Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Dhofar

Dhofar is the southern region of Oman, and is very different from the rest of the country. Salalah, the capitol of Dhofar, was historically never a part of Oman; and since 1,000km of desert separates Salalah from Muscat, the people have much more in common with Yemenis than Omanis. In 1879 Dhofar was “annexed” by the Sultan of Muscat, and it became part of the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman. The people never really became Omani, though. They traditionally don’t speak Arabic, but another Semitic language no one else knows that has more in common with Hebrew.  

The culture in Dhofar is more conservative and tribal than in Muscat. It’s much more common for a man to have more than one wife here, and way more women were in nakab (with only their eyes showing), than I’d seen anywhere else. People’s tribes still determine a lot – social status, who one can marry, who one can be friends with, etc. etc. The tribe is much stronger here than anywhere else in the country, and it affects most aspects of Dhofaris’ lives.

One way the difference between Muscat and Salalah shows itself is clothing. Fashion is way cooler in Salalah – the turbans/massirs and dishdashas men wear are more colorful and vibrant. Also, men here wear the wizzar (a long piece of fabric tied like a towel that is traditionally worn under a dishdasha) as a garment itself – essentially walking around in very stylish underpants. The designs can be really flashy and awesome, and I will definitely be getting a few when I go back to do research.

Because of all this, Salalah feels like a different planet compared to Muscat, but it’s a planet I think all the group likes more. It feels a lot more like a city. Muscat is so spread out and it takes so long to get anywhere that a car is a requirement (or in my case, a taxi). Salalah is much smaller, and a lot more things are within walking distance. Buildings are also taller, and there’s a lot of people out and about. It just has a nicer vibe to it than Muscat, I think. It’s also a lot more historical (the ruins of Khor Rori date back to 300 BCE) and interesting.

Frankincense is huge here. It is everywhere and is an integral part of Dhofari history, identity, and culture. The region is one of only three spots in the world (Yemen and Somalia are the other two) where frankincense grows, and Dhofari frankincense is considered the best in the world. Without Dhofar’s frankincense, Oman’s rich history of maritime trade could not have happened, and Jesus would have gotten one less gift, since most people believe his frankincense was from Dhofar.

We visited other parts of Dhofar – Mirbat (home to a 5-star Marriot with a fantastic swimming pool), Taqah (birthplace of the Sultan), Khor Rori (ancient frankincense port), and al-Baleed (another ancient city, dating past 1329 CE, and famous for its mosques). I’m very excited to go back to Dhofar in April to do research for my capstone project. Before that, though, we’re going to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Doha. Some of my goals while I’m in Dhofar are to see the Empty Quarter and go on a real camel ride. Cross your fingers!

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