Traveling to the Middle East is a little like visiting the cradle of civilization and the birthplace of commerce. It’s a mix of the modern and the ancient — with glass-and-steel office buildings intermingled with forms of trade that date back centuries.
In the narrow, winding alleyways of the Mutrah Souq in Muscat, Oman, vendors try to catch shoppers’ attention as they peddle their wares, another mix of the modern and the ancient. It’s the kind of salesmanship you don’t find in the United States, men hawking frankincense and myrrh, pashminas and dishdashas — long flowing robes traditionally worn by Arab men. Reaching out, cajoling visitors to smell this perfume, look at this pottery, try out this headscarf. Tourists, in particular, are targets for the kitschy: incense burners, bags of incense, bottles of perfume.
But it’s also a place where local residents shop. The alleyways are lined with barrels of spices and giant pots for rice, lamb or goat, which Omanis eat family-style on huge platters.
It’s where women dressed in burqas, abayas and hijabs come to trade gold jewelry.
“It’s their bank,” the vendor told us as we watched negotiations over gold bracelets and necklaces take place next door. “They buy; they sell. They make money.”
It’s confusing; it’s chaotic. To this Western tourist, it’s a little intimidating. Wandering through the souq, it’s easy to get lost in the twisting, turning alleyways.
A modern wood roof to keep off the sweltering sun now covers the open-air marketplace, but people have been trading in similar souqs since before the time of Jesus Christ. Oman’s souq is one of the few places in the world where vendors sell gold, frankincense and myrrh under one roof.
It’s a tradition that continues in this Gulf of Arabia nation, and it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions — an opportunity to see how local residents interact with tradesmen, how the culture retains a bit of its history.
And it’s a chance to see a side of Oman away from the glitzy tourist resorts, sparkling blue ocean and the exceedingly polite hospitality of the predominantly Muslim nation.
That always polite, always helpful attitude was seen throughout Oman. Our cab drivers were willing to talk about Omani culture and the changes the Sultan — “He is higher than a king,” according to our driver — wrought since taking over in the 1970s. Thanks to the current sultan, Oman has entered what it calls its renaissance. The Sultan’s reign brought Omanis back from overseas, and with them came Western ideas about education and business.
And what sets Oman apart from other Gulf nations like Qatar or Kuwait, is that Omanis still work in every part of the economy, often alongside people from other nations. Taxi drivers must be Omani and must be willing to wear traditional outfits — and must be male. Women work in retail stores, restaurants and business offices, sometimes wearing traditional clothes, sometimes choosing Western outfits with hijabs or scarves.
But it was through a newfound friend, Allwin Dessa, an Indian expat now living in Oman and working for the oil industries, that we discovered an enthusiasm for the country and its assets that more-restrained Omanis didn’t show.
Allwin took us to the coast, to see the forts built by the Portuguese in the 1580s. Impressive and overlooking the bay, the forts still stand as a reminder of the European colony that was overthrown by an Ottoman incursion in the 1600s.
He also drove us out of the nation’s capital to a tiny restaurant at the foothills of the mountains. There, we ate like Omanis — behind a curtain needed so women who wore veils could take them off in public.
He was a wonderful host for his adopted country, and his enthusiasm and optimism made us feel welcome in a country with very different traditions.
During our trip, he told stories of his youth in India, as a student at a Jesuit Catholic school, then as a rally car driver in the Himalayas. He was polite when we told him about the Pikes Peak Hill Climb — which seemed like child’s play to him after driving up peaks that are at least 20,000 feet above sea level.
No matter how far you travel, some things remain the same: Commerce will flourish in unexpected ways and you’ll meet friends in unexpected places.