Mascate

The store sign says ‘Ladies Tailoring’, and the windows display this year’s collection of Burkas. Any color as long as it’s black, the pride of Henry Ford.

This is the more decrepit part of the souk, where the Shia dominate. On the other side of the alley, a row of trash containers where ten or more stray cats fight over the spoils of the day—in, on, and around the garbage.

In the seedier section of the Mutrah Souk both the animals and people are thin—not like Abu Dhabi, where the Lamborghinis are thick on the ground, or Dubai, where ostentation makes Rodeo Drive look like Greek austerity.

Burka to port, a common sight when flying in the Gulf.

Burka to port, a common sight when flying in the Gulf.

There’s a mosque next to the clothes shop, and in the moonless night the faithful are just visible through the half-open door, prostrate for Isha.

It’s the last of the six prayers of the day, which begin with the Fajr, around 5 am. The whole Islamic calendar revolves around the sun and moon, with two prayers either side of daytime, two marking the start and end, and two in the middle.

The faithful stop and pray. I was on a chaotic roundabout on the road to Sohar when the Muezzin began calling the Maghrib, and four trucks hit the brakes and stopped all traffic dead for sunset prayers.

In Saudia it’s on a whole different level: during prayers, the airports grind to a halt; but in Oman things are more relaxed—although the country is governed by Sharia law, it is possible to find grape juice of the fermented variety.

The locals are mainly Ibadi, which is distinct from both Sunni and Shia—nuanced by the belief you do not see god on judgement day, and that sinners rot in hell forever.

Apart from electricity, the souk cannot have been so different from when the Portuguese arrived at the medina, or city, of Mascate.

After The India Road opened up the East in 1498, Vasco da Gama returned to Calicut in 1502, but this time with a fleet of twenty carracks. By July 1507, Albuquerque, the most remarkable commander of the Portuguese Indies, took Muscat. Shortly after, Sohar surrendered, and then Hormuz fell.

By 1511, Albuquerque had taken Malacca—he is on record as saying that the control of the straits would cripple the Muslim world from Cairo to Mecca. The accuracy of his prediction is vindicated by the furious battles that took place throughout the sixteenth century—although with brief interruptions, Muscat remained Portuguese until 1650.

By then, the balance of forces was shifting, with a new Anglo-Persian alliance intent on conquering parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Al-Jalali, the Arab name for the fort of São João, or saint John, guards the harbor entrance to Muscat.

The fort of São João, or Saint John, guards the harbor entrance to Muscat—the Arab name is Al-Jalali, a corruption of João.

The two forts that defend the approach to Mascate now have Arab names, but both were built during the time of Albuquerque. The Forte de S. João, or Al-Jalali, is paired with Al-Mirani, the Forte do Almirante, or Admiral’s Fort.

I came to Oman looking for Al-Portugali, and I found what I was seeking. But I found much more than that: a country of easygoing, friendly people, the desert, the mountains and escarpments, and the blue of the Arabian Sea. I even found wine. Oman is a relic from days gone past.

The workforce in the Gulf is Indian and Pakistani, and Oman is no exception. in three different countries, I spoke to immigrants from Islamabad, Goa, Kerala, and Sri Lanka. One was called Fernandes; another Ferrão. Two of them Pereira—it means pear tree, I told them solemnly.

Not one called Smith. Blood is thicker than water.

On the road in Oman, I saw Portuguese trucks.

“The Portuguese were here,” the taxi driver said.

“I know.”

Did you know before you came?”

Yes.”

“In Portugal, when you meet a girl, how do you greet her? Can you kiss her?” the twenty-eight year old said.

“Yes. On the cheeks. Itneen—twice.”

His eyes lit up.

“But not in England or America. A woman from there will shake your hand.”

“Oh.” He looked crestfallen.

“Sometimes you can. It depends on the situation.”

“How do I know?”

“You will know from her eyes.”

“I weel know from her eyes…” He thought it over. “Good. Is Portugal nice?”

“It’s very beautiful,” I said, “and it has the best fish in the world.”

The driver grinned happily. “Fish? I like fish. It is very good for sex, yes?”

“Aiwa, aiwa. Strong for sex,” I laughed, thinking about the pear trees.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

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