Oman: Shifting Sands

  • In an arched corridor of the ceremonial Al Alam Palace in Muscat’s old quarter.

    In an arched corridor of the ceremonial Al Alam Palace in Muscat’s old quarter.

  • Navigating dunes amid the Wahiba Sands.

    Navigating dunes amid the Wahiba Sands.

  • Inside the domed men’s prayer hall at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.

    Inside the domed men’s prayer hall at the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque.

  • The mosque’s 91-meter-high main minaret.

    The mosque’s 91-meter-high main minaret.

  • A receptionist at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah.

    A receptionist at the Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah.

  • Part of the same complex, the Al Husn hotel is set on a limestone bluff overlooking the Gulf of Oman.

    Part of the same complex, the Al Husn hotel is set on a limestone bluff overlooking the Gulf of Oman.

  • A terrace at the Al Husn hotel.

    A terrace at the Al Husn hotel.

  • Birkat Al Mawz, an oasis village southwest of Muscat.

    Birkat Al Mawz, an oasis village southwest of Muscat.

  • On the streets of Muttrah.

    On the streets of Muttrah.

  • The pool at The Chedi, arguably Oman’s most stylish hotel.

    The pool at The Chedi, arguably Oman’s most stylish hotel.

  • The old souk in Muttrah.

    The old souk in Muttrah.

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In my defense, I’m only half awake after my flight from Beirut and not in a particularly diplomatic frame of mind. So instead of leaving the last word to Khaled, I tactlessly remark, “Funny, because I’ve read One Thousand and One Nights and it says clearly that he’s from Basra. And the last time I looked, Basra was in Iraq, not Oman.”

Khaled shifts uncomfortably in his seat, debating whether to reply. With national pride on the line, he decides that discretion isn’t the better part of valor.

“No sir, I’m sorry, but you are wrong. Sindibad was born in Sohar. Ask any Omani. Maybe he went to Basra afterward. Besides, he used to be the mascot of Oman Air. Why would they use him if he was an Iraqi?”

I’m about to point out that Sinbad is, in any case, a fictional character but manage to hold my tongue. The journey continues in silence. The road snakes like an old switchback roller coaster through the foothills of the coastal mountain range that rises immediately behind Muscat. The razor-sharp range occasionally sends spurs down to the beach, dividing greater Muscat into pockets that were once separate villages but have now grown into one long sprawl. Before this impeccably maintained highway was built, it could take the better part of a day to get from one side of the city to the other.

Tonight, the mountains are clearly visible, the full moon illuminating the landscape as efficiently as a klieg light. Despite the glare, I can see that the sky is full of stars. I’ve been up since dawn and between the darkness outside and the whisper of the tires on the road, my eyelids begin to droop. I’m almost asleep by the time we approach the Shangri-La. Khaled, graciously forgiving my bad manners, speaks again.

“My family were Zanzibaris until 40 years ago. I was born there.”

“Really? What brought you back?” I ask.

“Sultan Qaboos. When he became ruler, he asked all the Omanis living outside the country to come back. I was still a teenager and everything here was so different. I didn’t even speak Arabic then. We still speak Swahili at home.”

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