared another Afghanistan.

Eventually we decided to chance an approach to one cluster of igloo-shaped steraits. The village did not seem to be on our detailed map, but beside one sterait was a shiny blue Mercedes. It seemed promising.

Steraits are made from a tangle of branches woven around a central tree, and wear a matted wig of straw and reeds that covers them entirely. We could just see women watching us from the smoke-blackened insides.

“Yes, how do you do?” A young man, immaculate in white robes—not a herdsman— pushed back a flap of the sterait. His English was perfect. “Are you looking for someone?”

“We’re looking for you. We wanted to meet someone who lives in the Jeballi.”

“Ah,” he smiled. “My name is Khalid, you must come in and sit down. You’re lucky to see me, I just came up to stay a couple of nights with my mother-in-law. I work in Salalah for the government. Mind your heads.”

The floor of the sterait was covered with mats and rugs, and ropes along the walls were hung with Persian carpets and bright shawls. Several kneeling women, young and middle-aged, drew back when we came in, but one obediently got the fire flaring in a corner. We lay back on cushions pressed against trunks. It was incredibly cool inside. As we talked, the women kept eyeing us, commenting among themselves.

“I like to stay here a couple of nights a week,” said Khalid. “You say my English isn’t bad? I’m glad to hear it. I learned it in Muscat, at school. My mother, mother-in-law, aunt-in-law, little brother, and two sisters-in-law all live here. That’s one bringing your tea. Don’t worry, she can’t understand us. Of course they know we’re speaking about them, they always know. Here on the Jeballi we drink tea without condensed milk, and unsweetened. It’s all right?”

A young sister-in-law was eyeing us both dangerously, and Khalid’s mother cackled, and muttered something that made the other women laugh. “She says do you want to marry an Omani girl?” He wiped one eye. “They are all very beautiful, especially on the Jeballi.”

I said, “I don’t think I could afford one. How much would she cost?”

He murmured, “Here it depends on how many cattle her family has. I was married once before—I’m nineteen. What a mistake. One week it lasted. I’ve been married to this wife for two weeks. She is much quieter than the last. I had to pay her mother three thousand rials ($9,000). Her father died, so she and her sisters and mother own many cattle. You passed the herd on the road. Each animal is worth nearly four hundred rials.”

The rest of the herd was shambling outside. “We’d like to meet your wife. Is she here?”

“She’s down in Salalah, with my father and brothers,” he said. “I know in your country it would be strange to live always with one set of parents or the other, but we are young, and here families like to stay together. My father is retired. He was a goldsmith.”
I said, “I wonder—how do you calculate taxes on property like a sterait, or cattle?”

“What are taxes?”

“The money you pay every year to the government. A percentage of your income, or your land’s value.”

“I’m sorry, my English is out of practice, can you explain it again?”

“It’s sort of a rent you pay your country, for protecting you.”

Almost apologetically, he said, “My Sultan protects me, I  still don’t see what you mean.”

I gave Khalid an explanation of our tax system, and with each detail he looked more horrified. “You give money to them? I still don’t understand. Why?”

Later that afternoon, when we started to drive away, he came running up. “Wait, is it true there are no camels in New York?”

“They’re in zoos.”

“Not on the streets?”

“No, they’re not allowed to roam freely.”

He said, “They must be very unhappy.” He got in his Mercedes and, in a roar of dust, led us back to Qaboos’ road.

Driving north out of the green Jeballi, toward the great dunes and gravelly plain that make up most of Oman’s interior, we found ourselves crossing several hundred miles of hard, high ground with occasional pyramidal rock formations. It sloped gradually down to monotonous desert. To the west was the Empty Quarter, the Rub al Khali—the huge sand sea Oman shares with Saudi Arabia. We would tackle it farther north. Around us a few bushes sprouted like fatigued shaving-brushes losing their bristles, and the rare oases on the horizon, near the shimmering dunes, looked barely inhabited.

We were crossing the Jiddat al Harasis, the plain of the Harasis—a remote bedu tribe who have their own language. We were in search of unicorns.

The term bedu (often mistakenly “bedouin” in English, a double plural) applies to the  nomadic desert way of life, and not to a particular tribe. The Harasis are the only tribe in 20,000 square miles of the hard limestone Jiddat. Their origins probably lie in Ethiopia, centuries ago. This plain has always been called theirs, and because they are known for their amiability (“My anxieties and difficulties were now over,” wrote Thesiger of his first meeting with them), historians conjecture that probably a more warlike people forced their migration as a tribe.

At the fueling station on the main road at Haima, the only such for four hundred miles, we were met by a gleeful Harasis in gray robes who seemed oblivious to the fact we were five hours late. He encouraged us to take our time eating at the Omani equivalent of a truck stop; you could choose which chicken you wanted barbecued. When we finished, the Harasis climbed in his Land Rover and, pointing unerringly into the featureless desert, drove like a lunatic through the night while we bounced through turbulent clouds of sand and struggled to keep up.

When his lights finally slowed, we were in a comfortable camp of well-equipped cabins in the most remote reaches of the Jiddat. Our host, who fed us a second dinner, was a British ecologist of about thirty-five named Mark Stanley Price, who looks as if nothing will startle him, and his wife Karen, somehow glamorous and healthily tanned. She said with a laugh, “Of course I’ve got a tan, it hasn’t rained here for five years.”

“Don’t worry about keeping the Harasis waiting,” said Mark. “He was glad to catch up on the news in Haima. He’d have happily waited until next week.”

For six years Mark has supervised, under the Sultan’s personal aegis, a unique project: returning a species extinct in the wild back to its original habitat. The Arabian white oryx—the maha of classical Arabic, the bin sola of the Omani bedu—was last seen on the Jiddat in 1972. Gone everywhere else in Arabia, poachers had finally killed off these last survivors. A few lived in zoos throughout the world, or private collections in Arabia.

Mark had worked for years with similar animals in Kenya, where he’d met and married Karen, and in six years he’d not only set up this camp with guest cabins and animal facilities, but managed to get two herds of oryx back into the wild. This has never been done elsewhere, with any animal.

Mark enlisted the aid of the Harasis, who felt that the oryx had been theirs to protect and they’d failed against the poachers. Now every man, woman and child among them has sworn to guard each oryx’s life with his or her own. Because they know their way so well around the vast Jiddat, many men are rangers for the Yahlooni project.

The oryx is a large white antelope, with two high straight horns spiraled like walking sticks. The myth is that the animal was the origin of the unicorn. “Or was it an optical illusion?” said Mark. “Anyway, the story was that you viewed an oryx from the side and mistakenly thought it had one horn. Doesn’t make sense. Just try to take a photo and see how long it stays still. However, they were kept as pets in ancient Egypt. and if you catch them young enough, when the horns are still soft, and push them together, they’ll grow into a single horn. The pharoahs may have manufactured unicorns, or perhaps the Arabs did it and sold them the fables first.”

Mark took us to see one bedu family’s camp, and explained his method of weaning his small herds of oryx back into the wild gradually, with larger and larger enclosures. “When that first herd was released from the 250-acre enclosure in 1982, all the Harasis had gathered for miles around to watch. After the animals started exploring and turned their backs on the camp, the bedu fell to their knees in prayer, all in a line, and thanked Allah that the oryx were once again free on the Jiddat.”

Mark took us to the tents of Said, a Yahlooni ranger. His shelters faced south, away from the stiff wind which brings cool fogs off the Indian Ocean a hundred miles away. Ravens circled nearby.

“I didn’t speak a word of Arabic before I came here,” said Mark. “Fortunately, most Harasis speak it as well as their own tongue. Otherwise I’d be in trouble. It’s not nearly as difficult as everyone says, I could get around in it after about a year. Of course I didn’t have much choice, did I?” He laughed. “These Harasis are some of the most resourceful people in the world. Absolutely nothing fazes them. If you gave an Omani from the city an air ticket to London and said, ‘Look, go there, pick up something for me, come back,’ he’d never make it. He’d worry about the plane crashing or getting run over. What would happen to his family. What if he got lost on the way to the airport. But you could send a Harasis anywhere and he’d be absolutely sure of himself, he’d have no troubles at all, he’d think it was fun. You should watch them find their way around the desert, by the shape of a dune or the way a tree looks from miles away. They’re absolutely unbelievable.”

At Mark’s suggestion we removed our shoes—the Harasis would be barefoot—and walked across the sand. Goats followed us. Around us was the flat lie of horizon, unbroken. A fence enclosed the shelter of flapping canvas. Lanterns, pitchers, a thermos, an outgrown sweater, a coffee grinder, a paint can, and two pairs of sandals hung on the fence. In contrast to the men of Sur or Salalah, these Harasis all had open faces, small, well-made features, and the clean looks of a tribe that has not mixed with others. They are compact, durable, and extremely relaxed among strangers.

Said came out of his tent at our approach, and with him Musallam, an old, toothily grinning man who was tough and tall in gray robes and said he lived “nearby”—though his tents didn’t break the horizon.

Said ushered us in. “I’m sorry I have nothing to offer you, but fresh fruit is difficult to get here in the desert.”

We were given bowls of sweet Omani dates, and coffee as strong as jet fuel, while Mark translated. Much is made of the line between men and women in Arabia, much of it incorrect. The power the woman has within the home is rarely described. These assumptions are even more misleading about bedu women. We were, to our surprise, immediately joined by a half-dozen children and their mothers, who were visiting Said’s wife. They all wore not only black veils but stiff black masks of hardened cloth that covered most of the face. But they joked with us freely, even nudging us to see if we understood a punch line when Musallam reached the end of one of his stories. Far from being the most “imprisoned” women in Arabia, bedu women of any tribe are the freest, with rights other women do not have. They can, for example, sue for divorce on the basis of sexual unfulfillment.

I said, “Don’t you feel uncomfortable in the mask? Don’t you feel kept in?”

“Not at all,” said one woman. “It’s a liberation to put it on, you see. You can look out. No one can look in. What could be better?”

“You two should try it sometime,” said another dryly, to gales of laughter.

The boys and girls wore gold or silver necklaces and earrings; in the desert, a family wears its savings. One girl’s face was dyed orange for decoration. Three dots and a line ornamented her chin like a tattoo. She would not put on the mask until about fourteen.

A woman was complaining; a goat had died in the night. “There’s a new Sudanese doctor in Haima,” she muttered. “So what? The sick goat was here. There aren’t enough trees in Haima for a goat to sit under.”

Musallam, the old man, was full of stories. When I asked what made someone a bedu, he said, “You live in the desert, and the desert teaches you to be smart.” This brought back a convoluted tale about a bedu who had no money but convinced a merchant in town that he could pay one day soon, and offered a hair of his beard as collateral. A year later he came back to pay up; but of course the merchant had lost the hair,

Outside the tent, Savia, the eldest girl, walked swayingly beyond the fence to stir up the fire of charred branches. At fifteen, she’d put on the mask a year earlier. She began making lunch: rice with onions, tomato paste and tinned fish. All this food was bought in Haima, with cash; now the Harasis were not living entirely off the desert, but off the Sultan, in payment for watching over the oryx.

There was a direct power in her provocative gaze that was the female equivalent of the bold look the men had, a clear-eyed confidence. A Toyota truck roared nearby; a little boy, seated on his father’s lap, was learning to drive. Bedu start early.

Somehow I was left alone with Savia, standing at the fence’s gate. Beneath her black veil, her dress was deep blue, a richness of color against the bald desert. The beak of her mask glared at me, but her gaze would not leave mine. I didn’t know what to say, and it would be pointless to speak, since being of marriageable age she wouldn’t answer.

“What’s your name?” she asked suddenly in Arabic, Amazed, I told her, and she repeated it, her voice light and clear. Then she spoke again, a phrase I didn’t know—what could it be? But somebody was coming, Savia looked embarrassed; and when I tried to say, “I didn’t understand,” she turned away.

Not wishing to strain their limited resources, we left before the Harasis felt obliged to offer us lunch. The desert code, of generosity even to strangers, still is kept. Watching us go, the women waved goodbye slowly, with both hands.

That afternoon, Mark showed us a third herd he was preparing to release into the wild.  There were less than a dozen in this herd, and the hierarchy—the aging male king about to be challenged, looked after by his harem—was clear. Staring into the middle distance, breaking into a brief run, or settling into the shade of a bush, each oryx had a nonchalance hardly befitting one of the rarest animals on earth. Every so often it would turn its head just right, and give us a glimpse of mythology, the single horn seeking the perfection of the virgin, then just as casually turn to face us as if to say, “You see? It’s all a story.”

Heading north on Qaboos’ road, we decided to turn west and dip into the Empty Quarter. We were abruptly on a barely discernible track in sand that was no longer blistery and hard, as on the Jiddat, but blowy and soft. On the map the track was something akin to a highway. We were heading to a place called Shusr (reassuring boldface on the map) near the edge of the sand sea. Then, abruptly, the desert track forked, and we sat trying to decide what to do.

A cloud of sand was coming toward us. We waited. It turned out to be a grinning bedu man, taller than the Harasis, driving a green pickup pell-mell. A red chest of drawers was strapped to the back, fighting simultaneously the laws of gravity and motion.

He didn’t wait for us to speak. He yelled, “Shusr?”, pointed to the right fork, yelled again, “Come on!” and was gone in another cloud.

He seemed to come from nowhere; there were no towns out here, no trees, just a few undulating dunes one or many miles away, we couldn’t tell. Eventually be stopped his car again, pointed us toward another track that wasn’t hard to follow, yelled, “Shusr!” and vanished off to the right in a limitless horizon.

“No country has moved me as did the deserts of Arabia,” Thesiger wrote. “No  man can live there and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him, weak or insistent according to his nature, the yearning to return. For that cruel land can cast a spell no temperate clime can match.”

The spell he wrote of is a real one. We were in another world. Shusr consisted of one tent, one mosque, one family. An Omani flag (green, white, red horizontal stripes) flapped faintly. A young man and his beaming father offered us fresh camel’s milk from their herd rustling in the sand; it was sweet and luxurious. The young man pointed us to a track that would take us by the great dunes and curve back east to the main road. We thought giddily: We are here at last.

Difficult to set down clearly what happened over the next few hours. Parallel with our deepening sensations of a landscape that cuts man down to size, in which he seems superfluous against its austerity of gesture, its impassive beauty, was a descending fear that we were lost. O, to see that great dune again, where we camped with loved ones who are gone! runs a bedu poem. We could find no such landmarks. The four sets of tire tracks we’d been following, that we took for a track, began to disperse then were gone, absolutely gone, as the sand grew soft.

The sun was directly overhead. Impossible to gauge north from south: we were standing on our shadows. It was so hot that our clothes could not even stay soaked with our sweat. We had no compass. We kept driving, guessing; we couldn’t find our own  tire tracks leading back. I offer this series of mistakes as a primer in what not to do, since six months later this same part of the Empty Quarter claimed two men on a weekend exploration.

And then, in all that bareness, civilization: a grove of bushes, naked trees, and a wreck of a small yellow bulldozer. It seemed a surreal joke of the gods. Beyond it lay a camp, a gash made by the bulldozer in the desert, some tents flapping nervously. No signs of life. We were nearly afraid to look within the tents, expecting corpses. But there was nothing, just the chaos of a camp that had been left in haste.

We couldn’t shake the eeriness of the place, and drove on in silence, unable to talk around the situation. Mirages were everywhere: vast pools of brimming water, camels elongated by distance into giraffes that became palm trees as we neared, then vanished. These were real optical illusions, not our nerves, but they weren’t helpful. Eventually we got stuck in soft sand, and I had to get out and push the four-wheel drive vehicle and run beside it to jump on whenever we started making headway.

At some point you have to admit the obvious. We were arguing now, not like close friends but as distrustful strangers. We decided to try to find our way back to the weird camp, following our tire tracks; we poured water over our heads and promised to keep each other from doing anything rash, like veering from the tracks or taking a chance on instinctual routes. That sounds foolish, like some bad film, but anyone who has been lost in real desert  will vouch for how easily you descend to this state. You feel yourself only just hanging on to calm by your fingernails; and that calm becomes a coveted treasure to  protect at all costs, since you know that if you lose it you’ll probably die. We’d made the two most basic mistakes of desert travel: we had no compass, and we’d told no one we were going into the Empty Quarter. No one would come looking. We had only a little food. Not enough.

The problem is staving off thoughts of the future. By luck alone, it seemed, we found our way back to the deserted camp; a great triumph. We tried to recall at what angle we’d first seen it, and veer away at the same angle—and there, before us, were those original tracks, converging to lead us to the family at Shusr. It was a desperate joy, pure relief, to be on those tracks again, as if somebody had said: No, not today. Some other day. You are going to live.

When we reached Shusr the father brought us coffee and the young man, shaking his head with concern, showed us the correct track, which was a distinct path through the desert. Qaboos’ road is only two wide lanes of tarmac, but when we reached it, just as twilight brought stars, we felt we were gliding on a highway of polished and exalted marble.

Our final goal, to the north, were the villages of the Jebel Akhdar (The Green Mountain), Arabia’s highest range. For that area, near Nizwa—the capital of the interior, with a busy market and huge circular fort—we hired a shy, well-meaning guide, Abdullah. He was small, in a wide-lapeled brown leather jacket over his white dishdasha. We made him nervous. I took him, in reading glasses, to be a bookworm, for he was toting a translation of Maugham’s stories about the WWI spy, Ashenden, in the Balkans, Since Abdullah spoke little English and we spoke even less Arabic, the communication gap was almost total. Abdullah seemed to blame himself entirely. He had, however, acquired one reassuring phrase.

“Could we meet a weaver?”

“Yes, yes, no problem.”

“How about a silversmith?”

“No problem.”

“Are we going to drive off this precipice?”

“No problem.”

That phrase, in three days, broke our spirits entirely. For sheer ability to inspire terror, syllable for syllable, I will back it against any in the language.

But Abdullah also had many friends in the area. One led us to a wizened, waddling man who wove silver thread on two gigantic looms, helped by a man who was mentally disturbed. We saw the great walled town of Bahia, and the imperious fort at Jabrin, with men muttering about market prices on top of fallen cannons, among leaky shadows of well-fed trees.

One afternoon Abdullah said clearly, “Today I will show you Misfah. An old place. Very private.”

The trail from Al Haara, a dusty town at the foot of the Jebel Akhdar, led precipitously up the mountain. At 8,000 feet the trail became little more than a donkey track, and we looked  back across converging valleys, row upon row of severe rock, studded with groves of palms.

We came perilously down a steep ridge, and saw an entire town built into the side of the mountain. It was as tanned, after a thousand years, as the rocks it clung to and grew from. Much of Misfah looked carved from the sheer cliff. Palms rose around and within it despite the supernatural impossibility of its perch. As we approached we saw the falajs, the stone irrigation canals, winding cunningly up the mountain to natural springs that were the village’s lifesource.

“You are happy?” said Abdullah. “Then I am happy.”

A couple of cars were parked at the entrance to the village. Paths flowed away to different levels of dwellings.

The roof of one ancient stone house was covered with oranges; lime and lemon trees grew everywhere. A blind man, imposing in white robes, came through a blue doorway and tapped his stick down a narrow staircase to where we stood. His grandson led him to his donkey which set off boldly, leading the blind man along a path around the mountain.

The tap-tap-tap echoed off the walls of other houses. All were like secret grottos and hideaways. Beautiful fabrics dangling from windows billowed in the fresh breeze. Men came to greet us, happy that we’d made our way to their mountain fastness. They depended on the outside world for nothing.

Inside the houses spiral staircases hewn from rock led up to little roofs. On one a man was doing repairs with heavy blocks of stone. I worried he might slip at any moment and fall to his death, until I realized that he too was blind; and the phrase Insha’Allah—“if God wills”—took on sharper meaning.

We followed staircases down to dappled groves of palms, golden in the golden light, and came upon a little school in the filigree shadows, with children chanting. We watched hawks hover high overhead. The mist-strewn valleys lengthened with late afternoon. We saw a little girl run across rocks that would’ve troubled a goat, to find her favorite ragged red doll to show us. We saw a man scold his son then embrace him, over and over, for an hour. We heard whispers we couldn’t locate, and donkeys braying; around us the sky and mountains and chasms seemed one mutual cry.

Below, hugging the cliffs downward for two thousand feet, were successive terraces of  citrus orchards and date palms. They continued up the mountain like a giant’s staircase ascending the ramparts of heaven. In those terraces were garlic and alfalfa and cherry trees in pink blossom. Children ran among the green trees. Across from us on a solitary peak, seemingly inaccessible, stood a crumbling watchtower, protecting the terraces spread out like the gardens of Paradise described by the Prophet.

Muscat, the once-inaccessible seaport of the twilight gun, lay over the mountains; Salalah, that beach with its fulfilled promise of peace, lay far behind us. We’d crossed the width of Arabia to stand here, and climbed its highest point to look across these crinkled valleys, enchanted in the tired light. It crossed my mind that I would probably never see these gardens again—it seemed unbearable that a place so beautiful could exist without the promise of a return. By the time we made our way back down the mountain it was already dark.

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