ARABIA FOR BEGINNERS
Two dolphins rush towards us and begin to make turns around the boat. Jumping high out of the water, they clap their fins like a circus performance. And the little bay itself, surrounded by limestone cliffs, resembles a circus ring, lost in a maze of channels and islets of the Strait of Hormuz. We have just set sail from the Musandam peninsula, the northern exclave of Oman, separated from the main territory of the country by the United Arab Emirates.
A traditional local dhau boat, similar to a hybrid of a boat and a trough, comes out of the port of Al-Khasab with a rattle. On the carpets covering the deck, twenty passengers sat down imposingly. Such boats were used during the times of Sinbad the Sailor, perhaps the most famous Omanian. True, his descendants prefer motors to sails. Dhau is now built only for tourist walks.
We throw anchor at a small island and, diving into the water, soaring over the corals. Sea urchins and mollusks barricaded themselves downstairs, and spinornog and motley angelfish hover over the reef.
Just a few years ago there was a closed military zone here. The Strait of Hormuz is not only the oldest sea route in the world, but also an important strategic point. After all, he leads to the Persian Gulf. But the country needed tourists, and the authorities of the Sultanate of Oman opened this territory to civilians. Besides smuggling from the inhabitants of the deserted Musandam there are not too many ways to earn a living. If Sinbad had been transported in our time, he would not have noticed much of a difference. The Omanis live more archaic than their neighbors in Qatar or Kuwait. Anyone who wants to get in touch with the traditional Arab way of life is a direct way here, to the land of deserts, high mountains and steep sea shores.
The next morning the boatswain Shihab takes us to the village of Sibi. He rarely brings guests here. His sister Joach is the only one from the village who speaks English, although she did not attend school. “In the villages, it is customary to give only boys to boarding school,” the girl said. How, then, did she learn to speak good English? Joah shows on the TV in a half empty closet, where endlessly Indian films are played in English. Here is her personal teacher.
Joaha, 20, in anticipation of joy. Soon she is marrying her cousin Ahmad. They know each other since childhood. “He says hello to me, and I tell him too. Say no more”. As a sign of love, Ahmad made a wide bed for her, upholstered with golden plush.
Joahi’s hair is covered with a scarf the color of a mallow. Three married women, who are squatting under the wall in the shadow of the house, also have masks on their faces. Women are looking at the sea. One of them is Fatima. It seems that Joacha’s great-aunt, although the girl is not so sure. The age of Fatima is also a mystery. “I don’t count years,” she says with a grin, a squeaky voice.
Joah glad to chat with visitors. This is where little happens. Previously, everything was different. All day long had to suffer. Two hours walk to the well. Collecting brushwood for the hearth is also not an easy task. But now the water is brought on ships, spent electricity. And even in the most remote villages there were maids from India. “Now we just do what we chat,” laughs Joah.
The next day we go to the south – to the main territory of Oman. On the way we cross several borders. By the end of the journey we are confused in which country we are. It is good that Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has ruled the country for the past 45 years, came up with a simple rule of reference: “If you see mountains, you are in Oman.” From the 18th century, his ancestors ruled the sultanate, which had been a major center of commerce in ancient times. And grew rich due to trade in incense from the resin of trees growing in the south of Oman.
Our goal is Jebel Akhdar, the highest mountain range of the Sultanate with peaks up to three thousand meters. There is more rain in the mountains than on the coastal plateau, so the slopes of Jebel Akhdar are slightly greener, in the gorges there is a little more water, and the soil in the meadows is more fertile. Our guide Ibrahim is married to a German, so he is well acquainted with the West. Ibrahim and his brother Said alternately lead a jeep loaded with tents, provisions, equipment. And water, of course.
The first halt is in the valley in front of the massif cut by crevices. The sky is clear. But at midnight the wind comes and starts shaking the tents. The next morning, a friendly man named Suleiman appears at one of the branches of the road. And invites to his village. On the edge of a palm grove, irrigated by a nearby spring, there are abandoned old houses of unhewn stone. But just above the slope, a brand-new village was spread out. Entirely Mediterranean-style villas.
“Previously, no one came here,” says our hospitable host. “Too far from water.” But now Suleiman delivers water to any home for a couple of cents in his bright blue tank truck. Thanks to such “mobile oases”, new settlements have grown in the mountains. Each family receives at the expense of the state either a rebuilt house or a plot of land. Along the concrete channel, water flows into the valley.