This is my photo for the letter “I”: INDIA. In a nutshell.
If you’d like to read about my travels in India see catbird in india. Welcome to my world… 🙂
This is my photo for the letter “I”: INDIA. In a nutshell.
If you’d like to read about my travels in India see catbird in india. Welcome to my world… 🙂
Tuesday, February 28: I just discovered Cee’s Life Photography Blog! She has created a fun little challenge for bloggers. She posts questions each week so all the bloggers out there can get to know each other. I think I’m getting addicted to these challenges, such as the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge and Karma’s Photo Hunt. I try to focus most of my blog posts on Oman, but sometimes it’s fun to venture into far-flung territories. To spread my wings, to expand my mind and open my heart. I am a dreamer, after all. Here are this week’s questions with my answers.
“The Gates of Istanbul” by Loreena McKennit holds a memory for me of lovely Turkey (both Istanbul and Göreme in Cappadocia). “We May Never Pass this Way” by Seals & Croft is from the soundtrack of my high school years at York High School and the “fabulous foursome” who are still my dear friends to this day. “Dreams on Fire” from the movie Slumdog Millionaire and “Photographs & Memories” by Jim Croce are about the inner me, the dreamer and the diarist and blogger. I see myself, always, as a “Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young & Crazy Horse. “Hail to Whatever You Found in the Sunlight that Surrounds You” by Rilo Kiley is a mystery, that great unsolvable and breathtaking mystery that is my unfolding life and the lives of those who touch my life, especially my children and my family.
If you’d like to read about my travels in Turkey, please visit catbird in turkey… 🙂
Travel is my biggest indulgence. I visited Cambodia in January 2011, and I have to say Cambodia is one of my favorite countries, right up there with Turkey and France.
The Angkor Palm in Siem Reap, Cambodia is a lovely colonial-type restaurant that spills out into the street. After a long bus ride from Phnom Penh, I indulge myself here, sitting outdoors on the sidewalk so I can watch the people walk by. I order the Angkor Palm Platter for One. It’s a sampler of Khmer food: fresh spring roll, green mango salad with special smoked fish, local pork spareribs roasted with honey and spicy sauce, homemade green curry with chicken, cha’ta kuong or stir-fried morning-glory with oyster sauce, steamed rice, and a Khmer dessert of white pumpkin with a sugary sauce. As usual, I have a glass of red wine. Ah, indulgence!! It’s pleasant here on the street of this quaint town, sampling delectable food and watching the tourists and locals traipsing past.
Still in Cambodia, this time in Phnom Penh, I see the word indulge put into action on a scale unimaginable in Western culture. Indulgence of the Buddha. At Wat Phnom, meaning Hill Temple, the locals swarm all over the place. Buddha worship is taken to extremes; it’s big business. On the far right of the temple is a production area where people arrange flowers, cut fruit, burn incense, slice raw meat and offer these items for sale. Here, to indulge the Buddha will bring karma, I guess, or some kind of good fortune.
There are easily 25-30 people within the temple busying themselves arranging or collecting or distributing the multitudes of offerings. Others are on their knees praying. Inside the temple are hundreds of Buddhas, each of which is holding on its crossed legs or in its arms several Cambodian Riel, bananas, oranges, flowers, or little skewers of white flowers that smell like freesia (I can’t find the names of these flowers anywhere!). I walk behind a young Cambodian guy who devoutly walks around the perimeter of Buddhas, bowing and placing a Riel on each Buddha.
To read about my travels in Vietnam & Cambodia, please visit my blog rice paddies and papayas.
Friday, February 24: This morning, my friend Kathy and I get up early and head to two adjacent villages about 40km northwest of Nizwa, Al Hamra and Misfat Al Abriyyen. We’ve been trying to get more exercise lately, taking walks after or before work, just to get our bodies moving, to shake out our stiff & creaky joints and create some energy within ourselves. We eat a big breakfast of eggs with tomatoes, onions and garlic (yummy), turkey sausages, and coffee, prepared by Kathy, and we head off into the horizon.
Al Hamra has one of Oman’s best-preserved old towns, with mudbrick houses in various states of disrepair and a maze of rubble-strewn alleyways spilling down a hillside to an oasis of date palms and banana trees below.
We park the car and are met by several small children who shyly greet us in chirpy voices: “How ar-r-r-r-e you???” They pose shyly for a picture and then we say “Ma’asalaama” and pick a random alley through which to enter the mostly abandoned town.
Purely by chance we come upon one of the two museums in Al Hamra, Bait al-Jabal Museum, billed as “the first museum in Oman presenting antiques and masterpieces in their traditional setting. The house is more than 210 years old and is situated in old Al Hamra town which is over 500 years old.” The museum contains artifacts between 300 and 2,000 years old, from Oman and other parts of the ancient world.
The entry fee is a steep 2 rials. We poke our heads in the door but I tell the curator I can’t afford it since payday isn’t until Sunday. (This has been an expensive month for me between my car service and my sons visiting!) He kindly invites us to come in anyway. I guess business is slow and he wants some company.
He graciously shows us the old front doors, panels carved with Arabic decorations and script from the Quran. He guides us through the atmospheric house with its rough-hewn mudbrick walls and rickety steps. All the floors are wet as he has just watered down the house to “make it fresh” for the morning. I’m sure without the watering down it gets very dusty.
We see Moroccan silver kettles, a 400-year-old elephant leather kettle, and a traditional mill used to grind starch used to make Halwa, a traditional Omani dessert. A 300-year-old dagger made of leather and wood and metal is labeled: “found in a desolate place.” Old locks and keys, a pistol made in England, and handwritten old letters and books are showcased throughout the museum.
My favorite room has four models made of date palm who display old Omani handicrafts. Another room has colorful Omani traditional costumes.
The curator then invites us down the street to show us his small “factory” and shop for making and selling Halwa, the traditional Omani dessert made from starch, eggs, sugar, water, ghee, saffron, cardamom, nuts and rosewater from Jebel Akhdar. It is cooked here in Al Hamra in a large cooking pot called a mirjni over a wood fire for about 4-5 hours with constant stirring.
Kathy and I leave our informative Omani guide and wander around Al Hamra’s alleyways, and then down into the oasis of date palms and banana trees.
We then drive another 5 km up to the lovely mountainside village of Misfat al Abriyyin, where we wander through more winding alleyways between ochre-colored stone buildings. This village could almost resemble a medieval French hill village if it were more restored.
It’s fun to wander through these twisting lanes through covered passages, gateways and steps. We make our way down to the falaj which runs below the village and waters a huge tropical oasis which bursts in exclamation points of greenery: grasses, an abundance of date palms, banana palms, and Bougainvillea.
We check out the Misfat Bed and Breakfast, where I think I will stay one weekend when I want to chill out and relax. The proprietor takes us to the rooftop where breakfast and dinner are served and where the view over the mountains and the tropical oasis below is wonderfully peaceful.
We follow the falaj back up the hill and then where it runs along a steep rocky gorge dotted with more date palms and miniature terraced fields. We come to a turret or some kind of watchtower sitting along the path and this is where we decide to turn around.
It’s around 12:30 and the hottest part of the day is beginning. We decide we’ve had a good walk, plenty of fresh air and exercise for one day. We head back to Nizwa, where I lie down to read and end up taking a 2-hour nap. A bit of heaven in the afternoon 🙂
Thursday, February 23: Today I drive up Jebel Akhdar to go on a hike with my Omani friend Moo. Moo has lived on the “Green Mountain” his whole life, so he knows every valley, every trail, every village. He knows the plants, the trees, the wildlife and the views.
This hike is his choice, and I put myself in his hands. I trust him to pick what he thinks I will like. He estimates our hike to a ridge overlooking Wadi Bani Kharus will take about 2 hours each way, 4 hours round-trip. It’s a glorious day, with crisp breezy air and blue skies ~ a perfect day for hiking. I don’t know what I will discover here, but I feel sure it will be something amiable, possibly even spiritual. And of course spectacular in its Jebel Akhdar way.
We drive first up to the area Moo calls Juniper Trees; the rocky mountaintop is dotted with centuries-old juniper trees. He has me park along the roadside and we start climbing slabs of rocks up and up and up. When we get to a high point, Moo points down a valley and tells me we will go down then up to a ridge way on the other side. I can see our destination in the distance, and it looks like quite a hike. I hope I’m up for it.
We pass more juniper trees, a grove of dead olive trees, gnarly trees gone wild. Green bushes all afire with sunlight. These bushes have no odor to them, but Moo tells me that when families cook their goat meat or beef in the ground during the Eid, they cover the meat with sprigs of these leaves. The herb imparts flavor to the meat as it cooks. I should try it next Eid, he says.
I take pictures of the bright green bushes and the gnarled, dead-looking trees, and when I’m not taking pictures, I’m getting my clothes caught on branches covered in thorns. After only an hour, we reach the ridge that we were aiming for. It literally takes my breath away.
I couldn’t see this from below, but at the ridge, the ground drops abruptly beneath our feet, a sheer and deep cliff. One more step and I would sail over the edge to Wadi Bani Kharus below. This cliff seems to spread infinitely to either side of us. Moo wants me to walk to the edge so he can take a photo, but I’m too terrified to get close. No mistakes can be made here, and as klutzy as I am, I can just see myself tripping over my own feet and falling to my death below.
It’s breathtaking. The view is a little dusty and cloudy today, but we can see the valley floor below with no trouble. Moo says that on a clear day you can see the beach at Sawadi, which is along the coast west of Muscat. We sit at the top and soak in the view for a while, then we make our way back down the mountain, and then up, then down again.
Back in the car, Moo says he wants to take me to see Wadi Bani Habib. At an overlook to the wadi below, another steep and terrifying cliff edge, Moo tells me this is where he took my sons hiking while I had to go work. He points to where they started at Juniper Trees and shows with a sweep of his hand how they came down the mountain, walked along the bottom of the wadi and then to the abandoned village at the other end.
We can’t see the village from this viewpoint, but we drive further down the road and find steps leading down into the wadi and to this village clinging to the side of a mountain. We walk through the wadi under the gleaming white branches of walnut trees and pink-flowering peach trees.
I LOVE exploring abandoned villages. The age-old houses are made of stone, rather than mudbrick, and set as they are among the greenery and the sandstone cliffs, they make a beautiful painting. The village is in total disarray, but that’s what makes it so picturesque and charming. We climb among the rocks and ruins and find little treasures around every corner. It is getting close to sunset, so the light on the crumbling walls and buildings is golden and glowing.
I could wander around here forever. I love this about Oman, the fact that you can find these beautiful gems that are not touristy or commercialized. There are no lines of tourists buying tickets, no vendors selling tacky souvenirs, no crowds or tour buses. It’s just an abandoned village, inhabited only in some bygone era; now only its ghosts remain. We can wander in and out to our hearts’ content, exploring its little treasures, taking the memory of it home in our hearts.
We also wander along the old plantations near the wadi bottom, and along a falaj which is still flowing with water. At one point we walk up some steps under which a stream flows.
It’s so strange being here in Oman where water and greenery are so rare. Because of this scarcity, whenever I see anything green, or any water, I get really excited, like a person lost in the desert who sees the mirage of an oasis. The local Omanis are the same; they go out in droves, entire huge families, to picnic or explore any green or wet place.
I will go back to Jebel Akhdar. Again and again. Yes.
Thursday, February 23: I am now officially hooked on the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge. After looking through lots of entries in this ongoing challenge, I’ve happened upon some amazing blogs. One of my favorites is called Life in the Bogs by a talented photographer in Ohio named Robin. I am so mesmerized that now I read her blog every morning along with my coffee! Today, I found through her blog a photo challenge by someone named Karma: Karma’s When I Feel Like it Blog: February Photo Hunt. Since I have hundreds of photos from my travels, and I also went on a hike Thursday on Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) in Oman, I decided to try to find, or take, some pictures that match her prompts. Karma’s challenge words and my photos follow.
Because Oman is a desert country, with little water, the few trees you see often look like they’re dying, or struggling to keep themselves together. I found this one Thursday on Jebel Akdar (Green Mountain), with its bark flaking off.
For bow, I’m going with the definition of “a bend or curve.” This is a pond at the Ho Chi Minh complex in Hanoi. I love the bow of this large balcony over the pond.
For this one, I looked for the closest thing I could find to a mug shot, and this is the best I could do!
I love how everything in Japan is so neat and orderly. I could have chosen so many pictures for row from Japan, I had a hard time deciding which one to use. I love the colors and the Japanese characters on these wooden fortunes. These are all over temples in Japan, but since I don’t read Japanese, I’m only assuming they’re either fortunes or wishes. I really would love to know what they actually are!
Here’s the definition of bun I found: any of a wide variety of variously shaped bread rolls, usually leavened and slightly sweetened or plain, sometimes containing spices, dried currants, etc. Ok, admittedly, dumplings are not exactly buns, but this is the closest thing I could find. They are a type of bread, right? Anyway, I make mine with Bisquick, which one also uses to make buns. A close cousin?
6) heart shapes (for the month of valentines)
Beautiful heart-shaped leaves in Daegu, South Korea. I love the color and texture of these. I feel like they can’t decide whether they’re dead or alive, or whether it’s spring or fall.
Bonus word: leap (to celebrate leap year)
This is at one of the many wadis in Oman, specifically Wadi Bani Khalid. It’s always hot in Oman, so these pools are really refreshing. This Omani boy leaps in for a swim at one of the many pools. Ahhh, sweet relief.
Happy LEAP YEAR!!
Friday, February 17:
Tonight I happen to be watching an Italian movie called The Son’s Room. As I think about what photo to post for this week’s photo challenge, DOWN, a song called “By This River” by Brian Eno plays in the movie.
Here we are
Stuck by this river,
You and I
Underneath a sky that’s ever falling down, down, down
Ever falling down.
When I hear the words “underneath a sky,” “falling down” and “stuck by this river,” a picture I once took comes to mind. This picture was taken at a Trick Art Exhibit at a museum in Daegu, South Korea. It’s a picture of my friend Anna, hanging to a sheer cliff face, terrified of falling down. The picture was actually taken so that what looks like the vertical wall is a horizontal painting on the floor. Anna is lying on the floor here, pretending to look down, terrified of falling. Down.
Here’s another picture, taken in Jaisalmer, India, on a “camel safari,” which is basically just a one-hour camel ride through the desert. Looking down from the camel, we see an elongated shadow of ourselves on our camel. Sometimes what’s down is more interesting than what’s up.
Thursday, February 16: This evening I experience my first Omani wedding. It’s the wedding of my friend Adil’s brother; I think his name is Faisal or Fairaz, something with an F and a Z anyway. I don’t know the brother and I don’t know the bride, who is from Ar Rustaq, but I go anyway, despite a 2 1/2 hour drive from Nizwa. Adil has been kind and generous with me and I go to this trouble, frankly, because I’m invited. I want to have the experience of an Omani wedding, and who knows if I will have another invitation.
I arrive at Adil’s house in Al Awabi at 5:00, according to his instructions. He promptly escorts me into the living room of his house, tells me he is very busy, and leaves me to a room bursting with women. Some of the women I met before, when I visited his home for lunch one day in December. I greet his several sisters, his wife, his mother, his children. At this point in the evening, no one speaks much English, so I basically shake hands with the endless stream of visiting ladies, saying Salaam u alaykum, Kayf halish, Bikheir, Al-Hamdullilah. Because I greet them in Arabic, some of them unleash whole strings of Arabic words, thinking I will understand. I don’t, of course.
It is early yet, so the women here are wearing either flowered house dresses and matching headscarves, or their black abayas. As the evening progresses, the women disappear into various rooms and come out dressed in Omani traditional clothes, either jeweled silk calf-length tunics and pants, or fancier flowered dresses decked out in glitter, ballgowns, jeweled caftans and jalabayas, and even some dresses that look like either prom dresses or Barbie gowns. The little girls are dressed in fancy crinoline-layered dresses and wear heaps of makeup as if they’re adult beauty queens. Glitter and jewelry and gold abound, around every neck, on every dress, on headscarves, on wrists, and dangling from ears!
Of course, as usual, I am under-dressed, with a simple white ruffled wrap top and a flowered skirt. I have been told I can wear “anything,” but Adil and his sisters keep asking me if I need a room to change my clothes!! I apologize, “No, I’m sorry, this is all I have!!”
Sadly, I am not allowed to take pictures at the wedding. Adil knows I write a blog, as he has read it before, and at one point he invites me into the bridal suite, a room in the family home that has been sumptuously decorated for the bride and groom. He allows me to take a picture of his brother, the groom, all decked out in his dishdasha, musyr, sash and khanjar, the traditional Omani dagger. The groom also carries a thin stick that is shaped like a cane, but I’m not sure what that’s for. Adil allows me to take one picture of his brother sitting on a plush gold and purple flowered couch, and he takes one of the two of us together, the groom and me. Adil emphasizes, “This is just for you, not for your blog!” These are the only two pictures I can take all night, and disappointingly, they cannot be for publication. 😦
During this early part of the evening, the ladies bring out a tray of oranges, apples, dates and the gelatinous dessert called halwa. Someone spoon-feeds me a heap of halwa, as if I’m a baby, and when they try to feed me another I protest that I’m trying to lose weight!! Halwa is not my favorite Omani food, especially because of the gooey texture, which is like a gel-ified extra-sweet apple butter.
We sit and sit and sit, ladies only. Later the women of the house bring out another large round metal tray covered in rice and hunks of beef. Everyone gathers around it on the floor. They eat with their fingers. Someone gives me a spoon, and I eat the rice with that. Not being much of a meat eater, I figure I will just eat the rice, but the women keep tearing off pieces of the beef and tossing them my way. I feel obligated to nibble on some of them.
After this dinner, which I assume it is, this is the end of the food and drink for the night! Totally unlike a Western wedding, where food and drink are abundant during the whole affair. I’m a little baffled by this, as I figured that even if I didn’t know a soul, and couldn’t speak to anyone because of the language barrier, at least I could eat all night!! 😦
More and more women keep coming into this room, droves of them!! Salaam, kayf halish, hand-shaking, one after the other. Smiles all around. I really don’t know how all these women are squeezing into this small room. Some of them disappear into different parts of the house, but I don’t know where this endless stream of ladies is going. Many sit on the floor. Many vie for seats on the couches lining two of the walls.
Some of the younger girls start playing music on the television, possibly satellite TV?? Everyone wants me to dance. I don’t mind at first. I dance with some of the younger girls, and I try to mimic the Arabic dancing, which I do very badly. I’m doing it all in good fun, trying my best, and all the ladies sitting on the floor and on the couches are finding my pathetic attempts quite humorous. I seem to be quite entertaining to them all.
At one point a nice young lady named Asma comes in and introduces herself to me in English and takes my phone number and tells me, turning her nose up in the air and smiling from ear to ear, that she doesn’t like these village weddings. She lives in Muscat; she’s a city girl, she LOVES Muscat and she wants to study abroad, in America or Great Britain, and she likes Omani weddings in hotels, not like this!! She’s full of energy and talks about how she wears jeans and T-shirts in Muscat. She’s a modern-day girl bound in this ultra-traditional society, but in Muscat she finds a world she adores. She stays around for part of the celebration, but after a couple of hours, she says she’s bored and bids me adieu, she’s going back to Muscat! She glides off, never to be seen again!
Before she leaves I ask her what happens next at this “wedding.” So far, all I’ve seen are a bunch of Omani women, mostly sitting around or greeting each other. I’ve seen lots of pretty little girls dressed like dolls, dancing and smiling at me as if I’m an adored celebrity. But I haven’t seen any kind of what I’d call “wedding” activity, or what I’d typically expect in a Western wedding.
Asma tells me that we are waiting. I say, for what? She says, “Around 10:00 or so, we will go to the bride’s home.” I say, OK, looking at my watch. At this point it is 7:00. I’m thinking, so what will we do from now until then?
I ask when will be the marriage ceremony, you know where the bride and groom say their vows in front of an Imam. She says this is done usually some days before the “wedding.” So there apparently is to be no wedding ceremony tonight.
What we do from 7:00 till then is more of the same. The only thing that “happens” is that everyone wants me to dance. I keep saying, “I will dance if EVERYONE (sweeping my hand around the room) dances!” But for some reason, none of them have any interest in dancing; they only want to watch me. And laugh. Hmmm…
Two girls who attend the University of Nizwa come up and introduce themselves, and tell me they’ve seen me on campus. One is Deema and the other, I think Ruquiya. Deema is Level 3 (which I now teach) and Ruquiya is Level 2. Their English is fair, but not good enough to have much in the way of conversation. However, they do take me under their wings the rest of the night, one of them continually reaching for my hand and pulling me along to wherever we’re going.
Suddenly, at 10:00, Ruquiya stands up abruptly and says, “It’s time to go! We’re taking a bus to the bride’s house.” She takes my hand and leads me onto to a small bus with piles of women and children. Many people get into cars, and we drive in a long caravan about 15km to the neighboring town of Ar Rustaq, where the bride lives. During this entire bus ride, loud festive music is blaring from the CD player and the ladies are clapping and ululating. (Just as Westerners clap, cheer, and hug each other, Arab women ululate during celebrations.)
We arrive at the bride’s house, at which time Ruquiya takes my hand and leads me into a large tent in a courtyard, which is stiflingly warm. I sweat. Inside the tent are crowds of women, some from the bride’s family and some from the groom’s, and, voila (!), there are the bride and groom sitting on a throne-like settee on a raised pedestal. The close relatives are snapping photos of the bride and groom with their cameras and cell phones. The bride is wearing a white bejeweled wedding gown and a veil, which the groom lifted off her face upon his arrival. She frankly doesn’t look too happy, maybe from being uncomfortable in that hot tent in that dress!
I have to make an escape as I am miserably hot, so I walk outside for some fresh air. A bunch of young girls crowds around me. They ask me where I’m from. You know, the typical stuff. There are times during this wedding where I feel I’m more of a celebrity than the bride and groom! After a bit, I go sit on the ground in a circle of women, waiting for the bus to return us back to Adil’s and wishing that I had driven my car.
At last, 11:00 comes and Ruquiya comes to fetch me and lead me back to the bus. Everyone files out of the tent and piles into their cars, including the bride and groom, who climb into a car covered in those packaged Christmas bows we use in America. We drive the 15km back to Al Awabi in the caravan, honking horns, singing, dancing on the bus, and ululating! It’s crazy. The women keep passing the children back and forth over the seats as if they are footballs. Clapping, yelling, talking, hollering, honking…. it’s a cacophony of festive noise.
We arrive back at Adil’s house and everyone tumbles out of the bus like rabbits bursting from a magician’s hat. They crowd back into the house. This party doesn’t look like it’s going to end, and I’m tired. Adil has generously invited me to stay at his house, but so far I haven’t been shown a room where I can stay and I don’t think I will be able to sleep anytime soon. So, I decide at that moment that I will leave. My colleague from the university, Vicki, told me if I’d like to crash at her apartment after the wedding, I can do so. My full intention is to call her, but then when I realize it is 11:30, I feel it’s too late to do so.
So. I drive all the way from Nizwa, 2 1/2 hours, and crash in my bed by 2 a.m. Exhausted from my first Omani wedding.
This is an interesting tidbit I found online about Omani weddings:
Total separation of the sexes is a way of life in Oman, and this continues throughout the wedding proceedings.
• The groom’s family will remain together in a celebration that may last up to three days.
• The bride’s family will celebrate for one or two days, and during this time the bride will stay in a room with any children.
On the last day of celebrations, the men of the groom’s family will travel to the house of the bride’s family in cars or on camels, while the women follow behind. The men wait while the bride is dressed in her most beautiful clothes, usually including a green headdress and lots of traditional jewelry bought by her father. The bride is then accompanied by the women of her family to the groom and his party. Many people from the bride’s house follow the party back to the groom’s house, where they join in the festivities.
Here’s the thing. As a Westerner, I love Western weddings, with the co-mingling of men and women, the abundant food and the flowing wine, the dancing (men & women TOGETHER), the socializing. Though many women would think it lovely to be with a sisterhood of women, for me it is difficult. Frankly, I get bored. I have always been the person at a party who hangs out with the men, talking about world affairs, joking around, having discussions about work or social problems. I thrive on playful banter with men. Sports talk is the only thing I don’t enjoy in the company of men.
I’ve never been one to hang in the kitchen with the women, discussing babies and children and motherhood stuff. So for me to be at a party where I’m restricted to the company of women and children is, to say the least, difficult. Add the language barrier, and it becomes downright excruciating.
It was definitely an experience I won’t forget, and I thank Adil for that. Another Omani wedding? I don’t think it will be in the cards for me.
Wednesday, February 15: How can I talk about Omar Khairat without talking about Egypt? And about Ahmed? And about love? Music is like gossamer, weaving itself clandestinely into our lives, wrapping itself around our experiences. A song, a chord, a musical interlude, even a symphony become inextricably intertwined with a memory. And that is that. There is no fighting it. It is just there, forever. A song and a memory, bound in matrimony, till death do us part.
Tonight, here is Omar Khairat, in Muscat, Oman. At the Royal Opera House. And here I am, listening, enraptured, and transported back to my first memory of him. And of someone named Ahmed. And of Egypt.
I first heard about the famous Egyptian composer and pianist on a November day in 2009, a Sunday afternoon in fact, while sitting in my bedroom in my house in Virginia. The air was crisp and blue outside my window. The leaves had fallen off the trees and the branches were spindly tangles outside. I was chatting online with Ahmed, an Egyptian I met on Facebook. He had just been the night before to the Cairo Opera House to see Omar Khairat. I had never heard of this “famous” Egyptian. So Ahmed sent me link after link, and I listened to Khairat’s music. We chatted between the musical pieces. Ahmed sent me pictures of himself and his friends, all spiffed up at the Opera House. Pictures of them with Omar Khairat.
It was a lovely Sunday afternoon. Too lovely, really. I fell a bit in love with Ahmed on that day. And with Omar Khairat.
But wait. How did I meet Ahmed online? A strange thing really. I had spent a month in Egypt in July, 2007, “studying” Arabic at Al Azhar University. Actually I wasn’t doing much studying, but was just having the adventure of my life in Egypt. I fell in love with the dusty Cairo streets, the chaotic and incessant honking traffic, the Cairo Hash House Harriers, the hills and the corniche of Muquttum, the pyramids of Giza, Ma’adi, the Grand Cafe on the Nile, the felucca at sunset on the Nile. I fell in love with camels and the Khan al Khalili Bazaar and the Egyptian people. I also fell briefly in love with an Egyptian brain surgeon, but that is another story. (I am writing a blog now about my time in Egypt, trying to reconstruct that amazing time in my life, but I haven’t written much. It’s a work-in-progress, but if you’d like to see what I have so far, it’s here: catbird in cairo.)
Later, much later, on Facebook, I joined a group called the “I LOVE EGYPT” group, and suddenly I had 35+ new Egyptian friends, all young men, most looking for a ticket to America.
Somehow Ahmed was different. We had rapport, chemistry; he was funny and smart and we just clicked. If you can really fall in love with someone online, then I guess that’s what I did. In December, I got a job offer to teach English in Korea, and I decided with the money Korea would pay for my one-way flight, I could stop in Egypt for only a little more money out of my pocket. I did just that, met Ahmed, and stupidly, fell even more in love with him on just a four-day visit.
After I got to Korea, I was heartbroken to leave him, and then continued to be heartbroken over and over again in my first months there, as Ahmed told me lie after lie after lie. Finally, after too much suffering, I deleted him from Facebook and told him whatever we had was over. He already knew that it was over, of course, from his end. For me to cut it off was something necessary for my own sanity. I never heard from him again. Ultimately, I believe he wanted something from me too, possibly a ticket to America, an escape from Egypt. Just like all the other Egyptian men who added me on Facebook that fall.
Oh well. Still. The memory of all that, the “falling in love” (if you can call it that), the experience of Ahmed and our time in Egypt, all come back to me as I listen to Omar Khairat tonight at the Royal Opera House. I am swept away, back to my love story with a country that I dream of going back to one day.
The concert is billed as “Omar Khairat: Soundscapes of Egyptian Music.” It begins with Egyptian Overture and then goes through to The Sorceress & The Magical Perfumes, which comes from a Canadian ballet of the same title composed by Khairat in 1989. It’s a lovely panorama of music that sounds Egyptian, yet doesn’t. It comes from a universal heart, and touches mine.
At intermission, I get to walk around the opera house and admire the opulent interior. At this time, I’m finally able to buy the program, which tells me more about the concert. Now I am enlightened.
Intermission is also time for people-watching, and I do just that. I watch the Omani women dressed in their ornate abayas and their gorgeous long dresses, their long black hair either bundled in huge ponytails or buns under their headscarves, or loose down their backs. Their dark and seductive eyes are made even more mysterious by black mascara and eyeliner. I have to say I’m envious of their beauty and their youth. The Omani men, dressed in their spotless white dishdashas, look regal and, well, perfectly Arab. One Western boy is dressed in the dishdasha and musyr for the occasion. The Westerners are dressed in uninspired suits or dresses. As for me, for my second time at the Opera House, I am distressed that I don’t have the appropriate thing to wear. I finally threw together a black knit top with a long skirt, but it’s disappointing and makes me feel frumpy. 😦 It doesn’t help that I gained about 7 pounds while my sons were here! I pledge that before I come here again, I will find something cute and appropriate to wear!!
Omar Khairat was born in 1948 to an artistic family in Cairo and is considered one of the most successful and influential Egyptian composers of all time. After he received his degrees in piano and musical theory, he began composing music for the Egyptian cinema, television and theater. He also wrote music for the ballet. His music was influenced by Arabic and European classical music, Egyptian and African traditional music, as well as jazz, pop and blues.
What makes his music different, and so universal, is his way of combining Western and Eastern musical instruments. It is beautiful and moving, and at several times during the concert, I am brought to tears.
The principal conductor is Nayer Nagui, from Alexandria, Cairo, born in 1970. He is a handsome and energetic conductor, great fun to watch. He conducts the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra (ROSO), which was established in September 1985, under the direction of HM Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose interest in music and culture contributed to the formation of the orchestra. The orchestra’s women are dressed in gauzy scarlet headscarves and matching pants with gold brocade at the ankles, along with emerald-green silk tunics. The men are dressed in tuxedos, except for the lively drummer at the back who wears a white shirt and who often claps his hands in the air, inviting the audience to clap along to the music.
Omar Khairat plays the piano and in his group are the more traditional Egyptian instruments: the conga, doff, drums, Okordion, Oud & Qanon, Req and Tabla. The Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra includes trombones, violins, violas, cellos, double basses, flute, oboe, bassoon, harp, horn, trumpet and trombone.
The second half of the concert opens with the lovely Arabian Rhapsody. I am swept off my feet by the Three Pieces for Orchestra & Piano. The final three pieces are stunning: Al Bakheel (The Miser), Enta El Masry (You are the Egyptian) and 100 Sana Cinema (100 Years of Cinema).
Sitting next to me is a young couple named Tony and Wafaa. Tony is Irish and teaches at one of the private universities in Muscat. His wife Wafaa is Algerian, very pretty and pregnant (due in May!). They plan to stay in Muscat indefinitely as life is good here, and easy. I agree.
Before the concert begins, while I am standing in the lobby taking pictures, two young Omani men approach me and one says “I read your blog!” I say, “Oh my gosh, how did you recognize me?” He says, “I’ve seen your pictures enough on your blog to know who you are. Are your sons still here visiting?” I tell him no, sadly, they went home on February 3; I just haven’t had time to catch up on my blogging about their visit. He introduces himself as Riyadh and his friend is Haitham. I take pictures of both of them; I’m thrilled to meet one of my readers, as I always am! He says, “You should read my blog sometime: Omani Cuisine. I say, “I have read it!! You write that blog? I read it to get restaurant ideas and it’s featured on my blogroll, on the right side of my blog!” I’m so happy to meet a fellow blogger!
Riyadh asks me if I read Andy in Oman and I say yes, of course I do! He says, “You should go back to one of the blogs he wrote when he was teaching in Ibri, I think it’s called “Arablish” or something. It’s so hilarious!” I look it up when I get home and find it: Konglish”, “Chinglish”, “Spanglish”-ARABLISH?!” Riyadh is right…It is HILARIOUS and oh so true!! I LOVE IT! Andy is an institution on the Oman blogger scene, and inspires me always!
Life in Oman is always full of surprises. On my way back to Nizwa, late at night, around 11:00, I pass by numerous groups of Omanis parked along the side of the highway, having picnics on the gravel ground. This is a common sight in Oman, whole Omani families, or groups of Omani men, sitting on blankets alongside their cars, alongside a major highway. Now I’ve come to think of it as normal, but as I think about life in America, I can’t help but laugh out loud as I try to picture groups of Americans parking alongside interstate highways, blankets spread on the ground, picnicking to their hearts’ content.
Regret. This is inside Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a former high school turned prison and interrogation center in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. It served as Security Prison 21 (S-21) for the communist Khmer Rouge regime from 1975-1979, the years when that regime was in power. It’s such an incredibly distressing place. So dark, you can almost feel the evil that once lurked here. These are rows and rows of tiny rectangular cells, the size of long skinny closets, where prisoners were shackled to the tiled floor.
I think former members of the Khmer Rouge, who apparently slipped back into Cambodian society unpunished, must have great regret at their actions during those horrible years. They must live with that regret every day, suffer through their nightmares every night.
Yes, it is depressing. Regret is depressing. In a broader sense, the picture also represents all the doors opened for us in life that we never went through; we possibly regret that we didn’t. Or the doors that we DID go through and wish we hadn’t.