The Forgotten Jewel of Arabia
On a sweltering late June day in the nation’s capital, a troupe of men in white dishdashas, along with women—some in black and others in colorful robes—make their way up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. For the majority of these artisans, musicians and dancers from the Sultanate of Oman, it is their first journey outside their country .
They have come to Washington, D.C. to serve as Oman’s cultural ambassadors to the 39th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, held on the National Mall. Inside the Lincoln Memorial, the explanation of President Lincoln’s historical role in restoring the union of his country resonates with the Omanis, who remember their own country’s civil unrest in the 1960’s and 1970’s, which ended with unity under Sultan Qaboos bin Said
On the grassy expanse of the Mall, bracketed by the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument, more than 100 Omani incense-crafters, indigo-dyers, shipwrights, halwa-makers, silversmiths and sword-dancers—to mention a selection of trades represented—have set up shop for the two-week festival alongside other featured representatives of the US Forest Service, American food cultures and Latino music. About a third of the Omani delegation is made up of women. American visitors in a constant stream quiz the artisans about their work, climb onstage to join the dance troupes and exchange dollars for crafts in the marketplace. Amplifying the celebratory air is the Omanis’ pride in their country’s choice as the first Arab nation to be a full-fledged focus for the festival.
The visitors from Oman lodge at the Key Bridge Marriott Hotel across the Potomac River, where bagpipes—a colonial legacy now firmly entrenched in Oman’s musical panoply—and African-style drums resound late into the night, testifying that the festival is, as one participant puts it, a “round-the-clock experience.” The day after visiting the city’s monuments, Najoud Hamoud Al-Wahaibi, who comes from the desert margin of Oman’s interior, is seated cross-legged in the welcome shade of her goat-hair tent on the Mall. Today she is exhausted, she says, because she stayed up until after midnight painting intricate henna designs on the hands of some 40 hotel staffers, from kitchen workers to housekeepers.
She marvels at the inexhaustible friendliness and curiosity of the us crowds. Visitors are now clustering around the tent, staring at several masked women reclining inside. “They want to know everything, small to big,” says Al-Wahaibi in fluent English. “They ask, ‘What is henna? How long does it last on your hands and feet? Why does a man not wear a burqa [the traditional Bedouin woman’s mask]?’” Few visitors would probably guess that this diminutive woman clad in black holds a degree in business administration and computer science, and that she works for the Oman International Bank.
The show goes on: In a nearby corral, her father, Hamoud Abdullah Al-Wahaibi, owner of 37 camels back home, trades cross-cultural camel banter with burly Doug Baum, owner of the two camels on display. Baum, a former zookeeper, founded the Texas Camel Corps as a modern legacy of the historical us Army Camel Corps, which helped survey the American Southwest in the mid-19th century.
Hamoud Al-Wahaibi and Baum are saddling both camels in Omani style, which means minimal saddlery. Al-Wahaibi has adorned the camels with colorful necklaces for good luck. He has also told Baum—and the crowd around them—that the American camels drink too much water. Baum responds that his camels drink every day, unlike an Omani camel, which might drink only every three or four days. “In Oman,” retorts Al-Wahaibi, “we give them dates, honey, milk and fresh ghee. With such a diet, a camel will be strong and fast.”
Baum praises the Omani camel drivers as “daredevils.” In Oman, he says, “they ride behind the hump. They are literally riding bareback. Young kids will run alongside a speeding camel and just swing aboard.”
Oman’s exhibits and demonstrations at the Folklife Festival showcase not just desert traditions but also the people, music and crafts from oasis and sea, showing how Omani culture has taken different pathways in different environments.
“We’re breaking down the stereotype that Oman is just a desert culture,” says Richard Kennedy, deputy director of the Smithsonian’s Folklife and Cultural Heritage Center and curator of the Oman portion of the festival. The country, he explains, “has a long, cosmopolitan history of contact with countries of the Indian Ocean and Africa.”
Another key aim of the festival, says Kennedy, is “honoring artists in the face of galloping globalization. Artists are an expression of community values. When they go, the community goes.” In many countries, he adds, pride in local traditions has grown in recent years. At the same time, “it’s a fine line, because we have to make sure people understand that Oman is also a modern country.”
For this reason, all of the festival’s activities are audio- and video-recorded, and the files will be deposited in archives in both Oman and the us.
At the festival’s opening ceremony, under an expansive white tent, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Lawrence Small, acknowledged Oman’s honor as the first Arab nation chosen as a focus for the festival—and he added, to cheers and applause, “I assure you that it won’t be the last.” United States Ambassador to Oman Richard Baltimore reminded the crowd that the festival has brought the long diplomatic ties between the two countries full circle: When the Omani ship Sultana made a celebrated arrival in New York harbor in 1840, it bore gifts that became part of the early holdings of the Smithsonian Institution. Another speaker, Oman’s minister of social development, Sharifa bint Khalfan Al-Yahyai, underscored that the festival is as much about the future as the past. “We hope to change attitudes,” she said, “especially at this difficult time we are going through.”
Over the next two weeks, some 1,035,000 visitors wandered beneath the trees of the Mall and among the white tents sheltering calligraphers, coppersmiths, jewelry-makers and even the loom of a weaver said to fashion turbans for Sultan Qaboos. As the gates to the Omani compound open for the first time, an American father in T-shirt and shorts gestures at the artisans and musicians and tells three young girls, “Look, all these people came from very far away to tell us about their country.” Minutes later, the same man climbs up onstage, accepting an invitation to join an all-male dance troupe from the coastal town of Sohar. To the open-mouthed delight of his girls in the front row, he brandishes a ceremonial khanjar, or Omani dagger.
Getting up-close and personal with artisans and musicians from other nations is a hallmark of the Folklife Festival every year. In a session devoted to women’s regional dress, an African–American woman steps forth from the audience and volunteers to don flowing garments from the boatbuilding town of Sur. In the blink of an eye she is transformed into a traditional Omani woman, betrayed only by denim beneath the robes.
“Sparkle, silver, jewelry—they’re not just for once-in-a-while; they’re for every day in Oman,” narrates presenter Marcia Dorr, a native of Michigan who has co-authored a seminal book on Oman’s craft traditions and whose association with the country dates back nearly two decades. Bold, primary colors mark both dress and domestic decor in Oman, she says. “The light is different; the landscape is sparse. Colors are not supposed to match. They contrast.”
On the day the cultural delegation left Oman for Washington, the temperature in that nation’s capital of Muscat was 46 degrees Centigrade (114°F). No wonder, Dorr explains, “clothes are gauzy, lightweight and airy. They need to move.” And as the audience volunteer swirls on the stage, Dorr observes: “This dress is meant to trail in the sand behind the woman, to erase her steps so no one can see where she has gone.”
One of the most popular tents in the Omani oasis is devoted to fragrance, and men and women alike crowd forward at the invitation to scent their clothes—men can also scent their beards—with handcrafted incenses and perfumes made of frankincense and other natural ingredients. In traditional Omani dressing and hospitality, fragrance is at least as important as garments.
Meanwhile, other aromas—cardamom, ginger and turmeric —drift over from another tent that showcases Oman’s cosmopolitan cuisine. The French-born executive chef of Muscat’s seaside Al Bustan Hotel, Jean Luc Amann, accompanied to the US by his Omani sous-chefs, prepares a dish of swordfish in coconut milk—a substitute for the kingfish he would choose in Oman—that reflects the diverse cultural influences of Oman’s seaside towns.
Fare at the nearby Oman Café, however, is not just for demonstration. It can be both sniffed and eaten. Business is brisk. The kabobs, Omani salad and refreshing jellab, the date-syrup drink of the Arabian Gulf, are proving to be the most popular fare among all the festival’s concessions. This is the first time that the cafe’s proprietor, Washington restaurateur Andy Shallal, has set up at the festival, but he has a fond memory of an early Folklife Festival in the 1960’s. Then, he says, he was an 11-year-old boy, newly arrived from Iraq, and he spoke no English. His American summer teacher’s assignment was to head down to the National Mall and write an essay about the festival under way. “I remember coming here and being overwhelmed by all the people,” he recalls. “But the teacher was generous. I got a good grade.”
The immediate sensory pleasures of exotic food, music and crafts draw the crowds, but the ancient roots of Oman’s commerce and culture also advance the Folklife Festival’s aim to bring recognition and new relevance to traditional pursuits. Festival archivists had a leg up this year, acknowledges deputy director Kennedy, in being able to draw upon the extensive documentation provided by Marcia Dorr and Neil Richardson in their two-volume coffee-table book, The Craft Heritage of Oman, published in 2003. “Crafts are the visual representation of a nation, its people and its past,” they wrote, “and the products made by traditional craftsmen are the tangible manifestations of mankind’s most basic concerns.”
As detailed in both the book and the festival, Oman’s craft traditions are inseparable from its trading history on land and sea. Early on, copper, frankincense and other local goods served to spur the growth of far-flung trade. Located astride the route between Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley, considered the first long-distance seagoing trade route, Oman boasts craft traditions that have been carried on, in method and design, for millennia. Today, jewelry, clothing and household goods still express the tribal identity so fundamental to traditional Oman.”
As a result of its late entry into the modern era, Oman’s craft heritage has been shielded from the direct impact of progress, and has remained remarkably intact,” note Dorr and Richardson.
The past few decades, however, have brought phenomenal change to urban and rural Oman, and Oman’s craft traditions have not been able to evolve fast enough to keep pace economically. The private, non-profit Omani Heritage Gallery, established in 1995, has begun to connect international markets to local artisans, and more recently, government support has also become available for such purposes. Many of the artisans showing their skills on the Mall market their wares at home through the gallery.
“It’s easy to sell Omani things. They’re beautiful,” says Adam Dorr, an Omani Heritage Gallery staff member, to a festival audience. (Adam is the son of Marcia Dorr.) “The design; the simplicity; the colors; the bold, heavy pieces of jewelry—they really match American sensibilities. The items are alive, not just museum pieces behind glass. What’s hard is developing the whole chain, connecting all the dots between the producer in the remotest desert and the customer in Beverly Hills or London. We’re trying to build a system to make this possible.”
One tactic is to take a traditional product and alter it slightly for Western tastes, perhaps creating exotic frankincense-infused candles or soap, or converting strikingly patterned camel saddlebags woven by Bedouin women into oversize pillows for a couch.
Artisans are learning, says Dorr, that “the West wants consistency. Bloomingdale’s wants all the pots the same. The younger generation teaches the older generation how to use a ruler to measure the size of pots.”
That commerce is also a means of cultural exchange is dramatically apparent at the festival. Day after day in the crowded marketplace tent, Oman’s offerings sail off the shelves, from incense burners to frankincense perfume to the exquisite rugs in red, black and white woven on portable ground looms by the women of the Wahiba Sands.
Mona Ritchie, proprietor of the Omani Heritage Gallery, notes that at the festival, some 70 percent of the jewelry adapted from traditional designs has sold out in three or four days. “We thought we’d have enough for two weeks,” she says. “Our copper has also sold out. I’m very happy with the reaction and I wish we had more things to sell.” Ritchie, of Omani-Scottish heritage, is also pleased at the lively interactions between the artisans and the crowd. “People are so interested in everything, and I think we’ve dispelled some myths.”
After the festival’s final day on the Fourth of July, the Omani oasis of face-to-face communication and cultural understanding dissipates into memory. The camels are loaded for their ride back to Texas. The date palms are trucked away, and the drumming of the bands from Sohar, Qurayat and Salalah is stilled. As if a mirage has lifted, the National Mall reverts back to the wide-open space frequented by tourists and joggers.
“It has been a really important cultural conversation,” reflects Marcia Dorr, who will be returning to her cultural work in Oman. “Everyone getting up on the stages and dancing, trying the musical instruments, putting on the clothes—it’s about experiencing things. This reinforces what I believe about America—the spirit of going forward into unknown areas. This is what it’s all about.”
Lynn Teo Simarski free-lances from Alexandria, Virginia. Since the 1980’s, she has had an abiding interest in Oman, which she last visited in 2003 to identify areas for expanding US-Omani scientific and technical cooperation. She is currently working on a book about the Chesapeake Bay from the vantage point of a year aboard a 40-foot trawler.
Susana Raab is a free-lance photographer based in Washington, D.C. She recently completed her master’s degree in visual communication at Ohio University and is now working on a project about American identity and the commodification of leisure time. Her multimedia and still-based projects can be seen at www.susanaraab.com.
Credit: Saudi Aramco World Magazine: