Sinbad and the Muscateers.
Ever read Treasure Island?
If you like a good yarr-n, this is the buccaneer of them – Bobby Louis Stevenson’s efficient masterpiece of pirate duplicity and buried dubloons. It’s fab.
Of course, the date palms I must confess to have been lazing under while reading it are half a world away from young Jim Hawkins’ Carrabean adventure. More than half, if you’re counting cultures and centuries. But it’s still a ripping good tale for a holiday read, I must say.
Not that we’ve been on holiday, you understand. We’ve been fortifying friends in foreign climes with the hearty encouragement of contact with home. A kind of solemn missionary trip if you will. Until this evening after dinner anyway, when we fly back to the UK and I have to give up the mango guzzling and daytime snoozing and casual afternoon G&Ts.;
>takes a clinkly sip<
Now, if you like lands of adventure and swashbuckling tales of history, let’s face it – you really ought to be at least intrigued by the Middle East. It is, in a way, one enormous, exotic yarn – repleat with fables and heros and ancient peoples and lost treasures and the kinds of utterly serious human struggles we might only be able to comprehend in colourful, posterised, simplified storytelling.
From the Atlantic coast to the silk routes into China, all the great civilisations of formative history played out their evolving naratives somewhere here. And their various intertwining plots spider across the world political map today.
The little island of Bahrain is certainly a real crossroads of many routes and a crucible of many stories. People find themselves here for all manner of reasons, like so many islands. But it can feel a little unreal, like an airport lounge.
The mix of ex-patriate business life – with the comings and goings of G&T-clinking; westerners posted to the regional arms of big financial businesses – and local Islamic life – where Bahrainis and Saudis retain an apparently unchanging and graphically different social outlook – is the macro juxtaposition here and it makes for a lot of fuzzy logic. Things work, even though they sound like they shouldn’t, and even though they may not work with planned efficiency.
But both of these worlds can independently seem suspended somehow, accademic, against the realities of heat and work and place.
A mosque tract can read as smartly optimistic and ordered, as neat and tidy, as a business brochure. Both paint a positive picture of humans in a can-do world, placed into their rightful setting where everything makes sense and we all operate in predictably purposeful ways.
And in the Gulf in particular – where international business is really seated for the Arab world – the glossy stock imagery that these two outlooks market with seem to come very smoothly together.
It does work. The human level wins out and makes things work; Saudis stream over the Causeway to watch movies in the cinemas and to go to bars, and westerners learn a bit of respect and perhaps glimpse another way of life beyond the office. And everyone gets to trade.
It’s all largely thanks to the largely friendly, easy-going approach of the Bahrainis – the sons and daughters of traders and pearl divers.
Yet, the country that’s struck me as the most realistically positive on this trip to the GCC is one that sounds the most evocative – the land of Sinbad himself, Oman.
I won’t give the details of the Chedi Hotel in Muscat. Suffice to say, it is the most decadent stay I’ve ever found myself having and the most creative deal I think Julian could posibly have blagged for us to get away with enjoying. I was sure they began to suspect we shouldn’t have been there by day three.
It’s a luxury oasis that is as unrealistic a cocoon from ordinary life as you could wish for on a break. And, like all international resorts, almost totally unreflective of it’s geographical location. Could have been anywhere.
But it wasn’t anywhere. It was in Muscat. And the glimpse we got of the city, walking through the spicy, aromatic heat of the forty-two-degree evening waterfront or cruising along the sweeping efficiency of its mountain roads out of town, we found ourselves talking to elegant, friendly people who seemed charged with identity and purpose, even in the humid blast of southern Arabia.
It’s largely thanks to Sultan Qaboos ibn Sa’id, a dashing figure in his youth who took over the country the year I was born and immediately rebranded Oman to a more open and perhaps poetic sense of identity; building roads, instigating greater trade and tourism, inculcating real pride in his people. He reigns still. And Omanis seem to act like real sons of Sinbad – dashing, in their crisp, tailored, white thobes and neat, patterned, circular kuma hats. Muslims, but with a sense of some extra adventure about them.
We joked about the possible collective noun for people living in Muscat; sea port stretching along the coast against the mountains, overlooking the vital straights into the rest of the Gulf. And they really are known as Muscateers.
I can only say this as I finish my lazy gin and tonic and prepare to leave: if Oman isn’t currently on your map, mark it on there now. From my flying visit I feel sure it is a land of many buried treasures.