On being there, then and now

I was standing on the beach outside Salalah, Oman, at what felt like the end of the earth. Behind me were the coconut palms, mangoes, and papaya trees of what seemed like a lush tropical island, but was in fact the southern rim of the most arid peninsula in the world. In front of me was the deep turquoise blue of the Indian Ocean that seemed to stretch forever.

This ocean, which looked like a barrier separating the people of the Arabian Peninsula from the rest of the world, had in fact been a highway. It had connected them to India, Africa, and China for the last 2,000 years, and probably longer. This remote, exotic, and lovely place had been a crossroads for the cultures of two continents, where people, trade goods, and ideas had met and blended.

And so it would soon become again. Things are never what they look like.

Before I left the United States, a friend of mine had asked me what the point of traveling was, especially in this day and age. Why subject yourself to the misery of jet lag and cramped economy-class seats? Why bewilder yourself with foreign currencies (and languages) when you could watch National Geographic television specials, talk to English-speaking foreigners via internet chat rooms, and download any magazine article you desired using an Internet search engine?

At the time, I could only say, "It's not the same." Now I think I would answer that virtual travel only shows you what a place seems to be; it shows you what you want the place to be, or what the photographer or writer wants it to be. It does not reveal what the place would feel like to you, or what your own imagination would make of it.

"This is the perfect height for jumping," the young Omani man sitting next to me had said, as our plane began its descent into the Salalah Airport. He and the slightly older man sitting next to him were wearing the traditional Omani kandoora (white robe) and embroidered turban, but his English had barely a trace of an accent.

On the maps, Oman is a great beige triangle at the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula. But flying over it, the beige of the sand and rock is dotted with dark-green oases that look like islands in a sea of sand. For almost an hour, we had been flying over the shifting reddish sand of the empty quarter, and now, as we neared the coast, steep mountains swelled up from the desert below. I looked at the barren rocky mountains beneath and mentioned that I didn't think I would care to do that. I would be quite happy to wait until the plane was on the ground.

"He's eager to get home," said his companion, seated in the aisle seat. "He's a Jebali. His people live in these mountains. So a parachute is the quickest way home for him." He spoke in the easy, bantering tone of friends who had carried on a running joke for years.

I had read about the Jebali, a mountain people who spoke not Arabic, but an offshoot of the ancient, pre-Arabic Semitic language of southern Arabia, the language of the ancient kingdom of Sheba, which had flourished in nearby Yemen 3,000 years ago. An island of that culture had remained, there in the mountains of Oman. I looked at the young man, but he was obviously very much a person of this century, not a relic of the past.

"I was a paratrooper for many years," he explained. "My friend here is a city man; they're more cautious people." Then he added, "You are just coming to Salalah for a visit? You've come at the wrong time of year. In the summer, during the monsoon, these mountains would be as green as the mountains of England."

This was true. The narrow strip of land next to the coast is always green, the emerald green of gardens and palm trees. But during the summer, cooling rains turn the whole southern slope of the mountains green for scores of miles inland. This part of Oman, Dhofar, is a sort of seasonal oasis, magically reappearing every year, like an annual Brigadoon.

"But at least you will be able to see the frankincense trees," his friend told me, after the plane had landed. They were politely helping me retrieve my bag from the overhead bin.

A few hours and a few dozen miles later, I was looking at a frankincense tree. I had found a taxi driver at the hotel who was happy to take me toward the mountains, and here, on the gravel plane just before the foothills began, I started to see gnarled trees along the roadside. They looked like bonsai trees taken out of their pots and left to grow freely.

Frankincense had been one of the gifts of the Magi. I remembered reading that it was probably not gold and frankincense that the Magi had brought, but gold frankincense, that is, frankincense of such high quality that it was worth its weight in gold.

My taxi driver picked up a sharp stone and peeled away a tiny piece of bark. Sap began to ooze and then harden.

He broke off the little glob and handed it to me. "A memento of your visit," he told me.

I looked at the crystallizing drop of frankincense and saw a world of the past and future. Imagine a land in which gold nuggets oozed from the trees. This was what Oman had been. Here the incense would have begun a long journey by camel caravan, making its way from oasis to oasis across the Arabian Peninsula to the ports of the Mediterranean coast, the same oases I had seen from the air just a few hours ago.

When the demand for frankincense dropped, the Omanis had turned to the sea. Caravan and dhow, oceans of sand and of water, had both been part of what Oman was. And now, with the new deep-water port in Salalah, it could become a center of trade and a meeting place of cultures once again.

I thought of the young men I had met on the plane, with their traditional clothing and easy English. This was a metaphor for Oman itself, it seemed to me. So many different peoples had met and traded here. It was wrong to think of islands of culture, each separate in itself. Oman and the Omanis were not insular, but peninsular.

These were oases, places where people and goods from all over the world had come. The Omanis absorbed these influences, yet kept their own identities as distinctly as the oases kept what grew best in their own soil and microclimate. This was another way of connecting. I hadn't been standing at the end of the world, but at the beginning of it.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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