Omanis are generally regarded as warm and gentle people. Whenever you are invited to their own home, you considered yourself lucky to witness their hospitality and kindness. And this is what we experienced during the Eid Al Adha holiday when an Omani family invited my family and my friends for a wonderful and sumptuous dinner.
We came to know this family after my husband’s student named Mohammed invited us for camel riding late last year. Riding at the back of a big camel was a bit scary, at first, but because this desert animal was tamed and friendly, I eventually enjoyed the experience. I became comfortable and felt like I was one of the stars of a movie that was set in the Arabian dessert.
Apparently, Mohammed and his whole family were kindhearted and friendly people. We instantly established good camaraderie with each other after our first encounter. This had pushed me to introduce my guests from Riyadh to these amazing people. After our visit at Nakhal Fort in the late afternoon, we immediately head off to their home in Suwaiq.
When we arrived nearly 20 minutes later. Mohammed’s elder sister, Aisha, welcomed and channeled us all to a huge and spacious receiving room. It was a detached building from their mansion. We were served with fresh fruits like pomegranates, dates, oranges, Omani sweets like Halwa and special homemade cookies with choco fillings (made by their mother), and an Omani coffee.
Most houses of Omanis are huge and have spacious lawn or backyard. In a typical Omani household, about fifteen or more people living are together, including their extended kin. They have bigger clan that they call the TRIBE. Another interesting fact about them is that they only marry a member from within their tribe because they believe in the unity and purity of the entire clan. Normally they get married with their uncles, aunties, or even cousins.
Mohammed is the 13th among 16 children of his father’s second wife. He has 10 sisters and 5 brothers. This 21 year old lad dream to put up his own car company someday. No wonder he studied Mechanical Engineering in the college. He is also fascinated with cars and at one time he drive his father’s 2011 model BMW X5 at a speed of 250mph. And when his father come to know, he is forbidden to use that car since then. The car is now kept in their garage. Meanwhile, Aisha is an elementary English teacher in one of the schools located in Nizwa, three hours away from Suwaiq. Her school sits on top of the mountain and every morning she hikes with her students. While walking, they chat and her students share stories about their life at home and their daily experiences. She told me that sometimes she feels like a student – learning and discovering more about life from her student’s stories. I can comprehend because she is lucky to be born with silver spoon on her mouth. And teaching these less privilege kids is an opportunity to know a new and different world from her. Gladly, Aisha is also a humble person inside out.
After our quick refreshment and snack, we walked to their ranch just one block away. It was getting dark and too late for us to go for camel riding. So we decided to just take a quick peek at this domesticated animals and grab some snapshots.
Their farm is a breeding ground for camels used in racing so most camels found here are young with their mothers or expectant mothers. Mohammed told us that it has been in the family for generations to breed and race camels. One camel cost ten times higher than a value of a typical car. And if you own a camel farm, that is a quite a big fortune for the whole family!
But camels are one of the animals that have low birth rate. Normally, the gestation period is 12 – 14 months and often has 1, and rarely 2, offspring per birth. In Oman, all are single-humped Dromedary camels in contrast to Bactrian camels that have two humps on their back and are mostly found in Mongolia and Xinjiang, China. The hump is composed of fat (not water as sometimes thought) that they used during long period of fasting in the dessert. Their remarkable ability allows them to go without water for months, but once water is available they can drink up to 57 liters at once. Their humps shrink and decline to the side when the reserved is depleted. But if feed well, the humps become erect and flabby. They also have long, wooly coat that vary into dark brown to sandy beige color. There is a mane and beard of long hair on the neck and throat, with hairs up to 25 cm / 10 in long. The face is long and somewhat triangular, with a split upper lip. There are long eyelashes, which, along with the sealable nostrils, help to keep out dust in the frequent sandstorms which occur. The two broad toes on each foot have undivided soles and enable to spread widely as an adaptation to walking on sand.
The camel can greatly sense if the person riding behind was scared or comfortable, good or bad. Because when my friend Elle, hopped on the camel’s back, it didn’t move and just hunkered down for long. Until Elle gave up and lent the chance to her husband and son instead. She told me that her heart was beating out of her chest and she actually quivered while waiting for the camel to stand up and walk. And maybe that was the reason after all.
We hustled back to their home. While waiting for our dinner, Aisha toured us around their home including the bedrooms, guest rooms, patio, garage, and kitchen. I saw their Ethopian housekeeper who was baking pita bread in the kitchen. She’s a very tall, shy and dark skinned lady and probably in her twenties. She cannot speak English. I just wave my hands at her as we passed by. Then, we settled in the girl’s bedroom and witnessed them getting ready for a wedding invitation in Musanna. Everyone was busy including the little boys whom I presumed were Mohammed’s nephews. Aisha applied make up on her two sisters and fixed their hair. She’s really helpful and, truly, a loving sister. I can tell.
Then their mom called us out as the dinner was ready in the receiving room. A cloud of aroma filled the room and the smell of food was even tantalizing. There were Shuwa, Mutton Barbecue, Pita bread, Hummus and fresh vegetables like cucumber, carrots, lemon, and green chili placed before us. Aisha, Mohammed, my guests, and my family all shared the food together on the floor.
I nibbled on hummus and pita bread as Aisha served the Shuwa and Mutton barbecue on my plate. Shuwa was originally a festive meal of desert Bedouins. It was elaborately prepared dish made of cow or goat meat marinated with condiments and spices like red pepper, cummin, turmeric, cardamom, garlic, and vinegar. It was wrapped with banana leaves cooked in a slow process in an underground pit oven. The cooking can take about 48 hours until the juices blends so well and cook the meat to creamy tenderness. The barbecue was made of mutton meat cut in cubes and soaked in an aromatic seasoning. Most families prepared these jovial meals on the first day of Eid. The men slaughtered an entire cow or mutton while the women cooked and baked. Most girls in the tribe were gathered in the courtyard while cutting down the meat in smaller square sizes and placEd them on individual sticks. They normally prepared and grilled around 500 mutton barbecue sticks all at once into a pit oven. On the second day, they distributed these mutton barbecues and Shuwa meat to the whole tribe. On the third day, they will to wear new clothes and visit their families for a wonderful dinner and get together.
Aisha and Mohammed’s mom joyfully watched over us while we were eating. She continuously asked her kids to unceasingly fill our plate until we finished up all the food and no leftovers. Those foodies were all delicious and savory that made us all full and satisfied. After we washed off our hands with water, her mom took out some bottles of perfume from her closet and sprayed on our hands to make us smell good after a while. She was really generous and welcoming.
Later, we all sat on the long line of sofa tuck on every corner of the room. We chat and talked about those tattoos which adorned the hands of most Arab women. Aisha elaborated that it was part of their traditional to accentuate the beauty in them through these intricate designs of tattoos. She then offered to have our arms and hands tattooed with henna. Without a doubt, I nod and she began creating the delicate design on my left arm. Then Elle followed.
Henna is a flowering plants used to dye skin, hair, fingernails, and even wools. The leaves are dried, milled, and sifted to make a power. The henna powder is mixed with lemon juice, strong tea, or other mildly acidic liquids to come up with a toothpaste-like consistency. The paste can applied using a cone to squeeze out the tip portion while making the design. Once applied, the paste will take two hours to dry and the remains is a light yellow mark which turned to dark orange or brown in the next seven to fourteen days.
Nearly an hour later, we have the beautiful henna tattoo design on each of our left arms. We were happy because in Muscat it could cost around 10 to 15 OMR for getting a tattoo at a local shop and Aisha made it for us for free!
Again, this day was another wonderful experience that I am sure my guests can carry with them when they go back to Riyadh tomorrow.