The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe. ~ Gustave Flaubert
Friday, May 11: This afternoon Mario and I drive up Jebel Akhdar in hopes of seeing the mountain’s famous roses. We park on the Saiq Plateau, an extensive 2000 meter high plateau atop the mountain, bordered by jagged mountains to the north and by the gorge of Wadi Al Ayn to the south.
The plateau has been farmed for at least a thousand years because of its mild climate. Many of the fruits that thrive here can’t survive the heat of the lower altitudes in Oman: peaches, apricots, pears, grapes, apples, figs, and pomegranates, along with walnuts, a variety of vegetables and the area’s famous roses.
We park a little down the road from Diana Point, at a point near Al Aqr, one of the area’s prettiest villages. It’s famous for its rose gardens and perches on the edge of the chasm, with terraced fields stepping down into the Wadi Al Ayn gorge. Its cluster of little houses is cut by aflaj and it has a stunning view over the gorge.
It’s guessed that the famous rose gardens were brought to Oman from Persia. The damask rose (Rosa Damascena) grows nicely here due to the plateau’s temperate climate. Apparently the gardens are most colorful and fragrant for a few weeks in April, when the roses bloom. So, it appears we have come up here too late. For some reason we thought it was May when the roses were at their peak, but we come to find most of the roses have been harvested and the remaining roses left on the bushes are brown and withered.
The rose gardens on the Saiq Plateau are a valuable commodity in Oman, due to their use in producing the sought-after Omani rosewater. According to The Rough Guide to Oman, the petals of the fully grown roses are carefully plucked (usually early in the morning, when the weather is coolest, to help preserve their intense aroma) and then taken off for processing. The petals are stuffed into an earthenware pot with water, sealed up in an oven (traditionally heated using sidr wood, Zyziphus spina christi, although nowadays it’s more likely to be gas) and boiled for about 2 hours. The resultant rose-flavored steam condenses into a metal container inside the pot, which is then repeatedly filtered to produce a clear liquid. Demand for Omani rosewater usually outstrips supply. It can be added to drinks and food and is an important ingredient in Omani halwa (a mushy gelatinous dessert made from semolina, ghee, sugar and rosewater, flavored with cardamom and almonds and slow-boiled over a wood fire). Locals believe rosewater is good for the heart, and can ease headaches if rubbed into the scalp.
We are disappointed that we miss the roses this year, but next year we’ll have to put it on our calendar for mid-April. Never mind. It’s still lovely to walk on the trail through this village and the adjacent village of Al Ayn, perched on an unusual rock spur projecting out from the tall cliff.
We wander along the falaj through the rose gardens but we don’t spot many roses. We do enjoy the aroma of the few pink flowers that are on the bushes. We walk past a sign that says “Women prayed.” An arrow on the signs points down the pathway to a mosque. I guess the women who already prayed can walk that way?? Or that’s the way to the women who prayed?
We continue to walk along the pathway, admiring the green walnuts hanging from the trees and large gardens of pomegranates. We enjoy the views of the terraced gardens, which are everywhere, and the spectacular gorge and mountains around. There is actually a breeze up here, and although it’s still hot, it’s cooler than down in Nizwa.
After walking through the gardens we drive to Wadi Bani Habib to see the walnut trees in the wadi and the ruins of the old village. Both Mario and I have been here before, but we still love coming here.
We walk down steps into a deep gorge; the wadi below is filled with glowing white-barked walnut trees. Some boys are harvesting apricots along the side of the wadi. We wander up into the ruins and walk into what looks like the landowner’s house, perched on a high rock overlooking the village.
Inside the house we find beautifully painted walls. It’s lovely and was at one time obviously the home of someone wealthy.
We continue to walk through the village, taking more pictures of the ruins and also the village on another hillside perpendicular to the one we’re on.
After we finish hiking around the ruins, we run into some colleagues, Francois, Giles and Carol, lounging around and drinking a few beers in the dry bed of the wadi. They are stretched out comfortably on the rocks catching the dappled sun rays. We chat with them awhile, postponing the long climb up the stairs out of the wadi. I seem to be in such bad shape that I have to keep stopping to catch my breath. Finally at the top, Mario buys some fresh apricots from a boy who is selling the fruit and bottles of rosewater for 3 rials each. After getting into my toasty oven of a car, we head back down the mountain, eating the juicy miniature apricots and tossing the pits out the open windows, as we wind and curl through the steep decline to the bottom.
Mario has told me about an enticing almond and apricot cheese he bought from Al Fair in Muscat. He invites me to come over and share white corn TOSTITOS® tortilla chips (a rare find in Oman), the apricot cheese, some cheddar cheese and a bottle of wine. We sit in his air-conditioned living room and talk about the tribal society of Oman and the confining rules under which a tribe must live.
Mario compares Oman’s tribal society to the “tribes” in our own cultures. I talk about the “tribe” of Oakton, Virginia, a sort of tribe of upper middle class families who try hard to outdo each other with their Lexus and BMW cars, their mansions or McMansions and the most prestigious universities for their kids. It’s a kind of culture based on bragging rights, where the more possessions you have and the more your children have accomplished, the more you have the right to brag. It’s a culture of pecking order, a dog-eat-dog kind of tribe, where possessions and accomplishments are everything, and personal satisfaction is insignificant.
I told my husband when I left that I could no longer stand the confines of this society where I never felt I fit in. It wasn’t about our marriage, or about him, but about me needing to escape from a “tribe” whose values I couldn’t embrace. Mario felt a similar urge to escape the confines of his “tribe” in Newfoundland, Canada. We share a similar outlook on life, both enjoying our independence, and what Mario calls our “free agent” status, where we are living in a culture but outside of its confines. We can observe Omani tribal society from the outside, but we never have to be a part of it. We both enjoy this “free agent” status.
To be honest, I miss my family and my sons and daughter in Virginia. But every time I think about returning home to the rat race and the circumscribed life in suburban Washington, I feel thankful that I have this time to myself, a time to explore another world, to discover my inner heart and soul, and to grow creatively and spiritually. I tell Mario that in Virginia I could never feel content; I always felt restless. I used to wake up every day and say, “This is it? This is my life? This is the way it will be till the day I die?” I was never content. I felt I was missing something more meaningful in the world at large.
Today Mario tells me that’s one thing he sees in the me he knows. Granted, he hasn’t known me long, but lately he’s the friend whose company I enjoy the most. He spends a lot of time with me and he is a patient and astute observer. Mario says I seem content. And he’s right, generally speaking. I am content. I just hope I can eventually carry this contentment back home to America with me.