“Oh my G-g-g-oddd…” Kay cringed as the bats skittered up above. Bahla Fort is home to a colony of bats, nesting in the alcoves of the fortress’ dim, cave-like rooms. We had just walked into one such room, and the motion disturbed the bats enough that they began moving from one rafter to another, sending out high-pitched vocalisations.
“What?” I asked absently, looking around to what the young engineer was shrinking from. “Oh!” I exclaimed, with a little laugh. “They’re not gonna do anything! They just-“
Kay bit down a scream, as a bat flew a little too low for comfort. “-all you have to do is stay still,” I continued, smiling. “They need to make the sounds, so that when the sound reflects back, they know where you are, and then they can avoid you.”
“Oh my God.” Kay muttered miserably in a small voice, but she rallied. Another bat fluttered across. “See? Oh my God… I’m so scared.” But her voice grew stronger. We passed into another room.
- The unexpected tour guide of Omani history
- Oman’s clan history
- The unification of Oman
- The Omani empire
- Omani transition to modern society
- Overcoming stereotypes about Omani Life
The unexpected tour guide of Omani history
“So also…” Kay’s voice recovered instantly, picking up where she had left off when she was surprised by the bats. It was so funny. She forgot her fear once she was engrossed again in delivering the history lesson.
I wasn’t sure where Chian and Em had gone by this point. But I didn’t mind. We didn’t have a tour guide at Bahla Fort, but that’s not necessarily a problem if you’re travelling with young female engineers. Generally this demographic would have had to do well in school in order to get hired as corporate engineers in the first place, and probably had paid attention in all their classes.
It turned out to be the case that day. Kay still remembered all of her Omani history.
Oman’s clan history
Bahla Fort dated from the era before Oman was unified. The region received repeated invaders (“the Persians invaded Oman sooo many times!”), and sometimes the clans also warred against each other. Hence the necessity for the defensive fortifications that you could see all over Oman.
Eventually, the clans of the region began electing a primus inter pare, a leader among equals – an Imam. Thus began the Imamate era of Oman, during which the clans were loosely unified under a kind of federation.
“The clans are like different states,” continued Kay in her Arab-accented English. “But the Imam, he is like the ruler of all of them. OK, but they were like, independent.” Like Scotland, I added in my mind, a mind that easily found parallels in patterns.
There was already a sultan in Muscat at the time, she said, but back then the sultan in Muscat did not rule all of Oman. Well, he was sultan of all Oman, but each region was independent.
“Like, Sharqiyah has their own ruler,” she explained, citing her own clan whose territory was the dry desert where Chian had taken me on a previous visit. “And here, in Bahla they have the Imam.”
This seeming contradiction would have confused me, except that I’d already read a lot of medieval history as a teenager, and it reminded me of the mostly voluntary allegiance of powerful European dukes to the royal kings.
The unification of Oman
“And then the Sultan wanted to unite everything under his rule, so then there was some sort of war between the Imams and the Sultan, and then the Sultan won, and khalas,” she concluded.
Suddenly remembering an important omission, she added, “But before that it was against the Portuguese. They invaded Muscat – all the coastal areas. So there were wars with the Portuguese, and at the furthest point, they went all the way to India.”
“Really??” I exclaimed. I did not know this about Omani history. Malaysia, of course, had history with the Portuguese as well, for in the 16th century the capital of our wealthiest kingdom was captured by them. “Oman fought all the way to India?”
Kay assented. “Oman followed the Portuguese to India and then kicked them out of these coasts. At that time Oman ruled a place in Pakistan called Baluchistan.”
“Ah yeah?” I wondered whether the Balushi clan in Oman that Chian mentioned, were originally from this part of the old empire. My mind was blown by all the colonial-era history that I did not know. I had assumed that Oman was just a low-profile fishing coast before modern statehood.
The Omani empire
“Bahrain, Zanzibar, Tanzania, these places were all under the Oman sultan,” she continued. “They moved the capital of Oman to Zanzibar at one time. Muscat was too poor. Zanzibar was the second biggest point of Oman then, after Muscat.”
What. Zanzibar is on my travel list, because the name evoked faint images of a Golden Age, similar to the cities along the Silk Road. But I hadn’t really thought about whose Golden Age. I didn’t really think of it as being part of an empire, let alone an Arab one. Let alone the capital of said empire!
But hang on. Zanzibar is not the capital of Oman today.
The dangerous risk of being a vassal state
“How did they lose Zanzibar??” A rich capital city – how did they lose it?
Kay paused in her enthusiastic description of glorious Zanzibar, the magnificent houses and castles there, still owned by the lineage of Omani sultans. “Because then they had a war with the British. Then they had their independence, and they killed most of the Omanis there. The rest came back to Oman.”
I noted the change in the use of ‘they’ and ‘Oman’. Zanzibar became ‘they’, and ‘Oman’ no longer included it.
There was a shadow there. Independence typically involves massacre, when there has been oppression.
I later learned that Zanzibar had initially invited Omanis to liberate them from the Portuguese, and even encouraged settlement of Omani Arab princes to rule the island.
However, as a key trading port in the Indian Ocean, Zanzibar also traded in slaves. The slave trade* grew to be increasingly lucrative, and the sultan of Zanzibar began to rely on it to secure his power. Zanzibar switched from merely profiting from the slave trade, to directly engaging in it, sending expeditions into the African continent to capture slaves in illegal wars.
But the tide of the world was finally turning on slavery, and the Sultan of Zanzibar proved to be too late to the game.
Oman and Zanzibar today
You’d think that, following such a history, there would be animosity today between Zanzibar and Oman. Or even, between Oman and Great Britain.
But apparently, there are still Omanis living in Zanzibar today. Omanis still have family in Zanzibar, they travel to get married in Zanzibar. Kay’s own family still have farms and a manor house there. Omanis still own Stone Town’s UNESCO Heritage castles and gardens; the Omani government still funds their maintenance, as the Tanzanian government cannot afford it. Zanzibar’s economy is reliant on trade with Oman, and the Omani government still sends financial assistance to Zanzibar.
And as for Great Britain, it seems to me that they are the European nation with the closest relationship with Oman today, treating each other as peers.
There is a lesson in there, somewhere.
“You know, I really recommend you read a book called The Diaries of the Omani Princess**,” said Kay. She had been one of the sultan’s daughters at the time of empire, who ran away and married a German guy, and settled in Germany. The book she wrote described in amazing detail what castle life was like in Zanzibar, and Zanzibar itself, when it was the capital of an empire.
Omani transition to modern society
Oman was the first Middle Eastern country I visited. While I did not have the usual bigoted stereotypes about Arabs (the trading history of the Malay archipelago meant that we already met Arabs and were exposed to Arab culture prior to European influence), I still had some preconceptions about Omani life. One of them was that Oman would be monoracial.
But it was not so. And I’m not talking about foreign workers or expatriates either. Chian told me that two of the major clans in Oman, the Al Lawati and the Al Balushi, originated from India.
In Muscat I saw local people who were not Arab – dressed as Omanis, speaking and behaving as Omanis. Some of them were darker than the majority fairer-skinned Arabs. And a few were obviously black Africans. They mingled together in public spaces. I even met an Omani government officer of obvious African ethnicity when I was in a workshop with the Ministry of Environment.
You can’t heal with an all-or-nothing mindset
I reflect back on that conversation in Bahla. On Kay’s voice, nearly bursting with pride as she described how, during Omani rule, Zanzibar was founded from nothing, and became a city with electricity and roads and public services.
She knows that black people of Tanzania and Zanzibar freed themselves, which meant they had wanted to be. I heard no animosity over that. But at the same time, the era had been a glorious one for Oman.
The present is accepted as if it should be. And the past is also accepted as something that had been, and had to have been.
And I understand that.
I understand it in the same way as the British former colonies understand from consuming English literature, the pride that British people still want to have of their colonial era, even though we were the colonised. I can extrapolate that feeling to understand why white Southerners in the USA still want to take pride in Confederate era history, sans the slavery.
There were things of value to their identity that was formed then, even if the era was tainted by severe injustice. And I do believe you can carve out those things and find pride in them, without approving the evil that was done then.
A thin old man was by the side of the road, as we drove out of Bahla. His skin darkened by long hours in the sun, he too was moving onward at a reasonable clip, headed to Friday prayers in a motorised wheelchair.
It was an incongruent scene of Omani life, for the dry rocky landscape surrounded us, and in the background were pockets of traditional hamlets that seemed to be from out of time. An old Omani man, made frail by age and life. A modern wheelchair, clearly well capable of traversing the gravelly rubble of the road shoulder, making it possible for him to keep the things that matter.
It brought to mind a lesser-known Will Smith movie I watched on a plane, perhaps on this very trip. It was called ‘Collateral Beauty’. I don’t remember the story very well, so it was probably mediocre. But its name and the concept it carries stuck with me, and made the movie itself irrelevant.
It is the opposite of collateral damage, where you tolerate necessary damage for the sake of an outcome you want. Rather, collateral beauty are the achingly beautiful things that can only exist in the wake of tragic events.
There is collateral beauty all around, ready to help the healing whenever you are. But you can’t see it until you stop living within the damage.
The succession dilemma for Sultan Qaboos
In the car, I asked the girls about the Omani political situation. Sultan Qaboos was a beloved monarch, credited for uniting and modernising Oman. But he was ailing, and many speculated whether he was at death’s door.
It was worrisome. Omani life is peaceful, astonishingly safe and orderly. I felt far safer in Oman than in Europe. It was surprisingly courteous and laidback, its people not giving off uptight vibes in the least.
But Oman is surrounded by less stable neighbours. ROP is always catching Saudi spies in Oman, the girls claimed, referring to the Royal Omani Police who served as police, counter-terrorism, and border security all in one. How long could the Qaboos peace last after him? I wondered what the plan was.
“His family has to agree who becomes sultan after him, because he died without children,” said Kay. Apparently, if they couldn’t agree, the sultan had left his recommendation in a sealed envelope, to be opened only in this event.
Epilogue on the succession
At the time, I was sceptical that the vying princes would respect the recommendation of a dead man. On top of that, neighbouring Saudi had seen a dramatic coup by MBS, which saw him remove all possible contenders from posing any threat to his absolute authority.
I wondered if the Omani royal house could possibly be much more civilised, and really simply agree among them on who would take power. You know, instead of fighting it out?
But at the time of writing, Sultan Qaboos has passed from this world. And his family did indeed agree on a successor.
Overcoming stereotypes about Omani Life
One of my early business travel regrets was that I didn’t make time to have personal days around the trip. Had I done so, perhaps I might have learned more about Omani life and culture, and by now understood even more. I don’t mean just about Oman either, but many adjacent things.
I had many stereotypes, even without a negative perception of Oman. Most were assumed from the higher profile nations in the region. But Oman was not like these beliefs that I had in my subconscious. Or rather, sometimes they were, but not always in the way I thought.
Even little things about Omani life, such as ‘Arab food involves a lot of dairy’. But Omani/Gulf food is actually low on dairy, unlike cuisine close to the Mediterranean. Some Omanis are even lactose intolerant. They do take camel milk, but they only drink it freshly milked.
Oh, and that Omanis are into dance music, which they dance to at weddings. I’d not have guessed that genre at all!
The power of negative stereotypes
I was once harangued by a Tongan man in Vava’u, who had picked up anti-Arab bigotry from his time working in Australia. Why do Muslims make their women walk behind them? He kept pressing me on the question, but it’s not a Southeast Asian thing at all. It’s one of those ‘why do you beat your wife’ questions, which are impossible to answer.
Besides, being me, the question made me more interested in philosophically wondering why we even assign a higher value to ‘the front’ than ‘the back’. Or, is it assumed as such purely because that’s where the man is (supposedly), which then creates a circular logic that also cannot be resolved?
But anyway, it’s not even true in Oman. I wish I’d remembered then, that I had this rebuttal on my phone.
How badly can propaganda brainwash you?
Another time, I quarrelled with a friend over something, and told him that for all his world travel, he only managed to meet the same type of people. This offended him a great deal, so I threw in a litmus test. I sent him a photo of a frankincense candle that I had bought in Oman for a colleague as a Christmas present. I told him it was frankincense, that the place is famous for it, and told him to guess where I bought it from.
Now, I didn’t really expect him to guess Oman. But if he were only marginally world-wise, he would get at least the region right. It was not really a difficult test at all. He is technically Greek Orthodox after all, from a heavily American-influenced culture, and should remember better than I that the three wise men came to Bethlehem from the East, with nativity scenes usually showing them coming on camels. They famously came bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
He guessed ‘Israel’. Nope. Then, instead of correcting eastwards, he went west, into Europe, even guessing into Scandinavia! Still unsuccessful, he panicked, and went halfway around the world, guessing ‘Brazil’. Still no. Truly grasping at straws by this time, he went into Asia, completely skipping over the Middle East.
When you close your eyes, you cannot see what’s right in front of you
I finally told him where I got it from, because it was getting ridiculous. I mean, I was pleased to be right, but I didn’t want to be that right.
And it was obvious to him, once he heard the answer.
But he couldn’t see it at the outset. For this was the era when the USA was invading the Middle East on the ‘War on Terror’. It was when Islamophobia first became a thing. He couldn’t see something that he knows, because the narrative of his Western media had trained him not to.
Not to see the Middle East in its complexities, contradictions, surprises, and humanity. Not to see them as being just like us.
*It may be difficult for us to appreciate what the world was like in pre-modern times, since the default of being born free is all we know. However, history and ancient literature buffs will agree that, for much of human civilisation, it was special to be ‘freemen’. At any time your nation could be successfully invaded, and if you survive, it is to be a slave.
Today, you might end up a refugee, or stateless, or exploited. It is still possible to fall into slave-like conditions. But you will know that this isn’t normal. Before the 19th century’s effort for universal abolition, the worldview was the other way around. Slaves considered it part of the normal, lamentable fate of the world. It was freedom that was special. You can’t fully appreciate a whole lot of old literature, if you can’t imagine this context. In a way, this drove the militarisation of nations. After all, one way to ensure your own people didn’t become slaves, is if you enslaved the threatening nations first.
Additionally, during this time, slavery was not like what is understood from the American context. You became enslaved mainly because your leaders could not defend your freedom. All races faced this same risk, in theory. There was not an overarching philosophy to say that a certain race genetically ‘deserved’ to be slaves. Slavery before European imperialism was a sin of cruelty, not of racism.
**The book’s title is Memoirs of an Arabian Princess. I am usually wary about blatantly orientalist books, especially if the writer seemed like they abandoned their culture for a Western one. The reason is that these books typically do well among Westerners in the first place, because they play on stereotypes that Westerners want to hear about Eastern peoples; they wouldn’t have become bestsellers otherwise.
There’s nothing wrong in looking for niche or contrary points of view, per se. But personally, what I’m looking for is to understand the broad culture, how a people see themselves. An unrepresentative, highly individual point of view doesn’t do that.
However, in this case, an Omani young woman from a thoroughly mainstream background and respectable clan has endorsed it, so I feel comfortable passing on the recommendation.