Been There, Done That… Muscat, Oman

I have had the good fortune to travel all over the world—for both business and pleasure, not that those are mutually exclusive. This blog is about my unique experiences around the globe. It is not intended as a paean to the wonders of the locales themselves, as there already exist volumes that more than do justice to the magnificence of virtually every corner of this earth.  Here, I simply recount small, personal moments of surprise, embarrassment, stupidity, excitement, fear, heroics, and other stuff like that.

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Muscat, Oman…Christmas 1998 & New Year’s 1999. It seemed like a good idea at the time—to spend Christmas and New Year’s in a Muslim country in the middle of Ramadan.

Perhaps the most sacred month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is a period during which Muslims refrain—dawn to sunset—from eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual relations, arguably the perennial Big Four on Sande and my holiday wish list. Nevertheless, on Christmas Eve, we boarded a British Airways flight out of London en route to a destination about which we knew little, a culture that could hardly be more foreign, and a region that, within days, would make worldwide headlines when sixteen tourists in neighboring Yemen were taken hostage by Islamist militants. Four of those hostages and several of the terrorists would subsequently be killed when Yemen government troops stormed the compound where the hostages were being held.

True to form, Sande and I were blissfully ignorant of such dangers as our plane touched down in Muscat. Our concerns were more basic. Had Sande brought enough color-coordinated veils to cover her head whenever we were out in public? And since we could only drink alcohol in the privacy of our hotel room, albeit via a very well stocked mini-bar, how often would we actually be sober enough to make it downstairs for dinner?

Our hotel was truly elegant, surrounded by manicured lawns and rolling red hills. On one side was the desert; on the other, a sugary white beach reached out to the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Of course, to reach the beach, Sande would need to be covered head-to-toe but, once there, all bets were off…and most clothes, especially for the European women who are accustomed to going topless at their favorite swimming holes.

Each morning, I would jog up the rocky red hills to look out over the vast desert beyond. It was exhilarating to imagine myself living the Lawrence of Arabia life out there…at least until my mind recalled how much I hated Boy Scout camp.

We often ventured into the center of Muscat to wander along the harbor and observe Muslims sitting cross-legged in small groupings, whiling away the daylight hours of fasting in conversation and reflection. One day, we ventured back into the thick of a traditional neighborhood of small one-story stone dwellings, with their doors and windows opened to the dusty desert surroundings. Inside the homes and often standing in the doorways, young women (teen girls mostly) would peer out at us, oddities that we undoubtedly were in their eyes. They would smile and giggle like teenage girls anywhere. I smiled back and gestured hello…once. Just as I did, an Arab man of perhaps fifty years, came around the corner of the building, scowling at me. It was a look I immediately recognized from my business visits to other Muslim countries, especially Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, where Westerners are discouraged, to say the least, from anything remotely suggestive of “interaction” with the female population. (As an aside, I once had a dinner “meeting” with a man in Kuwait, who brought his wife along. This, in itself, was highly unusual, but she was Egyptian so maybe that made some sort of difference to which I was oblivious. Anyway, as we sat down and began perusing the menu, I started to converse with the woman because, well, because we Westerners operate that way. Her husband quickly leaned across the table toward me and said, “You don’t have to talk to her.” Translation: STOP talking to her.)

My wordless admonition to cease-and-desist from any acknowledgement of the Muscat neighborhood’s female populace having now been established, Sande and I proceeded nonetheless with our aimless wanderings. We soon found ourselves at the local barbershop, in front of which stood a couple of considerably more friendly Arabs, who jokingly suggested I sample the shop’s offerings. No thanks, I said, I just had a haircut. At that point, one of the protagonists ran his hand across his face, suggesting a shave. This, as the barber standing just inside the shop’s open door held up a straight razor and gestured to one of the open chairs in his three-chair shop. Sande and I immediately glanced at one other, gave a couple of what-the-hell-it’ll-make-a-great-picture-op shrugs and, a few seconds later, I was getting lathered up for the first, and only, straight razor shave of my life. Sande got the picture, even as the barbershop’s kibitzers (apparently a phenomenon common to barbershops everywhere) teased Sande, saying that the man wielding a razor-sharp steel blade at my throat was “Saddam’s cousin.”

Strange as that day was, and notwithstanding a rather ambitious several hours’ car trip deep into the desert that Sande and I later took on our own to visit one of Oman’s most famous forts (in hindsight, perhaps not too bright, especially considering what was happening just a few hundred miles south in Yemen), we had a terrific Christmas and New Year, marred only by our final flight home to London. Marred for Sande, that is!

To fully appreciate this little sidebar, it’s worth noting that Sande cannot sleep on airplanes. I, however, have no problem doing so and am usually fast asleep before wheels up on take-off.  That is not normally an issue in our relationship. However, on this particular night (flights heading west out of the Middle East tend to depart very late, midnight late), our flight from Muscat was re-routed thru Abu Dhabi. We would later learn that this detour had something to do with the situation in Yemen. I have no idea what but, at any rate, it didn’t matter to me because I was sleeping like a baby in the aisle seat, as the flight attendants were announcing that we would be here “a while” and that passengers could deplane into the terminal. Sande, sitting in the window seat next to me, was now quite desirous to satisfy her nicotine craving (smoking in the terminal still being allowed at that time, at least in the Middle East), but she couldn’t wake me up. To this day, she remains pissed off at me about it.

Why, one might ask, didn’t Sande just pound on me until I did, in fact, wake up? Her answer is two-fold. First, the number of screwdrivers I consumed before take-off had rendered me practically comatose. And second, I’ve been known to respond to an unwanted wake up with a bit of a start…meaning, I sometimes freak out and scare the hell out of everyone.

So began our final New Year of the Last Millenium.

T H E  E N D

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