Let me begin with one of my favorite fables.
Once upon a time, there was a King by the name Shahryār who ruled many parts of the mid-eastern world. Already distraught with the discovery of infidelity of his brother’s wife, he is enraged even more upon finding his own wife’s flagrancy. Deeply angry and vengeful, he has her killed and preempts his own possible dishonor by killing his future wives in succession. Scheherzade, a wise daughter of his minister marries him and preserves her own mortality by narrating a story every night. While she ends each tale she also tantalizes the King by beginning the next one and leaving it incomplete. The ever-curious King to find out the ending of these tales thus spares her execution each night. Continuing the routine for a thousand and one nights she succeeds to please the king, while remaining alive. So goes the narration of the legendary “One Thousand and One Nights” or “Arabian nights”. That mine did not include 1001 nights let alone a King hardly dilutes my own 12 nights of Arabic experience in Muscat, Oman.
Oman. A land that seldom sees rain but a loving Sun that shines on with pure dry bright sunlight. A land that is flanked by an ocean, yet swathed in desert sand that runs for miles on end. A land walled by colossal mountains in the backdrop. A land where expats outnumber the natives, calling it home away from their home. A land where Diwali is celebrated with pomp and splendor. A land where golfing under floodlights during the cooler nights, is a common pastime. A land where Bollywood movies are screened on multiple television stations and movie theaters. A land where the Royal Palace of the Sultan and the Grand Mosque compete with each other in their breathtaking splendor. A land where the massive ruined forts still remain as an evidence of major trade hubs of the 17th century. A land where native tribes still dwell in villages reminiscent of ancient times. A land where the labrynthesque Souq doused in the soft aromas of Frankincense still beckons with its little shops vending piles of dates, spices and jewelry.
I learned that Friday and Saturday is their weekend. I learned that most Omani men and women both wear their national traditional over-dress, the Dishdasha and the Abaya, neither of them showing their hairdos, forearms and legs above their ankles. I learned to speak some Arabic, a language that I felt mystified – all 15 phrases of it. To my own surprise, I learned to scribe my name in the exotic calligraphy, right to left and despite the absence of the consonant “P”. I learned to hail taxis sometimes even with a hint of bargaining over the fares. I learned to endure the heat of the daily afternoons by rightfully being rewarded with blissful afternoon naps.
Punctuating the streets are little cafes and restaurants where Omanis gather over their favorite eats and beverages after sunset. The mixed cuisine of Mediterranean and Indian grew on my palate. The Shawarma melting in the mouth, crispy and spicy samosas, Omani bread melding crepes with eggs and sweet honey, biryanis that brought in various mixtures of spice, meat and vegetables and the Laban, a thin runny yogurt infused with cumin all fed me my daily fuel. The sweet Omani Halwa rolled in a mixture of salty popcorn and roasted nuts got consumed with pure pleasure. Dates, sugary dates to be pitted with your fingers got delightfully washed down the gullet with sips of Qahwa, a dark coffee brewed and laced with cardamom, rosewater and saffron. Kharak Chai, a sweet tea simmered in ginger and cardamom undoubtedly accompanied as my inseparable potable throughout my sojourn and beyond.
As all good things come to an end, so did my visit. My backyard has now turned colorful announcing the onset of fall. As the sun sets at the far end, I take in the rainbow of ochre, red, yellow and green leaves that dot the trees wafting a cool breeze welcoming me home as I sip on a hot steaming cup of … yes, Kharak chai!