Bits of Oman

The Rahbis of Majamma

Many wadis come together here, and the Rahbi goatherd built his shack where they met, almost half a century ago. He called his home Majamma, the confluence of things. He would eke out a living with his goats and donkeys, scratching a life through the thorn and the rock. His house was made of scraps of branches, perhaps the shelter of mountains. In summer, when the water dried up, he would move 12km up-wadi with his herd, to Wadi Slooh and its natural spring.

Life was simple: you had little choice except to follow the water table as it flowed down with the rains or dried up in the summer. The land was too harsh for farming and the sea too far away, so life was governed by what the goats could eat, where they could drink, and how much meat and milk they could give. Generations had repeated this cycle for thousands of years. Only the names they gave places had changed.

But something must have stirred in this crossroad of wadis, where the winds blow in and out of innumerable little tributaries, down the mountain slopes, across Slooh, in from what is now al Amerat, past Wadi Tayyin. The son of the original founder, himself a father in the 1970s, learnt of the existence of schools and the importance of education. And so he took his three sons and one nephew, installed them in a tent at Hajar, 18km away, the town with a school. The four boys would cook there, wash their clothes, and educate themselves over the next six years. The father would bring them provisions, and they’d return home every month or two by donkey.

And this is how Abdullah bin Salim bin Saif al Rahbi got his education. This got him into the government office where he asked for a job and kept it ever since. “The old days were better,” he says now, sitting on a mat in his gravel courtyard. “We didn’t have the Internet or satellite television. We didn’t waste time. We came home and studied instead. Of course we’re comfortable today, but this isn’t good for studies. Now, our children disappear with books in their hands for school, but the principal later complains that he doesn’t see them for days on end.”

But Abdullah is only joking. His children are picked up in the school bus on a brand new road, driven to Madinat al Nahda, ten minutes away. Two years ago, before the present blacktop existed, it had taken me an hour of excruciating driving through wadis of loose gravel to get to this point. One felt like an adventurer then — now even a tricycle can make it.

A couple of generations after the first Rahbis in Majamma followed the water to Slooh, that water is still central to the community, except it is now being delivered here by the government, on tanker every day. The Rahbis have grown into a family of almost 30, living in a few houses, and they have air conditioning. But even the freshly poured concrete and dusty cars parked outside do little to mask the desperation of a place that hangs by the thread of its dead-end road.

October 2007

Majamma

The Thob Dhofari

Dhofar’s answer to the traditional Omani laysu (both now increasingly run over by the generic abaya) is the Thob Dhofari. What really sets this southern ladies’ all-encompassing garment apart is its rich prints and a back that is longer than the front, left trailing behind the women as they walk. Legend has it that an Arabian king used to sprinkle a magic powder on the ground, and young women who walked over would fall in love with him. To escape his charms, Dhofari women donned a long flowing dress that swept the powder away as they walked over.

There’s a special thob kept for weddings, made of black velvet and adorned with shiny embroidery. Too heavy and hot to be worn on a usual muggy Salalah day, it may cost up to RO300.

June 2007

Samiya

Hamdan bin Salim bin Rashid al Hathamy doesn’t know how old he is. “Perhaps 80 or 90,” he shouts, half deaf, seven kilometres into a dead-end wadi he has been living in for almost a half century. There is nothing here, not even water, just more goats and sheep than you can count, two concrete rooms, a few tents of discarded plastic sheets and a very old man and his family.

“We are from Jebel Shams,” he yells into the wind, and all the lambs prick their ears. “We were shawawi, and spent the summer up on the top of the jebel, when the weather was good. When it got too cold, we’d go down the slopes in winter. I have seen many sheikhs after we got here. The first was Nasser bin Rashid al Ghafari, and then came his son Mohammed, in turn succeeded by Khalid bin Saif bin Nasser al Ghafari.”

Hamdan pauses for breath, in the dull overcast light of a winter morning. A young woman peeks out from behind the netted window. Two ewes trot over the next stone-strewn mound, bleating, and are immediately mobbed by black and white lambs.

Hamdan coughs into his dishdasha. “We never had any water here. We’d have to carry our goatskins back home and return for more when they ran dry. We managed to live three days from just one skin: drinking, washing before praying and tending to our animals.”

December 2007

Samiya

Abdullah bin Khamis bin Salim al Haramali is digging in the mud, creating channels for the water flowing through the falaj beside. Abdullah is 70, much too old for this, for the RO20 he might scrape by selling his greens. “My sons are all married and far away,” he says, in between shovelling. “They don’t send me any money, so I support my wife through the land. I worked in the Balushi Firqa of the army for 21 years under Sultan Taimur bin Said, but I don’t get a pension.”

“We had no water here for 20 years, and life was bad. I don’t know how it happened, but the water started flowing through this wadi after Cyclone Gonu. And it hasn’t stopped since. I hope they don’t develop this land, because it is everything we have.”

December 2007

Surviving Sahamat

Walid bin Hilal bin Zaher al Hashami, a 13 year old shawawi, alone in a dead-end wadi, sitting in the shade of his one-room reed hut. The Hashamis are originally from Wadi Bani Rawahah, but Walid’s family has now settled in nearby Sahamat, leaving him alone for most of the day in the wadi while his school stays closed for the summer. Once it reopens, Walid has goatherd duty over the weekends. “I don’t get lonely,” he insists. “I like sitting with my goats.”

August 2007

Abandoning Wadi Bani Habib

It is six in the morning, and while the mountain village should have been waking up to heavy breakfasts, it is disconcertingly quiet except for the birds on the pomegranate trees and the wind through the valley. Welcome to Wadi Bani Habib on the Jebel Akhdar, which its residents abandoned for a road and a new government-supplied village on the other side of the valley.

Saif Hamood used to live here too, along with 700 people. “This is where I used to sleep,” points Saif, over his old house, “This is where my brothers were, that is where my mother used to cook.”

August 2007

Khatija

Sitting in her little stall in Salalah’s Haffa souq, Khatija is working her deserted alley, selling incense to off-season wanderers. The upcoming khareef might bring up to 300 customers a day — each hungry for frankincense, clay burners, myrrh and the other attractions of Dhofar. Now, though, there is only a half deserted lane, where lady shopkeepers eyeball each other, sharing gossip, vying for customers and waiting for the all-important monsoon.

Khatija came to Oman 28 years ago, married into the country, and was eventually taught the business by her now-dead husband so she could support the four girls and four boys that she mothered. Her business put all her children through school; three daughters are nurses, in charge of the children’s ward in a local hospital, while the fourth works in a money exchange. Khatija’s shop is little more than a cubicle stuck in a wall, but after years of hard work, days that end at ten at night and a natural humour that gets her through the off-season, she has the last laugh — and the best stories.

June 2007