Out of the blue I received an email from a French journalist, working on a documentary about Incense in Oman and India, for a French Television channel. I’m not allowed to say the name of the actual program, until it’s aired, presumably, so I’ll just write in a speculative, anonymous cloud, as usual, so that only the people involved might know who I’m talking about, if they read this. But it’s a well-known and respected program. And you couldn’t ask for a better topic!
A juice and a chat blossomed into 4 days of helpfulness, as we all helped each other understand and do what we thought we were already understanding and doing.
As anyone who reads this blog will not be surprised to hear, Oman is a wee bit cryptic. What you see is not always what you get. I may think I’m learning about frankincense, but it’s usually despite, instead of because of the people involved. Or maybe it’s that I glean information from what people tell me, but it might not always be the information they are trying to convey. I might take the meaning from what someone doesn’t say, instead of what they tell me. I have been here for a long time, and my goals have changed subtly, as my understanding of Oman, frankincense, and human relations metamorphasizes.
The malevolent intentions of people surprise me, and they always will, I think. What pleasure can there be in looking closely at it? Enough to just know it’s there. And so I change with the times, and am nothing if not adaptable and hardy, so I’m seeing and waiting. What will happen next? I have no idea of course. There are a lot of promises out there.
But something was bound to happen and happen it did. I was at an interesting impasse, with frankincense, with my sponsor, with the distillery, and along come these guys, whom I will call Monsieur S and Monsieur O.
Initially it was just an interview, a meeting over juice; these guys, their helpful guide Abdullah and the always pleasant and accommodating Naguib, from the Ministry of Information. Messieurs S and O had an interest in frankincense as a living, organic manifestation of modern day Oman, and were less concerned with the history. This is unusual, as frankincense is no longer the cornerstone of southern Arabia and it’s the History of Frankincense, rather than Frankincense himself, that has become the face of Oman. The ancient trade routes dotted with magnificent ruins, rich maritime traditions of navigation and ship building, and the ubiquitous presence of frankincense smoke wafting through the air make this a fine face too. But, if I understood them correctly, they were interested in the modern aspects of frankincense. How is he gathered, today? Who does the gathering, now? Does Frankincense play a part in Oman’s present life? What is that part? How does he figure in Oman’s economy? What is he used for?
They were kind enough to invite me along the next day, for a trip to the trees at Mughsayl, which are some of my favourite groves. These are the Old Lady trees, gnarled and stout and old and weathered, paper bark glowing in golden flaps, bright smooth green skin underneath, a fresh juicy pink under that. So off we went in a land cruiser to see the trees: Messieurs S and O, me, the honey-tongued Abdullah, and a harvester; or, rather, a taxi driver who had harvested as a boy. We spent the morning playing and shooting in 2 groves, one at Fizayah and one in a wadi near the zig zag road. These were the same trees I had visited in the past couple of weeks and still, they are not being harvested. I think perhaps the Fizayah trees are not being cut because their abode is so close to the beach, the salt, perhaps, plays a negative role, I think maybe this frankincense will be very black and therefore will not make much money. The other trees? I don’t know. Perhaps something similar. But we had our harvester and he was helpful and cut some trees in the old way, against the wind, in multiple cuts in groups of 3 to 5 or 6, depending on the size of the tree, a hand width or two apart. Gum oozed immediately, and it was delicious, divine. I tasted the gum straight off the cut and it was sweet nectar, like honeyed pine. I geeked, of course, and I think they filmed me in a compromising position with one of the trees, sucking the gum right off the branch. Thankfully, I’m not sure about this. As the days pass now this gum will continue to ooze, and after perhaps 2 weeks it will be ready for taking. Too bad they’ve gone!
After lunch we made our way out to Wadi Dowka and the trees in the area between the mountains and the desert. This is the Nejd. Presumably it’s where neghdi frankincense comes from. But I have never seen a neghdi harvest. In fact, I have never seen any of these trees cut. They are protected by UNESCO. This grove is a World Heritage site. But cut one we did. Or, rather, our harvester did. But I think it was probably ok, since we came with the blessings of the Ministry. This gum was even sweeter if that’s possible. It was fantastic to see these trees in action, if that’s the way to put it. They are so different from the sea trees. These trees have to put up with constant wind, and this accounts for their characteristic and dramatic lean. They also grow at a higher altitude than the wadi trees I believe. We wind through the mountains to get back to Salalah but then go down—Salalah sits on the coastal plain, and these Nejd trees are in something like an altiplana.
I can only hope that Messieurs O and S managed to record the sound of the wind through the Luban trees, particularly these Nejd trees, because it’s something enchanting. Like the silence of the Mughsayl groves, which is so total that it becomes its own presence, the wind howling down the wadi and the rustle in though the tough little leaves and branches and the tiny fluttering of the papery bark is really magnificent and takes you to that place that you usually need frankincense oil to get to!
By the next day I was completely in, there was more to be learned from being with these two than I have gotten out of anyone or anything before, in Oman. I think the reason for this is that, unlike most people doing a story on frankincense, they wanted to shoot reality. They didn’t want to pay a make-believe army of harvesters to pretend to harvest something. They didn’t want anything done especially for them. This is a unique point of view in my opinion because I know for a fact that this other way is the norm. When you see video of frankincense harvesting, I can say with nearly 100% certainty that the scene is set up just for them. There is no filming of the real harvest in action. Their quest for authenticity enchanted me. It’s something I chase all the time and there is not as much of it as you might think in this world of essential oils and aromatics. I’m always squawking about it. And therefore I am suspicious and cynical, always the last to believe the latest line of hooey about sandalwood this, and organic that, agarwood this, and frankincense that. Most people in the world of aromatherapy and essential oils, at least a small scale like Enfleurage, seem far more credulous than I, but that’s just how it is, and I often find myself just wanting to walk away from discussions before all the skepticism comes out and no one wants to hear it, after all. It’s frustrating to hear about things I know are fake or adulterated or synthetic being lauded as pure and natural and wonderful. But here were skeptics! And, used to reporting on a variety of subjects, their antennae were up and pricked. These guys were both fine-tuned to bullshit I think, yet at the same time, seemed really objective. It was excellent.
The next morning we zoomed out along the road to Hasik, stopping mid-way, near Jufa, to pick up our other harvester for the day. Apparently he used to harvest Luban, but now makes more money fishing for sardines. It’s a lot better paid, many times more in fact, and much easier of course. When we arrived at the cove a group of maybe 50 men sat on the beach staring out at the gulls sitting on the water staring at the sardines below. I think they had nets out. Small boys frolicked in the exquisite turquoise surf and some men wandered about with wicked looking nets, glinting in the sun. Land Cruisers were parked all over the sand. Our harvester was found, a price assuredly agreed upon, and out we trundled, in the Land Cruiser, along the sand and over to the nearby wadi and up it until we could go no more. Soon we began to see the legendary trees of Hasik, the Holy Grail of Frankincense, the Howjary trees, small and gray, and perched among the rocks along the hillsides. These trees were entirely different, and to me it seemed they weren’t really more inland than the Mughsayl trees. These are the beginning of the trees Herodotus wrote about, guarded by feared flying snakes (Oman Carpet Vipers I think,) and givers of the finest frankincense in the world. This is the white howjary, good for eating, and drinking, and not just burning. These trees go back far into the mountains. But you can’t reach them by Land Cruiser, it’s all walking from here. Unimaginable in the heat and humidity.
We shot for a while on the hillsides, (or, rather, Messieurs S and O shot while I walked down the wadi a bit,) the two harvesters working on trees about 20 metres apart, singing in call and response as they cut. I wandered about, taking pictures of these odd trees, not nestled in the deep wadis, nor out in the open nejd, but like small unobtrusive sentinels, somewhat lost looking, a bit hostile in fact. These trees are wizened and fierce. None of these trees had been cut before (at least this season) either. They say that you have to go far to cut trees because otherwise, if they are near the road (this is relative,) then someone will come along and steal your Luban when you are away. Hmm.
After this we drove to an area right on the road, back toward Mirbat, to harvest some frankincense from previously cut trees which lay at the bottom of a torturous and precarious wadi. Our new harvester, fully in his element, merrily bounced along the loose skree in the baking sun, in his sandals, and a dishdasha, like a goat. Messieurs O and S followed him and the well-spoken Abdullah somewhat slowly. I stayed on top, as I suddenly realized there would be no harvest. For no one took a basket, and although S called out this oversight, it turns out that none was needed for these were not his trees, but his neighbors, from whom he had gotten permission to take one handful of gum. Especially for us. It’s really beautiful gum though.
Our next stop was the harvester’s house, in a “Bedouin village” nearby. They had 2 buckets and a small basket of Luban and the lady of the house was to sort it for us, to separate the different grades. She got dressed in her burka (the mask covering the face,) put on gloves and asked Messieurs S and O what exactly they wanted and here is where it became a little odd. S explained he didn’t want anything special, he just wanted to film the grading as she did it. He even helpfully took some Luban out of all three baskets and put them in a pile for her to separate. She did ok at first, managing to separate out the really spectacular pieces, but was at a loss with the two other grades, as they looked alike. Would we like to see it dried in the sun? Sure! And what would you like us to dry it on? They asked. Again, S was at pains to explain only that he wanted the natural process, as it occurs. Finally, Abdullah, helpful and loquacious-when-needed guide took the Luban out onto the courtyard, upended the bucket into a pile and the lady of the house came out, sat down, and put it back in the bucket. Hmm again.
I realized that I had never heard of anyone drying frankincense before. I have seen, and bought, oozing fresh gum right in the souk; that gum hadn’t been dried. And it was illogical anyway, drying means less moisture, means it weighs less, therefore earns less, and why on earth would anyone do that? Meanwhile, the daughter of the house was snapping pictures, and it occurred to all of us that the whole thing was a set up. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this being a set up. It’s a photo opportunity. And they definitely had fresh frankincense. But they didn’t know about grading it. It certainly isn’t dried on their courtyard floor. In fact, I don’t think they had anything to do with frankincense at all. They could have been Abdullah’s cousins for all I know. I don’t know that, but I did ask about the tribal name and was fobbed off with a “Meheri.” This is the name of several million people who live all over the Arabian jazeera—it doesn’t narrow anyone down and it’s a typical answer for someone to give if they don’t want you checking up on them. You can’t trace or ask questions about someone named “Ali Meheri.”
Like I said, this was not bad, in and of itself. It wasn’t even really deception, since these people used to harvest frankincense long ago. But it wasn’t the authenticity these guys wanted. And it got me to thinking. Got all of us thinking actually. Who harvests the frankincense?
How likely is it that there are Omanis, who could make more money fishing, staying up in those hills for weeks at a time, doing this backbreaking work in the sun, to obtain some gum, over many weeks, that they then have to transport back all the way down to the road? And transport how? By donkey? By camel? How would they feed themselves? They’d have to hunt. So add on the weight of arms and ammunition. And what about water? Are there many wells? The trees we saw were comparatively easy to get to, and still there was no harvest going on. These people live in nice homes with air conditioning, good bathrooms and Oprah. And they’re going to cut frankincense? I don’t think so.
There is frankincense from Hasik in the Hafa souk. It’s new, just in. Where did it come from and who brought it? Seems to me that the only people who are going to take on this kind of work are those people who don’t have Land Cruisers, A/C or Oprah. People who don’t have the option to go fishing instead. People for whom camping in the baking rock among flying snakes for weeks and months at a time, dodging military patrols, foraging and hunting for food, spending endless hours chipping away at the sides of trees, and then dragging the whole shebang over the same hostile terrain to collect a few rials is a reasonable way of life. And those would not be Omanis. They would probably be people who spend a lot of time hiding so that they don’t get sent back to their country; a country in such dire straits that harvesting frankincense in the Omani mountains is a viable option. They would be from a poor, unstable country, with no opportunities, a country probably at war. A country like Somalia.
Somalis are considered a security risk here. Oman is an extremely safe and stable country, one of the safest and stablest in the world I should think. A few years ago, and continuing into the present I think (I am speculating here,) Omani kicked out the Somalis, sending them back to their sad little fiasco across the water, or over to Yemen, (although this doesn’t seem like a good recipe with their security situation in the south these days.) So where go the Somalis, so also goes the frankincense harvesters. And this is reasonable I guess, but it leaves us without anyone to harvest Oman’s exquisite natural gift. I suspected this for a long time, that the shortages were due to a lack of harvesters, but all I had to go on were the rising prices and lack of Luban. Now that I’ve seen a little more, in the company of my skeptical friends, and with the different point of view that this experience has provided, I have fleshed out this idea more and it makes more and more sense. Without Somalis, Oman’s frankincense would all be in the museum. And now I’m beginning to wonder…..just how much do we get from Oman? Does all the Somali luban have that characteristic Somali note? Could some of what we think is Omani even now really be Somali? And how does it get here?
The last day we went to see some grading at a location I know but can’t describe and it’s beside the point anyway because it’s now gone, completely razed to the ground. But we managed to find the grading going on, the real grading. I can’ say any more about it because of the paranoia weaving through it, which must have a foundation somewhere. It’s a question, where this frankincense comes from or they’d be grading it in the air-conditioned shop window. After that the camera died, succumbing finally to the humidity, which is really incredible. We wound up at the Ministry, in the cool and calm office of Naguib, while a British camera doctor fiddled with it, in vain as it turned out. We finally got the loan of a camera from Oman TV, with its own cameraman, whom we managed to exhaust and discomfit with very little effort, freeing O to do his magic. We shot panoramas from the roof of Haffa House, and then it was over to my place to demonstrate distilling and burning incense for the clothes and hair.
It was really fun, and completely absorbing. I hope they learned as much as I did, these Messieurs S and O, or at least had as much fun. Now I have a subtle difference in my track, and will seek the next step to understanding this lovely Luban.