Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Insanity in Dhofar

Published August 28, 2012 in Muscat Daily. Click here to view the article on the newspaper's website.

Insanity is the only suitable word I can think of to describe the current situation in Dhofar. In case you are living in a bubble or are new to the country, let me enlighten you.

While the rest of the Middle East melts during July and August, the Dhofar region in the south of Oman experiences a very cool and wet monsoon, and our town becomes a tourist magnet. This year the holy month of fasting happened to coincide with our rainy season and this caused a predictable decrease in the number of tourists.

We foolishly assumed that very few tourists would come during Eid because normally people spend Eid with their families, right? Wrong. On the first day of Eid local majlis gossip revolved around the Haima crisis. Apparently there were hundreds of vehicle stranded without fuel trying to get to Salalah and most stations along the desert route were empty. Slowly, traffic became more and more congested in town and you could practically hear the mountains rumble as convoys of UAE land cruisers sped their way into Salalah.

Within a few hours, car rental agencies were out of vehicles and all hotels and apartment blocks were fully booked. Rumour has it that hundreds of tourists spent the night in mosques or under the stars because they couldn't find any place to stay. By the second day of Eid, many locals had rented out parts of their homes or even their entire houses to desperate tourists who were willing to pay anything for a place to stay. Those who weren't able to find accommodation in Salalah sought shelter in the neighbouring towns of Taqah and Mirbat.

By the second day, Salalah was out of basic necessities like milk, bread and petrol. An errand that would normally take five minutes took more than an hour, and UAE licence plates seem to have outnumbered Omani ones at one point.

Police attempted to control the insane traffic with very little luck. The roads leading up into our emerald green mountains and valleys witnessed back-to-back traffic. In fact, ROP officers had to turn people away from popular tourist spots like Darbat Valley and Ittin to avoid a major crisis.

With the exception of one trip to the supermarket early on Thursday morning, I stayed home the entire week and haven't even been into the mountains yet because it is just not worth it. Speaking of that one trip to the supermarket, on the drive from the door of our house to the door of the supermarket and back we counted 592 UAE, Saudi and Qatar licence plates, I kid you not. That doesn't even include all the vehicles from the north of Oman.

Official statistics confirmed nearly 100,000 visitors to Dhofar last week, most of whom arrived by car. Do you have any idea what that means for us? The population of Salalah according to the 2010 Census was a miserable 172,000. This town and its roads weren't at all prepared for a 50 per cent overnight population increase. Locals are jokingly referring to it as The Invasion.

It's nice to see so many people enjoying our monsoon, but I am baffled at how the huge influx of tourists was handled. Were MoT officials snoozing during Ramadan? Millions and millions have been spent to promote tourism in Dhofar. If most hotels and flights were completely booked out in advance, surely someone could have suggested a back-up plan just in case? Temporary sleep cabins like the ones set up for the London Olympics would have been useful. Several hundred of Muscat Municipality's new portable paid public toilets would have come in handy as well. The long washroom line-ups at local mosques last week were insane.

Furthermore, I know this isn't the ministry's fault but someone is going to have to think of a better garbage system. Our beautiful mountains have been littered with zillions of soft drink cans and plastic bags because many visitors haven't been able to grasp the idea of storing trash in the car until you find a suitable place to dispose of it.

I know we like to pretend everything's fine in Oman, but the current situation is just embarrassing and frustrating for locals and tourists alike. Officials are going to have to think of a better way to handle tourism because the numbers are going to increase every year and our economy needs it. A little planning and logical thinking goes a long way.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Final Week

Published in Muscat Daily on August 14th, 2012. Click here to view the column on their website.

As I write these words, I am sitting on my back steps here in Salalah in my traditional thobe budhail with two cats curled up on either side of me for warmth. We are quietly enjoying the monsoon drizzle and listening to the gentle rustle of the leaves on the fig, henna and frankincense trees. This is beginning to sound like a poem, isn't it? Forgive me, I've been fasting for almost 12 hours and have another three to go. We do tend to get a little delirious towards the end of the day in Ramadan!

To be honest, I find it hard to believe the holy month of Ramadan is coming to an end. Despite the long hours of fasting, time flew. As we wait for the new moon to mark the end of fasting and the beginning of Eid, I find myself thinking about my favourite and not-so-favourite aspects of Ramadan in the 21st century.

I will definitely miss the atmosphere in Salalah during Ramadan. When an entire region is fasting together, it feels like a month-long celebration instead of a hassle. To be honest, I have no idea how Muslims in non-Muslim societies cope.

Thanks to shorter working hours and fewer commitments, I will miss the extra time for reflection and reading. I will miss the thousands of people rushing to make it to the mosque for every prayer and how everyone makes an extra effort to be calm and generous.

I will miss seeing plates of food being carried through the neighbourhood during the hour before sunset on their way to the mosque to feed fasting labourers. I'll miss all the excited children who are fasting for the first time. I will miss peeking out of my window at 4am and seeing all the neighbours' lights come on slowly one by one as they prepare for dawn. The list is long.

On the other hand, I will definitely not miss the Ramadan work ethic among Omani employees. I'm not exaggerating when I say next to nothing gets done in Ramadan. Muslims only work six hours during Ramadan, but most of them might as well not come to work at all. Somehow fasting and productivity don't go well together for many people.

The obsession with food and the long line-ups at supermarkets at all hours of the day and night will not be missed either. Most families spend up to four or five hours in the kitchen each afternoon preparing to break the fast and end up making up to ten different deep-fried dishes, most of which go to waste. This completely contradicts the purpose of fasting in my opinion, but to each his own, I suppose. In my home, my mother and I have dinner down to a 54-minute art. In the hour before sunset, we manage to produce a starter, a healthy main course and occasionally a dessert.

Believe it or not, our meals don't even involve the basic Omani Ramadan staples - oil, samosa wraps, puff pastry, crème caramel and Vimto. Sleeping well at night and fitting in a healthy breakfast before sunrise means I have energy during most of the day, for which I am grateful.

One aspect of Ramadan that drives me crazy is the increasing commercialism. I find I am able to shut myself off most of the time because I never really go into town during Ramadan. Furthermore (brace yourselves), my house is probably the only remaining house in the sultanate without cable television.

I can just about handle the very short episode of the Omani Ramadan cartoon Yom wa Yom in the evenings on Oman TV because I find it hilarious. However, the empty and mindless commercials that come on every five minutes during the episode remind me why I choose never to watch television. Life's too short.

I will not miss all the daily phone messages from car dealerships trying to brainwash me into believing I need a brand new RO25,000 car because I'm delirious, hungry and looking for distractions that don't involve food. What is it with car deals during Ramadan anyway?

I’m sad to see the holy month end because it’s a special time of year; a time of reflection, discipline and spirituality. However, I am also guilty of looking forward to going back to my normal work and study schedule. Trust me, trying to do post-graduate work while fasting is like pulling a tooth. Come next week, I'll be reunited with my sacred morning mug of coffee and I might just be able to catch up on all my studying...Insha Allah!