The Hidden Lives of Muscat

Shama the Movie Star

It is ten in the morning and a dull, pre-summer haze is bouncing off the mountains and spilling over the wide-open streets of Mahaj. I’m parking Seema’s soft-pedalled Lexus in the dirt and as the sun hits us we’re reeking of Japanese upholstery, expensive perfume and synthetic abayas left too long in the car, and heading towards her mother’s house: a low-slung affair that looks like any other in this neighborhood of faceless, soulless government-supplied housing called shaabiya.

But not even the dull pink of the tiles outside would prepare me for the romance and kitsch inside, of Shama the movie star walking up in her make-up and shaking my hand, beaming, and leading me into her sitting room, crammed with gilded frames wrapped around paintings of jugs and fruit, of the fake fireplace and the electronic sound of water, of the brocade and beads and candles, of the tables with Louis ‘the Farouq’ legs, of the purple wall that leads to the kitchen that hides the inevitable Subcontinental housemaid or heavy curtains and thick carpets and glass and candles and the tray with two pieces of blueberry cheesecake and water and juice that Seema brings me.

Shama adjusts herself on the sofa, upsetting the glass beads stuck to the edges of the pillow, and talks to me of her house, sometimes throwing out the last end of a word from long practice in the theatre. She waves a hand over the decorations that carpet every inch of the interior and says, with an easy humor, “My guests never get bored.”

Shama was given this house by the government in 1973, invited to come back to a country calling for its people, eager to build itself. So she left Bahrain and came to Mahaj, which was blank enough to plan out its wide roads and invite a population spread across the Gulf back home.

Shama had dreamt of becoming an actress ever since she was a little girl and her teacher had told her that she would, one day, become the favorite of the country. She got her chance when working in public relations for the Ministry of Education in the mid-Seventies. They were preparing a little television promotion for free night education classes for workers who wanted to further their skills. And Shama was told she had a face “that could do something.” “Drama,” she says theatrically, “is a letter to the people. If you tell them what to do they won’t do it, but they do listen to theater.”

Snoop Dogg

It is late evening and Sami Salim al Akzami is flip-flopping around the village wedged in between mountains, graveyards, sand dunes, ghost stories and the edges of Muscat. A few minutes away, an entire city’s worth of traffic is moving down parallel highways, but here, in the oldest part of the village, there is only Sami and me, stubs of earthen walls and the sound of water flowing out of the mountain.

Sami is dressed in white bathroom slippers from the Radisson, with ‘Snoop Dogg’ written in blue ball pen along the edges, and if you look closer the rapper is everywhere: in a cartoon across the black t-shirt, in ink at the base of his thumb, scribbled into his loose white shorts. “All that’s left,” says Sami, “is for me to get a dog.”

We are sitting under acacia thorns in front of the oldest mosque — just a room with a plastic mat — under the first mound of Jebel Ghala. This is where three openings in the mountain pour out water in varying degrees of heat and value that are channelled into medicinal baths and fields.

There is Ain Ghala, with the hottest water running out of a black hole in the mountain, pouring itself out into stuffy rooms of blue tiles where you can bathe; Jebel Haid, where the water passes through a room where the dead are washed before they are buried; and Falaj Gela, which is lukewarm and passes through a largely overlooked bathroom with a red door, and the falaj that flows beside us and the little mosque, with just a number etched into an official plate for identification.

The light is fading, now, losing itself among the bare, bleached tangle of the acacia and the old sarooj walls that crumbled when the oldest part of the gardens withered away. Even Sami looks a little wild. “It was three in the morning,” he says, as he wraps himself up in his massar, “and I was sitting in a najees, talking to my friend on the phone. That’s when I started feeling things. I went to sleep and woke up after two days.”

But that was just the beginning. Snoop, as he is known among friends, is convinced that he was possessed by a djinn, an evil spirit, that would slap him until he screamed. Later, he learnt that there were three djinns inside him, for each had specific passages that they were afraid of hearing. A friend of his was possessed too, a boy who couldn’t move his legs because someone invisible had tied them. Snoop was taken to a muallim in al Khuwayr who prayed, sprayed myward or rose water over him, and got him to drink home-brewed recipes.

Seven months later, about a year ago, Snoop seemed to lurch back into normalcy, but not before whatever was ailing him left a last, indelible mark on his forehead that he points to, just above and between the eyes. “That’s where the djinn came out,” he swears. Later, my translator would whisper to me: “That’s rubbish! Everyone knows that djinn leave through your feet!”

The Unhappiness of Saalma

It is half past ten in the oldest quarter and the light is being broken up by the jagged edges of an entire neighbourhood of palm fronds, scattered over dug-up soil and glinting off the falaj. Saalma, abandoned and forgotten, has sat here for eight years, squatting in the area they used to call Mithadhmat, weeding out the undergrowth while labourers tend the fields all around.

Originally from Wadi Ala, hidden among mountains behind Bahla, Saalma left her ancestral home so her son could find work in the capital. He did, eventually, but left her in these fields once he settled in. She starts to cry, wiping away her tears with bloated fingers.

There are no happy stories here. Everyone around, from the roadside vendors with their shacks of fijil, loomi and khijar to the Pakistani day labourers depend on the cars that pass by on the narrow strip of road that runs parallel to the falaj, earning a handful of rials a day at best. And even that is better than the old days, when there wasn’t any road at all.

35 years ago, her husband divorced her when she was pregnant with the son who would later abandon her. She’d left home to see her father in hospital and hadn’t asked permission and that was reason enough. He married again and had four children but Saalma swore she’d never want another man.

Just opposite, the oldest house in Mithadmat stands crumbling into the earth that was used to build it, looking over fields and the nubuk tree that my translator insists can turn into a really obscene word if jumbled up. My pen is blotting itself all over the little page as Saalma pokes a stubby finger at me and insists that all the tribes of Oman — all the good and old ones — are originally from Iraq.

As I turn to leave, Saalma gets back to her weeds, the Pakistani sips at his milky tea in the shade of the undercarriage of a truck (now used to prop up a date palm), and the one eyed seller and the blind man mutter me goodbyes.

The Priest of Awayna

There is a young priest sitting by himself in the shade of the one-room mosque, the only old structure, all earthen walls and stone, that still stands as the oldest part of Bausher, jammed against the open mouth of the wadi, has crumbled away.

“I come here often,” he says, “to pray where there is peace and quiet. I think I’ll stay here tomorrow, and then go back home to Seeb.” Behind him, water is seeping through cracks in the rocks and out of the mountain, quietly channelled past the archaeological site, the ravaged remnants of living room upholstery thrown over the rocks, a few generations of dead goats in various stages of decomposition (mostly just hair and hooves), into the fields, through the public baths and then somewhere into the urban distance.

Behind the priest and his Quran and carpet, the walls of the mountain turn mellow with the shade of the rock and the sounds of flowing water. Concrete has been poured over here, stabilising the mosque and adding pillars, a veranda and a staircase, and a deep green wall-to-wall carpet has been stuffed inside.

“They say this mosque was built by the alim Said bin Khalfan al Khalili, and we call it Masjid al Awayna. Awayna is also the name of a fish, but I don’t think the mosque gets its name from it.”

The Excess of Diesel

Diesel, as he is known to everyone in the neighbourhood, was a football player and a thief and a drunkard and a taxi driver and a tow-truck operator and a water carrier before he became a shopkeeper in the warren of little establishments in Bait Talib behind the Muttrah souq.

Mohammed Abdullah Shahu al Balushi used to ferry water from under the mountains in Baluchistan, using donkeys to get to customers in Mandh. But that wasn’t good enough and so, 59 years ago, he left for Gwadar on the coast and set off for Oman, leaving behind his donkeys, and the mother from Kichi, settling down in the neighbourhood of Dabagh.

“No one played football here in those days,” Diesel says, “only hockey.” But Diesel wasn’t going to bumble around with a stick. He slips deep into the innards of his dark, one-room shop and unearths an old monotone photograph of him and his football team in Muscat, with mountains in the background. It was 1961 and Diesel was devouring 30 tandoori rotis a day, 6 cloves of garlic and his own concoction of herbal treatments. He always tried to stay away from meat and potatoes.

He doesn’t eat any dinner these days, except for a swig of water heavy with the flowers of the shirish and leaves of the rehan. That, he swears, will keep you going when everyone around is dropping like flies. It might be true: everyone he ever knew from the old days is dead.

But Diesel has burned brighter than those around him. He used to smoke 3 packets of cigarettes back in the days they weren’t even allowed, and he’d exhale through his nostrils to be more discreet. He stopped when the bleeding in his ears got too bad. And then there was the drinking. The worst was the night when he had gone to the Ghubrah roundabout and was taking his customers to Ruwi. He knew he had drunk too much and had two showers at home, but they hadn’t been enough. He crashed the car at Darsait, and that was the end of his drinking.

Somewhere between living like hell and burning out, Diesel became a thief, earned a lot of money, owned a fleet of six cars and had people to drive them for him (he had a staff of 36). But he blew it all on alcohol and women. He’s been arrested and sick and bankrupt, and now plays it safe with his little shop in an alley behind the souq.

He now stops at 12 rotis, and has quit smoking and drinking. The rumour in the neighbourhood is that he’s still a rich man, with far more money than you’d guess from his basic establishment. He says he makes RO200 a month from the shop, and another 300 from a business partnership where he lends his name. He opens shop at 6am and stays in it till midnight, cat-napping in the afternoon but always open for business. He will walk for more than an hour in the wee hours of the morning, past the empty waterfront and to his house in Dabagh.

But after a lifetime of excess, after all the money and drink and adventure, after the 14 children (13 from one wife), even Diesel is tired. “Everyone I knew,” he says, “is dead.” And he barely made it through. The secret, he reveals to me, dead serious, as he flicks over a packet of silver Dunhills to a customer, is this: never, ever listen to the wife.

Khamis the Builder

Khamis Taufiq Farhan al Maskry has built walls of palaces and homes, walls of mud, of sarooj and, finally, towards the end of his career, of cement. He has hidden weapons within walls, secrets unknown to the world until the day the owner needed to break through the outer coating of mud and plaster to get to them.

Khamis the baniya left Ibra when he was 15, and started working as a helper at construction sites, eventually learning to build, and doing work at Sultan Taimur’s palace. That was a long time ago, but he still waves the hand with its curled finger that he injured while working on the falaj at Mamura, towards Salalah. The sultan put him on a helicopter along with a few Balushi labourers and took them to Aden in Yemen for treatment.

But Khamis is a very old man now, sitting in the dark, looking towards the light of the doorway through cataract-blue eyes, squinting towards the wall of the building opposite, the patch of ground in between, the cat that prowls along these back alleys of Luluah and the occasional laysu-wrapped woman. There is nothing else.

It is sweltering in this little concrete house, but Khamis isn’t sweating. He’s just happy the government built over his plywood shack and replaced it with his current home. His wife is dead, the grandchildren are away, and he gets meals from the neighbours. And the RO135 a month that the government gives him? “It is enough,” he says. “Enough!”

The Color of Jaundice

Even the walls seem a sickly jaundiced yellow in the last house of Mateira. It is here, crammed between the rock and the sea, that the medicine woman cures people of busfar, an art that her family has passed down for generations.

Aysha Abdullah Saleh al Hooti grew up here, right under the sidr tree that is supposedly more than a century old. You don’t argue with numbers in the furthest corner of Mateira. This is where Aysha will hold your hand and press the oil out of it, reading in the divoosa a diagnosis of ill health, probably. This is where she will flick a razor blade three times over the ark or vein at the edge of your ear, so lightly it doesn’t hurt. The blood from each ear is passed over the eye on the other side of your head, and you will be given turmeric and lemon dissolved in a single glass of water.

Outside, the sidr that Aysha sat under as a girl is ruffled by the wind as it bounces off the innumerable dead-ends of Mateira. Aysha pauses mid-sentence.

“My parents got divorced when I was three, so my aunt brought me here, to the house by the tree. She married me off to her son when I was twelve.” Over the next half century, Aysha had six children and treated thousands, some of whom came from outside the city. There are, by Aysha’s estimate, just three people in Oman who use traditional methods to cure busfar.

The word ‘busfar’ probably comes from the Arabic asfar, meaning yellow, and refers to jaundice. Jaundice itself comes from the French jaune, which also refers to the color commonly associated with the condition. Aysha’s patients typically complain of rapid heartbeats, drowsiness, lack of appetite, pain in the knees, and feeling either too hot or too cold. “The busfar travels to the liver after about four to five months, and then it’s too late. This is busfar al kabid. I never treat a person when that happens.”

Aysha says that the technique of diagnosis and treatment, which her family guards and only hands down over years of practise to the next generation, first came to her grandfather. He had prayed for a cure during the last three days of Ramadan, or lalat al kadr. Not every healer uses her method of shatab, or cuts (plural: tashteib), or even the melodramatic twist where she puts the blood over the eyes. Others use the technique involving hot irons, called kay (to iron), in Arabic, and wasim in Omani dialect.

Such methods are taught over lifetimes, and Aysha nods in her son’s direction when asked if she will pass them on. But he doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about the prospect. Instead, he nurses a foot full of metal and talks of early retirement from the air force, a pension, and his next job. “I’d rather tell people about prevention,” he says in English so his mother doesn’t understand, “rather than trying to cure them.”

It is about 40 degrees outside, the beginning of the hot season. It is right about now, in the summer heat they call keid, that the number of patients will swell. But Aysha will only see them on Wednesdays between 4–6pm, when, she says, it isn’t too hot and the position of the moon is good, when they won’t bleed too much. In particularly serious situations she will see them on Mondays and Tuesdays, but never ever between Thursdays and Sundays.

The Medicine Man

It takes a rial to get the old medicine man to open his tattered, dog-eared book, and everything after this point is left to what ancient calculations he comes up with, how much he can change your life and what you think it is worth. The muallim Nasser bin Said bin Nasser al Abri never asks for anything. That, he insists, would be haraam.

Outside the little room and its stained green walls, an empty patch of land marks the spot where the leper colony used to be, its fringe of weeds all that’s left of the vegetable patch the patients used to tend. This is where the muallim’s father stayed when he suffered from leprosy, and where he was treated and cured by Dr. Thomas, who ran the centre in the Seventies. He worked for the doctor for 30 years, tending to the sick and spreading word of his cure.

Nasser is scribbling in the gloom, using an ancient calculator table to tear apart names and dates and attach numbers to them, and then put the figures together to form an answer. He is squinting through reading glasses over a razor-sharp goatee, jotting down points. The letter ‘s’ from a name has a value of 12, the ‘a’ makes 18, one has to remove the 2 from the 12 and add it to the 18 and get 20. There doesn’t seem to be much logic here but there might be a system. He learnt his art from his father, who had studied from masters, learnt from books and even wrote some himself.

Three generations stare down mournfully at us from the top of the green wall, just under the turquoise ceiling. There is Nasser, with his headcloth at a rakish angle, the father in white and Nasser’s son in army uniform, sometime before he went to the Royal Hospital for something minor when he was 18 and didn’t come out alive.

Nasser was in the army too, but got sick after three months with busfar and had to be cured with hot irons, a process known as wasim. He got better and left for oil company Aramco in Saudi Arabia, and also did a stint in Bahrain. He returned to Oman, to marry repeatedly and receive the hopeful in the little room.

Wives have flowed through Nasser’s life with such ease he can barely keep track of all of them. Three Omani wives of his have died over the years, and he is on his fifth. But local brides might come with a price tag of up to RO3,000, while he would only have to pay 50 rials for an Indian. And so he took eight from the Subcontinent. He isn’t quite sure where they are now. “Probably back in India,” he says.

This is about when the wizened, huddled-up figure stirs against the stains on the wall. Nasser claims to be 94, so the natural assumption would be that this is his wife. That’s two generations off: she is his wife’s grandmother. The wife is summoned, and Nasser’s eyes light up. She comes out from the depths of the house barefoot, and buries her face in her soft grey laysu. She is 29.

Children and Grandmothers

Fatma Suad Khamis al Hindi’s tribal name points to origins across the sea that used to lap against the little road in front of her house. That was a long time ago, before the massive slab of reclaimed land and tarmac was built, pushing the waterfront many meters away.

But while the outer ring of Mateira has changed with time, development and money, little has stirred in the recesses where Fatma grew up, a few maze-like alleyways away from Aysha, the busfar healer. After a lifetime of eking out a living in the little house her family has had for generations, Fatma spends the evening working the clothesline, pottering around the wire and spring frame of bed that lies outside, crammed with utensils. They are used to be handoo or klow earlier, Baluchi terms for the metal and clay pots they used for cooking and to transport and store water from the wells.

The kitchen itself is squeaky clean, a little room that shares its wall with the bedroom where Fatma sleeps, which in turn lies beside the one kept for the brother.

But the brother isn’t of any help, and Fatma gets by with the RO135 she earns doing odd jobs at the Muscat School. That spreads wafer thin over the house and granddaughter she takes care of, and she had to skip three months of electricity bills till she’d saved enough.

But while Fatma never had much success with the adults, it’s the children that always flocked to her, and most of the line across the courtyard is laden with little clothes. Her granddaughter, 16, prefers to stay with her, and four pairs of little eyes from Fatma’s sister’s house peep eagerly at us from around the corner: a pair of twins, a brother and a little sister who says she’s barefoot only because her shoes are in a room that shouldn’t have been locked.

The Sheikh of Lawami

The old man hitches up his dishdasha, showing off scars from operations in India as we huddle into the little room surrounded by mango and banana plantations, pumped water and new development. He presses down on his knee, bursting into mock agony as he describes his stay in hospital. Who would have thought that here, in this little concrete box, overtaken and overlooked, lies a sheikh?

Nominal head of Wadi Lawami (once a village and now an old neighborhood fading under the sun), Sheikh Said bin Saif bin Said al Siyabi talks of the old days when the water never gave out, the Dahariyah mangoes were the best in Oman and the area boasted of the tag line ‘sukr wa halib,’ sugar and milk.

Around the corner, young men cruise in souped-up old Mustangs, Shetland ponies waddle through air-conditioned paddocks at the Royal Stables and a mid-day haze sets in.

An Ice Cream called Doogie

An entire neighbourhood’s worth of little children are running through the alleys, across parking lots slapped over old wells, past the little squares of overgrown gardens, between the fingers of rock and to the little house on the corner, with its dark staircase and crumbling wall and tree full of farsad, to Hafeeda Sumer Najman al Zadjali. For Hafeeda — you can call her Hafoz, but the children prefer khalo, or aunt — is the only ice cream maker in Hillat Zadjal, selling little plastic cups of home-made doogie, a frozen mix of milk and water, sometimes salt, with a stick through it. A cup will cost you 50 baiza, but most children come with a 100.

Hafoz has lived here 30 years, and started selling doogie after she got divorced. She starts with boiling water in a pot, then adds milk. She stirs this on a low flame, adds a bit of labaan and then seals it. The plainest of versions get a bit of salt, while others benefit from sugar and even coloring. She sells a couple of rials worth of doogie sitting on the steps of her house in the evenings, and about 3.5 rials worth through an Indian lady a couple of turns away at Wariposht. That’s three rials of profit after deducting 500 baiza for the reseller.

“Doogie comes from ‘dog’, which means ‘labaan’ in Balushi,” she says. And Hafeeda? “It’s just a name. In the old days people named their children without much thought. If you were born on a Friday you might be called Jumma.”

Corners of Wariposht

The first cool breeze at the fag end of the summer blows down Wadi Saghir, over the graveyard of shards, around the earthen watchtower above, and past the famed but now boarded-up wells, briefly making its way up the hillock they call Wariposht and under the tree where Zeinab Charshambe Hussein al Balushi is sitting, plucking leaves off the stem of the ghaneba. Later, she will add lemon, chilli, perhaps even a bit of onion, a base for the little fish the Balushis call kasho.

From here, just under the massive shirish tree that Zeinab’s father-in-law planted by what was then a house of plywood, you can see everything that ever mattered. Just under lies the famed well that was once the source of water as tasty as saffron, or zafran. They called it Zafraniya, and, in time, the entire neighborhood was called that too. But the well is nothing more than a concrete stub sticking out of gravel now, boarded up, spray-painted with football slogans and crowned with a triumphant dish antenna. Above, looking on in silence, is Burj Mamura, a dainty finger of a watchtower perched on the crest of the hill, looking over the graveyard and the beginnings of Wadi Saghir. But there is nothing to look over any more, nothing except the two abandoned wells that fed the gardens that were later replaced by tombs, or the football field scraped over the beginning of Saghir.

But life really starts where Saghir ends, where the neighbourhood boys run amok around Zafraniyah, where Zeinab’s Sri Lankan housemaid brings out the bagful of dried kasho, where Zeinab’s daughter Fatma sits in the last light of the evening and slurps on a doogie, and teenagers cruise around in a new Honda Civic.

One Rial in Areen

Formerly known as Aryana (which seemed to translate into ‘naked lady’), Areen is home to a mix of tribes including the Hadi, Wahaibi and Lahsani. There are barely any roads here, just alleyways that snake around buildings, eventually leading you to the back, where an old graveyard lies before the bare rocky hill that marks the end of the hillah. It is here, in the furthest reaches of Areen, that you will come across the women of the houses as they sit outside in the evenings. Like Fadeela Said Salim al Wahaibi, at the head of a circle of up to eight women. Some are picking the innards out of sun-dried lemons, putting the now-darkened flesh into a glass jar for use in saloona, or curry. This is the famed lomi yabis that will be used through the year.

Others are busying themselves with circular pieces of cloth that will later be made into the kummah, the traditional cap that Omani men wear. The women of Areen are subcontracted only for burrowing their needles over patterns already drawn in the cloth, forming tunnels called itarsu, or tatris, that will later be worked upon by another set of workers. Each kummah they poke through will fetch them a rial.

Akram Ali’s Japanese Engines

Akram Ali’s thick fingers are dark with grease so deeply ingrained it won’t wash away. We are sitting in the darkest of corners of Wadi Kabir, a locality seemingly filled with more car workshops and tin sheds than people. Around us, stretching far into one of the largest warehouses in the neighborhood, are car engines — all Japanese — hundreds of them arranged according to make and size, row upon row so surreal this looks like a science-fiction movie.

It could almost be one. There might be a few hundred engines, but there must be thousands of other parts — spark plugs, brake discs, differentials, arms, brackets, sprockets, gears, wheels, shafts, drives — arranged on row after row of shelves and buried deep in drums. Decades of grease move underfoot as you clamber up to the mezzanine, from where you can look over tons of metal, twisted and oiled and stored to fit every kind of vehicle.

Akram Ali has mastered all of this, and can make a car that has been smashed to pulp complete again. In his workshop you are more likely to run into a part of a car, or a half-car than you are an entire vehicle. Cars that have had their fronts annihilated in unspeakable accidents, cars that now end at the steering wheel first have their beginnings drawn on paper by Akram, then have the metal shaped and welded into place, and then, finally, their innards stuffed with that infinitely reusable commodity, the Japanese engine. Akram takes immense pride in this, and shows off his greasy fingers whenever he can.

Ayman

Ayman is subconsciously twitching his knees in the diffused light that filters through shut windows at the far end of the majlis, as if trying to keep up with his own rapid-fire thought process. He is very big, perhaps two meters tall, and very sure of himself. I try to control my scribble. There, through the window, is Wadi Qani, and below it the ruins of the fortifications Ayman’s ancestors put up against the Portuguese, the Bortugalein.

The deeper you get into Bausher the further away Bausher seems. Here at its epicentre, where the irrigation channels, plantations, ruins and mountains come together, you will, instead, find yourself wandering through Fatha, Sadh, Taif or Gaal. In the old days, when all the ruins you stumble over today were in use, where you were depended on which tribe you belonged to.

There were the Amranis, who left without much of a trace, the Haadis on the southern side of the mountain towards Amerat and Hajar and Quriyat, the one house of Khalilis, the Jabris and, most deeply entrenched of all, the Busaidis.

“My dream,” says Ayman when I ask him about his life, “won’t come again.” I look at him, wondering if he really meant it or if it was just a dramatic thing to say. But all I get is that razor sharp look, the same one he throws at me after shying away from a photograph.

Umm Khalid

Zeinab Ismail Mohammed al Hooti used to be royalty back home in Mandh, but that was a lifetime ago, in a faraway land now divided between Iran and Pakistan. It is late morning, and she potters around in the little house hidden away among the backroads of Muscat, a shaabiya given to her by the government in the Seventies. She talks of all the land her family had in Baluchistan, of the goats and gandum and rice and milk they owned and dealt in, and the biryani they called hawaari.

Umm Khalid (Mother of Khalid), as she is known around her current neighbourhood, was just 14 when she left Mandh for the port of Gwadar and took a boat to Kuwait to get married to her cousin, a driver for a local royal who worked at the airport. Things weren’t quite the same again. She used to sell dengu beans behind a school in the city. And they were expatriates forever, looking for a place to live and work.

Their fortunes rose in the Seventies, when Oman changed government and was inviting people to come and build up the country. And so the Hootis came to the sultanate, with eight of them living in the little house in Muscat.

The Half-Settled

Mohammed Wahaibi’s clean-shaven, lean, long face stares out at me from a 40-year-old photograph, looking over fields so rich they look lush even in black and white. To the left, with raised hand, is his best friend. Friends splash through a wadi in flood. A brother slips on a dark jacket over his dishdasha. A cousin grabs a rifle. There are wells everywhere, with peculiar triangles of high wooden beams over, and cows that would walk up and down a ramp, powering the rope pulleys. Welcome to Tuyyan, the neighbourhood of the tawwi, or well.

A lot of things have changed. Mohammed is still as lean and clean-shaven, though his hair has thinned. And there are no wells in Tuyyan any more, only their remnants, mostly boarded up, some scribbled over, a few dried but still gaping up at the sky between shards of tombstones and the last generation of concrete.

“We are half-settled,” says Mohammed of the bani Wahaib, who were spread out over much of Ruwi in the old days. “Some of us were farmers, while others were more nomadic, moving with herds of goats.” Mohammed’s family has moved quite a lot too, from its original home in Hamma (humma means ‘favour’, Mohammed points out), on what is now the Amerat-Quriyat road, to Hatat, with its massive bowl of a wadi with rocks chiseled by ancient artists to Tuyyan, with its wells and cows and plantations sandwiched between houses and rock.

Now, we are standing over his great grandfather’s tomb at the end of the graveyard of Maamura, over the pile of stones as anonymous as the rest of the mounds sticking out over this side of the wadi, except for the two white stones at either end. Half a minute away is his father’s grave, dug when he was just 35 and back from Bahrain with a bad liver. It was 1955, and Mohammed was in Muscat’s Saidiya school. The wells of Maamura had already been abandoned, and the plantation was now a graveyard. Only the stubby finger of a watchtower still stood atop the hill, looking over graves, the famed Zafraniyah well where the water was said to have tasted like saffron and the pass through Wadi Saghir. “My grandfather would’ve been laid here too, but he was killed in a road accident on the way to Dubai, and was buried there.”

The last remnants of family are still in Tuyyan, but he offered his brothers as much of the family property as they needed, and all that’s left for him is an empty square of land barely a couple of hops wide. Instead, he built his house in the area of Ruwi popularly known as Mumtaz, supposedly after a Pakistani engineer who worked there decades ago when there wasn’t much else in the area. “People would say they were going to Mumtaz’s area, and so it stuck.” No one knows where Mumtaz might be now, though guesses bounce between dead or alive in Pakistan. Halfway up the wall of rock that separates Mumtaz from Wattayah is the old walking path, just a dark stony line now, making its way over Aqabat Marrah to Hillat Sadh on the other side. “It was so much easier to walk over instead of around the mountain,” says Mohammed. “Now, we just take the road.”

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