Thursday, December 8: During the National Holiday, I met a 30-year-old Omani guy named Adil at Wadi Bani Khalid. Adil saw I was traveling alone to this wadi and he took me under his wing, along with his other 10 or so friends. (See national holiday chapter 4: wadi bani khalid)
On that day, Adil invited me to come and meet his family at his home in Al Awabi, near Rustaq, as soon as possible. I couldn’t go last weekend because Guido was here, but this week, after Guido is gone, Adil invites me to visit him on Thursday. He actually invites me to come ANYTIME I want, to spend the whole day at his home, to have dinner and spend the night! I tell him that I have been going nonstop with a guest for the last week, and I spent the previous week traveling as well, so I probably will stay only for lunch.
When I embark on these journeys I never really have any idea how long they will take. Oman is a much bigger country than it looks, partly because of the multitudes of mountains and the dearth of roads. Sometimes in Oman it is possible to walk someplace faster than it is to drive. For instance I find out later today at Wadi Mistal, which is a 3 1/2-hour drive from Nizwa, that it’s possible to walk directly from the top of Wadi Mistal to Jebel Akhdar, near the university, in a little over 1 hour.
After I drop Guido at the airport early this morning, I return immediately to the hotel and go back to sleep until 8:00. I enjoy the great breakfast buffet at Safeer Suites and by the time I leave it is quite a bit later than I intended. I drive past the airport (again) to Seeb and then in the direction of Sohar on the north coast. Before Sohar, at Barka, I turn inland on Route 13 toward Al Wasit and Nakhal. I told Adil I would try to arrive at his house by noon, but when I get to Nakhal I get a sudden urge to stop and check out the fort there.
The town of Nakhal is about 30 km inland from Barka and about 100 km from Muscat. Its name comes from “nakheel” which means date palm. The fort here, which has been restored and is a maze-like castle, has superb views of the countryside and town from the watchtowers. The Hajar Mountains and date palm plantations surrounding the fort provide an amazing backdrop. This is one of the largest date palm plantations in Oman. The country boasts over 8 million date palm trees (phoenix dactylifera) spread out from Musandam to Wahiba Sands. Palm trees usually have their lower, dry fronds removed in order to be more fruitful and to look more appealing. Palm fronds make excellent basket material and are suited for other woven goods. They are also used as a roofing material known as barasti.
The Nakhal Fort is really impressive, built as it is on the foundations of a pre-Islamic structure. The towers and entry way to the fort were constructed in 1834, during the reign of Imam Said bin Sultan. The interesting thing about this fort, besides the amazing view, is that the entire structure is built around a rock, saving the problem of constructing a sound foundation. It actually appears as if the rocky foundation is grasping at the fort, holding on to it for dear life.
I poke my head into a majlis (seating area) on the top floor, where windows are aligned to catch every wisp of summer breeze. Each majlis is covered in sumptuous Oriental carpets, and colorful silk cushions line the walls. I love the rooms in this fort.
Wandering through Nakhal today is a tour group of Italians. I hear them speaking their native tongue, which makes me think of Guido who just spent a week with me and babbled in incoherent Ital-ish the entire time.
When I’m finished at Nakhal Fort, it is 1:00. I feel bad because I still have a half hour to drive and I had told Adil I’d be there at noon. But I didn’t want to come all this way and miss Nakhal Fort, which after seeing it, has become my #1 fort in Oman.
See below a short video clip of the fort with the call to prayer sounding in the background:
When I finally get to Adil’s house at Al Awabi, I meet his family of 6 brothers and 2 sisters, his wife, his brothers’ wives, his mother and father, his two children and his nieces and nephews. They all live in the same villa in Al Awabi.
They promptly have me sit on the carpet in a kind of common room (there is no furniture so I have no idea what room it REALLY is) and they bring some snacks of dates and fruit and unusual beans that I’ve never tasted before. It’s delicious and I think it’s lunch so I eat and eat. The next thing I know they bring out a huge dish of rice and chicken and vegetables, which Adil tells me they eat with their fingers, although he kindly gives me a fork and knife. By this time I’m no longer hungry, as I stuffed myself with the “snacks!”
Adil bids me farewell, telling me that the men and women eat separately. So I am left in the room with the women and children. We eat mostly in silence. One of Adil’s sisters speaks decent English, and she speaks some to me, but mostly the women sit and speak in Arabic with one another. This is when I wish I had been studying my Arabic, which is one of my goals while living in Oman. However, I’m ashamed to say I have barely studied at all and I’ve forgotten almost everything I once knew.
It’s interesting to me that the women in Adil’s family all have on colorful and flowery long dresses and matching headscarves. I ask them if this is the way they dress only while in their home, if they wear the black abaya when they go out. They say, yes, in the home they can wear colorful clothes. I ask about their headscarves, as I have heard before that inside the home the girls can wear anything and can go without headscarves. However, since one of the sister’s husbands lives in the household, and he is not a blood relative, the women still must cover their hair.
I sit with them for awhile and try hard to eat the wonderful chicken and rice they have brought, but I just cannot eat much. I wish I had known the other food was just a snack!! I always get in trouble with appetizers!
I ask if it’s okay to take some pictures, and all the women move out of the way. They allow me to photograph the food and the babies, but they don’t allow me to take pictures of them.
Before long, Adil comes in to suggest that he and his friend Mahmoud, who I also met at Wadi Bani Khalid, should take me up to Wadi Mistal. Soon, we’re on our way. They don’t have a 4WD vehicle and apparently one is needed to go to this wadi. So I drive and they are my guides.
We drive about 20 km back toward Nakhal, and soon we turn off the paved road onto a dirt and gravel road. This dusty road goes 33 km into the wadi and at first I’m driving on this bumpy road quite gingerly. After awhile I step on the gas with great enthusiasm and bounce over the road through a valley surrounded on both sides by rocky peaks covered in wisps of clouds. The view is magnificent and I stop and take pictures several times. We are in the Al Ghubayrah bowl that leads to hidden plantations where figs, dates, apricots, pomegranates, mulberries, alfalfa and limes are grown.
After we’ve driven about 20 km, Mahmoud tells me to look high on the mountain before us. There is a tiny village perched precariously on the steep mountain. He says, “See that village up there? That’s where we’re going!” It looks dangerously impossible, so I’m excited. They ask if I’d like one of them to drive my car but I decline saying I need to learn to drive my car over these kinds of roads. So, as we climb the mountain, I put my car to the test and climb the dirt roads higher and higher, alternatively putting my car in first gear, second gear, first gear. It gets to be slow going the farther up we go, but I’m undaunted.
Finally, we reach a small village called Wekan. It doesn’t look like much but it’s the one we had seen from the valley floor. I’m thrilled that we made it up here.
We park the car and Adil and Mahmood lead me through the village and up a path where, behind the little town, is the Garden of Eden. A little paradise in Oman. Wekan roughly translates as “it used to be,” and with the lush oasis we find, I can only wonder what more “used to be” in this lovely spot. We walk along a falaj with running water, in the midst of yellowing mango trees, date palms and verdant plantations of green onions and alfalfa.
A falaj is the Arabic word for a channel used to irrigate palm plantations and farm fields. The plural of falaj is “aflaj.” These channels can run for many kilometers, from the source of the water to the plantations in outlying farms and villages. Aflaj in mountainous areas typically run above ground, weaving a meandering path while hugging the walls of wadis.
I love this place that these new found friends have brought me. With the sound of the water streaming through the falaj, and the emerald green and yellow foliage, and the cool mountain air, the whole place is soothing to the soul. My Omani friends in their white dishdasha and kumars add an ancient, even Biblical, mood to the scene. It is truly beautiful and I feel as if I’ve stumbled upon the true Garden of Eden.
By now it is starting to get dark and I say we better start our long descent back down before dark. I don’t want to drive these treacherous roads after dark, with their precipitous drops at the edges of the road. I know I will have to use my 4WD on the way down and it will be slow going.
So we head back down, slowly but surely. I’m sad to leave this peaceful spot. Down at the bottom, Adil asks if I can make a stop at a place that looks like some kind of water or electric plant. The sun is going down and it is time for them to pray. So I pull my now-dusty car into this place, and they get out and face Mecca and say their prayers. I wait patiently. I’m a little unsure about these prayers as they also prayed at a little mosque on the Wekan plantation, which was less than an hour previous.
I know at this point that I’m very tired, as I’ve been traveling almost non-stop for the last 2 weeks. I know I will want to drive straight home to Nizwa tonight. I also know it’s a 3 hour drive, at least. Adil tells me I should stay at his home for dinner and then spend the night, but I am determined I want to spend the night in my own bed, and wake up Friday morning in my home. He doesn’t give up trying to persuade me, and when we get to his house he says, “Please, come in, sit.” I say no, I really appreciate all he has done for me, but I really want to go home now.
I really do think Adil feels sorry for me being alone, but he doesn’t understand that it doesn’t bother me. He asks me how I like being alone, and I say I actually quite like it. He says he could handle it for a couple of hours only, but he wouldn’t like it day after day. I can see today, from visiting his huge family, why he would never have time to be alone, and so has probably never come to understand the joys of being alone.
In the end, I don’t get out of the car and I drive the 3 hours back to Nizwa, where I arrive home around 9 p.m. I’m happy to be at my little villa, and to have it back to myself after having my visitor for the last week. In the evening, I climb into my bed, and dream of the soothing paradise of Wekan, its running stream, its cool and calming breezes.
If you would like Adil to show you anywhere in Oman, he has access to a 4WD vehicle and would like to offer his services as a tour guide. His phone number is 99582569.