Monday, 31 January 2011

The Middle East for beginners

Unfortunately, all my knowledge about the Middle East has previously come from the news. Contentious cultural clashes in both the UK and across the Middle East, convoluted political relations between “us” and “them” and, most prolific of all, the threat of a conflict we are told is constantly looming.

But, of course, none of this even begins to help those of us living in Britain to get any grasp at all on a region made up of 20 or so different countries (depending on your definition of “Middle East”), each one with its own, often ancient, set of cultural values. For that, you have to visit.

I have just returned from my first trip to the Middle East, spending four days in Oman as part of the British Guild of Travel Writers’ AGM. It didn’t begin well – an overnight flight on which I didn’t sleep, a hotel which turned out to be almost two hours’ drive from capital city Muscat in the middle of (seemingly) nowhere, and far too many hours on a succession of coaches which dropped us off for five minutes here, ten minutes there.

Fortunately, one of those five-minute stop-offs was at the impressive Sultan’s Palace, the 1970s-style home of the Sultan of Oman, reached via a short walk along a wide avenue of impeccably gleaming white marble. From here we could see the beautiful old Portuguese forts bathed in yellow light on the hilltops surrounding us, while en route we had a 30-second leap from the coach to grab a picture of the skyline as a whole and a short pause at the souk to take in the frankincense scent and be tempted by pashminas and purses.

Slightly more time was spent at the Grand Mosque, Muscat’s crowning glory and a building more than worthy of this much-overused adjective. Covering my head with a scarf before being allowed to enter purely because I’m female did feel slightly wrong and I’m not sure any of us women were too pleased to see the stark contrast between the relatively plain women’s prayer hall and the riot of colour and overtly expensive furnishings that was the men’s, but all this was quickly forgotten as we soaked up the feel of this vast marble structure and gazed at the ten-tonne Swarovski crystal and gold chandelier. It really was impressive.

Perhaps more impressive was the chat with our guide, a Christian from the Ivory Coast, who told us how welcome he felt in Oman, and how free he was to worship his own faith. An interesting contrast would be to ask a Muslim resident of the UK how welcome they feel here – I wonder if the response would be as positive.

After two slightly fraught days of coach hopping in Muscat, the general feeling on leaving the Millennium hotel in Musannah on Thursday morning was one of relief. To be embarking on the very last long bus journey was to feel the weights lifted and a nap and another flight later a smaller group of ten of us arrived in Musandam, excited to be seeing another part of the country.

Musandam is separated from the rest of Oman by the United Arab Emirates and occupies the very tip of the Arabian Peninsula. Flying in, we could already appreciate the impressive geographical situation of the capital Khasab as sheer limestone cliffs closed in from either side and we landed amid towering peaks.

The main attraction here is the coastline, an intensely rugged landscape formed not by glaciation but by the movement of the Arabian tectonic plate under the Eurasian. We couldn’t wait to get out on the water to see it.

Happily this did not involve a long bus journey and by early afternoon we were bobbing towards the Khor Ash Sham on our beautifully painted dhow. Musandam Sea Adventure run trips from Khasab into the khor (similar to a fjord) to view the towering limestone cliffs and abundant local wildlife. Here the limestone is a mass of horizontal strata, packed together in their differing shades like the pages of a well-thumbed book. The lines run at angles, as if the cliffs have slumped to one side, and as the sun moves overhead a rainbow of colours running the gamut from ochre to russet can be seen in them.

If I sound like I’m romanticising, please indulge me. After hours of motorway driving and cramped legroom the chance to sprawl about on cushions as nature glides by in all its glory is akin to paradise. We all had soppy grins on our faces after the first few minutes and they were made all the wider when the local dolphin pod appeared to put on a show.

But not everyone has found this landscape so appealing. When a communication cable from India to Britain was laid through here in the 1860s and a telegraph station was built in the middle of the khor the men who manned it referred to being stationed here as “going round the bend”. This may or may not have led to the meaning of this phrase today but it is easy to see why being posted here would not have been top of anyone’s wish list.

After a scramble about on Telegraph Island we headed back to Khasab at some speed, told by our friendly guide Abdul that we had somewhere else to go. We weren’t expecting to see anything else and as we drove back into town many of us were yawning from the sea air. That is, before Abdul told us we were attending a wedding.

Nervous of how acceptable this would be, I felt unsure stepping from the minibus but Abdul sprang ahead through the crowd calling to us all to follow. We stood in the middle of a spectacle I never would have hoped to see, let alone be a part of, as people offered us drinks and children giggled delightedly as we smiled at them. The local men, most dressed in dishdasha (the long white robe which is the country’s traditional dress) formed two rows either side of a line of drummers, banging wooden sticks together in a manner bizarrely reminiscent of Morris dancing. Others stood around the edge filming on bang-up-to-date video cameras and mobile phones while a group of three men fired rifles into the air off to one side.

The women gathered in the house behind us, not mixing with the men at all. Fascinated by each other, we stared at them as they gazed back at us and after a few minutes Abdul told us we were invited in to sit with them (just the women). What followed was one of the most heartening experiences of my travelling life – they brought out fruit, drinks, a vast rice dish topped with goat. Despite the language barrier we communicated our names, made each other almost weep with laughter and were introduced to the mother of the groom. We shook hands with women wearing batoola (a metallic mask which covers part of the face), had sweets literally rained down upon us and chatted to an animated young girl who spoke good English about white wedding dresses – something both our cultures share.

I’ve been to dozens of different countries and have never had the good fortune to meet such welcoming, friendly people. Our experience in that lively house in Khasab couldn’t have been further from the images most often beamed from this region into our living rooms via the news. If only we could send every prejudiced Brit to follow in our footsteps – an encounter with these wonderful people could surely change the minds of even the staunchest bigot.

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