jabal akhdar and the aflaj system

yesterday, as we climbed higher towards nizwa, we were surprised by how cool the air got and how much more greenery we encountered.

jabal akhdar’s semi-mediterranean climate is ideal for pomegranates, dates, figs, pears, plums, peaches, grapes, wild berries, lemons, almonds, walnuts, olives, and roses. in fact, there are 30,000 pomegranate trees spread over ten villages, and these are supposed to be some of the best in the world. i can vouch for it. we had lunch at a restaurant with a beautiful view of oman’s agricultural terraces and i couldn’t get over the best salad i might have ever had: pomegranate seeds, beets and cilantro. not one or two pomegranate seeds here and there – the salad was awash with them.

utterly fresh and delightful. this might be a persian salad – there are a lot of overlaps between the two cultures.

the irrigation in these parts is based on the aflaj system, ancient water channels from 500 AD located in the regions of dakhiliyah, sharqiyah and batinah. this type of irrigation might go back 5,000 years and was also found in ancient persian towns.

each village has its own falaj (water system) and ways of sharing water equitably. in the old days, water clocks, sundials (during the day) and stars (at night) were used for timing water shares.

the fruit is hard to pick as it grows on mountain terraces or inside deep craggy wadis. it is done by hand, by men and women who fasten baskets to their heads, collect the fruit, and then climb back up. this is why it’s expensive.
once in nizwa, we checked out the souk and the famous nizwa fort.

birkat al mouz

today we drove from the desert to the mountains. had to stop at a checkpoint, to make sure all cars are 4wd before they go any further. interesting that jebel akhdar (green mountain) was finally opened to the public in 2003. before that, only the military had access. did u know about the dhofar liberation front, a marxist group that wanted independence, or the ibadhi imams up in the mountains who despised hereditary succession? there was a civil war in oman from 1963 to 1976. oil had been discovered in areas ruled by the imamate and the british were involved. needless to say. british bombs decided the matter eventually.

first stop, birkat al mouz (named for the bananas that grew here). this 400-500 year old village sits by the side of the mountain and seems to dissolve in it. it’s abandoned now. villages like these were built with sarooj, a traditional water-resistant mortar made of clay and limestone, also used in iranian architecture, going back to 1200 bc.
we went inside some of the homes. they were substantially cooler.

1000 nights camp

what i woke up to this morning at 1000 nights camp, sharqiyah sands. had breakfast at the camp. my favorite thing? mandazi, a form of fried bread that originated on the swahili coast. tastes like a sour cream doughnut.

dinner at the camp last night was also incredible. some of my favorite desserts:

omani halwa – like habshi halwa but smoother and more gelatinous. i bought some and got to taste many different kinds, made with figs, brown sugar, honey, milk, dhofari frankincense, tahini, dates, or cardamom. decided on halwa with walnuts.

um ali – pastry (bread or puff pastry) divided into pieces and blended with pistachios, coconut flakes, raisins and sugar. milk or cream poured over the mixture, which is then sprinkled with cinnamon and baked in the oven until the surface is golden brown. tastes like shahi tukray but much lighter and fluffier. simply heavenly.

mahalabiya – eastern milk pudding, slightly sweetened and flavored with rose or orange water. like firni but smoother and more milky. served in tiny narrow glasses.
more about food later.

wahiba sands in oman

some people like to take pictures like this at the beach. i prefer the desert in eastern oman. here we are experiencing a sunset, surrounded by martian landscapes, the wind erasing our footsteps as we walk around and take countless pictures, everything so vast and sovereign, humans small, and frail, and completely dependent on cosmic systems beyond their control… thinking of ‘desert notebooks: a road map for the end of time’ by ben ehrenreich:

“…time took a different shape. the desert enforces its own perspective. it shrinks you and puts eternity in the foreground. if you’re open to it, and don’t mind a diminished role in this drama, it insists, quietly, on the surging beauty of all things and non-things living and dead and not-formally-alive.”

in oman

we arrived in muscat yesterday and mostly just took it easy at our hotel. but today… we met our driver and guide, adil, at 830am and he drove us to bimmah sink hole first, in arabic hawiyyat najm or falling star. so much more poetic, no? legend has it that the sinkhole was created when an asteroid struck the arid plain that separates the ocean from the craggy peaks of the al hajar mountains. gorgeous. we then drove to fins white beach. again, the blue green water is sublime. next, wadi shab, a canyon which is home to crystal clear blue water pools. we started with a boat that took us across the river, walked past small farms and irrigation channels, and then… an hour long, arduous hike! we climbed over pristine white boulders and extremely slippery and narrow canyon walls. it’s the month of february, thank god, but still, middle eastern afternoons are hot. this was one of the most physically challenging things i’ve done in a while. but the views, and the pools at the end – nothing short of magical! we had lunch in wadi tiwi, drove around sur, learned how dhows are made, and more, before arriving at our eco lodge – sama ras al jinz. dinner and a walk, in the middle of nowhere. the sky is full of stars. and oman is so very special.

alserkal avenue in dubai

i found my groove in dubai today. it’s called alserkal avenue. located in al quoz, halfway between old and new dubai, this contemporary art hub was created in 2008 by housing art spaces, galleries, internet cafes, and artist studios in existing warehouses and factory buildings. incidentally, i started with an exhibition that purports to lift the voices of kashmiri women thru photography and testimonies. it was awful. from the get-go. more about that later.

i want to share what i loved first: ‘for you mother’ by palestinian artist rula halawani. based on conversations with her mother about palestine and her words, “even when we die and leave this world, our spirits remain, floating in the skies of our country,” halawani has produced these beautifully haunted and haunting, large-scale photomontages, a “marriage between archival images of palestinian families before the 1948 mass diaspora and palestinian landscapes captured thru her lens.”
halawani is also interested in examining how palestinian landscapes have changed — the people and natural environment that disappeared and are still disappearing.

old dubai

today started with a big breakfast at karak house (famous for its karak chai – serious masala chai, not for the faint hearted) and then a tour of old dubai (established as a fishing village in the early 18th century). took a boat ride across dubai creek in the al seef neighborhood and visited some of the souks with our guide, hamza, who happens to be algerian. only 8% of the population is considered local (with access to citizenship, free healthcare, free education and much else), the remaining 92% are foreigners who can never become citizens or enjoy the same benefits. yet they seem to be running this country…

decision to leave

on the flight from JFK to dubai, i saw ‘decision to leave.’ beautifully crafted by park chan-wook, it’s a slippery film, hard to pin down or categorize. it’s romance, mystery, crime, and detective story. it’s about obsessions, repetitions, imaginings, watching and being watched, recordings, replays, metaphors, poetry, death, murder, desire, and fantasy. it slides back and forth in time and space, even in language and translation (chinese and korean). an evasive, fatalistic, seductive film that takes its time (2 hours 18 min). makes me long for richer, more challenging and inventive filmmaking and storytelling than what we see celebrated in the US.