September 20, 2008


Five o'clock am at the hostel in Dubai. My alarm rings and I slap at it and it tumbles to the bottom bunk, careening off the head of the Australian passed out beneath me. He groans. I get up, shower, turn in my key, shoulder my bags, and walk out into the blistering heat of morning. Sweat is pouring down my arms as I struggle to the bus stop. I wait for 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 35 minutes without my bus passing, even though the schedule says three buses should have passed in that time frame. I take a taxi to the bus station, where I pass out on a threadbare couch in an alley around the corner from the station. At 7:15 our bus comes chugging to the stop. There are two other foreign passengers--one is a Japanese guy going to Muscat--and two Omanis, including the driver. The two Omani guys are reminding me of Zanzibar, with their white dishdashas and woven caps with intricate geometric designs. The driver speaks Swahili!

The road from Dubai to Muscat cuts through a wasteland--all heat and rocks and desert mountains jutting raggedly from the sand. I sleep fitfully. At the border the guard looks at my Omani visa for a LOOONG time and finally stamps it.
The driver drops me at a roundabout with no shade, and then a few minutes later my contact in Oman drives up and scoops me from the side of the road. Ali is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bristol, an English teacher and former director of the Language Institute at Sultan Qaboos University. He takes me to his family's farmhouse in the village of Saham, where his cousin (or more accurately, his cousin's Bangladeshi servant) farms dates and keeps a few goats and cows.

For iftar, I eat a delicious spread: dates, sambusas, mandazi, and a kind of chicken porridge, then later fish curry and laban. Ali tells me I am the first American to pray in the village mosque. After isha prayer, the men gather and go from house to house, eating from plates of rice and lamb, fresh fruit, fried dough, and little cups of coffee. I join them, embarassed at how poor my Arabic is, but completely overwhelmed with the hospitality I am receiving. After eating again, the men trail off to watch the soccer tournament, or to play cards at the clubhouse. They teach me to play "sita'" a six-player version of spades with the trump changing every game. The trump or 'trophy card is called the "hukum." There is a lot of good natured arguing, and Ali gives me a piece of advice: "Treat every conversation as a learning opportunity."
The following night, the same ritual is repeated, and this time I meet Saleh, a retired government official whose mother is from Tanga, Tanzania. He speaks Swahili! We discuss how his family left Tanzania after the union between Zanzibar and Tanganyika. He was eight years old. His younger brother Mohamed is in the military in Oman, and speaks good English but no Swahili. He tells me that Swahili is not taught in schools in Oman. No surprise there.
Later, walking through the village and along the beach, I am struck by how many Omanis seem to have African ancestry. Are these Arabized Africans the descendants of Omani men who married African women, like Saleh's mother? Or are there distinct African communities descended from the first Africans brought to Oman by Arab slave-traders?
Bidding my goodbyes in halting Arabic on the third evening in Saham, I am asked by Mohamed for my number. He wants to put me in touch with a sheikh who speaks Swahili, and from who I can learn tajwhid. My adventure in Oman is just beginning. On to Muscat!


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