The Syrian restaurateur won’t let me leave a tip, so I have to sneak extra cash into his hand and hope he doesn’t notice. But he doesn’t notice only when he is especially hazy about his prices, with which he maintains a fluid relationship. My wife and I walk two minutes from our apartment to his place—which seems to have no name other than “Restaurant”—for lunch or dinner, and occasionally both, just about every day. He serves us stuffed grape leaves, flat bread and creamy hummus, sometimes mutton wraps or chicken wraps or falafels, and salads piled high with olives and tomatoes that bury a treasure of pita chips.
At night Salah uses the bare side wall of a neighboring building, which holds a Toyota dealership and dwarfs his little restaurant, as a television screen on which he projects images of football matches—whenever possible, Barcelona or Real Madrid, who between themselves have carved up the loyalties of most people here. Though the exertions of larger-than-life footballers a few steps from our apartment would have brought us to Salah soon enough, we first came to his place indirectly, by word of mouth from faraway Muscat where his brother runs a restaurant.
Once we chose to rent a car rather than to depend on taxis, we had to confront the oversized reality of doing our own driving in a country that sees little need for street names or traffic signs. Perhaps because they live in a small and sparsely populated country, Omanis apparently take it for granted that anyone capable of sitting upright behind a wheel can figure out how to get where he or she wants to go, and can arrive there collision-free. It’s a charitable assumption that my wife and I defy. I possess the sense of direction of somebody freshly extracted from a spin dryer and she often reacts affably to other cars, heading toward them as if to embrace instead of avoiding them. This means she must navigate while I drive. It works well enough as long as the speed of traffic doesn’t outpace the speed at which she can give, and I can absorb, directions. In other words, we make a serviceable driving team only if we go nowhere near big cities.
But on just our second day with a car in Oman, we found ourselves in its capital and biggest city, Muscat. The need to shop for things we hadn’t seen in our little coastal town of Sur justified our drive there. Yet nothing except folly could have deferred our departure from the big city until after nightfall: I suffer from mathematically creative night vision, which converts every streetlight into an onrushing headlight and then multiplies their sum by a close approximation of pi.
At least on this evening when we tried to escape Muscat, we had the good fortune to get lost rather than in a wreck. After a full hour of driving in circles and diving deeper into despair, we turned off the road and happened to end up in the middle of what first looked like a convention of Omani taxi drivers. But it was no convention, only an impromptu football game on the lawn of a city park too small to accommodate every driver who wanted to play. When my wife showed the good sense to ask one of the sidelined drivers how to find Sur—of whom better to ask directions than a taxi driver?—half a dozen who hadn’t been able to compete in the football game started competing to see who could draw us the clearest map for getting home. They fought over the pen and paper we produced from our glovebox after dismissing our printed map.
“You must ignore that,” snorted one driver. “It shows the Muscat of the mapmaker’s dreams, not the Muscat created by God.”
“Don’t blame God for this confusion, Yahya! Men keep adding streets, but they have no plan.”
“Who allows men to build these streets, Badr? And Muscat never confuses people who know it.”
Badr rolled his eyes.
The drivers put in one goal and then another—clear signs, from this game whose infrequent scoring bores most Americans, that the map-drawing was going slowly. The length of the process did not elude the pious driver, Yahya.
“It is two hours to Sur, so you must eat before you leave Muscat. I’ll show you where you should go, very near the third roundabout. Easy!”
“But the food is not good if the Syrian is drunk.”
That came from a tall, well-built driver, drowning in sweat, who had just limped off the field. He lifted up his Barcelona jersey to mop his face before asking where we came from.
“California! I know California! Look: Arnold Schwarzenegger!”
He momentarily struck a pose, flexing a pair of impressive biceps, and then doubled over with laughter. Yahya, who had fixed a cold stare on the tall driver, turned back to us.
“Karim is a good Muslim who doesn’t drink. But he has an illness—I don’t know what—so some nights he doesn’t look well.
A couple of the other drivers shook their heads but said nothing. Yahya continued.
“I promise that if you eat there, the food will be good and, as guests in our country, you will not pay. You must tell Karim that Yahya will pay your bill tomorrow night.”
We protested only briefly, having heard much about the legendary hospitality of Arabs. Maybe the social ritual, practiced to perfection, would have demanded more back-and-forth before we yielded, but we were exhausted and hungry and anxious to go home. We thanked Yahya and the other drivers elaborately and found the restaurant fast, as Yahya had said we would. Then we ate a meal good enough to convince us to linger at the table a while, long enough to smoke a pipe of cappuccino-flavored shisha. Karim’s Lebanese partner took Yahya’s IOU on our word and also told us all about the restaurant that Karim’s brother runs in Sur.But we didn’t meet Karim, whose wife had phoned in sick on his behalf.
From time to time we ask Salah why his restaurant doesn’t offer shisha, like his brother’s restaurant does. Yet we ask halfheartedly because we don’t need such easy access to shisha. Much more often, we ask after Salah’s brother in Muscat. Every time receive the same answer: a shake of the head and “Tsk, tsk. I don’t know what from, but my poor brother is not well.” —Don Stoll