Dead Ends: Hob & Madruj

Salma bint Marhoum al Abri is so old she’s lost count of exactly how many years she has lived between the sheer rock face that rises hundreds of meters up to the radar station and the windblown, dust-ridden slopes of Wadi Sahtan.

Hob is the last village up the road, and so deeply is it recessed into the mountain that its residents have nowhere to go but down, and away. Such dead-end outlook means that the young migrate to cities like Rustaq and Muscat, or larger villages like Amq on the wadi floor, leaving behind the old. It is here, in its abandoned, ancient quarter, that you will find Salma, among empty houses.

I found her sitting by a stack of firewood all by herself, her fingers covered with silver rings, her arms with bangles. She lives alone in a two-room stone hut and has no neighbors, just locked doors and stone steps leading to the communal gardens below. A brother living in the newer quarter of concrete houses feeds her, for she can’t walk very far and has to survive on RO30 of monthly social allowance.

Hob is quietly emptying, bit by bit, for it offers no school or jobs, not even the essential football field scraped through the gravel. There are walking trails leading up the slopes — it’s three to six hours to the top of Oman’s highest mountain — but they are the past. Who wants to slog up by foot when the lights of the cities twinkle below: all the foodstuff shops, shawarma racks, ministry jobs and paved roads you can gorge yourself on. There are few, if any, villagers who still venture further up the mountain, only those who talk of it.

One such man is Jassim Suleiman al Abri, just 18 years old but already with his sights on the big city. “The route up is really tough,” he says, grimacing in make-believe pain, “and you have to have a very good head for heights because some parts are very exposed.” With his crisp brown dishdasha, trendy haircut and weekend plans, Jassim doesn’t look like he would make it very far up anytime soon, for the college in Musanna is calling, and after that perhaps even Muscat. He breaks into English, testimony to his current year through foundation course before financial studies begin. It will be another three years before he gets out and starts looking for a job in the capital.

Jassim invites me into his house in the new part of Hob, with its handful of alleys and tangle of electricity wires dropping from one pole to the other. Even here, in the bit of the village that is supposed to be alive, the house looks unlived in, barely more than a shell to entertain the stray visitor. An hour later, after the fruit has been taken away, the coffee drunk and the seeds picked up, it is just another empty house, with a padlocked green door.

Most of the old men have spent a few years, decades ago, in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where they tried their hands at manual labor: construction sites, public gardens, municipal work. Most left after a couple of years, returning to the familiarity and quiet of the mountain villages. Some, like Suleiman bin Saleh al Abri, left home when only 13, leaving the village of Madruj on the slopes adjacent to Hob.

Head up from Wadi Sahtan above Hail and Madruj is at the end of the right-hand fork, Hob on the left. Madruj roughly translates into ‘steps,’ from its topography and terraced gardens, now in decline. Like Hob, it is also at the end of its road, back to the vertical slopes, with nowhere to go but down unless you’re prepared for the agonizing walk up. Follow the falaj instead, its now-concrete channel beginning at a spring in the mountains an hour’s walk away.

Hamed bin Saleh al Abri is 60 now, and you will find him wandering down Madruj’s single street with a pair of old binoculars, occasionally looking over the slopes at his goats. He left home as a teenager, working as a gatekeeper before coming home again: yet another story unfolding, trailing off in the fading light.

Oman, April 2008