Published August 3, 2010
Back in 1996, the first monsoon festival initiative started out as a group of tents and a small wooden makeshift stage at the base of the majestic green mountains of Dhofar. They named it 'Festival of Dhofar Municipality's Friends'. Fourteen years and a few million visitors later, the festival (now called 'Salalah Tourism Festival') covers several acres of land and has become the second largest attraction in Dhofar during July and August, after the incredible weather.
I'm not much of a festival person and I usually try to avoid crowded places at all costs, but I admit to faithfully visiting the festival at least once or twice every year since it began. It's pretty hard to avoid, given that it's where all the action is! Any family with children is bound to go at least five times during the festival's six weeks. The grounds are very child-friendly with a decent sized amusement park, good games, activities, contests, and even their own little children's stage.
One of the huge festival highlights (for me, anyway) is the Heritage Village. I always end up buying handicrafts and frankincense from the local artisans. Also, I never get tired of watching the traditional dances from every corner of Oman. If you arrive at the right time, you may stumble upon a poetry gathering in one of the Bedouin tents or even be given the opportunity to ride a camel. I've always been tempted to get on a camel, but given the rides' awkward location right in the center of the festival grounds I don't think I'll ever be brave enough. (Furthermore, abayas aren't very camel-friendly!) Those small details aside, there's always something interesting going on in the Heritage Village and it's a great place to take tourists or friends from abroad.
Another highlight for tourists and locals alike is the annual book fair. Ten years ago the selection of books was nothing to be proud of, with too many books on Arab politics, cooking, and romance novels with eyebrow raising covers. However, nowadays you can find everything from high quality reference books to translations of great world literature. A couple of years ago, I was even able to pick up both English and Arabic copies of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'.
The photography and art exhibitions are always worth a visit. In fact, it's probably the only opportunity to really appreciate the considerable talents of our local photographers and artists. Furthermore, the festival's concert series have been a major attraction over the years, with artists from every corner of the Arab world coming to perform here in Salalah, to only what can be described as overly emotional and enthusiastic crowds. We've had some pretty big names come to our town, including Kazem El Saher, Mohammed Abdo, and Nancy Ajram.
A huge highlight for the female population of Dhofar is the shopping pavilion with hundreds of stalls hosting vendors from the subcontinent and Far East. A lot of the things being sold are cheap Chinese products and suspicious cosmetics. Also, I always tend to get accosted by overly made-up Arab women claiming that their products will make me whiter, thinner, or more fertile. Despite being put off by this, I must admit, I always end up leaving with a treasure or two, be it exotic Yemeni spices, beautifully carved Pakistani furniture, hand painted Palestinian ceramics or fake designer bags from China!
In addition to numerous additional exhibitions, some of the other festival highlights include various sports activities, a wide selection of outdoor restaurants, daily fireworks and lots more. It's pretty safe and I haven't heard of any accidents involving kids falling off roller coasters or horrible cases of food poisoning for some years. We've also progressed from embarrassing freak shows involving half-animal, half human creatures to more civilized forms of entertainment. All in all, I salute the officials at the Dhofar Municipality for their achievements. The festival has come a long way and it's a great place to spend an afternoon or an evening. Every visitor is guaranteed to find something of interest!