The Arab boys had all the time in the world for my wife, if she would just come out of the water. One finds many beautiful faces among the women in Oman. But they show no more than their faces and, very often, not even that much. So when the four boys in their mid-teens saw a Western woman swimming in the pond which had insinuated itself between the craggy walls of the wadi, they made themselves comfortable and waited.
In a wadi like this one, fresh water pushes across the narrow valley, its rocky floor replenished by constant erosion of the cliffs on either side. Sometimes the water pauses to rest in a place where two hikers from a Western country decide to take their own rest. Today the water temperature is absolutely perfect, which may imply that only an all-knowing and all-powerful God could have set it. One cannot blame Arab country boys if they walk beside the waters hoping that God will grant a vision which He allows nowhere else.
I can see that our Jordanian friends find the boys’ vigil hilarious. They perch on the bank opposite the boys because Khadija will not show herself to me in bathing clothes and Mustafa wishes to stay with her out of loyalty.
Today these boys will not get lucky. I come out of the water first so I can bring my wife a towel that she can use to cover her swimsuit. But they smile sweetly when she asks to photograph them and as they try to make conversation, although they speak no English and we speak no Arabic. Their eyes light up when we offer them squares of hardened peanut butter, honey, and butterscotch. “It’s halal”—permitted—we assure them.
We visit the wadi to swim in its ponds because, if the people of the Arabian Peninsula enjoy the blessings of petroleum, fresh water is a different story. A recent study by Maplecroft, the British risk assessors, of the water supplies of one hundred sixty-two countries placed Oman among the ten which face the “most extreme risk” of supply interruption. The danger has not escaped the attention of the state-controlled oil company, Petroleum Development Oman (PDO). According to Yasmeen al Lawati, head of the national water department, PDO extracts eight times as much water as it does oil. Bauer Resources of Germany has worked with PDO to install a system in the Nimr oilfield that treats water by filtering it through a bed of reed roots.
Before I learned this I had mentioned to my wife once or twice that I wish the shower in our apartment would put out a bigger volume of water. Now I think I’ll keep my mouth shut.
In the wadi, my wife remains wrapped in her towel and the Arab boys remain all smiles as they finish their snack and move on. It isn’t true that they speak no English at all. Turning to wave to us, they laugh and shout—“No problem! Have a nice day!”—before vanishing around a bend in the path which had brought them to us.
Those boys did not wear the colorful turban-like head covers of the Bedouin, unlike a lot of the students at our college in Sur, half an hour’s drive from the wadi. It is not only the large Bedouin population which exposes Sur as a backwater: our students have continued to attend classes while tensions climbed between protesters—including some students—and authorities in the industrial city of Sohar.
Violence finally erupted in Sohar on the first day of April as security forces used water cannon, tear gas, and rubber bullets to clear the month-long occupation and partial blockade of a busy roadway roundabout. They killed one protester and injured eight more. (A protester had also died violently at the end of February.) Soldiers have reinforced the police presence at a number of Sohar roundabouts in order to head off further disruptions of traffic and business. While the army’s involvement must soothe the anxieties of many of the city’s residents, it surely makes others more nervous.—Don Stoll