x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The scent of Muscat

Travel Dive deep into the beautiful cool pool of the Chedi. Discover Muscat's abundant souqs. Soak up Oman's tranquil nature.

Hassan Essa, 75, still works in the souq of the old town of Muscat.
Hassan Essa, 75, still works in the souq of the old town of Muscat.

It's just gone noon and I am standing at the entrance to the Muttrah Souk in the Omani capital of Muscat. An electronic billboard reads 46C and I do not doubt it. Heat is everywhere. My head is thrown back and I am looking skyward to a wooden vaulted ceiling. The beams are carved and hand-painted with yellow sunflowers and green leaves and stems. Two rival traders are making their calls across the passageway, in Urdu and Arabic.

One of them is Abu Baker, who is standing in front of the shop he manages - Dost Mohammed Bin Mubarak Bin Arab al Zadjali. He smiles as I approach and thrusts a tin under my nose. The scent overpowers me and I grin and stop to talk. The tin's contents resemble wet tobacco, ready for chewing, but smells sweet and fragrant. "Jasmine," says Baker. I inhale deeply, sucking up the exotic aroma and holding it in long enough to savour and bring back travel memories of walking beside long jade hedgerows in Bali laden with a million tiny, white fragrant flowers.

"This one sandalwood." Another tin, another scent, this one less sweet, more woody. I close my eyes and I am on a warm train with open windows at dusk rocking slowly through villages in southern India, with waves of earthy perfumes wafting into the carriage. Abu Baker's next one is bakhoor. "Very strong," he says. This one I cannot place. Richer, darker, acidic and harsher, akin to oud but not oud - oud is in the tin next to it.

"And saffron - 100 per cent Iranian," says Abu Baker, who has now opened half-a-dozen tins and is lighting some granules of frankincense, or is it myrrh - hard to tell when your olfactory zones are coated with jasmine and sandalwood. These are incenses - not common old joss sticks, but unprocessed raw materials: the real deal. The sandalwood is sandalwood, chopped and squeezed into the tin with its natural oils and moisture. You smoulder it, as you would frankincense, over charcoal in a small burner.

Abu Baker has prepared a yellow plastic bag with six tins, two burners shaped like small Omani forts complete with crenellations, and two bags of charcoal and in exchange is trying to relieve me of 12 Omani Rials (Dh120). I say I have only just arrived in the souq and need to look around first before I make a purchase. I promise to return later, en route back to the hotel. It is a line he hears several times a day but we shake hands and smile anyway.

A few yards away, Abdulamir Trading is doing a roaring trade in gold and silver embroidered sashes and ribbons curled on to reels. They look like they should be used for ceremonial affairs, or maybe for a rather elaborate birthday party. Two table fans are blowing the ribbons, mesmerising a small Omani boy. He stares at the ribbons, marvelling at their beauty and the way they bob and flutter in the welcome breeze.

When I was his age, in England, I was similarly possessed by the magic of a market stall, but mine sold nothing more dramatic than slabs of white and yellow cheese. There was not a ribbon in sight. His mother returns, grabs him roughly by the hand and drags him off into the souq, back to the ribbonless banality of shopping for food and cleaning products - back to reality. They stop at Vishandas Muthradas and Partners to buy olive oil and bread. The managers have created a product pyramid on the table at the front of the stall by carefully balancing tins on top of one another until they reach almost one metre in height.

Every staff member scurries to the front of the shop to offer assistance, pointing at tins of unidentifiable vegetables and fruit, dragging down vast sacks of rice, holding out packets of pasta, blocks of ghee, and making plastic bags ready for the scores of purchases they hope the woman will make. Somehow they manage to avoid sending the tin pyramid cascading to the ground. I leave them to it, the boy still gazing back over his shoulder towards the ribbon stall.

Vishandas Muthradas and Partners is close to what appears to be the core of the souq - the market square - which is a small atrium where several alleyways meet. A group of Afghan traders are sitting on a low warm wall. One of them is holding up a small shawl and they are talking animatedly about it. Next to them a shop is almost full of bags of frankincense and myrrh, so much so that traders and buyers have to conduct business outside, engulfed in clouds of smoke billowing from the incense burners.

I duck up one of the alleyways and pass from shade into blazing sun, which is forcing its way between the buildings and bleaching everything in its view. I conjure up thoughts of my hotel, the Chedi Muscat, where I swam in a deliciously cool pool earlier this morning, and whose shaded palm grove I will walk through this afternoon; where I will run down the hot-sand beach and fling myself into the Gulf of Oman, then collapse onto a pool lounger and order chilled fruit juice and ice-cold face towels.

At a kink in the alleyway is Al Batna Commercial Centre, which should really be subtitled "Omani House of Brass". I walk softly between shelves loaded up with brass coffeepots, brass elephants, brass candlesticks and brass oil lamps. Breaking the theme are some wooden camels. A nearby store, Treasure Mandos, is also clearly having a love affair with brass. A diminutive man squats on the floor at my feet, dusting and polishing brass theodolites, compasses and alto saxophones. The walls are covered with a wide array of kanjars and trays full of silver rattles, coming in what must be 100 different sizes.

I lose my wife but find her again in the air-conditioned relief of Akthar Rasool Baksh Bin Othman al Baloushi, which sells handicrafts and gifts. We wordlessly decide we'll suffer the sales pitch for 15 minutes so we can dry off and cool down. But there are treasures here too, including a magnificent ceremonial dress from Salalah, Oman's big southern city. It takes two men to lift it carefully from its box and lay it out on the glass counter. It is stunning: a vivid array of purple and green fabric, silver braid and yellow tassels and coral-bead embroidery. It's destined for an airtight, humidity-free box frame which will hang next to my wife's Japanese kimono; a new addition to our apartment.

We leave with it folded and wrapped carefully in a very large orange plastic bag and are still debating which wall it will grace when we are coaxed into Heritage Village Trading. Heritage Village turns out to be the smallest shop in the souq. Three is a crowd and prominence is given to perfumes. The back wall is covered - floor to ceiling - with glass shelves and scores of perfume bottles with their names displayed in blue and black ink: Amuage, Bakhoor, Sandalrose, Sultan and Salalah Flower.

Before I can ask if he has any Calvin Klein, the shopkeeper is wiping Salalah Flower on the back of my hand. It is bright turquoise in colour, fresh and vaguely citrus on the nose and as viscous as honey. Oddly enough, it smells not dissimilar to Calvin Klein's CK1."This is coming from Salalah, in the south," he says. It's clearly turning into a Salalah afternoon. I buy a small vial for two Omani Rials (Dh20) and he wraps it carefully in not one, but three brown paper sheets. We wander back through the narrow alleyways, past the Afghan traders still discussing the mysterious dilemma of the shawl. This time it is unravelled and two of the men are pointing furiously at the cashmere, but the source of the argument is no clearer.

I stay true to my word and arrive back at Dost Mohammed Bin Mubarak Bin Arab Al Zadjali, where Baker is pleased to see me and ferrets under the table to find the plastic bag he has prepared. We haggle from 15 Omani Rials and I say I do not need the charcoal so we shake hands at 8 (Dh150 to Dh90). He gives me a business card and I walk back out into the white heat of the Muscat afternoon with nothing on my mind but the thought of diving deep into the beautiful cool of the Chedi's pool.

Matthew Brace is the author of Hotel Heaven: Confessions of a Luxury Hotel Addict (Ebury Press).