Returning to Britain after 15 years in the Middle East, Robin Yassin-Kassab ponders all that he has left behind.
Goodbye to Muscat
Allow me to make a few generalisations, which will be as unfair as generalisations always are.
There are two kinds of Arab country. The first are those with a vast and living history and a social life that makes London feel cold and dead, but where the people contend with too much political and economic pressure to be more than occasionally happy. And the other kind are those countries with the comforts and ease provided by the oil economy, but so culturally dislocated, so alienated from themselves, that you feel year zero was declared when the oil started flowing. The kind of place where expats drink too much.
Oman, which I left last week, has in some measure the advantages of both kinds of country, perhaps just the right measure, and I love it. I call it my favourite Arab country, which is a high honour with me.
Although everyone meets in Muscat, Oman still has a village society and a working tribal system. Its traditions survive as more than mere tourist brochure selling points. In other words, it feels like a real country and not like an endlessly extended airport. Not many countries these days can claim so much. Oman built an empire by way of the sea. As a result, the Omani cultural zone stretches around the Indian Ocean from Iran and Pakistan to Kenya and Tanzania, and the Omani population includes Baluchis, Lawatis, and Swahili-speaking Zanzibaris. So Oman manages to be cosmopolitan – and that’s before its importation of an oil age working and professional class – at the same time as being slow and rural.
It’s as developed as it ever needs to be. There’s a reasonable schools-and-hospitals infrastructure, and more than enough good, fast roads. If you so wished you could shop for brands or watch Hollywood movies in Muscat. But there’s not yet so much of that. Compared to Dubai or Doha, Oman’s lack of glitter is its allure.
Time more than distance makes places foreign. The way my English grandfather described the Britain of his youth – the solidarity, the co-operation between neighbours, the relative absence of crime – reminds me my own experience of present-day Syria, which suggests that key cultural differences are made by social and economic change rather than by religion or language. But today, even Syria seems much more similar to contemporary Britain than it did even a decade ago.
And therefore I wonder, fearfully, how much of Oman’s character will remain whenever I manage to return. I fear that the current 5-star development plan may banalise the country. In my short half-decade of residence, miles of formerly public beachfront were eaten up by luxury hotels and ‘gated’ residential communities. The recent inflationary surge has also exacerbated already widening class divisions.
But here in Scotland I settle nostalgically on my fixed picture of Oman, whose mountains and deserts seem wild and imperturbable enough to shrug off a few short decades of fast capitalism, and already I miss it so much I wonder if I’ve made a huge mistake. I remember the heat like arms around me, while here I am poked by niggling fingers of cold. Under these low, clouded skies I remember the generous clarity of the Omani stars, and how comfortable it was to lie on the rocks or sand underneath them.
I remember too the warmth of the Omanis. Although Omani social life revolves first around the family and then the tribe, which means an outsider certainly doesn’t need to fight off invitations from the locals as he might in Syria or Egypt, the Omanis are such civilised, friendly people that to leave them feels like falling from the earth onto a distant and unkind planet. I remember, back on earth, eating slow-cooked shuwa meat from the same plate as 20 men and then sitting for hours drinking coffee in the majlis. I remember the women who offered us cold water and the men who guided us as we walked through mountain villages. I remember the smiles and co-operative spirit which took us through the aftermath of the Gonu cyclone and floods. I remember shaking hands after the prayer in mosques perfumed by frankincense (I can think of a nearby country where the mosques smell of feet). The Omanis practise a gentle, community-based Islam unwarped by modernist neuroses, and they are at almost all times fundamentally decent.
In Britain there are rougher and colder ways.
I remember Muscat’s foreign residents: my colleagues of 30 nationalities at the university, the Friday night crowds in Ruwi’s little India, the manly Pakistani labourers waiting for work in al-Ghubra, the Egyptians and Filipinos I met in shops. All those Keralan nurses with names like Baby, Girly and Shiny. Like everywhere else in the region, Oman has its Iraqi refugees, mainly doctors and professors who would be targeted at home. Some of these were our friends, as well as people from Australia, Pakistan, Lebanon, America and Palestine. And it is our friends who we will miss most. For the last two days we ate only food cooked by other people, and were wrapped in their tenderness until we reached the airport.
What else do I miss? The non-human aspect of the place, its vastness. I remember the midnight turtle that crawled onto the beach next to our camp to lay its eggs, the antelope that skipped away as I crested a mountain ridge, the wind-polished rocks that I gathered on the edge of the Empty Quarter. I remember those creatures – like the Egyptian vulture, the Indian roller and the sunbird – whose unusual (but in Muscat, prosaic) beauty forced me to learn their names.
It all makes me sigh. It was easier to live in the Gulf. Here in the UK I have the income tax system to understand, and council tax, and car tax. Here I can’t find a man to fix everything in my house for only a couple of riyals. Here, my wife may be the first hijab-wearer on the streets of this little town, my children the most unusual in their school. There will be no Arab community, no Indians, no mosques or halal butchers. It isn’t cosmopolitan.
My children have British passports but have never lived in Britain. My Syrian wife, adaptable and intelligent, has lived in four very different countries, but never outside the Arab world. These factors are enough to make a couple of years in the cold a worthwhile adventure.
And there are certainly benefits to Scotland. It’s green as well as grey. We have a garden. I expect to go for daily walks in the surrounding countryside. I even expect to grow vegetables, and to stand with my children in the rain discussing them. Beyond that, the place we’ve moved to is constructed on a human scale. The high street businesses are family-owned, small scale and high quality: the butcher, the cobbler, the tailor, and so on. People know each other’s names and aren’t afraid of eye contact. They go so far as to shake hands. Thus far, we’ve been warmly welcomed. In that respect, it isn’t too different from Oman.
Robin Yassin-Kassab’s novel, The Road From Damascus, is published this month by Hamish Hamilton.