Friday, March 11, 2011

Bahla


Bahla is an ancient town about a half hour outside Nizwa, in the interior of the country. It is known around Arabia as the birthplace of jinn, or black magic, and it pre-dates Islam. Legends about Bahla’s past involve people being turned into cows or goats and people vanishing when they leaned against certain fence posts. Though it is Oman’s version of Salem, the witchcraft is not something people talk about readily; it is considered part of the past.  (In other words, Bahla’s economy is not driven by tourism or the sale of “I went to Bahla and all I got was hexed” t-shirts.)

Many Omanis, including the University of Nizwa students I lived with and my homestay brothers, have no desire to visit Bahla. Their reactions to our visit included shaking heads, raised eyebrows, and the widely-used “tsk tsk” sound to show disapproval. I was also asked if I saw any jinn and/or if I got hexed (the answer is no). Interestingly, those that had adverse reactions to our visit had never been there. When I showed my brother some of the pictures I took, he was surprised that it seemed like a fairly normal place, and I had to repeat multiple times that we were actually looking at pictures of Bahla.

The part of Bahla I found most interesting had nothing to do with jinn, however. It was the Abulla bin Hamadan al-Adwi Trad Aladawi Clay Pots Factory. Speaking with the old men sitting at the pottery wheels, I found out the factory is over 500 years old. These men accompanied their fathers to work and had been rolling clay and throwing pots since they were little kids. The shortest amount of time one of them had worked there was 40 years. Though they spoke the Omani colloquial Arabic very quickly, from what I could understand their families have been potters for centuries.

In my opinion, the factory serves the people of Bahla before it serves tourists. The men were spinning giant pots (about 3-4 feet tall) for date collection, something useful for residents of Bahla and not easily transported on a plane. Because of its age, tradition, and the fact that it contributes to Bahla the same way it has for centuries, I think the factory was the most “authentic” part of Oman I’ve seen yet. Let me explain.
In some of the souks in Muscat, you’ll find people from India or Pakistan selling khanjars (a traditional decorative Omani dagger) and dishdashas (traditional Omani dress). Though there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, there’s also nothing “authentic” about it – it’s a business. From my perspective, there’s something artificial about a non-Omani that doesn’t speak Arabic selling traditional examples of Omani heritage. Think of a Civil War reenactment made up of German tourists...not exactly the spitting image of Gettysburg. The pottery factory has catered to tourists only by establishing an un-staffed gift shop. Its main purpose is still to make pots.

All in all, Bahla was worth the trip. To top it off we spent 800 baisa (around $2) for giant fresh fruit smoothies. Juice in Oman is like juice nowhere else. The one generalization I’d be comfortable making about this country is that all its juice is delicious. Every glass I’ve had, be it from the grocery store or a corner coffee shop, is fantastic.

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