Friday, jan 10, 2014
Friday is the first day of the weekend here, and in true local style, we took full advantage of the ij-ah-za (vacation) to undertake an all day beach barbecue. The weather has gotten quite a bit colder here since the Fall – often only 65 degrees during the day, and colder on the coast and in the mountains – so I layered up, knowing it would still get hot, at least temporarily, in the afternoon sun on the beach. I met Mohammad and Arta around 10:30am in the posh neighborhood of Madinat Sultan Qaboos, where we packed Mohammad’s four-wheel-drive car (necessary for off-roading on sand dunes) and then stopped by a grocery store to buy charcoal for the fire and Cadbury ice cream cones for breakfast. At which point, we drove an hour and a half south-east along the mountainous Gulf-of-Oman coastline towards the beach village of Jebel Sifah, following the road towards the eastern port of Sur and blasting a combination of Iranian rap and Ghanaian dancehall jams.
The road to Sifah – a narrow ribbon weaving along the craggy oranges precipices of the Omani coastline – is not for the faint of heart. Nor can photos of the road really do justice to just-how-far-down the drop is on the coastal side, how sharp the blind turns and how steep the incline. (For instance, it would be laughable to attempt driving this route in my erstwhile Renault Logan, aka “Tinfoil.” That is to say that the Sur highway is a “bad road” despite being immaculately paved; the problem, I would argue, lies not in the road’s execution but rather in its treacherous design.)
In any case, we arrived unscathed at a vast, pristine, almost completely empty beach (although there was one extremely steep, unpaved portion where I felt obliged to recite all the prayers I ever learned in Sunday school for the duration of about 90 seconds).
After joy-riding around in the wake (driving in sand feels analogous to the swelling and skidding that you experience while driving in deep snow), we set up a tent, started a charcoal fire, continued to blast music from our car, and began grilling beef and chicken that Mohammad had marinated the night before in hot peppers, oil, onions, kiwi juice (to tenderize it), and some other spices.
I contributed by dancing and making piña coladas (I had bought a can of coconut cream at the grocery store, which made the beverages especially unctuous). By slicing open a grapefruit, piercing it with a large carrot, packing it with grape flavoring, and wrapping it with tinfoil, Mohammad made his own shisha (which is as far as I can tell just the non-American name for hookah). Arta’s cool Zanzibari Omani friend Suhail joined us from Muscat, and we all sat together eating grilled meat with Iranian pickles, drinking and dancing, enjoying the warmth of the sunshine and blistering green peppers.
As the sun began to sink, we collected dry wood, dug a hole in the sand, and lit a nice, pyramidically-stacked campfire that would have made my wilderness-conquering mother proud indeed. We grilled more meat, and Arta roasted golden potatoes wrapped in tin foil on the coals.
When the food and drinks were finished, we began to clean up, rolling up the tent, collecting our rubbish, burning our flammable trash. This last bit was a bizarre experience, considering the crippling poverty I have come to associate with the smell of burning refuse. The shells of limes and grapefruit blackened and curled like the petals of exotic citrus flowers. The burning of the soda cans produced a smell so unsettling to me that Arta removed them from the fire to be discarded elsewhere. Something about the sudden, chilly desolation of the beach, the slow burn of food and ash and darkness around us, filled the air with a sense of loss, a healthy melancholy, I think, after such a blissful day. Recognizing this solemnity, we all became quiet as we loaded the car and prepared to leave.
However, we did not get far along the black beach when we came across a large group of Omani men trying unsuccessfully to haul a very large, very stuck SUV out of the sand. It was nearly 11pm, and suffice it to say I was quite the only woman present. Interestingly, except for one of the Omanis, I was also the only individual who spoke both English and Arabic (Mohammad and Arta speak Persian and English). This posed an interesting problem for all involved regarding how to navigate the unusual confluence of culture, language, propriety, utilitarian communicational requirements and gender roles. Initially Mohammad told me to stay in the car, advice which, characteristically, I disregarded.
I was a Western woman, so therefore my presence outside so late at night and among so many men was not as shocking as an Omani woman’s presence in such a scenario would have been. Nonetheless, I did not really have an clear role to play in helping push the car or dig out the wheels from the sand. However, I did have the idea to produce our shovel (majarifah) from the car, and provided an unanticipated diversion by chatting with the frustrated men in Arabic. Some minor tensions ensued because a few of the men thought for some reason that this was an appropriate occasion to make political assertions regarding the interminable naming dispute between “Persian Gulf” and “Arabian Gulf,” but other than that we were all pretty chummy. In the end, we did not succeed in freeing the car from the sand (they said we should leave and that they would simply release the air from the tires and drag it). Nevertheless, when else would I have had learned the Arabic word for shovel?