Touring Oman: Zaher Drives Us Back to Muscat

Passing One Year of His Majesty's Call to Minimise Road Accidents. Traffic Safety Day - First Anniversary Stamp. 18 October 2010

On the way home we chatted and told jokes.  When we hit the highway, the ding, ding, ding started.  I said to Zaher,

“It was so nice when the bell was not going off.”

He slowed to 120 kilometers per hour and we sat quietly wondering who was going to blow first.

About halfway back we needed to pull over for petrol.

It was nearly 4pm.

Zaher had a hard time keeping his foot from pressing the pedal.  The ding, ding, ding would come on and he would jokingly shush it as the car decelerated.

Suddenly we came to a complete stop.  At least two kilometers ahead of us, the mountain highway was a parking lot.

“Oh my god,” Zaher kept repeating.  “There must be a terrible accident.”

We waited in one of the two lanes of traffic.  After twenty minutes of not moving, Zaher could not take it.

He turned right and started driving down the road’s shoulder.  He kept looking out into the desert.  Other four-wheel SUVs had already pulled out of the traffic and were crossing the desert to a dirt side road.  With the low Camry, he had to wait for the right opportunity to pull out into the desert.

I observed one Land Rover stuck in a dry stream as cars waited behind it and said to Zaher “that car is stuck.  Be careful where you are driving.  I don’t want to get a puncture.”

He looked at me, “We have a spare and you are two strong women.”

“Oh no,” I told him.  “I am older than you and my knees are aching.”

That kept him from driving into the desert.  Instead he continued driving on the right hand shoulder passing all the other cars.  Several cars began following us.

An ambulance came up from behind trying to get through to the accident.  It slowed to a crawl because the line of cars Zaher led on the right hand shoulder blocked its path.

“An ambulance is coming,” I told him.  “There are probably people who are hurt.  You’d better get out of the way.”

Zaher forced our car back into the traffic leaving just enough for the ambulance to scoot through.  As soon as it passed, he pulled right again and followed closely behind.

It sped ahead only to be stopped completely by another white Camry.   The white Camry did not move out of the way despite the ambulance driver trying to use the siren to push it out of the way.

We did make progress following the ambulance.  Finally the white Camry pulled back into the traffic, creating quite a pile-up.

I am somewhat used to this type of driving.  I decided if he doesn’t care, it’s not my car.  If it gets dented….

Still I could not keep my mouth shut.

“There’s a police officer up ahead,” I informed him.  “He is giving that guy a ticket.”

The police officer was waving for the white Camry to get out of the way to make room for the ambulance.  The ambulance got through and the officer seemed to be writing the guy a ticket.

Zaher pulled left between two large trucks.  He squeezed in between the bumpers that were even with our heads.  I didn’t say anything.  I thought, I am not his mother.  I am not his employer.  I am not his wife.

He began weaving and maneuvering into the left hand lane, forcing his way around the trucks.  Once in the left lane, we discovered the police were funneling people back into the right lane.  Zaher negotiated his way through and around the cars, waving and beeping, forcing them to halt and let us through.  No dings, no hits.

We finally got to the ten car and the one hundred air conditioner accident.  A large truck carrying air conditioners fell over while swerving to miss a five car pile up in front of him.  People were strewn across the road holding their heads.

“Wow wow wow,” said Zaher as he slowed to three kilometers an hour to look at the damage.

As soon as we passed the mess, he pressed the gas and we were at 150 – ding ding ding ran the bell.  But he didn’t care.

Five kilometers flew by before we were suddenly in another traffic jam.

“What is going on?” he said.  Tired of being a tour guide, he pulled his ghuttra off his bald head and threw it down on the center brake and unbuttoned his top button.  Now he was the real Zaher.

Again he started pushing his way through the traffic until we were absolutely stopped by a big jam around a huge tanker that had turned over in the road.

The tanker was so large a huge crane had been set up in the road to hoist it from the ground.  The crane operator had to have nerves of steel as he lifted the tanker.  Cars filled with families sat within a foot of the crane beeping and swerving around its braces as they squeezed their way through the traffic.  Police officers tried controlling the chaos but people drove in literally every direction to get around the crane.

Zaher managed to get around the crane and sped into Muscat.

“Oh no,” Zaher started moaning as we entered the city and slowed again.  “It is Thursday night.  Festival night.

As much as Zaher tried, he could not outwit the traffic.

We found ourselves at six-way intersection with cars standing still in virtually every direction.  Instead of waiting behind the line where the traffic light stopped us, Zaher plunged into the middle as soon as a tiny space was made. We were surrounded by a sea of cars.  No one could move as no one gave an inch.

We sat in the intersection for about fifteen minutes through at least eight changes in the traffic signal.  Absolutely zero cars moved.

Suddenly a space opened up.  The police had arrived.

Gesturing and shouting, they got the unruly drivers out of the intersection and back to following the lights.  Within three lights we zoomed through the center of the intersection, made a left and found ourselves on the road to the Crown Plaza.

We pulled at 6pm.  Not bad, our itinerary said we would return by 5pm.  I really didn’t want to congratulate him on getting us back so timely as I didn’t agree with how he did it.  I didn’t complain though and we tipped him well.

“That was a lot of traffic,” I said.  “At least we made it back in one piece.”

“Usually I am back here by 3pm,” he complained.

I didn’t take the personal business card he offered.  We bid good-bye.

Inside, Goldi and I washed up then headed down to the pool side bar to recover from our day.

The next morning, I really couldn’t imagine Sultan Qaboos was happy when he read about both accidents in the newspaper.  It was barely three months after Traffic Safety Day.


Touring Oman: Sixth Stop Jabreen Castle

Our final destination was Jabreen Castle.

Afraid he was not going to get a tip, Zaher led us through the castle pointing out the signs on the walls.  The renovated fort/palace/university was built in the 15th century.

Throughout the castle, the rectangular rooms were similar with low windows that opened near the floor and high ceilings that vented outside, naturally cooling the rooms.

The beautiful, recently painted ceilings looked like carpets.  We wove through the maze of rooms.

Hoping we didn’t want to go up, our guide weakly pointed to the upper floors and said “the rooms look the same upstairs.”

“Let’s go,” I said, “you’ll get your exercise.”

The interiors were similar but the views were great.  Eventually we made our way to the highest rooftop that overlooked the valley.  A French TV camera was taking pictures of the Omani flag waving in the wind.

We took the same photo and chatted with the tourists.

An Omani man was lecturing his maid (seen in the first picture at the castle door), his wife holding a newborn and his five children under the age of seven on the palace architecture.  When he saw Goldie and I walk through the doorway, his eyes lit up.  He left his family and made a bee-line to us.  We were the audience he was looking for.   Before we could say salam, he began telling us about the architecture.  Unable to add to the conversation, Zaher sat on the side strumming his fingers.

After a half an hour of his time, we thanked him and he thanked us.  We moved on trying to take artistic photos that might make us famous.

As we left Zaher asked if we needed the ladies room before our hour and a half drive back to Muscat.

We decided to take advantage and were pleased we did.  The restrooms at Jabreen Castle were new, modern and clean.  We told Zaher,

“From now on don’t bother with the hammam in Bahla.  Just bring your clients to the Jabreen Castle.”

We started our drive back to Muscat.

I asked, “What is the difference between the Ibadiyyah and the Sunni and Shiite.”

“There is no difference really.  We are all Muslims.”

“But there must be something different otherwise you would be Sunni.”

“It is mostly how we pray.  We pray like this,” he said taking his hands off the steering wheel, putting his hands together and not moving.  “And they pray like this,” he said moving his hands from chest down to his thighs.  “See little difference, we are all Muslims.”

It didn’t seem like enough difference to make a distinction between the sects.

Zaher said “I am not a good Muslim” and admitted he did not know what the deeper differences were.

At home after doing some research I understood Zaher’s description better.

There is a fundamental difference in how the Ibadi pray – standing up.  There are also some particular doctrinal differences with the Sunni around how Imams are chosen and what happens to fallen Muslims.  Ibadi rejected the Qunut prayer which says:

O’ Allah ! I seek help from You, ask forgiveness from You, and believe in You and praise You for all the good things and are grateful to You and we part and break off with all those who disobedient to You. O Allah, You alone do we worship and pray exclusively to You and bow before You alone and we hasten eagerly towards You and fear Your severe punishment and hope for Your mercy, for Your severe punishment is surely to be meted out to the disbelievers.

My understanding is Ibadi rejected this prayer because it said “we part and break off with all those who (are) disobedient to you” and “Your severe punishment is surely to be meted out to the disbelievers.”

Ibadiyyah practice barā’ah: dissociation (but not hostility) towards unbelievers,sinners, and those destined for Hell.  They believe in wuqūf: reservation towards those whose status is unclear.  This view allows for them to have quiet interaction with others, but not in a way that causes strife or disagreement.  This underlying belief probably explains some of Zaher’s casual “Maybe this or maybe that” attitude.

Zaher admitted he had never even traveled to any other Gulf country so he really didn’t know any Muslims besides the Ibadiyyah.  Like his forefathers, Zaher was isolated – and protected – from the other Gulf countries by the Hajar mountains.

We rode in silence observing the countryside.  There were quite a few newer, two and three story villas near the road.

Zaher pointed out, “these villages are further away, but these houses are moved out.”

I finally understood what he was saying.  The small villages were expanding and we were seeing the new houses being built on the outer circumference.

“What is the population of Muscat today,” I asked thinking about the new roads and houses that seemed to be popping up around the countryside.

“5 million”

“5 million?”  That sounded very high.  I pulled out our guide book.

“Wow,” I said.  “This guidebook was written in 2003.  There were 2.3 million then.  In less than ten years the population has doubled.  That is amazing.  Why are so many people coming to Oman?” I asked.

“Some people they come and some people they go,” he said in his non-committal way.

Later when I checked out Oman’s population, the World Bank’s estimate was 2.78 million in 2010.

Ding, ding, ding.

Touring Oman: Fifth Stop – Bahla Fort

Our 2003 guide book said that Bahla Fort was the largest fort in the area and was not open due to renovation.  Eight years later Zaher confirmed we still could not go inside.

Although my guidebook said the village had many interesting ruins, a great souq and nice palm plantations, we drove up the mountain where the tv antennae facility sat to get a good view and take pictures.   Also, according to my guide book, Bahla was actually about 46 different villages.  It is believed to the oldest inhabited town in Oman.  Archeologists found some artifacts dating back to the third century BCE.

Finally a little Omani knowledge that was not included in our guidebook came out of Zaher.

“See that wall that surrounds the village,” Zaher said pointing.  “The people say that it was built during the night by jinns.”

“Jinns?”  Jinns are ghosts in Arabic.

“Yes.  When they went to bed it wasn’t there and when they woke up it was.”

“They must be very good people if the jinns want to protect them,” I offered.

“Some people were good and some people were bad.” He continued, “This is why the renovation has not finished.  The jinns keep taking down the construction.  They work on the fort and the next morning it is taken down.”

“Then perhaps the jinns don’t want the fort rebuilt.  Perhaps they are afraid the people are preparing for war,” I suggested.

“Maybe – some people were good.  Some people were not.  I don’t know.”

The village and the fort were picturesque.  We climbed back into the car and made our way down the hill.

At the bottom of the hill, we passed a cemetery – a flat-ish area with stones unnaturally turned on their sides.  The work of jinns?

Next Stop: Jabreen Castle

Touring Oman: Fourth Stop – Lunch at Bahla

“Did you like the fort?” Zaher asked us.

“Yes thank you.”

“Are you hungry now?  Should we eat here or drive to Bahla and eat?”

“What is the difference between our options,” we asked.  Lunch was included in our tour package.

“Whatever you like – here or there,” he said in his completely uncommitted manner. We hemmed and hawed.  He finally offered a difference.

“Here we sit on the floor.  In Bahla we sit at a table.”

“Bahla it is,” we agreed.  We could miss the authentic experience in order to sit more comfortably.

We drove to Bahla the car ding, ding, dinging the entire way.  We continued to ask questions about Oman.

“Sultan Qaboos.  He came into power in 1970s?” I began.

“Yes he took it from his father.”

“Did he ever marry?”

“He was engaged once but he broke it off.  His private life is very secret.  No one knows what he has done.”

“Does he have any heirs?”  All royals need heirs.

“Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t.  Nobody knows.”

“Who will take over when he finishes his rule?”

“Nobody knows.  Maybe he has some children, maybe he doesn’t.  We don’t know.  We don’t know,” he said.  He was clearly uncomfortable talking about the Sultan so I quit quizzing him.

The drive to Bahla was quick, like less than fifteen minutes.

Across the street from the “Foodstuff and Luxuries Store” we pulled into a spot facing the oncoming traffic and parked.

The road side café was very simple.  There are some German tourists sitting with their Omani guide at an outside table.  Zaher asked us where we would like to sit.  We preferred outside.

At a table for about eight people a man sat by himself talking on the phone and having a coffee.  We stood looking at him like starving children.  He got up and offered us the entire table.  After chasing him away we positioned the plastic lawn chairs to watch cars whiz by on Bahla’s main drag.

We ordered fresh juice – mango with papaya and lemon with mint and opted for the Indian vegetarian plates while Zaher ordered fish with rice.

Zaher excused himself to wash his hands.  We used our Dettol wipes.

The food came quickly.  As Goldie and I polished our utensils, Zaher dug in with his hands mixing the fish and rice together.  The food was fine and the entire meal was cheap enough for Zaher to some make money.  The plates were about 1.8 riyals and the drinks were 1.2 riyals.

During lunch, we made conversation.

“Is it difficult to become a guide in Oman?” I asked Zaher.  “Do they make you go to school like in Italy?”

Zaher sighed.

“We have to take a test.  I’ve gone four times to take the test.  I have never passed.”  He looked at us sincerely.  “Every time I go they ask different questions.  How can I pass if they ask different questions?”

That explained why he was so pleased we brought our own guidebook.

As we finished we asked where was a restroom to wash our hands.  We were told it was in the back alley and needed a key.  Iron doors with a sliding lock requiring a key made certain only the worthy entered.  Inside there was no sink to wash my hands  nor a place to set anything.

Traditional hammams are fine as long as you are not lugging a big bag with you.  After years of sitting at a desk, achieving the perfect balance while squatting and holding my purse off the floor ensured the potty experience was the most challenging event of the day.

The sink was – of course – inside the restaurant’s dining room.  We navigated through the filled tables to the Washing Area, a four-foot long, communal sink on the side of the dining room where people could wash just before eating.

As we left, I took the photo of the man making naan bread and the government poster that I assumed said NO SMOKING.

Onto Bahla Fort – ding, ding, ding.

Touring Oman: Third Stop Nizwa Fort

The Nizwa Fort is included in The 1,000 Places to See Before You Die list, a kind of bucket list for travelers.  It is Oman’s oldest fort.

The Omani forts were built after the Portuguese started arriving in force in 1507.  Like most historical sites in the Middle East, the forts were left to ruin until the government decided to add tourism to their list of industries.  The original fort was renovated to stabilize the structure  and its original authenticity was lost.  Now it has the look of an amusement park attraction with its maze of passageways.

Nizwa Fort is a museum.  There were signs posted, describing the items presented and giving a short history of Oman.  The poorly lit exhibits depict different aspects of Omani life.

Our guide led us through the rooms and pointed out the obvious.  As we asked questions, he read the answers to us off the posted signs.

One posting discussed the Abadiyyah arm of Islam that most Omanis identified themselves as.  I had never heard of Abadiyyah before.

“Abadiyyah is different than Sunni and Shiite?” I asked Zaher.

“Yes, we are not the same.  We are not like Shiites.”  He didn’t offer more information and I returned to the small inscription.

Abdullah ibn Abadh brought Islam to Oman.  Basically Mohammed the Prophet PBUH sent him a short but sweet letter saying if you do not convert, then our swords will convert you.  A copy of the letter hung on the wall.

After Zaher guided us through most of the fort, we came to the large central tower. The stairs led upwards to the large round courtyard.  At this point he left us, saying he would go get the car and wait outside.

Goldi and I climbed the stairs and followed the instructions.

HA HA Your  pants are falling down – no – boiling oil in your eyes. HA HA

We were laughing like 12-year olds and taking pictures of where hot palm oil was poured down shafts onto enemy soldiers.

As we had fun an elderly gentleman walking alone stopped behind us.  I assumed he was taking a rest as the stairs were quite steep.

After standing awhile on the stairwell, he barked at us.

“How many bloody pictures are you going to take?”

“Enough to make us famous photographers,” I said, putting my arm for him to pass.  “Please go on.”

I did not understand why he had not simply passed as there was enough space for him.  He must have thought he was being polite waiting for us to finish.  But we were having too good of a time to hurry.  It was another instance of cultural miscommunication.

We finally emerged into the courtyard and realized why our guide had left us.

Taking photos of the surrounding town and mosque required climbing three sets of stairs.  We watched elderly European couples in street shoes and Indian ladies in multi-colored saris and sandals climb the stairs with their babies following.

“Good thing I wore my authentic REI action pants and climbing shoes,” I laughed.  I was over-adventurized for the day.  Everything was made for easy access.  With a tiny bit of fitness, all the sites were manageable.

We took photos from all sides of the fort, then headed back down.

At the bottom of the stairs was a small, heritage shop that sold frankincense, candles and other small souvenirs.  Omani Dhofar frankincense was a must buy as it is the finest in the world. It is probably the best opportunity to purchase a nice quantity of real Dhofar for only two riyals.

We continued through, passing the water well exhibit and finding ourselves at the front gate.  Zaher was waiting outside in the car.  We waved a single finger “one-minute” at him and walked into the Omani Crafts House.

Again there were shelves of pottery, bowls, incense burners and water pots.  There were some cute purses with Omani women’s dresses on the outside, swords and silver items.  We left without purchasing anything and jumped in the car.

The only place in Nizwa we didn’t try was Rose’s Castle Shopping complex.

Next Stop: Bahla

Touring Oman: Second Stop Nizwa Souq

We drove to Nizwa about 140 kilometers from Muscat.  Nizwa was the capital of Oman during the sixth and seventh centuries.  It also served as the cultural capital being known as the town of poets, writers, intellectuals, and religious leaders.

We did not stop at any libraries but instead parked in the souq parking lot.  It was Thursday the day before the big Friday cow and goat sale.  Goldi, a staunch vegetarian, had vetoed the Friday market visit as she did not want her dreams plagued with visions of what happened to the purchased goats.

The animal, fish and vegetable souq is part of a typical tour.  However, it was very quiet when we walked through the wooden gate.

Inside the smell of slaughtered animals and blood in the street moved us quickly into air conditioned building with its brightly lit vegetable stalls.  People were not bustling about.  A few vendors sat patiently waiting for buses of tourists to come through, taste their halwa and hopefully purchase a kilo or two to carry home.

Halwa is the Omani sweet.  It is like thick paste made of dates with cardamom and decorated with pistachios.  Both Goldi and I tried a piece.  It was not overly sweet but my palate did not appreciate the jelly texture.  Neither of us wanted another bite and declined the offer to buy any.

At the next stall the man wearing the lavender thobe tempted me with his halwa.  It had a re-useable tin bowl and cover.  I nearly bought it for the container but decided carrying 5 riyals of heavy halwa in my suitcase, knowing no one in my family would eat it, was a waste of good luggage space.

We succumbed to the elderly man selling cashews.  Even after my purchase, he declined a photo.

Outside the vegetable market was the entrance to a Nizwa street store just outside the Fort/Castle’s front door.  The shelves were filled with ceramic replicas of the fort.  At first it looked enticing and we eagerly entered hoping to find the perfect souvenir.

Silver daggers lined the walls. The jewelry cases were filled with traditional style necklaces made of semi-precious stones and silver beads.  At first it looked fun but upon further examination the silver jewelry all began to look like very unwanted silver jewelry that had gathered dust there for years.  The men sat bored, watching at us paw through the piles of trinkets.  We found nothing.  The jewelry was not modern enough to wear, nor special enough to hang up as decoration.  My guess was it all came from India.  We wandered outside.

The crude clay pots were handmade and fired in wood burning ovens.  They become hard but would not last forever.  Nothing appealed to us.

We walked towards the fort entrance and found another street filled with tourist treasure shops.

Goldi led me into one that interested her.

As I entered and took pictures of the camels, the shop keeper asked where I was from.

“America.”  I said smiling as I perused the shelves packed with every type of momento you could imagine.

“Hi Golden Gate Bridge!” he shouted.  His voice reminded me of Maz Jabroni, the Persian comedian on Axis of Evil.  “I love the Golden Gate Bridge.”

“In San Francisco.  I lived there.” I told him.  “But I live in Bahrain now.”

“Ah Bahrain.  My family lived there for many years until the 1970s.  We came back to Oman when Sultan Qaboos came into power.  He made many changes and brought the Omanis back to Oman.”

His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said has led Oman since 1970 when he took power from his father.  Oman’s absolute monarchy had been passed down through the male line of the Al Busaidi Dynasty for the past five generations after Sayyid Turki bin Said Bin Sultan overthrew the Ottoman Turks in 1744.

“You like Sultan Qaboos?” I asked curious whether the Sultan was as popular as he seemed.

“Yes, we LOVE Sultan Qaboos.  He has made many changes to Oman.  Where are you from?” he directed his question towards my flaxen haired friend.

“California,” she nodded.

“California.  Arnold Schwarzenegger!” he shouted.  “He is no longer your governor – no?”

“Actually, I don’t know.” Goldi answered.  “I just moved to California.”

“I don’t think he is governor anymore.  No more Terminator for California,” he said.

“Can I take your picture?” I asked.  I wanted to remember this man.

“Yes you can,” he said.  “First, please wait.”

He reached into his shelves and pulled out a silver khanjar.  It too looked new, probably recently made in India.  He held it next to his cheek and posed for me.

“Thank you.” I said.

No money exchanged hands but we had a good time.

Next Stop: Nizwa Fort

Touring Oman: First Stop Fanja

Oman lies south of Bahrain.  For centuries, Muscat situated on the Gulf of Oman was protected from its northern neighbors by the Hajar Mountains.  Sea-faring traders like the Bahrainis, the sprawling southern coast placed Oman directly on important trading routes between Africa and Asia.  Somewhere in the Rub al-Khali desert, Oman shares a border with Saudi Arabia.

Last year my friend Goldie visited us.  She heard the best frankincense in the world was grown in Oman.  And she wanted see Sultan Qaboos’ famous Al Alam Palace.

We decided to leave the other dragons and rabbits at home and used her snake birthday as an excuse for a long girls’ weekend.  But because she hurt her foot, we could not climb Oman’s mountains, hike through the fjords or explore its caves.  Instead I booked a driver to take us around to some of the key historical sites, planned a day in Muscat and hoped a bottle of champagne would make her birthday magical.

Just as promised, our guide met us in the hotel lobby at nine am.  He shook my hand and introduced himself as Zaher.  He pointed out our car, a small white compact, and we jumped in.  I sat in front while Goldi reclined in the back with her foot up on a pillow and latte in the holder.

We took off towards Nizwa, 120 kilometers away.  The new highway was open, the sky was clear and we were anxious to see what was in store for us – as was our driver.

“Ding, ding, ding” went a bell.

“What’s that?” called Goldie from the backseat.

“It’s a GCC speedometer alarm.  He’s going over 120 kilometers per hour so it rings.  The purpose is to keep people within the speed limit.” I said looking sideways at Zaher.

“Does it bother you?” Zaher asked looking at the beautiful Goldi in the rear-view mirror.

“No it’s fine,” she said going back to the newspaper.

“What about you?” he directed the question towards me, the front seat driver.

“I will put up with it for awhile,” I said already irritated by the incessant ding ding.  “I‘ll let you know when I can’t stand it any more.”

In Bahrain we see a few Omani.  Get about twenty Omanis together and suddenly the place becomes more exotic and filled with color.  Wearing their distinctive head dress and thobe with its small tassle hanging down to the right of the center button, Omani men are easily distinguished from the other Gulf countries.  Their ghuttras can be white, but many times they are colored and then wrapped in Omani fashion around and around the head into a kind of turban with a tail.

Their alternative to a ghuttra is a kumah, an embroidered hat with a flat top.

In the mid 18th century, the Omani empire extended all the way to Zanzibar and Mombassa in Africa and eastward into Persia, Pakistan and India.  When Sultan Said died, the empire was split between his two sons who became the Sultan of Zanzibar and the Sultan of Muscat and Oman.  The colorful attire was likely influenced by African and Indian designs.

“Can you tell us about the head gear the Omani men wear?” I asked Zaher.  “Why do some men wear ghuttras and others wear kumah?”

“Some people like ghuttra and other people like kumah.”

“Yes, we understand that.  But why do you have colored ghuttras and the other Gulf men wear black and white or red and white?”

“Omanies – we like our ghuttra and the other Gulf men like their ghuttras.”

There it was – a full explanation of the cultural differences.

“Here is Fanja”, he said pulling off to the side of the road.  “You can get out and take pictures.”

Fanja was a picturesque village with a dry wadi (river) bordering the edge.  Palm trees lined the imagined banks where the water ran during the wet season.

“People here grow palm trees for dates,” Zaher told us.  We waited for more.  There was not any more.

“The wadi is dry now,” we commented.  “When is the wet season?”

“During the mansoons.”


“During mansoon season.”

OK.  We got back into the car and drove off.

“Are we going through the village?” I asked.  My guidebook said Fanja was renowned for its pottery, local fruits and vegetables, honey and woven goods from palm trees.

“No, no time now.  We drive onto Nizwa through the Sumail Gap.”

The highway was smooth.  The alarm dinged.  When we saw photo opportunities Zaher gladly pulled over.  He smoked as we took pictures.

The black, rocky Hajar mountains provided a stunning backdrop.  The landscape was so different from flat, dusty Bahrain.

Next Stop: Nizwa Souq

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