It Takes a Village


The sweltering, humid heat of Oman's summer months dropped gently as the sun fell towards the horizon. "I'll remember this for the rest of my life." These were the words of my friend Garrett, as our day-long trip to the town of Samad Al Shan came to an end.

Our friend and co-worker, Saleh, invited me and two of my friends to the village he calls home, to get to know a side of Oman few visitors ever see. Just a few kilometers away from the main highway that stretches from the capital, Muscat, all the way to the United Arab Emirates, is a village that's bears witness to Oman's very recent, and at the same time very ancient, past.

Oman, more than most other countries, has been thrust into the modern world at a dizzying pace. Samad Al Shan is one of many villages where the path between old Oman, and new Oman, intersect.

In 1970, when the current ruler of Oman—Sultan Qaboos Al Said—took power from his father, Oman had only a few kilometers of paved road, two hospitals, and three schools. It was mostly desert, dotted with date plantations inland, and fishing villages on the coast.

Most Omanis lived in clay huts, stacked closely together in the center of villages near a natural spring or riverbed. Life in the village was slow and methodical. Small-scale livestock breeding (mostly goats), and agriculture were at the center of the local economy. Villages functioned mostly independently of any central government, and primary loyalty was to one's tribe. 

47 years later, Oman is a fully-fledged modern nation, with dozens of hospitals, hundreds of schools, thousands of kilometers of paved roads connecting remote parts of the Sultanate, satellite television, and high speed internet. Villages like Samad Al Shan are a living record of just how much has changed in under half a century. They are also home to many of the traditions, practices, and sentiments that, having existed within living memory, have not vanished into the sands just yet.

Right in the middle of Samad Al Shan—which now boasts large single-family homes up to three stories high, with modern plumbing and air conditioning—sits an ancient fortress going back centuries. The fortress overlooks the remains of the "old village," where most of the local population used to live. The contrast is astonishing, and is a reminder that even small villages in Oman's interior used to fend mostly for themselves, including their defenses.

Saleh points out the various defense mechanisms built into the fort's very structure. There are holes that allow riflemen to fire upon the lower ground surrounding the fort. There's grooves that were made to pour scalding oil on potential intruders. There is a complex structure of wells built deep into the fort, allowing defenders to withstand sieges for weeks, or even months, at a time.

Even more astonishing than the changes Oman has undergone, are the facets of ancient life that remain. Small-scale agriculture, once at the very center of survival in the village, is still an important part of life here. And the irrigation system most of the villagers use today is essentially still the same one their ancestors used for over a thousand years: the Falaj.

In the Falaj system, a village elder will pay to build a main artery of water that comes down from the springs in the mountains. Individual landowners will then pay for "shares" in the Falaj, which entitles them to divert water from the main artery to their crops for a set period of time per day. Now, of course, this time is measured with clocks or other modern instruments. In the past, Falaj caretakers used a sun dial during the day, and observed the stars at night, to measure individual "shares." Saleh looks at us wistfully, and with great pride, as he explains these things to us.

Walking along the Falaj, Saleh takes us to the plot of land his father still owns. We then walk slowly in the rising afternoon heat, back to his home. A feast is waiting for us.

Not only did we get to see Saleh's village, we had the privilege of visiting during the third day of Eid al Fitr. Every years Muslims celebrate the month of Ramadan, which commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to the prophet, Mohammed. At the end of an entire month of fasting during daylight hours, followers of Islam observe Eid al Fitr, "the feast of breaking the fast." 

In Samad Al Shan, and many other villages, this means goat meat. Saleh treated us generously to a feast of shuwa, a form of preparing meat that involves burying meat in the ground over night, basted in spices, and wrapped in banana leaves. In our case, the meat was a whole goat. There are no utensils; you eat with your hands. It's magnificent, and immediately makes you feel right at home.

My visit to Saleh's village reminded me that our world is, for the most part, marching inexorably forward. Life in Samad Al Shan will never go back to what it was only a half-century ago. In another 50 years, many of the traces of ancient life still felt may no longer exist here. The transformation will be complete, and no one will remain alive who remembers what life was like before cellular phones and four-wheel drive.

And this is, of course, a good thing, especially for the people who live here. They live in a world where they no longer have to toil daily in the fields, where they can go to a modern hospital to receive medical care, and where they are connected to the wider world. They live in a world where their children can go to school, and play on smartphones, mostly for the better.

But I was happy to be able to see glimpses of the old world, before these glimpses evaporate. And I was touched by the great pride with which Saleh explained the many forms of wisdom and knowledge that he learned by growing up in a village that was still, when he was a boy, it's own world.

More than anything, I am grateful for having had the privilege of a knowledgable guide, interesting in sharing his story, to show me this world. I would not have known this side of Oman—not like this—if Saleh had not brought me to his village; if I hadn't laughed with his father, when he insisted I eat the spicy peppers that were the side of our meal; if I hadn't walked along the falaj, like Saleh's people have for centuries.

Guide books aren't enough; websites aren't enough. You cannot know a place, unless you see it from a the eyes of those who live there, who play there, who work there, who love and struggle there. The next time you travel somewhere, do your best to find, meet, or (if push absolutely comes to shove) hire someone local who you trust to show you the best your destination has to offer. It will make all the difference between seeing a place, and knowing a place.

Good luck, and safe travels.

All images taken with the Canon EOS 6D, and the Tamron 35mm f1.8 Di VC lens