The Arabian Desert
A parched, dry wind swirls as a curious hawk circles overhead. Faithful Muslims scurry off to morning prayers, beckoned by powerful voices ringing out from slender minarets. Shihuh fishermen take to the sea, as did their forefathers, while women ready their children for school. The Omani people awaken for another day with the singular twist that they’ll soon greet visitors from afar. Your day will be equally intriguing as you explore a destination unfamiliar to most world travelers. Oman is far from the path even the most intrepid travelers walk down. It is nonetheless worthy of the journey.
Some Quick Facts
Oman is a Sultanate. Musandam is a Governate in the northern region of the Sultanate. Khasab, also known as Al Khasab, is a port town in Oman’s Musandam Peninsula. Her population is 5,000 and counting. Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates are Oman’s neighbors, all washed by the warm waters of the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, and the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait is only 35 miles wide, 180 feet deep, and is the strategic chokepoint through which 90% of the entire Gulf’s production of oil passes.
Musandam, though part of the Sultanate of Oman, is separated and isolated from the rest of the country by territory belonging to the U.A.E. This isolation was made more complete by its inaccessibility. It was not until 1990 that a rough track was cut between Khasab and the border. Seven years later it was paved. And there wasn’t even a hotel in Khasab until 1982. Plus, Khasab is more than 300 miles from Muscat, the nation’s capital.
There are three million people spread across this country though the majority live along the 150-mile-long, fertile al-Bitinah alluvial strip. Date palm groves and banana plantations cover that landscape. Drier areas, with poorer soil and less vegetation, are home to herders of goats, camels, and sheep.
Khasab sits astride a rugged area formed 1850 million years ago, give or take, during the Cretaceous and Miocene ages. It’s tucked into the sculpted white limestone cliffs in a landscape often compared to the Norwegian fjords … without the green and/or snow. Omani fjords are called khors.
This coastline is surrounded by waters that are home to 22 species of dolphins and whales. Their antics entertain visitors on dhow cruises as well as diver and snorkels alike. Dhows are traditional sailing vessels typical to the region. In the past, they sailed from Omani ports to such distant destinations as India for teak, even Canton, China and Africa’s Zanzibar. In fact, Zanzibar was an Omani conquest until the 1960s. Telegraph Island, once an important link in the British / Indian telegraph cable put in place in 1864, is also visible.
The country became independent, free from British rule, in 1971. Sultan Qabus Ibn Sa’id is the nation’s absolute monarch and today Oman enjoys the benefit of the prosperity of rich oil and natural gas reserves.
A Look Back In Time
Clinging to the Khasab waterfront is the old fort. Found within the restored walls are slender, wooden Omani boats. Copies of these craft replicate some prehistoric carvings and are often on offer in the neighboring village of Tawi. The port area is lively with the comings and goings of tin boats carrying electronic goods and such to Iran, returning later with goats and sheep by the flock.
The towering stone watchtower of Khasab Castle punctuates the wind-swept landscape. Dating back to the 1600s, it was erected by Portuguese invaders as protection against outsiders sailing into Khasab Bay. It also protected their source for fresh water, fish, even dates. Some historians believe this tower actually predates the castle. Small canons, with their aim square on the sea, were still in use 100 years ago. It’s not claimed they served as an actual defense, but to announce the moon’s signal that Muslim Eid celebrations were about to begin including the completion of Ramadan’s month-long period of fasting.
Into The Countryside
Bukha is a small area known as a wilayah approximately an hour’s drive from the port. Reached by a ribbon of coastal road, fishermen and ancient stone towers add drama to this bone-dry landscape.
The Bedouin village of Sayah rests at 3608 feet and affords a stunning view of Khasab and the surrounding bay. Jebel Harim, known as the “village of women”, sits astride the tallest peak on the Musandam Peninsula, well beyond dry riverbeds called wadis and shady acacia groves.
Omani people are conservative and dress accordingly. Many women wear burkhas (face masks) or khimars (veils) with their long black abaya cover-ups. Henna and gold decorate their hands. Men don dishdashas, long dress shirts with farakhas (knotted tassels), massars (turbans) or kumma (embroidered caps). Visitors are particularly welcomed to Oman if they recognize this conservativeness and dress accordingly. Bedu hospitality is then legendary. So, take away great memories and possibly some souvenirs like khanjars (silver daggers) and Omani frankincense. Leaving here without a memento from the souks seems a shame, don’t you think?
Karyn L. Planett