Condensation trickles down the outside of my un-Muslim drink and pools where the glass meets the table. The drink is a temperature perfect for a desert evening, even if it’s not authentically Omani. Late to bed gulls fly in military formation across the pale horizon. Gentle sea songs drift up from the beach as waves rush and retreat. Fishing boats drift, black shadow puppets, beyond the wave breaks. People, possibly fishermen, standing in knee deep water tend to the ropes the hold the boats firm to the shore. The boats are wooden and timeless. On how many evenings has such a scene played out? A long day of lows and highs winds towards its end. It feels a long way from home and a short way from sleep. But as ever, the anticipation is supplanted by adrenaline of surprise.
Out of the corner of my eye I notice something, a shape, flicker through the pale glow thrown from the lights that stud the grass and hedges. I assume that it’s a bat, drawn to the insects that are themselves drawn to the light. But then the shape lands on the grass and morphs into an indistinct brown lump. This does not seem to be bat-like behaviour. A few seconds later the lump launches itself into the air, it looks like a handkerchief being picked from the floor by fussy fingers that pinch at the very middle of the cloth. Briefly the now flying lump takes on a cone shape and disappears into the darkness. I have no idea what I have just seen. The shape returns to circle the light and land once more lands with a flop on the grass. This time it lands near enough for me to see it. It’s not a bat, it’s a bird. It’s nightjar. To say I’m surprised is an understatement. Mentally I check the number of un-Muslim drinks I’ve had and I find I’m still in the zone of believable observation. Photography is almost impossible – I can tell it’s a nightjar, probably a European Nightjar, but that’s about it. For the second time in a day my work mates look at me as if I am a madman. The adrenaline rush fades, the shore sounds wash over me and sleep beckons. In the lift I am smiling like a lunatic, and now complete strangers are looking at me like I’m a madman too. I don’t try to explain – that would only compound the issue. Sleep in an empty bed comes easier than normal.
Morning light. Startling hard brightness at the curtains edge. Air-conditioned eyes, sandy dry, slowly recover their function with a splash of water. A drought-breaking sip unglues my tongue from the roof of my mouth. Parrots call me to go outside. It’s a work day – but not yet – so I don’t resist the call.
House crows, silky grey and black, hop around the hotel tables looking for last night’s scraps. A small army of people, none of whom look like Omanis, try to sweep away the same scraps with wide headed brooms. It’s a battle between the sharp eyed and the well armed. A bird sits on a post with a chunk of bread; it has the look of victory about it. It’s chased loudly away from sight by others of the same species. The hotel sits above a small bay where a dry riverbed flows down to the sea. More crows walk up and down the sand in rhythm to the waves. Overhead a pair of ospreys drift in the light sea breezes, looking for fish, holding wing tips just so to grip the wind enough to fly in perfect looking circles. It’s a world bird that you can see almost everywhere; a token of the connectedness of the air and the ocean. They find a thermal and soar and soar and soar until they are just a speck, just a mote in the eye of an observer drawn to the movement and colour. I blink and they disappear, too distant, too high.
Behind me a glass shatters on the unyielding stone floor. The crows, more sensitive to this than I expected, flush upwards and call to each other, maybe in warning of a threat that never comes, maybe simply in alarm. A cormorant flies low and heavy over the sea. A morning like this feels like a gift in compensation for the parts of yesterday that were all graft. It’s a morning for deep breaths and long silence. But like it or not, it’s also a work morning. I turn and walk back towards the hotel. Broken glass is being swept into a dustpan with a boom that seems to be too long for the task in hand. House sparrows and myna birds try to join me for breakfast, but I’m saving the seats for other people. They squabble and seek board and a lodging at another table where a crumb throwing American provides the accommodation it was refused elsewhere. The light grows harder by the minute. The shadows grow sharper. By the time I leave the table the light has become brisk and businesslike. My focus shifts.
Out past the airport half finished buildings have been scattered, seemingly haphazard, on dusty blocks. Each one has a dragon’s teeth of steel reinforcement rods along their upper and outer edges, simultaneously defying invaders and awaiting extension. Behind the building blocks the dragon’s scales lie ruffled as dry hill ridges step back into the distance. All we need is fire and a golden unblinking eye and the beast would be complete. The Sun suffices. What plants there are take on a dusty dun green hue, the same colour as old military gear, like the webbing I acquired as a kid, the ghosts of 1945.
Movement stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. A cluster – maybe even a covey – of partridge like birds feed by the roadside. They scatter, some flying, some running, at the approach of a man in his standard issue blue boiler suit. Further investigation shows them to be Grey Francolin, a bird I have never heard of before. Later, in the dust between the sea and a modern road, I see more of these birds. They have the rapid flight rather than fight response of all birds that would form a tasty meal. When they see me they flee with a rapid weaving path that probably evolved to avoid and confuse predators, but now works well as a way to avoid bullets or shot.
Outside the gates of the University an Indian Roller sits atop a road sign. Although unrelated, it reminds me of a Kookaburra, with its solid frame and abundant colours. I see it for long enough to know what it is, but no more. As we are waved through the front gates I can’t help but wish for just a small delay to allow me a better look at this bird. But things don’t generally work like that; you get delays when you are in a hurry and pass swiftly when you would rather tarry. The university buildings are classically Omani, traditional and modern. Eye popping white walls and delicate small details. We are greeted by warm smiles, traditional dress and, disappointingly, instant coffee. I feel foreign (which of course I am) in my shirt and trousers. I wonder why some academics think the sandals and socks, matched with a 1000-year-old leather jacket are a good look. Such things distract me. I drain the last of my coffee and focus on the task at hand.
Room changes, missing PowerPoints, broken power points, everyday hassles that raise the blood pressure, but don’t really signify anything worth worrying about. The day passes, productive, strange and welcome. Sparrows gather in the underroof shade, squabble over crumbs, flutter in the dusty garden beds. We pass “Ladies Only” walkways that cry out for “Danger Women Crossing” signs. The classrooms have front and back doors – the back opening to these segregated zones. I find this out when I leave through the wrong door. A young woman laughs at my blunder, an incandescent smile. “We will forgive you, you are not from here”. She is not wrong.
That evening we head off to the souk – the old market that sells trinkets, spice, scarfs and rimless hats. It’s all corners and curves and beseeching shop owners offering the finest quality and the lowest prices. The stone floor is slick polished by time and a million feet. In small dark alleys between the shops heavily carved doors – with double sliding locks – suggest that another place exists behind the façade. As a visitor you can scratch the surface, but you rarely get to see the next layer. Like the veil so many of women wear, the tourist sheen acts as a barrier to understanding – and no, for the last time, I do not want an Omani hat, regardless of its quality.
Down at the waterfront red legged feeder crabs side walk to shrinking sunny spots. Legs wave and claws snap, the large displace the medium, the medium displace the small and the small suffer. Crag rocks, oyster pocked and sharp, slice and foam the incoming waves. A rat, fleet footed, well fed, explores the tunnels within the tumbled rock wall. Tail drips, whisker flicks. An eye for a meal, a nose for a found bargain.
The red marble sea wall, the perfect leaning point, is fresh-toast warm to the touch. Fish, some large, some small, dart between the unseen food scraps. Larger flecks and flakes of bread, thrown by day’s end fishermen, attract much attention. Small red floats bob in the waves, the hook hiding bread they hold ignored. Bait ignoring shoals of silver flicker in the last rays of the sun. On the water the sultan’s yacht sits next to a golden cast wooden boat. The yacht – at $1 million a foot we are reliably told – stretches on for foot after foot, million after million. Cranes stab upwards in back ground, linking land, sea and air. Wealth by right and wealth by industry. The fishermen keep fishing. The fish keep swimming.
On a cliff behind the coast a fort of rough chopped pink stone sits, waiting, watching; facing the sea, facing its foes. It seems to have traded thirst for security. An evening sea breeze moves a large flag with sharp, rifle cracks; the ghost of something that may have never happened. The sea sips at the edge of the land, the sun sinks below the wrapping hills. There is a sudden falling of night.
I see the Francolin the next day, but the Roller has left its sentinel post. Our presentation goes well. Most of the audience must have turned up to listen to somebody else. There can really be no other explanation. There are no curly questions. The men leave through the front door, the women the back. I feel the tension of protest and politeness. I choose politeness.
An evening walk ends the day. A nature reserve runs along one side of the road, although a fence and warning notices prevent access. Birds call in the dense undergrowth, fish top in the creeks and backwaters that dash off into the trees, herons stand with infinite patience waiting for the scales to tip in their favour. On the barbed wire fence Green Bee-eaters hunt for evening insects. A bird that is sharp at each end, with fine bill and tail they dash outwards and return again and again to the same spot. Return that is until I move too close and then they move away. I watch and watch in the dimming light of evening. As I watch, a cat walks across the dust behind the fence and stops to watch us. It seems sleek and healthy. The bee-eaters move further away. I realise this is the first cat I have seen all week. Ten minutes later I see another, down by some fishing boats pulled up on a muddy bank. I have never seen a hungry cat by a fishing boat, and this one is no exception.
The next day I see my first Omani dog – it looks thin and hungry. It lies motionless on a doorstep. I know why I prefer cats. We fly back towards Dubai, along the coast; over two well fed cats and one sickly dog. This time my bag manages to keep up with me. I’ve only seen a tiny part of Oman. I as I leave I know I want to come back; I can hear the bee-eaters calling.