Well, as I write this, it’s Tuesday, October 8, 2013. There is a national holiday coming up, and the dates of this holiday were announced last week. Wait, you say, nobody knows the exact date of a holiday until two weeks beforehand? Quite right. That’s because, even with the amazing technology that we possess in this modern era, the local government insists upon waiting until the various phases of the moon are abundantly clear—remember, this is an Islamic country, and the Islamic calendar is lunar, not solar, and so things are more than a little different from the USA. Some holidays are fixed, of course, such as National Day, which always falls on the same day in December. The ones of religious significance are the ones that are in flux, such as this. It’s called Eid al Adha, and I mentioned it last year in our post about going to Muscat.
In a nutshell, the holiday is a celebration of Abraham, who you may remember from the Bible, and his willingness to sacrifice for God. Lots of goats will die during this time as people slaughter them and share the meat with their families and the needy.
Anyway, the holiday means that we have time off from work. As you no doubt know, there is nothing like time off to put a smile on a person’s face. Since Eid is going to fall on October 15, the middle of next week, we have been expecting to have most of the week off. However it wasn’t until two days ago that it was announced that government workers would have the whole week off, which, if you count the coming weekend, amounts to 9 days off in a row. That’s pretty nice, right? Now, I can only assume that we teachers are going to be off on those days, too, because the Abu Dhabi Education Council hasn’t seen fit to notify us peons as to when we’re officially off.
This is the sort of thing that can be a bit upsetting—after all, when given the time and the opportunity, the wife and I like to travel, and 9 days is plenty of time to go somewhere interesting. Knowing when those days would fall, though, is a key piece of information a person needs to purchase an airline ticket and make plans. On the other hand, far be it from me to complain too loudly—having 9 days is great, even if we didn’t have advance notice. Sticking around the house and perhaps seeing some new quarters of the UAE instead of going farther afield is still going to be pretty neat, I guess. Come on, Eid break. Arrive quickly. We need you. I need you. My sanity requires you.
It’s Sunday. This is the last day of Eid al Adha, the festival of sacrifice, a four-day holiday which honors Abraham’s submission to God in willingness to sacrifice his son. If you know the Biblical story, God ends up staying Abraham’s hand and provides a ram to be sacrificed instead. Anyway, the holiday itself is a time when there are tons of sheep (and other larger animals) that are slaughtered and feasted upon. We saw many fine animals in the backs of trucks, destined, most likely, to end up on the dinner table. Besides the large meal with their families, Muslims will share a large portion of the meat with the needy, too, making the festival about providing for others.
As I said, it’s a four-day holiday, Jenia and I have just returned from a mini-vacation. For our break, we packed our camera and backpack into the newly purchased Kia and headed east. East, across the border to the Sultanate of Oman, into territory which Jenia has visited ever so briefly (making one of the famous Al Ain ADEC teacher spouse’s “border runs”), and which I had hitherto gazed upon through the razor-wire topped fences which insulate the UAE from it’s friendly neighbor.
The Oman experience was a lovely one, by and large. It busted up some of our preconceptions into tiny little pieces, and we enjoyed seeing a new part of the world.
First, let’s talk about the new part of the world and getting there: our destination was Muscat, some 4 1/2 hours away on the coast. Our route there took us across the Mezyad border crossing. We hit the border around 11:30, parked, went inside, paid 50 AED each for visas (just stamps in the passport), and purchased automobile insurance coverage good for Oman (which was only 80 AED for a week, the briefest amount of time they’d sell to us). After spending a solid hour in there, we finally got out and headed on our way. There was a lesson in this: on Eid, travel early to avoid crowds.
The scenery was nothing like we’d expected: instead of dunes and wide-open spaces, we paralleled a mountain range most of the way. There were a few stretches where there were dunes, but there were plenty where the desert was barren, rocky, and flat, with little trees which bring pictures of the African bush to mind.
The road signs leave a little to be desired, as do Google maps. Fortunately, we only made a couple easily corrected mistakes along the way. Nonetheless, by the time we arrived in Muscat, the sun was nearly set and it was impossible to see very much of the ruggedly beautiful landscape.
We grabbed a bite to eat at a local joint with outdoor seating where an Indian waiter beckoned, “Come, everyone happy! Table right here,” and soon friends of ours from Al Ain who were also vacationing in Muscat joined us. We all went to the Mutrah Souk, a traditional style Arabian market, which was a bustling mixture of sights, sounds, and scents. The air was heavily perfumed by strong, oily fragrances, incense (frankincense, in particular), and other things, sometimes less savory.
On to preconceptions. Here’s how at least one of those got smashed. A beautiful abaya and shayla-clad Omani woman started talking to us at one point. Her brother was inside the same stall that our friends Frank and Melissa were shopping at. “I could get that [same item that your friends are looking at] for 1.5 [instead of 2],” she said, “Because I am Omani.” She offered advice on which pieces matched best, and she watched Melissa bargaining with great interest. The vendor wanted 5 riyals. “He’ll do it for 4,” she told me quietly, as Melissa low-balled away. “4 is a good price.” Sure enough, after a moment or two, Melissa struck a deal at 4.
Now, this was interesting because in Al Ain, Emirati women are friendly enough to Jenia, but they hardly speak to males, whereas this lady didn’t mind speaking to me at all–there seemed to not be the barrier between men and women that there often is erected here in the Emirates.
I asked the woman about her henna, which ornamented her fine hands in brown floral patterns. “Is it for Eid?” She smiled and told me, “Yes, for Eid.” She told me where the girls could get it done, and told me that there are two kinds of henna. “There’s black henna and red. This is red,” she said, indicating hers. “But we don’t do the black anymore, because it is bad for sensitive skin,” she said. “Better the red.” I think if we’d hung around, she would have happily talked to us about anything and everything for as long as she was able.
So, there went one preconception: that Arab culture is more or less the same in the Gulf states. Evidently not. Jenia’s going to be writing about another encounter we had that further altered our vantage points on people here, in a very good way. But I’ll let her do that, and not get into it just yet.
This post features the word authenticity. Here’s why. The city of Muscat manages to feel more genuine than Abu Dhabi or Dubai. You must understand this might sound a little contradictory at first, because most of the people who were working in the stalls in the souk or at the restaurants were, just like in the UAE, from another country (usually India). But I say it felt more authentic because Oman’s development feels less forced and artificial. Muscat doesn’t feature a ton of high-rises, and it doesn’t have the world’s tallest this or the world’s biggest that. It doesn’t appear to be in a contest to prove itself. It feels content to be itself, and that self is more relaxed and less hectic than the UAE tends to be.
It’s hard to explain the final reason that I call our trip a journey into authenticity, but I’m trying: the people themselves seem warmer and more at ease with being themselves in public. Or maybe it would be better to say they seem less guarded, more open. Whatever the case, they seem a bit more natural to me.