Sunday, November 29, 2009
It’s Eid here in Salalah. This is the big Eid, the Eid al Adha, coinciding with the Hajj, (the other Eid, the Eid al Fitr, marks the end of Ramadan.) Both are big holidays and sometimes we in the west consider the Eid to be “like Christmas.” But I think that’s an oversimplification. No one was sure when exactly Eid would begin, with most guesses to be last Thursday or Friday. You generally find out the day before. Now, that is the weekend here, and we had National Day the week before, which was not a holiday even though it was one. I think the reason for this is that Omanis tend to leave when there is a holiday and so attendance at government celebrations would not be so high. So everything is open for National Day. Then we had the weekend, Thursday and Friday. Saturday was work as usual, and Sunday and Monday and then on Tuesday people started leaving for their ancestral villages for Eid because Eid is all about spending time with your family. Most things were still open, technically, through Thursday, and Friday the complete shut down began. Even the mosque across the street from my house was shut on Friday. I guess they consolidated prayers at other mosques. Friday is the big livestock slaughter as well, with goats, cows and camels being butchered everywhere, their meat divided, with some given to the poor, and everyone eats plenty. I stayed at home for this spectacle, being a vegetarian and all.
Interestingly, although everything is closed for up to the entire week, no one has the actual days they will be closed posted or on the message machine. Banks, Ministries and the like are closed for the entire Eid: Thursday through the week until the following Saturday. That’s 9 consecutive days. Imagine this. Also, the Emirates airline office here in Salalah is shut the entire Eid. Today is Sunday, usually a normal working day but there is hardly an Omani to be seen in town. Indians and Pakistanis are everywhere. I would say about 85% of everything is still shut here. The supermarket is open, as are the little commercial markets and coffee shop/fruit juicers. But even the Oman airline office at the airport is difficult to find open. I have been enjoying the idea of New York shutting completely for 9 days.
People do shop for Eid, for sure, buying things for children, mostly, and food. But there was no advertising deluge such as you might see in New York. It’s all about going to see your parents, your cousins, your uncles, and sitting around, eating, and visiting. Anyone not doing that has fled to Dubai or Southeast Asia. Absolutely nothing will happen during this week. This is a marathon holiday country.
Jon is still here—he has painted my new house and it is wonderful, bright and fabulous. We’ve taken a few drives, to Fizayah, to Khor Rori, to Wadi Darbat, to Dhalkhut, to the Luban Trees. Fortunately he likes trees, rocks, and rock formations, as well as languages. So he fits in perfectly well, as most of our sights in Salalah are natural ones. Other than this, we have mostly sat around and talked, just hanging out with people. He is enjoying having his stereotypes smashed and being constantly surprised. The language has given him a lot to think about, as Salalah Arabic is totally different than Arabic anywhere else, and freely mixes with Jebali, Mahari and even Urdu. But of course, even though he’s been here only a few weeks, his communication skills are excellent and he can already get by using Fuzha (standard) Arabic. Jon is the kind of person who will get very excited about transitive verbs, direct objects and grammatical endings. These are lost on me as my method is to learn some nouns, some verbs, some adjectives and throw them together as best as I can. I jettison everything not immediately necessary.
I finally managed to distill some Luban, using one of my smaller stills, and the oil was flowery and sweet. This trip has been about getting settled, again, and finally it looks as though I might be. I have been sick nearly the entire time though, with something nice and tenacious I picked up in Yemen.
The Luban trees, the old lady ones, are very green and happy. Despite that the khareef is long gone, and the countryside has reverted to browns, these trees have deep roots, and plenty of them grow right up out of the rocks, disdaining soil entirely, they are warm and fragrant in the sun. Blooming on the Fizayah road are some mimosa type acacias, with one of the most elusive divine yellow puff flowers. These are spectacular, with the powdery delicacy of mimosa but with an added sweet innocent sweet butter floral zip. Although I briefly fantasized about making these into an enfleurage, it might not be possible as the flowers give up their scent in a quick little burst, 3 or 4 minutes and it’s all gone. Plus, imagine trying to harvest in the middle of acacia thorns.
Posted by Trygve Harris at 3:13 PM
Saturday, November 21, 2009
Well, I never. Jonathan has arrived to help me paint my house. Or, rather, I will help him (probably by staying out of the way) paint my house. So he and I are tooling around town and even though I knew this from when Tom was here in Khareef, things do change rapidly when I am with a western man. It’s like I don’t even live here. Very weird. Some people don’t even recognize me, and all because I’m not flouncing around on my own.
Jon seems to love Oman, particularly the way it demolishes stereotypes and continuously serves up what you didn’t expect, and does it in such a beautiful way. However, he did say that parts of Salalah reminded him of Noudhibou. Noudhibou is Mauritania’s second city. I can’t think of anyplace less Mauritanian than Oman, on the surface at least. But I had to admit, that, looking at some of his movies of the streets of Noudhibou, made when we were driving through it 2 years ago, that there is a certain tiny resemblance…….in parts. I never would have described Salalah as a place that looks like Mauritania. Yet in a way it’s very satisfying. And we do have plenty of fish, and camel’s milk.
My new house is lovelier by the day, surpassing what I had hoped for. A few more colors and a few more flowers and I’ll be in fat city. It’s not in the garden district, so no more sound of wind in the banana leaves and there are not as many birds but it’s space and quiet, except for the Mosque right outside my window and the neighborhood kids break-dancing late into the night. I can see the far off mountains and the turquoise surf if I go up onto the roof. And the speakers in the little minaret are not distorted. The muezzein is live, not a tape, and crystal clear. So loud, though, that all conversation has to stop. That’s probably a good thing, to be reminded of God so often and so forcefully.
My first visitors were a herd of goats.
No distilling yet. Maybe it’s just me but it seems things go really really slow. I think I often go at warp-speed, dancing on a multitude of sets, and when something makes me slow down, then it’s difficult. But I am learning.
Jon and I were talking about what makes Oman so special and we hit a few good points. One is that the people here seem really genuine. I know there is plenty of subterfuge but basically I think people are realer than anywhere else I’ve seen. I can just hear the groans from Omanis reading this but I think it’s true. Another thing is that here people don’t seem to judge you on the same things they do in the west. The first example would be appearances. Even though there is bound to be a little noticing of this or that, for better or worse, I don’t see the same snide pickiness and cynicism that I might in, say, New York. Another point that Jon made is that the Omani sense of humor translates well into English in general and our personal senses of humor in particular. It’s rare to find this. I hadn’t noticed but he’s right. I laugh more here than I have anywhere outside of Santa Barbara. Jon also pointed out that he didn’t feel as though anyone (almost) had an ulterior motive in speaking to him. In so many places one is always waiting for the hidden stinger. But here it seems people just talk to you to talk to you. And I can hear the Omanis groan once again and tell me how wrong I am but I think it’s true.
And where else can you sit outdoors in a shisha restaurant at 1 am, with the nearest table 30 feet away, bask in the warm night air and look up at a clear Orien in the night sky? Some of my Omani friends think I’m a nut perhaps, but I like it here, for real. Even though most Omanis are proud of their country, there is a streak of insecurity, or an inferiority complex, like something is not good enough. Or maybe it’s just a charming humbleness. Sometimes I think people don’t believe me when I say I’d rather be here than, say New York. Maybe it’s just a case of the grass being greener on the other side, I don’t know.
Not that any of my Omani honeymoon ever waned but having Jon here gives me a chance to show him Salalah and thereby rediscover it for myself. A fantastic opportunity.
I can’t help it, this place draws me in so strongly. Resistance is futile.
Posted by Trygve Harris at 2:41 AM
Saturday, November 07, 2009
Buy your ashtrays by the dozen. Don’t eat bananas at night for Gods sake. Qat is not a drug or we would not chew it. Warm drinks in the evening a no-no. I chew qat every day and I am not addicted. The security situation here is really good. Don’t smoke laying down; it’s bad for the health. The best beans in the world. Beautiful stained glass windows in the distinctive Yemeni style decorate high rise stone homes iced like cakes. Total traffic chaos. Welcome to Yemen!
It was a last minute decision to come here to visit my friend and buy a few little things for the store. Needless to say, the Omanis were not pleased. I promised I would not leave the capital and take great care in every movement. The security situation in Yemen is not very good, although this news is met with great indignation from Yemenis. But the capital appears to be ok, and probably lots of other places as well. But it’s better to be discreet, of course. There are still a few intrepid tourists here, and students studying Arabic. And the usual workers from embassies, ngos, and government projects.
In any case, I took the Felix Air, which everyone calls by its Arabic name, Saeeda Air, on the once a week flight from Salalah to Sana’a, with stops along the way in Mukhallah and Aden. It’s a small jet, corporate size, and the flight in both directions is Friday. To fly otherwise is an expensive and lengthy pain. Saeeda Air is the only de facto link between these two countries, odd as it seems. The road link between Dhofar and the Mahara coast is not really entire, as it’s difficult, if not impossible for certain passport holders (American) to cross up through Yemen from Hadramawt. So what you’d think would be a doable road trip is in fact, just out of the realm of possibility.
It’s amazing how different these countries are, as a matter of fact. I am not an expert, by any fantasy, but most Omanis have not been to Sana’a and most Yemenis have not been to Oman. The ideas each have about the other reflect this. Both countries speak Arabic. But even this is an overstatement. Yemeni Arabic dialect is closer to fuzha, that standard way of speaking everyone says I should learn, while Omanis speak the hodgepodge of Salalah dialect, which includes jebali and some mahri thrown in. Techinically they could read each others newspapers but even if they were available I doubt anyone would.
Both countries are Muslim. Yemen is mostly Sunni and Oman Ibadhi. Oman defines security and safety. A tiny population and forward thinking Sultan ensure that fanatics don’t leak in from neighboring countries, like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Somalia, etc. Yemen on the other hand is way more porous, with a population nearly 12 times that of Oman, and a government with different interests. If you want to visit, it’s probably better if you don’t read the State Dept warning.
Food is totally different as well. Yemen has a long-developed cuisine, with plenty of national dishes showing a strong Indian influence. They love strong, bitter flavors like hilbe, a whipped fenugreek topping used mostly for Salta, the lamb stew. Omani food is really far more simple, with fish and rice, or chicken and rice, or meat and rice being usual. Even the tea is different. Yemenis use plenty of cardamom, nutmeg, and even some clove. Omani tea is more simple.
Yemenis chew qat. Omanis smoke shisha. I realize I’m generalizing here, and not everyone chews qat or smokes shisha and some Yemenis for sure smoke shisha—they have lovely ones. But you don’t see shisha restaurants here in Yemen like you do in Oman. But you see qat. Everywhere. To me, Yemen is virtually synonymous with qat. Where you find Yemenis, you find qat, no arguments. This is a fact of life, like changing money in a Chinese restaurant. Can’t write too much about qat, because I will certainly offend someone.
But, just briefly, there are two main schools of qat thought. The first one, that you hear from a few Yemenis, and many Omanis, is that qat is terrible, a scourge, and what holds holds Yemen back from claiming its rightful place in the modern world. It uses all the water, people spend all their money on it, it’s a financial and environmental disaster, etc. The second school of thought, one that you hear from a few Omanis and most Yemenis is that qat is good, it can’t be a drug because first of all it’s not addictive. Some people will tell you they have chewed everyday for 30 years and are not addicted. And it can’t be a drug because they can function, can talk, and work. And also, the Quran forbids drugs so obviously they wouldn’t chew it if it was.
There you have your arguments, and obviously I have not filled them out at all, so as to keep this post manageable. But beware of jumping to conclusions; it’s just too easy. I can’t speak for water consumption, and I don’t have a clue about the financials, but even though I didn’t do research, I do chew qat. I am back in Oman now, and was in Sana’a for 7 days, and 5 of them I chewed qat. The other two days/evenings/nights I sat in the Mafraj (qat chewing social room) and did everything but. It’s undeniable that qat takes a huge place in Yemeni life. Huge. I think my friend chewed for 7-9 hours a day, every day that I was there. And then the qat high stays long after the qat is out. I chewed about 3 hours max per day, and not too many qat leaves as I can’t take being wired endlessly and no sleep and all the rest of it. But I think it’s a drug, no matter that you can talk, and all those other arguments. But this is an unpopular view and since I intend to keep spending time in Yemen from time to time, I will desist.
I would love to continue on in the qat vein because I think it’s interesting, but am about to get overwhelmed here, I can see it coming. So let me just finish up by saying that Sana’a was fun, I’m glad I went, a week was perfect, I went to an extremely well attended book fair, and to the new President Saleh Mosque, which is magnificent, suspiciously close in theme though, to a certain mosque in Muscat……We went back to my favourite Yemeni restaurant, Al beak Al-Shaibani, which I have written about before. Although I didn’t know the name then. There are a bunch of Shibanis in Sana’a and this one is near the French Embassy. They do roast a fish like no one else can, and the sauces and salads, the special tea, the desserts (bint al Sah and Tihama bananas with Hadramawt honey for dipping) are unparalleled.
Yemen is a great destination, a fine place to visit, a bit dodgy at the moment, it’s true, but if you do decide you want to go have a look, I will include my friends website on the right hand sidebar—but it is mostly in German, unfortunately. However, Mr Al-Sharai speaks excellent English and can answer any questions you may come up with. He is also an extremely well-organized, superbly outfitted tour company.
Posted by Trygve Harris at 7:31 AM