(EDITOR'S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton is traveling to Qatar and Oman as part of a professional/cultural exchange grant program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the sixth installment.)
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Keyser High School teacher Susan Hamilton is traveling to Qatar and Oman as part of a professional/cultural exchange grant program, and promised to keep her students and our readers informed by writing periodic accounts of her trip. This is the sixth installment.)
By Susan Hamilton
For the News Tribune
OMAN - The last leg of our journey is focused more on ancient traditions in Oman. The further we travel into Oman’s interior region, the more steeped we are in traditional culture and history. Out of respect for the people in this region, shoulders and knees are covered at all times for both men and women. Temperatures here are soaring over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It may be a dry heat, but hot is just hot. I am thankful not to be visiting this region in the summer.
Achmed told us over the last 20-30 years temperatures here have been steadily rising, and they have begun getting cyclones, a phenomenon which is new to this region: climate change. High temperatures year round are about 20-25 degrees hotter now. In the summer, this region regularly experiences temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. People who are able to leave and vacation elsewhere in the summertime do just that to escape the insufferable heat.
A cattle market seems like a strange event to take a group of American teachers to visit, and yet, this is exactly where we found ourselves at the crack of dawn on Friday morning. The Bedouin people have gathered at Nizwa Souk every Friday for over 200 years to auction their cattle, sheep, and goats. Outside of the main auction area there are also rabbits, pigeons, a donkey, and chickens for sale.
The auction procedure is still performed traditionally and would seem highly foreign to anyone who has ever attended a livestock auction in the United States. It is disorganized, loud, and smelly. The auction area is a dirt path ring around a covered raised center area. Men and boys who want to sell their livestock walk the ring with their animal until someone buys it, or they give up. Buyers are congregated around the inside and outside of ring.
When there is interest in an animal, it is the women who make the final decision about purchase. They feel the animals legs, and back, inspect their feet, teeth, eyes, belly and reproductive parts. A goat or sheep will cost anywhere from 50-150 Omani rials (150-500 USD), and a cow or bull’s price will be negotiated from 300 rials with no maximum (900 USD +). With these prices, it is important to ensure that the animal has been well fed and is not diseased. If the animal is deemed suitable, the men negotiate a price.
A few animal lovers in our group were very upset about the auction. Achmed asked why some people were so upset and left the market. Those of us who stayed explained that in America, this kind of sale often results in the animal’s death in a slaughterhouse. Now Achmed was the one upset because he didn’t realize this might be how Americans viewed the market. He was so apologetic to us for not explaining this culture further.
The animals in this market are being sold for breeding purposes, egg production, or dairy production. Contrary to popular opinion, camel milk is not consumed by the Bedouins. Camel’s milk is important for baby camels, so it is reserved for them alone. People use goats and sometimes cows for dairy in this region. The rabbits are merely a popular pet. Achmed explained that all of these animals are an investment for the Bedouin who purchase them. They cannot afford to buy an animal here for this much money only to slaughter it. Later in the day, he explained this again to the whole group, so those who left might better understand and no longer be offended.
Those of us who remained behind to observe the whole auction were interested in the number of children there. Parents bring their children to this event because it is a tradition, but also because the children need to learn the process of making new acquaintances outside of their own family units, buying, selling, and checking the animal’s health. The Bedouin children we saw today are the future of this historical tradition and will be expected to continue the family business.
We were encouraged to wander the Nizwa Souk because it is more traditional handicrafts, less tourist souvenirs, than the Souk we visited in Muscat. As I wandered through the various stalls, the variety of goods available was staggering. There was fruit and vegetables, fresh fish and meat, textiles, pottery, jewelry, traditional clothing, and to my surprise guns, and knives / machetes. Not only is one whole alley of the souk devoted to the sale and modification of guns, but men also meet outside that alley and show off or trade their purchases. I never felt unsafe or threatened, and I understand that the Bedouin, who live in secluded regions where there are natural predators, both animal and human, to their livestock need protection for themselves and their animals, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel like the exact scene playing out in front of me helped to feed the stereotype some have the Middle East. I lingered in this testosterone filled area for a moment before moving on. I was sad to turn the corner and find a row of souvenir shops, but extremely happy to find a juice shop selling what they called a chocolate freeze. A chocolate freeze is actually a chocolate milkshake. This was the first chocolate I had consumed since arriving in the Middle East: it tasted like home.
The remainder of our day was dedicated to touring historic forts and castles in the region. Nizwa was once a walled city, common in the Middle Ages. The city walls, with massive gates that could be closed and barred were the first line of defense against invaders: the fortified castles or forts were it’s second. Breaching the city walls was not a guarantee of victory over those housed inside of them.
At Jabreen Castle we saw a structure built during peaceful times after the Portuguese were expelled from the area, approximately 1670. Imam Bel’arab bin Sultan Al Yaubiwhat, Imam is what rulers in Oman used to be called before the term Sultan was adopted, valued education, loved the people of Nizwa, science and art. Jabreen is a celebration of his interests reflected in architecture. It was fortified, but the fortifications are more subtle. The castle itself is a work of art.
At the UNESCO World Heritage site Bahla Fort, we saw a massive structure built in times of war, constructed at least 500 years before Jabreen Castle, and added on to by different rulers with the latest siege fortifications of their time. These two structures stood in juxtaposition of one another and provided a unique perspective for us between what was valuable during peace and war times. Here we saw the huge gate, high walls, round towers, arrow loops, parapets, secret passageways and rooms associated with medieval warfare. Bahla was used when Oman was battling the Ottoman Empire and also the Portuguese. Bahla is believed by some to be haunted by spirits: jinn. This belief that Bahla is inhabited by both people and jinn has resulted in an age old myth that black magic was once practiced in this region.
This is the first reference we have received to myth, Note to self: spend some time researching the mythology of the Arab world. I know the mythology of Egypt and Mesopotamia, but have never specifically researched the gulf states. I’m familiar with the concept of the jinn, but have often heard the term used interchangeably with genie, which is clearly not correct. I’ll be sorting this out when I get home and have time to study.
Tomorrow is our last day in Oman. From here we will be heading to Qatar. Qatar proves to be a very different experience. We are all looking forward to the next phase of our journey, but dinner this evening was filled with collective sadness at the idea of leaving Oman, our home away from home for the last week, Achmed, and the drivers we now call friends.