Welcome to Oman.
Where the women are forced to wear black and their presence is absent from the streets. Welcome to Oman, a country that lives indoors in air conditioned buildings and drives around in air conditioned cars. Welcome to Oman, an expensive country boasting the most incredible beaches yet desperately lacking in soul.
So what’s the deal with the women in countries like Oman, eh? Why are they made to cover up? Why are they not be allowed to express themselves freely? In Oman you’ll rarely see a woman in public. Any woman you do see serving in shops is completely covered head to foot in black. A friend of mine recently commented that it is better this way than to allow women to walk around dressed like sluts, as they do in the west. Clearly he misunderstands the concept of freedom of expression! If a woman wants to dress like a slut then that is her prerogative. Who is to say she can’t? How a woman dresses should be no ones concern but her own. This is not the case here in Oman, obviously. For example, one very hot afternoon we went for a drive to a wadi (fresh water spring) where we saw an extended family on an outing. The three women were dressed head to foot in black. Thinking no one was watching they allowed their over-garments to drop open to reveal just a glimpse of jeans, heels and girlie tops. I wasn’t surprised at what they were wearing underneath, my point is that they still had to put these long black garments over the top whilst in public. In 40 degrees of heat. Why?
Those of you who know me understand that I take an objective interest in religion: I studied the subject at A level and I’m very accepting of different people and places, which is why this trip is a fantastic opportunity. However I find this aspect of middle eastern culture medieval. Maybe I’m homophobic and don’t like walking round a busy town all day without seeing a female face, being surrounded only by tactile men who want to hold my hand… or something. Whatever. There’s just something incredibly wrong about it.
What I find interesting is that the Sultan of Oman is openly gay, which is quite progressive considering homosexuality is against the law (ah, the hypocrisy of religion). Funnily enough I’ve found the Arab men to be very friendly and accommodating, especially to other men. In fact their familiarity is almost sexual, but then if you will hide women away and make them cover up, what do you expect? Being a sexually frustrated teenage boy is a difficult time enough. To be one in a strict Muslim country must be terrible! Where are the girls to chat up and check out? That’s part of growing up, isn’t it? No wonder grown men are spotted walking down the street holding hands.
So with these notions in mind I have to say I struggled with Oman. Admittedly we did not explore much more than Salalah and the surrounding area; this was because it was so damn expensive. A few of the other rally participants made a point of going off for a week and exploring but it doesn’t sound like it was the most exciting country in the world.
We did make a point of hiring a car a couple of times and exploring the beaches and countryside around Salalah.
Some of it is quite striking and beautiful in its own way. The best beaches are the desolate ones to the west, which are some of the best I’ve seen, but you can tell they’re lined up for some heavy development some time in the future.
The drive to them from Salalah alone is an amazing feat of engineering, with the country road hewn out of granite by extensive dynamiting.
All the main roads are well tended and lit by fancy black and gold wrought iron lamp posts. That particular drive took in palm trees, misty mountains and lagoons, as well as the incredibly long beach itself at a place beginning with ‘F’ whose name I forget.
A great big sign in large capital letters at the top of the mountain recommended traversing the next six kilometre track to the beach in a 4×4. Our hired front-wheel drive pile of crap just about got us back up the hairpin, dusty gravelly bends.
When I think back to my time in Oman I think that day goes down as my favourite. It was a very picturesque drive in the countryside with lots of photo opportunities. Perhaps if we’d made a bit more of an effort and had more money we could have discovered more coastline like this. Perhaps.
If you like all-inclusive resorts then there are a few in Salalah. We know, we crashed the Crown Plaza a couple of times! These are the only places you’ll find beer I’m afraid, unless you are dock-side and can make it up to the very excellent Oasis bar (free pool and snooker, excellent food, expensive beer but it is on draft!). I suspect that Oman’s future in tourism will lie in these all-inclusive resorts. Sadly.
Food in Salalah was excellent but this was due to the strong Indian influence. There was one particular Gujurati thali vegetarian restaurant just down from the Western Union building that we popped in to a few times, it was that good. If these places are a taster for what is to come in India then I leave the Middle East with my mouth drooling!
You can tell I wasn’t that enamored by Oman. It didn’t help that we spent almost three weeks in the commercial port waiting for our Indian visas to be processed; perhaps more time could have been spent on the beaches. Alas for us on a budget we found it a very expensive country with little soul. And no women.
Roll on the Arabian Sea crossing!