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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Magical Eid hospitality on the Batinah Coast

Anna Zacharias tries to keep up with a Khaleeji matriarch on a tour of friends and relatives’ homes for Eid

Family matriarch Aisha visits relatives in Saham, on the Batinah coast of Oman. Anna Zacharias / The National
Family matriarch Aisha visits relatives in Saham, on the Batinah coast of Oman. Anna Zacharias / The National

“Hit it! Hit it! Hit the gas,” says Aisha.

“There’s a cyclist in front of us,” I say.

It’s day one of Eid Al Adha and we’re driving through the narrow dirt roads between banana plantations on Oman’s Batinah Coast. It’s a full car. Family matriarch Aisha is in the front seat reluctantly buckled up for the first time in her life. Two daughters, a daughter-in-law and young grandson are in the back.

We are making the rounds for Eid, a three-day tour of every relative, friend and neighbour on the Batinah Coast.

Next year it could be Aisha behind the wheel. Now in her late-40s, the youngest of her eight children has almost finished high school.

For the first time in her life, Aisha has time for driving lessons. She had failed her test multiple times – par for the course for anyone learning to drive in Oman. “I just keep hitting those barrels,” she tells me.

Aisha started her lessons the year before, when we first met. My friend Mahanad had invited me to stop on the journey between my family home in Ras Al Khaimah and Muscat to visit his family home near the town of Saham on Oman’s north-east coast.

When I arrived, Mahanad’s mother met me. Short in height and formidable in stature, Aisha walked through the majlis doors with a flask of tea in one hand and a flask of coffee in the other. That day she told me how she got her nose ring, piercing her nose with a thorn as a teenager. It had

been disinfected with a poultice of salt and turmeric.

Aisha can converse with anyone, no matter what languages they have in common or don’t – and she does.

Every year, Mahanad and his family open their home to foreign guests for Eid Al Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice.

During this time, Aisha is in her element. Her ambitions to visit relatives’ homes are boundless. At every house, her daughters very gently remind her there are a lot of other houses ahead. At every house, Aisha promises her daughters that they’ll just say ‘hello’ and won’t stay for long. But when baskets of fruit and trays of perfume appear, Aisha says, “OK, just a little coffee. OK, just a bite. Oh, is this new perfume … ?”

In painted majlises and under papaya trees, we are plied with food, perfume and conversation. It takes strategy, a date in the hand at all times. If at any point you are seen empty-handed, your hand will be filled with sweets.

By late afternoon on the first day, we have visited about seven homes. We land back at the house, exhausted. Her daughters and I take a nap.

Not Aisha. When she is not visiting others, she is sat on a short stool in her outdoor kitchen, stirring a great pot of khal, a vinegar-based soup that is Batinah’s Eid speciality.

In the tradition of Khaleeji mothers, she cooks feasts in a basic outdoor kitchen with gas burners. Ingredients are local, like steamed fish in banana leaves with turmeric, cumin and salt.

The house has an indoor kitchen but I have never seen Aisha use it.

Local food is the key to a long life, she says. In Saham, tradition dictates that when you come home from hospital you should only eat fresh local food for the next three or four days. Aisha’s father did this after a car crash and his white beard turned black again. “He became a young man,” she tells me.

Now he eats a cup of meat from the farm in the morning and drinks a glass of laban in the evening. That’s all. His beard has stayed black.

Such stories abound on the Batinah. The first day I met Mahanad we broke the ice telling folktales. He told me about a Saham cyclops that guards a treasure.

Another friend from the Batinah spoke of duelling wizards who used generosity to showcase their powers. When a wizard from the interior accepted an invitation for lunch in the town of Liwa, he found a young boy under a sidr tree using magic instead of fire to cook rice and saloona.

Not to be outshone, the magician repaid the hospitality by sending three cauldrons of food to Liwa in thanks, carried on the backs of bewitched chickens.

The Liwa magicians were unperturbed. They returned the cauldrons with more food of their own, carried on the backs of ants.

Even in folklore, Batinah hospitality is unmatched.

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