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March 19, 2019, Oman

Omani traditions

A mud house stay and a livestock market tour in Nizwa gives Catherine Hostiani an opportunity to get acquainted with a new culture

Catherine Hostiani

The taxi snakes uphill beneath dark clouds pregnant with rain. I can still feel the unforgiving heat of Nizwa’s Arabian sun on my skin, so I hardly believe my eyes when fat drops start blotching the windshield.

That was how Misfat Al Abriyeen welcomed us.

The 200-year-old village lies 1,000km above sea level, 40km south-west of Nizwa in Oman.

A narrow passage led us to the inner village, and just like that, we stepped unexpectedly into a tropical Eden crammed with verdant vegetation, date palms and banana trees towering over us. As if in celebration of the rain, gushing streams thundered nearby and frogs appeared, emerging to congregate on stony steps.

Misfat Al Abriyeen draws its life through an ancient falaj irrigation system developed during the Iron Age (1300-300 BC) that directs underground water through channels to irrigate the land. Crops flourish here, especially tropical fruits like bananas, papayas and mangoes, in addition to native dates and pomegranates.

I would have forgotten that I was in the Arabian Peninsula, if not for the mud houses among the greenery.

We stayed in one of them, the 150-year-old Misfah Old House, which is owned by the Al Abri family. It was in danger of falling into ruins before being restored and opened to guests. While its architecture has been kept intact to maintain its historic authenticity, electric lights and air conditioning units have been installed to bring it in line with modern standards of comfort.

Meals for guests are prepared with locally sourced ingredients by womenfolk in the village to support the local community.

Useful dates

“Do you want dates? They are very good but I just have too many!” said a friendly villager, who beckoned to us to try some one morning.

We noticed two big baskets brimming with dates next to him as we accepted his offer. While munching the sweet, crunchy fruit, he shared that he goes to work in Muscat and only comes back to the village to visit his parents on weekends.

We also found out that dates are indispensable in Oman. And all parts of the tree serve a purpose. The fruits are not only a rich source of sugar, but also used as a curing agent in leather tanning and indigo dyeing. Omanis weave the tree fronds together to make roofs for summer houses and use their stems for bird and fish traps. The tree stalks can also be made into a simple broom.

Dates played an important part in defence during wartime too. In the past, soldiers used to heat date juice in copper boilers and pour them onto attackers through “murder holes” above doorways of the 17th-century Nizwa Fort.

Livestock trading

To understand another aspect of an ancient practice that continues today, we went back to Nizwa to visit a traditional livestock market that has been running for generations.

We did so on a Friday as the goat market takes place weekly in the front part of the souk next to a parking lot.

It was barely 7am when we arrived, but the souk was already buzzing with activity. Men in white dishdashas (traditional long robes) gathered, while adrenaline-charged sellers paraded their goats around, trying to find a flicker of emotion on any face that might indicate interest.

Heated haggling would follow after potential buyers had inspected the goats’ teeth for any sign of disease and assessed how “meaty” they were.

A goat can command 40 to 250 rials (1 rial = 3.7 Singapore dollars), depending on where they come from.

Omani goats tend to fetch a higher price than those imported from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iran. This is because they are reared the traditional way, where the goats graze freely in wadis (or valleys) — free from modern industrial farming methods that sometimes include chemical injections to fatten up livestock quickly.

By late morning, the trading of cows had commenced. It seemed to me that the huge, strong cows were the ones parading the sellers instead, and groups of onlookers would quickly disperse whenever their movements became a little wild.

Instead of haggling, buyers would bid in an auction.

When the livestock trading ended, the market remained busy. Food, poultry and pottery souks occupy different buildings in the compound. We found sacks of saffron and pepper next to walnuts and dried lemons, and inhaled the fragrance of bar soaps made of exotic myrrh and frankincense.

But what stood out among these interesting sights and sounds was seeing a group of men wielding weapons such as rifles and khanjars (traditional daggers). In the past, these might have been necessary for survival, but today I am reassured to know they are worn largely as a symbol of manhood.

Witnessing such continuing and lively traditions in Nizwa was, for me, akin to having an eye-opening peek into the beautiful soul of Oman.

GETTING THERE

Nizwa is about two hours by bus from Muscat. 

Mwasalat, the main bus company, departs twice a day. A one-way ticket costs 4.5 rials (S$16).

Some hotels also provide a private taxi service that runs between the cities.

Traveller’s tips 

- The Oman visa is attainable on arrival (20 rials = S$71).

- Hiking enthusiasts can make a side trip to Oman’s highest mountain, Jebel Sham, where you can hike to visit the abandoned village of As Sab. Arrange for a sturdy vehicle like a 4WD car to navigate the tough terrain.

- Dress conservatively in Oman. Though headscarves are not mandatory for women, it is advisable to wear clothes that cover one’s upper arms and legs.

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