Our pride did not impress the heat. Exactly one day after my wife and I congratulated ourselves on our tolerance of it, we found out who’s boss as the temperature suddenly climbed ten degrees and stopped just shy of a hundred. It wasn’t even the end of April when we learned that we must never provoke the heat with our loose tongues. Now we always show appropriate respect.
What had puffed us up in our innocence of the next day’s furnace was our ascent of the dunes outside Biddiya, which convinced us we could live forever in eighty-nine degrees. Marianne earned twice as much false pride as I did because she couldn’t make it to the top on the first try, in sandals which encouraged the slow cooking of her feet in the sand. She made it the second time, however, wearing proper shoes, after I shouted down to her that she would want to feel the cool wind and see in the distance a Bedouin man and his wife penning their goats. We might have stood with that couple at the livestock sale we had attended in the morning. Their herd of a couple of dozen goats was grazing on the rugged plants of the dunes, far from their shelter, when they heard the pickup truck. But they knew the sound meant alfalfa hay, so they reached the corral well ahead of the truck as their excited bleating drowned out the noise of the engine.
On the first day of the weekend, Thursday, we had made the long drive from the coast of Oman to the inland market city of Nizwa at the urging of one of my many Bedouin students, a sharp boy named Mohammed Ali. Like the former heavyweight boxing champion, to whom he bears a facial resemblance, he has dark skin and an easy smile, so some of the other boys call him “Clay.” Though I don’t know whether they see the irony in using the boxer’s pre-Muslim name for my passionately religious student, they like to point out that, just like young Cassius Clay, the little Bedouin boy—a flyweight rather than a heavyweight—makes up poems. When I asked to hear them he recited, in Arabic, one about God and another about camels and goats. Then he apologized for his inability to translate them into English.
“But you doesn’t give thanks to God, teacher.”
“Don’t, Mohammed. In English we say he doesn’t and she doesn’t, but we say you don’t.”
Obviously, he knows I am not Muslim.
“Don’t. You don’t give thanks to God, teacher. But you want see camels and goats? Go to Nizwa. Nizwa close to my village, Birkat al Mawz. And very beautiful mosque in Nizwa.”
On Thursday we passed many camels and goats and on Friday many more as we returned from Nizwa, where we had also walked around the outside of its splendid mosque. The great mosque abuts a labyrinth of “picturesque streets” of the kind which—according to the century-old memoirs of Evelyn Baring, the Earl of Cromer, Britain’s first Consul General in Egypt—are “eminently wanting in symmetry” and therefore reflect the Arabs’ “slipshod” thought which is “singularly deficient in the logical faculty” and “wanting in lucidity.” The narrow alleyways guarded us from the afternoon sun and watched over our winding path from the mosque to Nizwa’s hulking seventeenth-century fort. While mosque and fort almost touch in some places, the streets showed us a much longer and more patient route between them. Under the present Sultan, the fort draws quite a few tourists who, if we visited on a typical day, seem to come mainly from Germany. But under his father, Said bin Taimur, Britain’s Royal Air Force nearly destroyed the fort at the Sultan’s request during the late nineteen-fifties.
Tribesmen disputing Said bin Taimur’s rule also endured airstrikes by his British protector a few miles away in the village of Tanuf which, unlike Nizwa’s fort, has not benefited from restoration. Somewhere beyond the ruins that overlook a dry creek bed, we’d heard, water lacking the will to reach the former site of the village had satisfied itself by gathering in a series of pools deep enough for swimming. A hundred miles from the sea, that would have to do. So we pointed our car up the wadi and crept over its gravel carpet, hoping for the best.
We didn’t get it. Half a mile into the wadi, the depth of the gravel slowed us down enough to permit several young boys, not yet teenagers, to walk comfortably alongside. I rolled down the window to hear them and soon learned their entire English vocabulary: “Chiclets” and “money.” As Marianne repeated her insistence that we had neither, they peeled away one by one. But they could still see us when a slight depression in the road caught our left front tire, causing the car’s undercarriage to snag on the higher gravel.
Seeing their opportunity, the boys came running. We both got out of the car, but Marianne had to jump back in ahead of a boy who wanted to take the wheel. With the boys’ demands for money alternating with advice shouted in Arabic, I squatted by the trapped tire and began clawing the pebbles away while my thoughts raced ahead to the challenge of finding a tow truck. I didn’t like our chances, so I tried to put it out of my mind and concentrate on freeing the tire. It gave me some encouragement to see that the boys and I had the same plan: even as I fought the gravel, a couple of them leaned into the front of the car and, yelling and gesturing to me, mimed lifting the car up and pushing it back.
We all braced ourselves against the front of the car, ready to push, as I raised my voice above the boys’ shouts in order to tell Marianne to find reverse. Then I heard a furious voice behind me. I had turned only halfway around before a barrel-chested man, about my age and wearing a soiled T-shirt and blue jeans, grabbed one boy in each hand and jerked them away from the car. The other boys scattered while the man, still screaming, set his shoulder next to mine. Mohammed and my other students are draped in gleaming dishdashas and awash in cologne, but the acrid smell of labor under the hot sun radiated from this man, who must have been a farmer. After the car backed onto level ground, I turned to thank him. He had already stalked off after the boys without lowering his voice.
Chased by his din, the boys scrambled toward a one-story house I hadn’t noticed earlier. It loomed forty or fifty feet over our heads on the bluff, out of range of the water that must flow through here sometimes. Scattered daubs of paint, still visible under the khaki of the surrounding mountains which now dressed most of the house, revealed that its intended color had been dishdasha white. The house had reached the ninth inning of its futile contest with nature.
Gingerly, we turned the car around and headed back to our hotel in Nizwa to wash. The following morning we stood among Bedouins and German tourists at the livestock sale before driving back to our apartment on the coast by way of the dunes near Biddiya.
Sultan Said bin Taimur was deposed and exiled four decades ago by his modernizing son, who remains on the throne today. Said bin Taimur tried his hardest to maintain a medieval kingdom closed to the outside world, though he compromised by calling in British air power to suppress an insurgency whose conservatism exceeded even his own. Tanuf and the fort at Nizwa suffered because the uprising drew its strength from interior villages and cities like these, which have often nursed a suspicion shading into xenophobia of the relatively open and outward-looking Omani coast.
The Oman of today, under Sultan Qaboos bin Said, is nothing like the closed feudal kingdom desired by his father or by the defeated rebels of more than half a century ago. But did the past stir itself to life and breathe again, if only faintly, when my student Mohammed, from the inland village of Birkat al Mawz, close to Nizwa, reminded me of my ingratitude to God? Ibadism, the Islamic sect—distinct from both Sunnism and Shiism—which predominates in Oman, traditionally condemns unbelief, of course, while also stressing the need to show proper appreciation for the kindness and blessings which God bestows.
By tradition, Ibadism denies that even the Prophet Mohammed can intervene on behalf of grave sinners to rescue them from eternal hellfire. Did the farmer who helped us with our car have a father or grandfather who battled the forces of Said bin Taimur and who lost a home to British bombs? If the farmer was born early in the nineteen-fifties, like me, he lived in Oman when a British development expert toured the country and reported that he had never seen people so destitute, nor so afflicted by treatable diseases. The farmer probably grew up knowing that manhood entailed carrying a rifle. Upon reaching puberty he would have received his gun along with that other badge of manhood, circumcision.
During our brief encounter with the farmer, did we brush up softly against the militant past of Omani Ibadism? Or did he simply want us to go to hell because one too many tourist cars snared by the gravel which his home overlooks had disturbed his peace of mind?—Don Stoll