Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Shisha Café Scene

Published January 19, 2010 - Muscat Daily

Anyone who visits Salalah is bound to drive along Haffa beach in the old souk area, or what we locals call 'The Corniche'. It used to be a quiet area where you would often see families sitting at their doorsteps chatting or fishermen mending their nets on the sidewalk under the coconut trees. Sadly, now all you see on that long stretch of beach are white plastic tables and chairs belonging to the cheap restaurants or ' cafés ' that basically serve tea and shisha (commonly known as hookah), and very little else.

 If you drive along the beach any evening of the week, between 5 p.m and 2 a.m, you'll see hundreds of Dhofari men in small groups at these tables smoking shisha and drinking tea. Not only is it popular here among local young men, but it seems to be very popular with the tourists. Shisha restaurants don't exist only on the beach, but can be found practically anywhere in town, in hidden alleyways, in farm plantations, and now even extending up into the mountains. Is Salalah slowly turning into the shisha hub of Oman? Do we want that kind of publicity?

Looking back, I am guessing that this unhealthy habit appeared in Salalah back in the mid 1990's. However, nowadays it has become a social trend that is well integrated into the daily routines of men in Dhofar. Most of the men who hang out at these restaurants are between the ages of 20 and 40. Dare I compare them to pubs in England? Both are male hangouts. Both provide the opportunity to socialize. Both are places where you can watch sports on television. Both may or may not employ attractive female waitresses. Last but not least, both serve an addictive substance.
It amuses me to see that men tend to believe that spending hours smoking shisha adds to their social status & sense of prestige. I asked a number of people I know why they find shisha so attractive, and their answers were very similar. They all agreed that shisha makes them high, kills all the spare time they have on their hands, and provides an atmosphere for socializing. As a person who suffers from allergies, I have no respect for people who smoke. What's so great about filling your lungs and the air around you with smoke? Does it make you feel good about yourself in the long run? I doubt it.
Sadly, there are several places in Salalah now where even women can get their dose of tobacco. Personally, I think it's an extremely unpleasant and unhealthy habit and I will never understand why men do it, let alone women.
I've come to notice that many users here believe that shisha smoke is significantly less dangerous than that from cigarettes. The moisture induced by hookas makes it less irritating and thus may trick the smoker into thinking it's the healthier option. Studies by the World Health Organization have confirmed that use of shisha is as harmful to a person's health as smoking cigarettes, if not more. In a one-hour shisha session, users consume about 200 times the smoke and about 70 times the nicotine as they do in one cigarette. People who smoke shisha have five times the risk of lung cancer as non-smokers. Why do it?
Several shisha smokers I know claim that if they had something more interesting to do, they'd probably quit. Perhaps Salalah needs more sports facilities, useful entertainment centers, bowling alleys, bookstores, cinemas, and more decent places to kill time? More activities for young people? Sounds like a topic for one of my future articles!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lost in the Past

Published January 5, 2010 - Muscat Daily

Many of you live in Dhofar or have been here at least once or twice, and a good number of you may have visited the ruins at Khor Rori (Sumhuram) just outside Salalah. One of the more significant pre-Islamic settlements in Dhofar, excavations at Khor Rori have been going on since the 1950’s. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of touring the site with some archaeologists who have been working there on and off for several years. What I learned in those short hours blew me away and stunned me into realizing how little I knew about the history of Dhofar. I had been to the site several times before, but on those occasions there were no brochures available at the gate, and although the site has been open to the public for at least two years, there are still no signs posted around the ruins with explanations. Anyone who visited Khor Rori would enjoy the architecture and pre-Islamic writings on the walls, but would leave with no information on its history. During my tour I learned about the great kings, the wars, the frankincense trade, the people, the Semitic gods they worshipped, the temples, the sacrifices, the graves, and much more. I mean it when I say I was ‘blown away’. The ruins sit on a cliff overlooking the ocean. You can actually feel the history. Truly majestic and awe-inspiring. Where had I been all these years? Why didn't I know about all this?
I asked the archaeologists if there were any Omanis working on the site and their answer was a quiet 'one or two’. Apparently Omani archaeology graduates are either very superstitious or prefer office jobs and aren't willing to tackle excavations. I know it's much easier to have a comfortable job, but when working on something as important as unearthing the history of this region, I'd probably do it for free!

The next day I met with a group of friends and brought up the subject of Khor Rori. To my dismay, half of them hadn't even heard of it and the other half didn't care, or had strong superstitions about the place. I was sad, but not surprised. I've seen similar reactions from young people of my generation, especially during my years at university. They may have university degrees but very few of them are interested in the history of the region, and most of them have never taken the time out to visit any of the archeological sites, the caves with ancient writings, the tombs, or even the museums.

There seems to be very little interest in history that isn't tribal. Dhofar is such a fascinating place, and there's so much to be explored. If such sites were advertised well and information was easily accessible, I'm pretty sure the level of interest would increase. The Ministry of Tourism should cater to the locals, not just the tourists. There should be educational signs at every site as well as brochures, and even a website. Why not?
To conclude on a very positive note, I was pleased to discover that as of last month, a book published by the Office of the Advisor to His Majesty for Cultural Affairs on the reconstruction & restoration of Khor Rori is being sold at the gate. I read the book in one sitting and was fascinated. I will definitely visit again and spread the word. If you live in Salalah, grab a picnic and go and visit the site on the weekend! If you're from outside Dhofar, make sure to add Khor Rori to your ‘to do’ list when you come to Salalah. I can promise you, you won't be disappointed!