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Story of Oman

Frederic Lagrange The terrace and reflection pool at Al Husn hotel

Photo: Frederic Lagrange

When I followed the tracks into a cavern of sorts, I discovered that the turtle’s cache had been staked already and flagged by hotel employees. Surrounding it was the kind of barrier rope one finds outside hot clubs. The sight was quite welcome to a traveler recently come from Dubai, a grim land of manmade islands and indoor ski slopes and machine-generated waves, where in the battle between man and the environment, Mother Nature stands no chance.

As at some of the thriving resorts on Dubai, there are elements of the Barr Al Jissah that summon up a Middle East Epcot Center. There are three hotel pods accommodating various clientele (business, family, the ultra-elite), a bunch of themed restaurants, and a multinational staff that, typical of the service sector in the Gulf States, includes almost no one from Oman. This phenomenon I initially encountered as a reporter in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War. Kuwaitis, I found then, are served but do not serve, and in this, as in some other ways, the region has not changed much between 41 and 43.

At Shangri-La’s resort, and also the Chedi, the waitresses are Burmese, the masseurs Indonesian. The chefs are European, the pool boys are Indian. There are practical as well as cultural reasons why this would be so, I knew: secondary education only came to the Oman sultanate three decades ago, when the current ruler, Sultan Qaboos, overthrew his father, Sa’id bin Taimur, in a coup.

For the first half of the 20th century, Oman was off-limits to outsiders, and even as recently as 1970 the place then still known as Muscat and Oman had few roads or schools and a hard silver currency first minted for an Austrian empress who had died more than two centuries before.

One still finds these Maria Theresa talers at the souk, polished and sold alongside resinous hunks of the frankincense that is burned everywhere in little braziers and whose odor, for anyone raised Christian, can trigger an involuntary urge to genuflect. There are varying grades of the stuff, as I learned when I found myself haggling for bags of small white incense pebbles, not because I had any intention of using them at home but because there were few other souvenirs that seemed regionally particular.

I remark on this only because the world seems defined these days less by variety than by a dismal material sameness. More and more, the reasons that motivate some of us to leave home in the first place seem to be vanishing. Those exotic lands of childhood fantasy are quickly becoming international limbos, the vivid singular patterns of place much harder to pick out from the wallpaper of globalized culture. This is not in every instance an undesirable thing, I remembered, when I needed cash to continue haggling at the souk and ran a few steps outside to get some from an ATM. Still, the truth is that one does not spend 16 hours aloft at 37,000 feet in an aluminum canister hurtling through the clouds without an innate desire to experience the unexpected. I kept this in mind one day as a driver I’d hired tore along an immaculate highway cut through 135 miles of stony gray nothingness and then abruptly pulled off onto a rutted road near the village of Al Mintirib.

There, a sign pointed the way toward the Wahiba Sands and there too began a David Lean landscape of fantastical sand mountains, principally pink-orange in color but also in places a mottled fawn and rose-red and, where the shadows blanketed the dunes, an enveloping deep brown. The Wahiba dunes extend for thousands of square miles; bedouin nomads are said to inhabit them, subsisting on what, I have no idea.

Reading Thesiger teaches one to understand that the barrenness of deserts is deceptive: the beautiful and inhospitable blankness is a veil. Things live there: creatures that camouflage themselves against desert colors, avoid the brutal light of daytime, and appear in their skittish or poisonous multitudes only by night. Yet we saw nothing at all beyond a scruffy shepherds’ encampment, a collection of corrugated sheds built around a life-giving tube well.

It didn’t matter. We were joyriding, which is the real reason most anyone drives out this far. Activating the four-wheel-drive on his SUV, the driver pulled off the main track and began climbing the first of a series of monster dunes at what felt like a treacherous pitch. People have died doing this, or so one surmises from Lonely Planet’s delicate injunction to skip the area if not accompanied by an experienced guide and well supplied with water and food. Vehicles turn over. Cars get mired in the sand. Their occupants presumably wind up lost and dead and looking like those bleached-out bone piles I associate with Yosemite Sam cartoons.

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