Thursday, October 13: I am wandering through the souq in Nizwa, taking my sweet time, meandering between wheelbarrows of pomegranates, boxes of lemons and limes, baskets of peppers and potatoes. Omani men in their bleached white dishdashas sit on plastic chairs and overturned buckets, looking on in amusement at a large German tour group hovering around the lettuce. The vegetable market at the souq looks like it’s a place verging on extinction. Half the building is empty and the other half is a slovenly array of sad fruits and vegetables. Maybe it’s the time I am here; it is late morning after all. Possibly the busy time for the market was much earlier, while I was drinking coffee in my pajamas in my villa-sweet-villa.
This is the first time I’ve had on my own to explore. Cece took me one Friday evening when things were pretty deserted. Inge took me another time and introduced me to Ibrahim, her “go-to” guy for nuts and spices. But both times, I didn’t feel I got to fully explore all the nooks and crannies. Now that I have wheels, after finally renting a car in Muscat on Wednesday afternoon, I can go anywhere I like at my leisure. I no longer have to be on anyone else’s timetable. Sweet freedom!!
I wander into one shop and ask about the price of a very cool camel hide bowl. I adore all things camel 🙂 The bottom of the bowl is camel hide and the inside and rim are woven basketry; the shopkeeper wants 10 rials. I tell him I’m not a tourist, I live in Nizwa, I will be back time and again. Ah, he says. He’ll give me a deal of 8 rials then. When I hear a price like this, 8 rials, my first instinct is to leap at the bargain. That’s nothing, my American mind thinks, jumping directly, and incorrectly, to the thought of 8 US dollars. It sounds like a bargain, but in reality, the rial is what my British friend Malcolm calls a “heavy currency.” My American way of thinking will get me in trouble here. One rial is sadly 2.6 dollars, so the 8 rials equals $20.80. I always force myself to calculate this in my head so I remember it’s not as cheap as it seems. Oman is NOT cheap.
I buy the bowl and I take some photos of the souq. I wander through the silver jewelry, the incense burners, the bags of frankincense, the baskets of almonds and roasted peanuts. I love stuff of the desert, the earthenware pottery, the traditional wooden chests decorated with silver diamond studs, and the Omani khanjar, or the traditional dagger of Oman, curved and sharpened on both edges, in its silver-decorated sheath. I love all things Arabian. I am sometimes mildly surprised to find myself here. I live in Arabia!
Through the souq, I continue to wander. Suddenly, on the sidewalk, I am face to face with a dark man in a black kurta, a loose shirt falling to the knee, over black pajama pants. He has black hair and a black scruffy beard (you know that look of the unshaven man who projects the image of “tough” these days). As soon as I see him, I recognize him. I speak first; I say, with some amazement, “I’ve met you before, somewhere!” I’m thinking, thinking, trying to remember where and he says, “Yes, at Nawras! You were wearing a pink shirt and smile, yes, I see smile. Nice smile.” Yes! I say, that’s right. At Nawras!
And it all comes back to me. The night after work when I am in the Nawras store with Stephen and Malcolm, in my pink striped blouse, trying to set up internet in Oman. It’s one of my first nights in Nizwa. Stephen is a long-timer at the university and he is helping Malcolm and me sort out our internet connection, and it’s taking forever because Stephen is a big talker and there is much communication and miscommunication with the Nawras people about what type of internet program I am allowed to get as a foreigner without a labor card. At the kiosk-like counter where we are standing, a quiet dark man sits on a stool in a lavender dishdasha and I notice him because he is handsome and staring at me. I wonder if he is Omani or something else, probably Indian or more likely Pakistani. But he’s dressed in the dishdasha with no accompanying cap, and usually only the Omanis wear the dishdasha. I don’t know what to make of him.
Anyway, the man catches my eye because his eyes are so dark and he has that scruffy black hair on his face, and he is staring at me without any hesitation or shyness, unabashedly staring. He doesn’t speak to me, but I know he wants to, because of those eyes. We are there, Stephen and Malcolm and I, talking and laughing and trying to understand these complicated Nawras programs, and there is the dark man staring. He wants to speak to me, I know it, but I am there with colleagues and he won’t, I know.
Now, here I am face to face with him in the souq, nearly a month after I first saw him. He asks my name. “What is your mobile number?” he asks. I don’t know why, but I give it to him, surprising even myself. He says, “You have time for cup of tea?”
So we go into the sad, disheveled vegetable market and sit at a plastic table and, instead of tea, we sip orange juice out of juice boxes. He talks to me some and it is awkward because his English is not good. I think of my Speaking and Listening class at Northern Virginia Community College this summer, and I realize he can communicate what he needs to in English, but his vocabulary is slightly off. His biggest problem is he can’t understand. He needs a listening class. I think of myself in Egypt and how I got demoted from the advanced class because, though I scored high in reading and writing, I couldn’t understand spoken Arabic. These are the communication issues I have with this man, whose name is Hashmi. When we reach a blockade in our communication, I can sometimes pull out an Arabic word which he can understand. But since my Arabic is rusty, and limited, this cannot help much.
Hashmi asks me if I have been to the big house? “The big house?” I ask, perplexed. “Yes, tourists go there. Many many tourists.” I say I don’t know about any house. He says, “You go now?” I shrug, say, sure, okay.
We walk through the souq and come around a corner and there is the huge gate to Nizwa Fort in front of us. I say, “Oh! You mean Nizwa Fort?” Yes, it is the Fort apparently that he is talking about. He takes me into the Fort, paying my way, and he is such a gentleman and is showing me every single room, waving his hand over each display as if saying “Voila! Look! Here it is!” He is patient, inviting me to inspect each and every item on display and to admire them as much as he does. We look at the traditional Omani costumes and the heavy silver necklaces that look like elaborate anchors. We walk through ablution rooms and prayer rooms and a gift shop and a display of basketry and goat skins.
Hashmi tells me as we walk that he came to Oman when he was a young boy, 21 or 20, and he has been here 15 years. He thinks he is 31, 32, maybe 34, he doesn’t know because he doesn’t know his birthday. The numbers don’t add up but oh well. He’s from Islamabad. I ask about a wife and he says no wife, but then he says wife in Pakistan, arranged marriage. I don’t really understand what he is saying, frankly. He loves Oman and though he sometimes goes back to visit his parents in Pakistan, he plans to stay in Oman indefinitely. If I come to Pakistan some day, or I go back to America and want to come back to Oman to visit, “You are welcome. Welcome,” he says. I say I don’t plan to go back to America for quite some time.
Finally we climb into the upper drum-like tower of the Fort. There are cannons all around the perimeter, and we climb steps to the top. It’s hot and sweat is dripping off of me. At the top, I can see the most amazing view of Nizwa, the town with its white and bisque-colored buildings, miles and miles of date palms, white cars crawling along the streets or parked at angles all askew, brown jagged mountains as backdrop, the impossible blue sky with its wisps of clouds.
We climb three sets of stairs to three different vantage points and each view is equally stunning. On the top of one staircase we can see the mosque and its minaret, more date palms, the souq below. On the other, we can see the wadis, or dry stream beds, and more date palms, and endless brown mountains. Here I’ve been living in this town for a month, and I never knew a view like this existed. My grounded view has been nothing like this. It takes my breath away. I want to stay up here and soak up this view. Hashmi takes pictures of me; I take pictures of him, of the view, of the Fort.
The massive Nizwa Fort, more of a castle, was built in the 1650s by the second Ya’rubi Imam, Imam Sultan Bin Saif Al Ya’rubi, although its underlying structure goes back to the 12th Century. It is Oman’s most visited national monument. Nizwa was apparently a significant town in Oman’s turbulent history. It was a formidable stronghold against raiding forces that desired Nizwa’s abundant natural wealth and its strategic location at the crossroads of vital routes.
I fall in love with Nizwa in a new way on this day. And I gain an appreciation for Hashmi, who, despite our problems with communication, has managed to show me kindness and patience and a true appreciation for the beauties of my new hometown.