Desert Kings – The Scotsman

Winner: Best Travel Story, Foreign Press Association Media Awards

SALEN pouts silently under his little red crash helmet as his father lashes him to the back of a camel. At six, he’s the perfect age for racing – small enough not to weigh much, but old enough to whip the camel’s rear end for two and a half kilometres. So far, he looks underwhelmed by the privilege.
“He is happy!” insists his father Ali, a Bedouin tribesman with skin as dark as shoe leather. “Every child dreams of bringing honour to his family.” He yanks knotted cloths tightly over his son’s spindly thighs to make sure he’s not thrown off on his first ride. In Saudi Arabia they use Velcro, but he’s not taking any chances.
The camel, a saggy-lipped old pro called Museiha, knows exactly what’s in store. It gargles fractiously, pitching Salen back and forth as it unfolds its long hinged legs like a zed-bed. Two others rise from the 20 or so lying around in the early morning sun, each bearing a little boy with a differently coloured helmet.
There’s a yell from Ali, a flurry of slaps on flanks, and the camels are off crazily down the fenced course, their hind legs splayed in flight, their jockeys thrown about like overexcited Muppets. Outside the guide rails, tribesmen tear along yelling from open pickup trucks, their long white dishdasha tunics billowing behind them.
Today it matters little who wins: these are practice runs to break in the new jockeys. But the most talented riders could go on to become high-earning heroes – at least until they retire at the ripe old age of ten.
“My brother raced when he was small,” recalls my 25-year-old guide Segir nostalgically, as we watch the whole hooting, shouting convoy becomes a mere dust cloud in the heat-warped distance. “Once he won us 200,000 riyals (about £400,000).”
Camels have always been a precious commodity in Oman. When the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger travelled through the vast wastes of this country in 1940s, he was amazed to find his Bedouin guides able not only to identify the distinctive tracks of their own camel, but to memorise those of every other they had seen.
“That’s still true,” shrugs Segir today. “But now we mostly travel by car. Land Cruisers are better than camels.” He demonstrates this by breasting great waves of sand in the Toyota, rocking the steering wheel back and forth rhythmically to stop the tyres sinking.
“So modern ways are more reliable than the traditional ways?” I enquire provocatively, as I hang onto my seat. “No,” says Segir, firmly. “Just faster. We’ll take the cars but you can keep the rest of your modern lives – including the air conditioning.” He grins at me as I sweat in the 90 degree heat.
Modern life is not much in evidence at Segir’s family homestead, adrift in a 180-km sea of dunes known as the Wahiba Sands. The nomadic Bedu don’t move around so much these days, but they still prefer the desert, camped with their livestock below widescreen skies.
“We can’t live in the city,” says Segir, as we draw up in front of a small compound marked out with woven sticks, and surrounded on all sides by sparse red dunes. “Even if I married a bride from the city, she would come back here.”
Inside the fence, Segir’s two little nieces in green and lilac silk, giggle at the palid stranger. Segir’s mother, Meteab nervously brings out trays of sticky dates and strong Arabic coffee for us as we sit on a Persian rug in the shade of a dried palm roof.
Tourism is still at the sensitive stage out here: having been initially hostile to visitors, the Bedouin are now evidently beginning to understand the potential for supplementing their incomes by inviting foreigners in for coffee.
Meteab, her eyes and upper face hidden behind a barkaa or mask, pulls out another mask and puts it in front of me. It shimmers with finespun gold thread, and smells of incense. “For your wife? Six riyals,” interprets Segir.
I buy it, finding myself in awe of these people, their honey-coloured skin and tough, erect bodies; their unshakeable sense of identity. “We are a strong and brave,” Segir tells me, matter-of-factly, as we step outside. “The secret is camel’s milk and dates – good for strong legs”.
I discover the particular necessity of strong legs when the family packs me off back to my Desert Discovery tourist encampment on a camel. I’ve been itching to try it all day, but now with my trembling knees clamped around the gently swaying hump, I look back to see my hosts in the throes of a great joke. The small boy assigned to lead my camel grins up at me with pearly white teeth as the camel clops along lethargically, farting occasionally.
Lying outside my palm-and-canvas shelter that night under astounding galaxies, with the smell of wood smoke in my nostrils, I read a chunk of vintage Thesiger from Arabian Sands. “The Bedu have a quality of nobility that I have met nowhere else,” he wrote. “While [they] were prepared to tolerate me as a source of very welcome income, they never doubted my inferiority.” I think of the camel ride, and smile.
Oman has never sacrificed its pride to its growing tourist industry, which is precisely what makes it such a rewarding place to visit. Omanis are generous, welcoming but resolutely themselves.
Part of the credit for this must go the nation’s widely-admired ruler, whose image peers down benevolently – but with absolute power – from every city lamp-post. Only three decades ago, Sultan Qaboos inherited from his deposed father a backward state with virtually no infrastructure. Since then he has performed a remarkable balancing act, bringing Oman into the global economy while instituting laws to make sure it does not squander its traditions. Tourism is ever more important as oil reserves dwindle, but flat Arabic roofs remain compulsory, male state employees must wear the dishdasha. And in the capital, Muscat, you can be pulled over for driving an unwashed car.

Leaving the dunes in the delicate light of the following dawn, I head for the oasis city of Nizwa with a one-eyed Arab guide called Amir, our speed warning indicator dinging merrily on wide roads scored along valley floors. Back in the 1940s, Thesiger couldn’t venture anywhere near Nizwa for fear of the ultra-conservative Imams who ruled there. Nowadays it has become a tourist magnet, a beautifully-preserved medieval capital set against high mountains. Up in the cool interior of its renovated 17th Century fort, a jovial guard shows me the slots for pouring boiling honey on invaders, and a trapdoor in the floor of the Imam’s chamber which leads, like some exotic Arabian adventure plot, to a 2km-long secret escape passage under the city and out into the surrounding countryside.
In the noisy souq below, sceptical buyers are checking the teeth of disgruntled goats, as Bedouin sellers parade them round in a circle, shaded by palms. Nearby, in a warren of alleys, silversmiths work on jewellery in tiny rooms hung with ceremonial daggers, camel bags, and frankincense.

Driving back towards Muscat later that day, I notice dark clouds peering over the mountaintops, the peaks disappearing in advancing rain. In rocky valleys this can mean trouble. Flash floods of mountain rainwater with nowhere else to go have washed unsuspecting tourists to their death before now. Sure enough, although the rain stays around the mountains, we round a bend to find a 25-metre section of road is now under water. A stalled Datsun sits in the middle of what is now a river, the water washing over its hubcaps.
A queue of nervous drivers forms at the edge of the flood, politely waiting for the river to subside. Where ancient forces and modern life collide, Omanis know when to hit the brakes.
But I can’t help thinking: this wouldn’t be a problem on a camel.

19th May 2001

Nick Thorpe visited Oman courtesy of Arabian Odyssey. For more details:

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