Friday, 17 March 2017

Muscat, Oman

"You see that?" our guide said, indicating a parking lot. "That's the women's driving school. You know why they have to practise there? Because when women see another car, they go, 'Whooo!'" At which he did jazz hands above his head.

Um, no. Even when I was an utter beginner driver – back when I used to 'borrow' one of my dad's cars to drive down and then reverse up the 1/4-mile driveway with, or confidently told drunk friends that they'd had too much to drink so they better let me drive, neglecting to mention I didn't actually have a license yet – did I ever throw my hands up in the air and shout, "Whoo!" in fright if I saw another car.

But this is the Middle East, where 'jokes' in which women are depicted as the slightly dumber, silly sex are apparently still acceptable. Consider this: the universal right for all women to vote didn't arrive in Oman until 2003. Shocking? Switzerland didn't give women the vote until 1971. We're not talking ancient history, are we?

Still, I liked Oman. A lot. It felt safe, it looks amazing, with its intensely forbidding, dry, mountainous coast. It's also oddly broken up, so the main bit is on the eastern side of the Arabian peninsula and then it has two exclaves, a word I'd never heard before, further north. These are areas completely surrounded by UAE land, but still part of Oman. The best explanation I was given was that the tribes who lived in these regions felt an affinity to Oman so they chose which country they belonged to. I can't go further into the whole partitioning of the Ottoman Empire without showing my embarrassing level of ignorance on the subject, so I'll stop here.

We visited the capital, Muscat, which has a population of less than 30,000; is where the Sultan has his palace, and is the home of the beautiful Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, which is visitor friendly and where you need to dress discreetly and cover your hair. By which I mean, if you're a woman. Men do not have to cover their hair, though they are expected to cover their arms and legs, and dress respectably.

I didn't mind. At any event, it's a moot point: if you're a visitor in another country and go to their place of worship, you abide by the rules or you don't go.

Oman must be the frankincense capital of the world – the whole of Muscat's souq was aromatic with it – which I liked. I picked up a large bag of the stuff, wondering if it would be pricey: 1 rial, which is about £2.

When our guide said we'd be visiting a museum, I admit to a bit of heartsink (#boring). Bait Adam was anything but. Bait, as the owner told us, means 'house of', so this was Adam's House. Adam was the owner's son and inside was a collection of... well, things. There were many framed newspaper cuttings and old photographs, plenty of glass cases with bits of this and that in them, and the whole didn't take long to go round. At the end, you were offered a cup of local coffee, which is something between coffee as you may know it and tea, and could browse the gift shop. Really, not much like any museum I'd ever visited before and I would recommend it for the owner's little introduction alone. To find it, best google as it hasn't a website.

In the end, it was this friendliness of the people that stood out: the server in a dried-fruit store was patience itself as we dithered over the different flavours; a couple of men were concerned about us getting the right bus and helpfully found us a taxi when we realised we'd missed ours. I'd love to come back and get to know it better.


  1. I loved Oman too and not just because Mrs Byrne and I had our honeymoon there. And If you have seen this morning's 'legs it' Daily Mail cover, the tour guide was a model of progressiveness by comparison :(

    1. You're absolutely right re the Daily Mail headline. And how cool you honeymooned in Oman! It really was a fascinating place – don't feel I've done it justice in this blog.