Scenes from Muscat
Our home for the weekend was Muttrah, a district containing the centuries-old port or corniche. Like most old parts of the city, land is navigated by walking down narrow lanes which are marked but quickly become labyrinthine when you turn any corner. Both businesses and residences are tucked into these facades.
The Muttrah corniche, from atop a 16th century fort built by the Portuguese during their occupation.
A while ago, a few kings made the country’s legendary craft of tapping frankincense and myrrah trees for their resins famous. Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, Muscat memorialized the trade with a giant incense burner watchtower high above the corniche. Everything smells good in the Middle East. Seriously.
The calmness of the sea stays at sea here. We headed to the corniche in the early morning to witness the quick collective pulse of business in the fresh and briny-smelling fish souq. A day inside begins with fishermen returning from sea and unloading their hauls in wheelbarrows to the back of the merchants’ section. The hauls are dumped out and auctioned off to the merchants, who take their lots and begin selling to customers. Customers buy, then take their fish back to cleaning stations to have them gutted, scaled and chopped into pieces. This happens so quickly, the fish in the front in the picture below was no sooner auctioned to the merchant before a woman bought a full bag right there. At the cleaning station about ten minutes later, she told me it was all for dinner that night. The haul everyone is standing around in the photo was in the middle of auction at 35 Rial, about $90.
The merchants and fish cleaners each have long metal rods that they bang on the top of their blades as they slice to give them force enough to get through bone. Everyone yells over these methodical clangs of commerce at each other to buy, sell and tell stories.
Some of these fish were still flopping. He waved me over and asked if I wanted dinner.
Back at the cleaning station, a man watching his large fish being prepared told me it was going to become a curry for his large family that night. Mid-week, he would come back for another fish, after a day of chicken and a day of mutton. Friendly and excited to practice his English, he told me he liked coming to the market to buy new fish.
Neither of us wanted to leave the souq. It was the most welcome we have felt by locals in the time we have been here. I felt more like an expat than a tourist.
Tourists flock to the Muttrah souq, ourselves included. The souq barely contains the flurry of polite salesmen luring in customers to haggle over prices of Omani silver and frankinscense, Kashmiri silk and wool, and Indian and African imports. Food and dress are heavily influenced by India, and the crafts are typically in traditional Middle Eastern styles. This souq accommodates everyone, including nationals looking for abayas and dishdashas, the national dresses.
In such small lanes, you have to keep moving or risk getting haggled to death. About ten minutes after this photograph, it was packed.
Aggressively haggled but going strong…
Omani food is influenced by its neighbors across the sea. Indian curries and Persian biryani (rice, meat and dry spices) are common, all served over beds of basmati infused with clove and cinnamon. Fish, mutton and chicken are the most common meats.
And that is nothing more than a brief rundown of our weekend. Oman is geographically a stunning country, and friendly, two things that have gone missing from us here in the UAE. They’re apples and oranges to compare; Dubai is certainly its own stunning place, but life and times in Oman attract me in a more elemental way. We are anxious to explore other parts of the country as soon as we can.