Tombs & Lives of Bat

Suleiman bin Hamood bin Nasser al Jabri gets off his scooter in his deep blue overall, lifting the seat to reveal a thermos full of spiced, milky tea, the kind you hunker down with when the sun hasn’t risen yet in Bat. It is bitterly cold in this open landscape, caught between the highest mountains in Oman and some of the most fearsome deserts in the region, and our only company was the owl that sits atop Tomb 606 every morning at dawn.

We slurp through disposable cups and look over the remains of the 5,000 year old tombs that have put Bat on the tourist map. These aren’t just gravestones sticking out of the mud and rock, they are stone structures that stand four and a half meters in circumference and three meters high, flat on the top. There are perhaps 130 such structures in the immediate vicinity, but thousands more strung over the surrounding hills. Suleiman is part of a team of local labor that works to restore the tomb under the direction of archaeologists, but unlike the others he rushes off at ten each morning to tend to his grocery shop. Suleiman has an agenda and a dream, and buzzes away on his scooter to change from one-piece industrial suit to crisp dishdasha.

You will find him scrubbed and presentable at the other end of Bat, sitting in his hole-in-the-wall shop under layers of razorblades, AA batteries, Tibet Snow face cream, lighters, coconut oil, baby powder, locks, toothbrushes, cola, chocolates, pineapple juice, frozen meat and everything else you need to be comfortable in Bat. He took over this shop in 2004 as part of legislation towards Omanization, renting it from the owner and working hard to keep it successful. Price fluctuations have to be dealt with, and credit from his suppliers needs to be worked on. It is only now, after building up a level of trust over four years, that some suppliers have begun to give him up to a month’s worth of credit. Others want cash up front. Luckily for him there isn’t much competition in Bat: there are just two other ‘Foodstuff and Luxuries’ shops to beat, or live with.

His day job at the restoration site fetches him a handful of rials for every hour he moves stones into place, though there is talk of formalizing the contract into a monthly salary. Given a chance, he’d skip the groceries and work with stones because, as he says, he learns a lot more in the field.

After finishing school in 1996, he started working in a travel company in Ibri, the largest town in these parts. He sold tickets for a couple of months until he left to join a typing and translation firm. Later, he joined an oilfield company, and spent three years being sent out to the rigs around Marmul for 21 days at a time, interspersed with five-day holidays.

Such dynamism seems startling, popping out between the graves, palms and crumbling sarooj ruins of the old town in Bat, the fields abandoned for lunch, the half-hearted string of barbed wire around the tombs. We are sitting in his farmhouse, eating khalas dates sprinkled with simsim, or sesame seeds, while Suleiman tells me of his life. This is the house that he built with his brother and father in 1985: large, airy and spotlessly clean with a majlis done in blue.

What makes Suleiman different? “Iradah,” he says, “desire. I have also worked as a driver of heavy trucks, but there was nothing to learn except monotony. I am open to working on anything now, as long as it’s legal.”

“I dream of simplicity, to live without problems. Money is the evil of everything.”

Ali al Rashid bin Saif al Jabri invites us into his house as we pass by — a greeting from one stranger to another was all it took. His majlis is massive, and the innards of the 30-year-old house are large enough for the 17 people who live here, all family. Ali himself counts 12 children, without getting to grandmothers and brothers.

We gorge ourselves on what easily live up to their reputation as the best dates in Oman: the famous fard, a full-blooded fleshy fruit that thrives in the equally unrivalled summers of the region. “The water is always sweet here,” says Ali between bites, “and our fard is low in calories, preserves well and is excellent for health. Next in line comes the nakhal, and then follow all the other types of Omani dates. People say they grow so well here because of the heat, but I don’t know what all the fuss is about — I’ve experienced the same temperatures in a lot of other places.”

“In the old days we’d travel by camel and donkey to the big towns like Rustaq and Ibri, until graded roads appeared in the mid 1970s. The local industry used to revolve around tamar (dates), zara’a (a kind of grass used as fodder), burr (millet), filfil (chilli) and laymoon (lemon). We still have our farms, but most of us have moved away from agriculture, or employ people to tend our fields.”

“The name ‘Bat’ comes from ‘nabeet,’ the pollen of the date; it also owes its origins to the Arabic ‘nabat,’ or ‘the resting place.’ Since Bat lies between Rustaq, Ibri and Nizwa, people would stop to rest here on their travels through the interiors of Oman.”

You will usually find Zuwayna bint Salim bin Hamed al Makbali sitting on her gravel porch in the sun, a minute’s walk from the ruins of the old quarter where she was born. She moved here when she married into the house of Hamid bin Mohammed at the age of 16, and now enjoys retirement from active housework looking over the back alleys as her grandchildren run under drying clothes.

At 75, she has shed any need of shying away from strangers like the other women, and will fearlessly shout out to you to join her on the gravel for an impromptu conversation. She will almost certainly be dressed in her shocking pink laysu and a flowing black headscarf from under which a large amount of thick white hair begins to venture out. But the crowning glory has to be the mammoth pink ring she wears on her right hand, and she will only be too happy to show it off if you ask nicely.

“What would I wish for if I could have anything? Nothing, I have everything I need,” she says, wagging the thick wooden walking stick over the courtyard, where children played with the greasy skull of a goat and young ladies huddled in a corner, stealing glances at me over their shoulders.

Ali al Makbali can stare right through you as the light bounces off the earthen walls and through the gun turrets of the fort that has belonged to his family for generations. Below us the date plantations of Bat lay spread out towards the mountains and open scrubland, kept alive by wells and the falaj.

Welcome to Hassan al Wardi, the tower at the centre of the old quarter, now just crumbling and abandoned earthen sarooj sprinkled liberally with garbage, goat hooves and petrified skin. Although on the older side, it pales in comparison to its ancient foundations. You can see the stones dating back to the Umm an Nar period (2500–1800BC) at its base from the outside, the unmistakable stamp of the white rock cut like bricks of sugar that you will see at the archaeological site kilometers away.

Hassan al Wardi has two things going for it: it offers an unbeatable view over Bat’s assets and it is built bang on top of a well that could be a lot older than anyone has previously thought, if the Umm an Nar hypothesis turns out to be true. Walk past the cloud of flies and abandoned canon and you will be within its walls, trying to clamber up to the little door, accessible by one lone stepping-stick stuck high into the vertical masonry. A narrow shaft opens just as you get to the wooden frame, through which the household would pour hot oil on unwanted visitors. Just in is another door to the side, with a gargantuan old lock that protects the water source, and beside the serpentine crumbling staircase barely wide enough for a man to squeeze through. Cannonballs and caving floors are all that is left of the insides, and visitors are now escorted to the family’s present concrete quarters a couple of corners away.

It is here in the heavily draped majlis that you will be fed melons and dates, sitting on a blue carpet, surrounded by blue and gold upholstery. The walls are duo-toned in blue, and the curtains match everything else: a kitschy, surreal end to the story of Bat.

Oman, January 2008

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The tombs of Bat