Muscat, Oman rarely features on many people’s travel bucket-list. Most people confuse Oman with Amman in Jordan. And when it comes to Middle East leisure holidays, the United Arab Emirates takes the cake.
So cue the arched eyebrows when I announced that I will be travelling to Muscat, Oman. For me three things should intrigue me about a place before it gets on to my bucket list: history, culture and food. And Muscat checked those boxes for me.
So I set out for my week long adventure to Southwest Asia. (It is pretty easy travelling to Oman from Johannesburg. Your best option is via Abu Dhabi but there is also options via Qatar.)
Once I arrived in Muscat, I admired the desert landscape, rocky mountains in the distant, the palm-trees and the ocean nearby.
I was lucky enough to stay at the Grand Hyatt along the coast and it was as incredible as any five star hotel.
The hotel had a distinct Omani flavour which was quite different than other international hotel brands who have a more sanitised, mainstream look.
The hotel is perched along the beach so if sunbathing is your thing then you are in for an added bonus.
The food was… I am never lost for words but…
The wide range of traditional middle east cuisine was mind blowing. From the traditional breads to the rice and meat dishes everything I ate was on point.
For a coffee addict with a sweet tooth like me, I was in heaven as I experienced traditional Omani culture of a shot of strong kahwa (coffee) spiced with cardamon which is served alongside Omani Halwa. (Omanis offer it to you wherever you go).
On to history and culture (the exciting bit), I was first fascinated by the political and social structure of Oman.
I think it is very interesting that the Sultaan of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, is so widely loved and popular in the country that his picture is perched almost everywhere in Oman from the hotels to the local McDonalds.
Sultaan Qaboos has been in the ruler for the last 40 years after having toppled his father in a coup.
Omanis revere him tremendously for the role he played in developing Oman and placing the country on the international stage. I found it quite strange that his picture was even stuck on the back of cars.
Anyways, a mosque was built in his name; The Sultan Qaboos Grand mosque in Muscat which is open to tourists until 11am and has the second largest persian rug ever woven. It has a nice mix between Arab and Persian design.
Unlike near by Saudi Arabia, in Oman religion is not enforced through government.
In most respects Omani Muslims are tolerant of all denominations.
Interestingly, Omanis neither fall in the Sunni or Shiate subsections of Muslim.
The type of Islam they follow is called Ibadhism- the details of which is too intricate to fit in this post.
Nonetheless, Omani people pride themselves on a prayer the Prophet Muhammed (may peace be upon him) made for their land in the early days of Islam.
The Omani rulers have preserved Islamic artefacts and places- some of which even predate Islam.
I had the great opportunity to travel to the Bahla Fort which was built in the 13th century and is a Unesco heritage site.
Oman has many of these heritage sites which are so rich in character and history.
The modern palaces of the incumbent Sultaan are also quite a sight. True to arab architecture, there is a lot of emphasis to detail.
Other interesting places to visit include the Baitul Bagh museum and nearby souks.
So far so good. Until you have to spend money. The Omani Riyal is absolutely strong- which is good for the Omanis and not so great for us coming from developing economies.
1 Omani Riyal is around R36. I wish I was kidding.
So heavy shopping cannot be on the agenda. Thankfully, a lot of the sights and places to explore are relatively cheap in comparison to other tourist hotspots across the world.
Interestingly, there are no poor people in Oman. I could not find a single person to give charity to in all of my time there. Even the expats who settle there say they have nothing to complain about. I loved that even with all of that wealth, the Omani culture was not flashy as seen in other Middle Eastern countries (*side eyes UAE).
The country has a deep and complicated effect on you which almost forces you to reflect on culture, tradition and history.
Oman: A beacon of hope in the Middle East
Qaanitah Hunter for the Mail & Guardian
Do you remember that May morning two years ago when we woke up to the news that “al-Qaeda is alive and well in South Africa”? This week we saw news that the Islamic State has extended its recruiting network to South Africa.
Although the narrative may be similar, the players are quite different – and this time it is not a loosely put together hotchpotch of half-truths. It is real. And the most we are doing is sitting back helplessly.
On May 13 2013, investigative reporter De Wet Potgieter attempted to “expose” a huge and murky network of terrorists operating in South Africa. The report, carried by the Daily Maverick and chased by almost every other major news network in South Africa at the time, was labelled as barefaced lies. Some even said it was Islamophobic.
Perhaps, then, it came as little surprise that a month later, the Daily Maverick issued an apology to the implicated individuals after finding no proof that connected the al-Qaeda terror network to South Africa.
Things have changed dramatically globally since then and balaclava-clad youths with black flags now wreak terror in the Islamic world. Videos of beheadings make even the Lord’s Resistance Army’s Joseph Kony look like a Nobel peace prize contender.
South Africans, far from the epicentre of the Islamic State scourge, looked away, hoping that if we ignored it long enough, it would go away. But as the beheadings and executions became commonplace, there was a dreaded sigh and then a “not in our name” mumble.
It is really difficult to pin down the Islamic State with any accuracy. Are they really Sunnis? Who is funding them? Are they a Western decoy?
These conversations continued until we were jolted to the reality this week that they may have established a recruiting network in South Africa.
While the details remain sketchy, what we know is that a 15-year-old Cape Town girl was apprehended and removed from a British Airways flight after being linked to the terror group.
There is no doubt the Muslim world is heavily fragmented, disagreeing on everything from the Muslim Brotherhood to the war in Syria.
Enter Oman: an interesting non-player in Arab/Muslim politics and the inevitable conflict in the Middle East.
Oman is the only country that does not have its finger in the war pie – despite sharing borders with key Arab players Yemen and Saudi Arabia. With a population the size of Cape Town’s, Oman – as per its legislation – does not get involved in regional politics.
At a gathering of its religious scholars in the capital Muscat this week, the country’s shared ideal of religious tolerance was shined and polished like a valuable ancient vase.
The minister of religious affairs, Abdullah bin Mohammed al-Salmi, emphasised several times in an interview with the media: “In Oman, Shias, Sunnis and Ibadhis [a sect found mostly in Oman] can live peacefully together,” he said.
Unlike several Middle-Eastern countries where religious affiliation has divided nations for centuries, Oman discourages the segregation of congregations along Shia, Sunni or Ibadhi lines. The Omani government strives to allow all religious denominations a space to practice their religion.
Anglican priest Chris Howitz told me that even small congregations were welcomed and accepted. “Here people can disagree with you but still remain your friend,” he said.
But you cannot talk about religious tolerance in isolation, especially in a region where public beheadings and mass executions are so frequent that they barely grab the headlines.
Al-Salmi explained how the country has a firm policy not to become embroiled in the affairs of others. He cited a Qur’anic principle: that no man shall be held accountable for the misdeeds of his brother. He would further denounce the Islamic State, saying it has no place in the “peaceful religion of Islam”.
A similar sentiment was expressed by a body of South African clerics who this week unequivocally shunned the Islamic State as a “group of mass murderers who do not act in the name of Islam”.
But while it is interesting that the narrative of denouncing the group is shared globally, the response to it has been so varied.
This, perhaps, is where the international community broadly, and the Muslim world in particular, faces its biggest challenge; uniting beyond the differences, religious affiliations or even geopolitics, to come up with a solution to combat the fundamental barbarity of the Islamic State.
The mainly moderate Muslim community in South Africa learnt a tough lesson this week: in the age of social media, distance is no barrier against global terrorism.
Qaanitah Hunter’s trip to Oman was funded by the Omani ministry of heritage and religion affairs.