The Discovery Channel epiphany occurred at the end of my journey and, as in fables, only after I had stopped expecting very much. It happened on the water in the Gulf of Oman, the turquoise sea into which Sinbad the Sailor once set off on his seven fantastical voyages. It happened at pretty much the moment I decided I was done with Oman.
By then I had visited the famous souk in Muscat, Oman’s capital, and found its modest scale and drowsy lanes and stalls heaped with chunks of crude coral and silver not altogether as enchanting as the Aladdin’s cave I’d been led to expect. I had also seen the vast sand formations that ripple on forever— perhaps too much forever, as I am not the first to have observed.
Travelers like the indomitable Englishman Wilfred Thesiger remarked of this landscape that it is among the least hospitable of places, crawling with scorpions and brigands (then and now), scorching hot in daylight, cold as Mars by night, and not in any obvious way worthy of the romantic associations implied by the title Thesiger gave to his account of the place: Arabian Sands.
From a marketing standpoint Arabian Sands has a priceless ring, conjuring up as it does the Orientalist hokum that proved so valuable to T. E. Lawrence and equally to early Hollywood. The generations of readers who have kept Thesiger’s volume in print must have been drawn to it for the same reasons that once caused moviegoers to swoon over Valentino in The Sheik: desert-plus-camel-plus-dark-eyed-Arabs equals boffo box office.
Or at least the recipe worked that way in the distant time before Al Qaeda’s war on infidels. It is instructive to contemplate—in an era when our politicians can make global news by opposing the wearing of head scarves—that there once was a day when, for Westerners, the Arab was some kind of erotic ideal.
So what if most movie Arabs came from the Bronx or Nebraska and were darkened up with Max Factor’s Natural No. 2?So what if the movies’ rippling dunes were actually in California?The real desert, the one that nearly swallowed Thesiger alive as he attempted what no white man had before—a full exploration of the vast and eerily named Empty Quarter on camelback—is a lot less romantic, less gorgeously yielding in person. To be honest, a lot of it looks like a gravel mine.
But do not mention this to the hordes of international travelers now flocking to a country that two years ago hardly anyone lacking a foreign policy degree could place on the map.
"You’re going to Omaha?" a startled friend exclaimed when I mentioned my itinerary.
"Oman," I replied.
"Oh, Jordan," she said, reassured. "I hear Petra is very nice."
"Well, almost," I said, and left it at that.
One can hardly hold it against people for failing to know of a country that shows up on maps largely as a vacant appendage to the immensity of Saudi Arabia, a cartographic dog tooth jutting into the Gulf of Oman. Yet, in that pesky way it has, the avant-garde of international travel has suddenly fallen upon this non-place, a onetime British protectorate known in the past mainly as a sleepy outpost of fisherfolk, merchants in silver and frankincense, and dealers in illegal goods. Unsavory as it is, Oman’s reputation as a nexus of global contraband has historic dimensions; in former centuries the capital, Muscat (now Masqat), was a major stop on the slave-trade route. It was to Muscat that human cargo was shipped in dhows from Zanzibar, the East African island of romantic name and unfragrant reputation, long ago a possession of Oman.