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2/3/2010 - Soundwaves

Sohar Beach is a peculiar shade of brown somewhere between gold and dirt. Beaches are a matter of fact piece of the landscape here, and treated no differently from the mountains or the parks scattered around the cities. There is no great migration to the beaches by tourists or vacationing locals, just footprints running like roller coaster rails in loops and circles across the surface.

I sit in the shade of a palm tree sipping tea with an Egyptian. There is a line of palms planted near the parking lot behind me. In front of me the water is nearly empty of bodies. All of the boys on this beach are happy to have a flat piece of ground that isn’t covered with rocks. The beach is simply a place to play ball. Five or six pick-up games of soccer emerge at about five o’clock, when the sun has lost most of its strength, and end an hour later, around dusk.

There are a few women on the beach, most towing their children behind. Occasionally they take them down to the water, and the children (in swimsuits) with the women (covered head to toe in the black cloth called an Abaya) poke at the warm surf with their feet.

Black sea birds, that fly like gulls and caw like crows, gather around the minaret of a nearby Mosque. The call to prayer radiates into the waves, not as a summons, but as a warning. The land-born know the power of the unspoken faith in the sea; a power that manifests simultaneously in its fullness and emptiness. Where the desert god chose a palette brimming with colors, the sea god used few. Its beauty does not come from inexplicable flashes, but the overwhelming mass of its domain. The sea creates and consumes with hypnosis, and I would venture that the end of days will not be signaled by a rain in the sands, but by the terrible silence at the end of waves. When surrounded by prayer it is difficult for the mind to flee entirely from religion.

Further down the beach a line of white, wooden posts become a boundary that separates leisure from tradition. A hotel built of squat, whitewashed concrete buildings looms over the small space of beach chairs and thatch umbrellas. The crenellated white towers are supposed to make the hotel look Arab, but are in fact mimics of the Portuguese; who were the builders of Oman’s first forts and castles. Past the occasional flesh of a bikinied tourist the beach again transforms, or rather, returns to the long rows of fishermen’s huts with the scattered debris of nets and ropes filling the spaces between.

For centuries Omani date farmers had provided the fishermen with the ash gray fronds of their trees. This gift of shade was purchased with the bounties of the waves. There seems a deep stirring of the timeless in these actions. A repetition repeated through so many generations that it may have wormed into their DNA. The awe of the archaic is constantly broken by the intrusions of our modern world though. The rambling tracks of SUV’s and trucks, the tell-tale green of Mountain Dew bottles, and the shimmer of aluminum from crushed packs of Marlboros. We modern creatures find a great comfort in the traditional and these intrusions from our world threaten our visions of the living past. Those born within the timeless cannot help but relish the speed of its collapse. These are the two unstoppable forces spiraling through the developing world, forces which do not collide or explode in Oman, but merge for a time and simply continue along their paths.

As I walk along the huts and boats and nets and cars I watch children play soccer in the upper sands, perhaps fifty feet west of the foam. They hang fishing net over posts of driftwood and run in a kind of suspended animation in the thick sand. Their parents appear in flashes as the white of their dishdashas reflect sunlight when they move beneath the roofs of their huts.

At dusk, a white pick-up rumbles between a line of palm trees and a pick-up soccer game. Two black figures gleam in the back. They do not seem to move their immense frames, but they are alive, as the center of the ocean is alive; in its mass, in its ability to make you shift in your seat to confirm that you are not a part of it. Their coats have no sheen and they do not reflect the glare of the setting sun. They absorb it, like two bull shaped holes cut from the fabric of night. When the truck stops a teenage Omani gets out of the cab and pulls the two bulls out of the truck and into the water. Those hulking mounds of midnight were bred not to pull plows, but for battle. In Oman the bulls do not fight men with swords and capes though, they fight each other. There is no great crashing of a dead beast, but simply two great animals slamming their bulk against one another until one is defeated. Within fifteen minutes the bulls are bathed, back in their truck, and driven back to wherever they came from.

The cloud of sand and exhaust from the bull’s truck dissipates to reveal a whole family trudging out to their boat. The overweight grandmother, or possibly first wife, nearly bursts from the fabric of her flower print Abaya. Two men and two boys push the boat over round logs on the sand, while two small boys move the logs the boat has passed over to the front of it.

Two logs away from the surf the call to prayer bursts from another nearby Mosque. Everyone stops, but only for a moment, if they pray it is silent and quick. When the boat moves into the water with the ululations of the Imam behind it I rethink my opinion of the seaside Mosque. Maybe it is not a warning but a ward. So those that slide along the waves are rocking to the rise and fall of Allah’s prayer. They do not begin their fight with the endless God of the Sea but coast into its bosom upon a sound that mimics its movements. Do not worry, the Imam sings, for you ride on my voice and the rhythm of my song is the only rhythm you will remember.

Benjamin Franklin once said that he preferred lighthouses to Churches. He might find irony in the fact that the seaside Mosque can serve both purposes. For returning sailors and fishermen do not return on the providence of a beam of light but the lilting fugue of a minaret’s song.

Fortuitous – 2/23/2010

As the taxi pulled past the roundabout a giant clock, encased in concrete, looking like the Rolex of a species of giants, read 8:30. The sun was beginning to distort the air above the pavement, and closer to the city the traffic was building. When our forward progress stalled near the enormous Mosque named after Oman’s Sultan, I rolled down the window. If this were a street in almost any other city the air would smell of oil and exhaust, but almost impossibly, the fragrance on the breeze was fresh Jasmine. I had entered Muscat.

The highways are lined for hundreds of miles with bushes, trees, and flowers, meticulously planted and maintained with water taken from the ocean and desalinated in huge facilities around the country’s coasts. The labor required to maintain this façade of lush greenery in the arid environment is enormous, and made possible only through importing a full half of the Oman’s population from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Slavery may have ended, but wage slaves persist in the Gulf. Many fly over in one of India’s low cost carriers, but many of the people from the subcontinent come in the leaky holds and decks of ships, reminiscent of an earlier era of moving huge populations. The last conquerors of Oman also came by ship.

When the Portuguese came to the bays of Muscat they built forts. Crenelated, cylindrical towers with gun ports, which replaced the arrow slits of earlier times, this being the 17th century after all. Seeing little redeeming value in the arid landscape to the west they didn’t stray too far. The Portuguese built these forts at various coastal locations, but their dominions and opinions did not carry much further inland than that. Oman was and has been a far more strategic military position than a potential colony. There are an abundance of these forts scattered around Muscat, rather than centralized in a single place, because Muscat today is a combination of a half dozen cities of Oman’s past, gerrymandered into a whole. The benefit though goes to all of us who visit this place. There are far more of these forts to see, as they dominate the crags in the night horizon.

The city of Muscat is far from my mind’s eye image of a desert city. This is mainly due to the fact that it wasn’t built in the desert. The city and all of its individual parts are crammed into the flat spaces between the mountains, or between the mountains and the sea. There is little evidence of grids, and rather than traffic lights, the city changes directions with traffic circles. When added up, the city feels very much like a river, everything flows along the coast, and unlike most of the world’s great cities, seems to exist in spite of its surroundings rather than because of them.

When seem from a map, or a plane, or a satellite, the city takes on the shape of the glaciers that carved out its wadis millions of years ago, when the south pole was located in southern Africa, and glaciers swarmed up to the equator. The buildings, which range in color from white to tan, seem to emulate the wadis former resident. But there is something unnatural about so organic and natural an area of urban sprawl. The white buildings spread from the flat areas to the mouths of the bland, treeless mountains. Places like Al Wadi Al Kabir (the big wadi) leave me with the impression of a bacteria culture filling up a pitri dish. It grows as quickly as possible to the sides of the glass, then, reaching that impenetrable boundary, turns back, and refills the spaces in between. There is a kind of timeless quality to the city, aided by the sleepiness with which it approaches the daylight hours.

In the river of Muscat the population does not swim during the day. It is a city without much of a nightlife that comes alive only at night. Encased within their air-conditioned, hermetic bubbles while the sun shines, its empty sidewalks and shuttered malls are like something out of a zombie flick. The occasional woman cloaked in black is almost impossible to miss during the day, while the white clad men seem to disappear into glare. When the moon rises though, the parks and promenades fill with women made invisible by their black Abayas and men made into streaking phantoms by their white dishdashas. As the population explodes into the perfect temperatures of an Autumn night, the city, bounded by the endless dark of the sea and the black wall of the mountains, glows. The streets, which were dominated with the hues of flowers and shrubs, give way to the cones of light dropping from the equally impressive and endless lines of poles erected by the same slave labor up and down the asphalt covered expanse. The fountains around the ports and parks fire red, blue, and yellow geysers into the air like schools of luminescent jellyfish.

Despite the throngs of parents and children, pick-up soccer games, and enraptured teens in outdoor coffee shops gathered before a Real Madrid game projected onto a wall, the city actually seems to shrink at night. It feels as if we have retreated behind the walls of a medieval baron’s estate, because the most impressive spectacle of Muscat’s long and festive nights reside hundreds of feet above the streets. Even today, with all the triumphs and architectural projects of Oman’s Sultan, it is still easy to be overwhelmed by the feats of long dead Portuguese.

Muscat plays under the watchful eyes of its forts, which do not glow blue or yellow, but white. They seem both solid and ethereal at the same time, like a skeleton moving through mist. It is easy to believe that these forts are not remnants of the past but a place where the dead still walk. From a distance the brown mountains do not reflect starlight so the forts simply float above the masses. They seem like buildings made not from clays and mortars, but hewn from fallen chunks of the moon that keep a slow and sinister orbit around the city; guarding it from the terrible truth it is confronted with every morning. The enemy with which its civilization battles, the greatest war for its survival and progress, is with a ball of fire that will rise from the skin of the ocean and force them indoors for another day.

4/12/2010 – Cut and Run

I pay two dollars and fifty cents for a haircut in Sohar. This is probably a little more than I should, but because he doesn’t try to rip me off too badly I usually give him five.

I go to one of the many barber shops in Sohar, not because it is the best, or because it is the cheapest, but simply because we are all creatures of habit in some way or another, even those of us who can’t stay in the same country for more than a year. This particular shop had only one barber’s chair, and fittingly, only one barber. In the middle of a street dominated by Indian restaurants, and Bangladeshi used electronic shops the barber shop was nestled between a three story building permanently under construction and a small cell phone shop manned by a young Omani. The cell phone shop was remarkable only for the thick cloud of Oud, some kind of Saudi incense that produces thick, acrid smoke.

Apart from the barber chair, the only furniture is three white, plastic deck chairs and a corner table covered in five year old magazines about the hotel industry in Abu Dhabi. Above the plastic chairs is a large picture of Sultan Qaboose standing in front of the vast globe that dominated the famous Sohar roundabout. The picture was at least ten years old, because the Sultans short beard and mustache were in their salt and pepper stage. He often strikes me as a dead-ringer for Sean Connery, should he ever play an Arab with a Scottish accent.

One of the things I’ve always liked about this dictatorship was that people had a wide variety of official pictures of the Sultan to choose from. Flipping through a book one might wonder whether Admiral Qaboose or General Qaboose might be more appropriate for their restaurant or hotel lobby. Or Commander in Chief Qaboose? Holy Warrior Qaboose? Elder Statesmen Qaboose?

But a monarch reigning for 40 years is not an anomaly in this part of the world, nor, is my Pakistani barber, but he interests me far more. Faarooq has been cutting hair in Oman for 17 years. More specifically he’s been cutting hair in this shop for over a dozen. Farooq was a large man, but not a fat one. He had the body of a man whose mirth could not be contained in 150 pounds. He wore the national garb of Pakistani muslims, a Salwaar Kameez. Which is a linen or cotton pair of pants, with a shirt that was as much of a cape as it was a shirt. He has the brown and black staples of this part of the world, black hair, black beard, brown eyes, and brown skin. Though his beard has begun its slow erosion toward gray he has the energy of a much younger man.

When I walk into his shop he greets me with a bear hug, and walks toward his radio to turn the volume down. Every day he listens to The Voice of America, in Urdu. Radio stations across the country have been beaming out the news in over forty languages since World War II. When I have to wait for him to finish with another customer I browse through a magazine about new building projects in the Abu Dhabi hospitality industry, and wonder about the parts of the world so shut off from the things we find common place that their main source of news is a battery powered radio.

I had a professor once, a short stick of a Chinese man, for whom eccentric might be an understatement. During the cultural revolution he was taken from his parents and sent to a farm in rural China. He said while he was there he learned the vast majority of his English by secretly listening to the Voice of America when everybody else had gone to sleep. But in the absence of abject poverty or societal upheaval I wonder why anyone would still use such an archaic mode of news transmission.

When I step into the surprisingly comfortable leather barber chair I am greeted to a menagerie of foreign sights and smells. Talcum powder in a pink tube with a smiling Buddha for a logo, aftershave lotion stamped with a Himalayan peak, and razorblade packaging with a multi-armed goddess perpetually akimbo. Before the cut begins we banter in broken languages, mine Arabic and his English.

As the months go by and the hair clippings pile up I learn that he has had a wife and two daughters living on his wages, in Lahore. Like most of the Indians and Pakistanis brought into this semi-gulag wage slavery he cannot bring his family with him here. That privilege is reserved for doctors and teachers and engineers, or anyone with cream colored skin. One of his daughters, the beautiful one who beams from her plastic covering in his wallet, is about to go to college. “In Pakistan or India?” I ask. “India,” he says and taps me on the head, “or America.”

The sacrifice required of so many here is something that slips beyond the realm of empathy, because I cannot imagine working so hard or for so long for a family I’m unable to be with. When I read through some of the travel guides and websites about the Gulf, there is a curious string that runs through them. While sunbathing in the Emirates, or Oman where Western thought has gained an intractable foothold, beware of the sub-continental day laborers, they will ogle on the verge of perversion. These men that build the hotels and restaurants that tourists lounge around in, unable to see their wives, sometimes for years at a time, unable in most cases even to purchase affection for a night, are castigated even for giving attention starved women attention.

Before he starts today’s cut he turns off his radio, and tunes his small TV to CNN. He asks me if I want anything special, but I gave up long ago trying to describe a haircut to a barber or stylist that doesn’t speak my language, I just give them the benefit of the doubt. As he begins cutting and combing and shaping the mound of wet hair breaking news bursts from pretty woman behind the desk in some labyrinth of an office building. A series of bombings has left dozens dead and hundreds wounded around markets and police stations in Lahore.

At first Farooq slows down, listening to the broadcast but focusing intensely on cutting my hair. Neither of us is smiling anymore. I know that Lahore is where his family lives, but I don’t know which markets his wife goes to buy food, or toys, or clothes. We don’t speak for some time and eventually he walks over to the TV and presses the power button. His distraction is evident by the fact that he passes the remote to get to the TV. The smartly dressed woman had given way to series of talking heads discussing American foreign policy and the war on terror. I can see his face in the mirror in front of me, but it had only been tuned to one setting in all the times I’d come here, happy. I was not sure what part of sadness or anger was currently winning for control of his eyes.

He picked up the razor blade, flicking the old blade out mechanically, wiping the new blade in alcohol proclaiming Tibetan freshness, and keeping the blade hovering over the flame of a bic for a few seconds. After he shaved the back of my neck he spent a minute rubbing the loose hair and dead skin off of my head while staring at the ceiling. We hadn’t said a word to each other and the chasms between us had grown far wider and deeper than a lack of language in that awkward space.

When he took off the apron I jumped out of the chair and picked up my bag. I had four one Riyal bills in my wallet so I took them all out and gave them to him. Ten bucks instead of five, it was the height of futility, and possibly an arrogant American way to deal with such a situation, but sometimes, meaningless gestures are all we have.

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