Women of Wadi Slooh

There is nothing in Wadi Slooh, nothing except for one pool of water, goats so purebred they are worth RO400 each, and — huddled in the shade of goatskins, plastic sheets and dried thorn bushes — a group of beautiful women.

Slooh itself is a place that no one has heard of. And why would they? It is a three-kilometer tributary to Wadi Amdah, and no one has heard of that either. You will get to Amdah from Majamma, an unknown settlement of one extended family, which has been connected to the outside world for the first time by a paved road that ends at its doorstep, a road that trickles out of Madinat al Nahda (that a few people know of), the last bit of extension of the Amerat area, before wadis and mountains take over.

I’d met Abdullah al Rahbi in October 2007. Abdullah’s grandfather, a goatherd, had built his shack at the point where the wadis met. He called the spot Majamma, the confluence of things. He eked out a living with his goats and donkeys, scratching a life through the thorn and the rock. His house was of scraps of branches, sometimes the shelter of the mountains. In summer, when the water dried up, he moved 13km 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.

Over a couple of generations, the family grew, and a settlement took root. Now, the Rahbis live in concrete houses, and have water brought to them from Madinat al Nahda. Although desperately poor, a lot have found jobs, and stability. They put on their air-conditioner for me, the kahwa is brought in, and a cell phone rings in the background, mixing with the winds blowing across the barren wadis and through the open sheet-metal door.

Why huddle under a thatch in a dead-end wadi when you can have a concrete house at the end of a concrete road? Because Slooh is where Majamma has always got its water from, and, although that source has mainly been replaced by municipal tankers, it still obviously has enough emotional appeal to stick to. So over the years the people have moved to Majamma, while they still keep their exceptional goats at Slooh, looked after by women.

Abdullah is quick to show off his lifestock. There’s no arguing about their beauty: the goats are massive, with a coat that would be the envy of any herd in Oman. He insists they are the most pure of breeds, as old as the mountains, untouched by outside influence. “People from the Emirates came here once,” he says, “and they wanted to buy my entire stock, at RO400 apiece.” He sold them two instead. His pride and joy is a massive white goat called Shwakho. “We call our children ‘kashekh,’ which means ‘beautiful.’ So I turned the word around and used it for my goat, which is so good looking.”

The temperature between the wadi walls must be in the mid-forties, but it is somehow pleasant here, with a bit of wind passing from one valley to the other. Abdullah leaves the goats and women behind, and takes me five minutes up a nook in the wadi. The walls get narrower until they close in, forming a little bowl in which a spring bubbles to life. This is the reason why Slooh is inhabited, why the Rahbis have lived here for generations, why the goats are kept at the base of the slope. The rock face turns sheer from here on, and you can see that the wall in front is impassable from this angle for it is too smooth and high. It is obvious that this is also the path of seasonal waterfalls when it rains in the mountains, and this, along with the spring, has led to a handful of stunted, twisted trees taking root out of the cracks in the rock.

“There are snakes in these cracks,” alleges Abdullah, “but they’re really djinns. And they attack you if you try and catch the birds in this area.” That sounds a bit far-fetched, but we take a step away from the walls anyway.

Oman, 2007–2008

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Wadi Slooh