Robin Yassin-Kassab

Leaving Oman

with 11 comments

(This was published in the National newspaper)

Wadi SahtanAllow me to make a few generalisations, which will be as unfair as generalisations always are.

There are two kinds of Arab country. On the one hand, those with a vast and living history and a social life that makes London feel cold and dead, but where the people contend with too much political and economic pressure to be more than occasionally happy. And on the other, those countries with the comforts and ease provided by the oil economy, but so culturally dislocated, so alienated from themselves, that you feel Year Zero was declared when the oil started flowing. The kind of place where expats drink too much.

Oman, which I left last week, has in some measure the advantages of both kinds of country, perhaps just the right measure, and I love it. I call it my favourite Arab country, which is a high honour with me.

Although everyone meets in Muscat, Oman still has a village society and a working tribal system. Its traditions survive as more than mere tourist brochure selling points. In other words, it feels like a real country and not like an endlessly extended airport. Not many countries these days can claim so much. Like Britain that I’m arriving in, Oman built an empire by way of the sea. As a result, the Omani cultural zone stretches around the Indian Ocean from Iran and Pakistan to Kenya and Tanzania, and the Omani population includes Baluchis, Lawatis, and Swahili-speaking Zanzibaris. So Oman manages to be cosmopolitan – and that’s before its importation of an oil age working and professional class – at the same time as being slow and rural.

Empty quarter 7It’s as developed as it ever needs to be. There’s a reasonable schools-and-hospitals infrastructure, and more than enough good, fast roads. If you so wished you could shop for brands or watch Hollywood movies in Muscat. But there’s not yet so much of that. Compared to Dubai or Doha, Oman’s lack of glitter is its allure.

Time more than distance makes places foreign. What my English grandfather told me of Britain in his youth – the solidarity, the cooperation between neighbours, the relative absence of crime – reminded me of contemporary Syria, which suggests that key cultural differences are made by social and economic change rather than by religion or language. Syria today is much more similar to contemporary Britain than it was a decade ago. And therefore I wonder, fearfully, how much of Oman’s character will remain whenever I manage to return. I fear that the current 5-star development plan may banalise the country. Just in my half-decade of residence, miles of formerly public beachfront were eaten up by luxury hotels and ‘gated’ residential communities. The recent inflationary surge has also exacerbated already widening class divisions.

But here in Scotland I settle nostalgically on my fixed picture of Oman, whose mountains and deserts seem wild and imperturbable enough to shrug off a few short decades of fast captalism, and already I miss it so much I wonder if I’ve made a huge mistake. I remember the heat like arms around me, while here I am poked by niggling fingers of cold. Under these low, clouded skies I remember the generous clarity of the Omani stars, and how comfortable it was to lie on the rocks or sand underneath them.

al-HamraI remember too the warmth of the Omanis. Although Omani social life revolves first around the family and then the tribe, which means an outsider certainly doesn’t need to fight off invitations from the locals as he might in Syria or Egypt, the Omanis are such civilised, friendly people that to leave them feels like falling from the earth onto a distant and unkind planet. I remember, back on earth, eating slow-cooked shuwa meat from the same plate as twenty men and then sitting for hours drinking coffee in the majlis. I remember the women who offered us cold water and the men who guided us as we walked through mountain villages. I remember the smiles and cooperative spirit which took us through the aftermath of the Gonu cyclone and floods. I remember shaking hands after the prayer in mosques perfumed by frankincense (I can think of a nearby country where the mosques smell of feet). The Omanis practise a gentle, community-based Islam unwarped by modernist neuroses, and they are at almost all times fundamentally decent.

In Britain there are rougher and colder ways.

I remember Muscat’s foreign residents: my colleagues of thirty nationalities at the university, the Friday night crowds in Ruwi’s little India, the manly Pakistani labourers waiting for work in al-Ghubra, the Egyptians and Filipinos I met in shops. All those Keralan nurses with names like Baby, Girly and Shiny.

Like everywhere else in the region, Oman has its Iraqi refugees, mainly doctors and professors who would be targetted at home. Some of these were our friends, as well as people from Australia, Pakistan, Lebanon, America and Palestine. And it is our friends who we will miss most. For the last two days we ate only food cooked by other people, and were wrapped in their tenderness until we reached the airport.

What else do I miss? The non-human aspect of the place, its vastness. I remember the midnight turtle that crawled onto the beach next to our camp to lay its eggs, the antelope that skipped away as I crested a mountain ridge, the wind-polished rocks that I gathered on the edge of the Empty Quarter. I remember those creatures – like the Egyptian vulture, the Indian roller and the sunbird – whose unusual (but in Muscat, prosaic) beauty forced me to learn their names.

It all makes me sigh. It was easier to live in the Gulf. Here I have the income tax system to understand, and council tax, and car tax. Here I can’t find a man to fix everything in my house for only a couple of riyals. Here, my wife may be the first hijab-wearer on the streets of this little town, my children the most unusual in their school. There will be no Arab community, no Indians, no mosques or halal butchers. It isn’t cosmopolitan.

My children have British passports but have never lived in Britain. My Syrian wife, adaptable and intelligent, has lived in four very different countries, but never outside the Arab world. These factors are enough to make a couple of years in the cold a worthwhile adventure.

And there are certainly benefits to Scotland. It’s green as well as grey. We have a garden. I expect to go for daily walks in the surrounding countryside. I even expect to grow vegetables, and to stand with my children in the rain discussing them. Beyond that, the place we’ve moved to is constructed on a human scale. The high street businesses are family-owned, small scale and high quality: the butcher, the cobbler, the tailor, and so on. People know each other’s names and aren’t afraid of eye contact. They go so far as to shake hands. Thus far, we’ve been warmly welcomed. In that respect, it isn’t too different from Oman.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 30, 2008 at 11:23 am

Posted in Oman

11 Responses

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  1. Qunfuz,

    You sound like an amazing person. As an Israeli, I wish I could show more of my fellow countrymen what wonderful people such as yourself surround us in this region. God-willing, we will all one day be able to eat falafel and drink ahwe together, in any of our amazing towns and cities of the Middle East.

    The very best of luck to you and your family in this significant change – moving to Scotland.



    June 30, 2008 at 7:04 pm

  2. Makes me want to visit Oman; I need to make it back to Syria first. Also, congratulations on the publication of your novel. Can I purchase the book online? I could not find it listed on Amazon.

    Abu Kareem

    July 1, 2008 at 1:35 am

  3. Found it! just ordered a copy from Amazon.UK

    Abu Kareem

    July 1, 2008 at 1:49 am

  4. Beautiful writing by a beautifully cosmopolitan writer… a true voice of the future at its brightest outlook…!

    Must rush to buy the first novel, although I can’t imagine it being any good…!! Against all the wisdom to the contrary, I usually judge a book by its cover… and I don’t like the cover of this book, in title or design…!! I also don’t usually like this type of novel… ethnocentric and “about” something…, but I think you certainly are a master essayist and an extremely sensitive, perceptive, noble spirit of a future long for…

    Sorry for such a conceited comment, but there you have it…and I meant well…!


    July 2, 2008 at 6:29 pm

  5. Thanks Shai, Abu Kareem and Naji for your comments. Naji – I didn’t intend to write an ‘ethnocentric’ novel. I don’t think it is ethnocentric in fact, although it’s being marketed and read that way. There are Arab characters, and they’re in London so they do worry about their ethnicity, but there are also non-Arab characters. I think it’s a novel about God, history, men and women, growing up ..etc. Anyway, I’d like to hear what you think when you’ve read it.
    I’m going to be at the Edinburgh Book Festival on August 12th, paired with a writer called Muhammad Hanif. I haven’t read his book yet. I will, and I expect it to be good. But when I saw the name I said to a friend ‘am I being pigeonholed?’ The friend said, ‘yes, but that’s how books are sold.’
    Fair enough. It doesn’t bother me yet.


    July 2, 2008 at 7:18 pm

  6. It’s great to read such an article; thanks for it!!

    You were one of my favourite, kind, easy-going and fair teachers:] Hope you have some visits to Oman in future.


    July 3, 2008 at 10:50 am

  7. Summer Events at the London Review Bookshop
    Breaking Through: Syrian Writers in Conversation and Performance

    Tuesday 8 July at 7.00 pm

    Four Syrian poets, Hala Mohammed, Monzer Masri, Rasha Omran and Lukman Derky – who are also a film-maker, a painter, a journalist/scriptwriter and an arts festival director – will be in conversation on writing, publishing and the arts in Syria today – and in performance. The event will include readings of poems newly translated for the latest issue of Banipal, which includes a major feature on contemporary Syrian literature.

    In association with Banipal. Banipal subscribers receive a discount on tickets for this event.


    I think this is the first time I see SYRIAN writing or art identified as its own genre… and at a “prestigous mainstream” event in London…!! (You even have to pay!!) Cool, huh…?! Amazing, actually…!! Where is our Qunfuz…?!


    July 3, 2008 at 9:18 pm

  8. Qunfuz,

    Got your book yesterday; it seems to have made it across the pond in record time. Excellent read so far, I can’t put it down. I will definitely give you a full impression when I am done.

    Abu Kareem

    July 7, 2008 at 12:37 am

  9. hi. i loved your post. i thought it was well written and beautifully expressed. such a shame that people like you have to leave 🙂

    curiously cheezy

    July 20, 2008 at 7:35 am

  10. […] after slaughtering them was certainly understandable, but was aimed at the wrong target. I lived in Oman at the time, where the state-appointed Mufti as well as editorials in the state-controlled press […]

  11. I really impressed by your post. Thank you for this great information.

    Sweden Fars News

    June 18, 2010 at 12:12 pm

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