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Travel accounts are an important part of ethnographic research, expanding the intercultural frontier between the observer and the observed. They provide us valuable information about ‘cultures of contact’ as they consider our observation and interpretation skills informing our comprehension. For a voyager, travel forms an integral part of phenomenological research as one comes to associate one's ‘lived experiences’ with travel experiences. Traveling to the Middle East in early 2016 was akin to one such experience when I visited the United Arab Emirates and Oman with my parents. I still remember landing in Dubai on a cold winter evening in early February. Contrary to existing perception, chilly winds blew past my face as I walked down the aircraft to board the bus to the terminal. We were surprised by the chilly and icy winds that welcomed us, for we had imagined Dubai to be a hot and dry place!
Dubai, one of the seven emirates within the United Arab Emirates, appeared to be larger than life to me. The enthralling sight of the Burj Khalifa sparkling in front of my eyes is a reminder of what humanity can achieve if it translates vision into action. It will not be incorrect to suggest that the glitter and glamour associated with the city overwhelm you when you are standing on the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa and looking at the artificial wonder that Dubai is with the Sheikh Zayed Road crisscrossing the seven emirates, and the city’s vista is captured by your eye, better than any DSLR camera can ever do, allowing you the opportunity to reflect at humanity’s creations. Similarly, the Dubai Souk captures your attention as well. While gold is readily available in India, most Indians lack the purchasing power to buy large quantities of the precious metal. However, visiting the souk in Dubai gives you an idea about the tangible prosperity present in this city-state when you see women and men investing in precious metals and publicly displaying wealth.
Dubai is thus about glitz and glamour and not simplicity and subtlety as opposed to its more docile neighbour Muscat - a city that is quiet and peaceful, virtually living in the lap of nature. The city welcomes you with its paved roads and by lanes carefully nestled within the Central Hajar mountains that dot Muscat’s landscape. Visiting Muscat from Dubai through the emirates of Ras-al Khaimah and Fujairah can be a great learning experience. The terrains change as the roads become rugged and unkempt as we moved away from the posh cities into the countryside, where vegetation was stark and limited in those days. There was a visible change in the attitude and perception of people as they became more traditional and conservative as we moved away from the cities.
I remember experiencing this visible contrast as we travelled from Dubai to Muscat on a bus! While most travellers would take the air to traverse the Middle East, my parents and I are fans of road travel and chose to make this somewhat arduous journey. I count my bus journey from Dubai to Muscat to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
I vividly remember how our bus traversed from one place to another, ferrying people — women, men and migrants who lived and possibly worked in the various emirates of the UAE to Oman. I do not think many Indian tourists usually travel by bus in the Middle East, for the bus conductor was visibly surprised when our family of four boarded the bus. His curiosity was satiated when he paused for a brief conversation with my father, inquiring about the purpose of our trip. He spoke to my father in ‘broken English,’ but both found a way to communicate through gestures. We learned mid-way through the conversation that ‘Arabs valued honesty as a trait more than anything else’.
Interestingly, the bus journey saw us observing women from close quarters who were accompanied by their male guardians. Most of them were glued to their mobile phones, watching something or the other! Of course, I cannot say with certainty about the contents, but it was interesting to see these women on the bus looking intently at their mobile screens. I could not help but recall my tube rides in London, where a similar sight often greeted me as office-going executives in their black suits often remained glued to their mobile phones. The scenes were eerily similar after all, however, unlike the women in England who read newspapers and the men who spent time on their phones often playing “Temple Run” – the reverse was true here in another part of the world.
As we moved from place-to-place, my mother cajoled me into taking more pictures of the mountains and roads as we crossed different emirates. As we moved closer to the border, we were asked to keep our passports ready. We had to furnish our Indian passports as well – along with our visa-on-arrival stamps. A paper visa was also attached to the passports that we had to furnish at the border crossing. We were visibly excited to cross the border on foot literally. I had done that once in my life before, and that experience was surreal, too— I had pondered then at the Wagah border with Pakistan and looked back at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s portrait before Quaid-e-Azam’s portrait had welcomed me across the border amidst much show-shaa as they say. But, this experience was different. I thought Oman was not Pakistan and Omanis were less emotive than Pakistanis.
The Omanis stood there at the Hatta-Al Wajaja border crossing, and we could see them at a distance. I saw a woman immigration officer calling out to my mother and me as we disembarked from the bus after crossing the border crossing. We were walking in a queue with other women while my father and brother looked at us from a distance. I was excited, constantly waving at my brother and calling out to him. He wouldn’t reply and kept grinning at me, for he felt I had to be a little demure in such situations!
The line kept moving, and we finally came face-to-face with the woman immigration officer who had waved at us from a distance. She was tall with a sharp nose wearing her uniform and her traditional scarf – her salwar kameez donned the Omani insignia— the khanjar that was visible to us. She smiled at us and then opened our bags, and much to our horror, she quickly closed the bags. We were carrying the luggage that belonged to the male members of our family, and her face almost froze after opening the bags. As we had no choice, my mother and I feigned ignorance and moved on. A final x-ray check was carried out by fine Labradors. We felt most welcome in Oman; UAE seemed to prefer only cats! Additionally, trained Labradors were stationed at the border to check if the travellers were carrying any narcotic items.
The road journey from the border to Muscat was long, and now the fatigue seemed to catch up with us. We were tired, and our interest for adventure suddenly seemed to wane. Moreover, it was getting dark, and we could barely see anything outside as we kept moving towards Muscat. Finally, however, the sun had set, and the fleeting display lights kept us company every now and then. We were finally informed that we were close to Muscat by the bus conductor, and we all heaved a sigh of relief! Our hosts were happy to welcome us, and we were happy to see them.
By the grace of God, the journey ‘home’ was not a long drive! My aunt drove us in her Jeep to Al- Qurum, a suburb of Muscat where the calm and tranquil waves of the Gulf of Oman kept us company, especially around the Crown Plaza Hotel, one of the landmarks of the otherwise quiet city. The blaring headlights of SUVs kept pace with my aunt’s car. Apparently, big cars were the norm in the Middle East, where people sparsely used public transport, and Oman was no exception. Finally, the blaring horns gave way, and the car screeched to a halt on the turpentine runway. We reached ‘home’ and settled for the day.
In hindsight, Dubai is open and forthcoming when it comes to accepting divergent ideas and fashion trends, while Abu Dhabi is comparatively conservative and strict in enforcing norms, perhaps because it is the seat of government. I recall when I was asked to wear an abaya at the imposing Sheikh Zayad mosque because the sleeves of the traditional salwar kameez did not cover my wrists. I found the experience interesting because I wore an outfit I would have never worn. Moreover, it gave me an opportunity to walk and move around one of the most imposing outfits of the Arab world and show respect for their existing traditions.
My travel experiences enabled me to get a nuanced understanding of the Middle East as a region where tradition and modernity exist like two sides of the same coin. The Arabian Peninsula is a living entity where the juxtaposition of modernity and tradition is omniscient as states in this region come to construct their identities through the map and the museum, as Benedict Anderson depicts.
While Oman is rich in history and depicts ancient traditions that came during the reign of early Islam and even the pre-Islamic era, the UAE, which constituted an important part of Sahel Oman, is a new and buzzing country that is growing its tentacles in the ‘new world’ where its overarching monuments and cultural edifices attempt to strike an equilibrium between traditional Arab beliefs and modern values. The Dubai Museum within the Al Fahidi exemplifies this. Its ancient façade opens into a museum that embraces modern values as it richly showcases the rich Emirati history. The same is true for the National Museum of Oman, which has a traditional exterior but a modern interior that welcomes tourists from across the world and informs them about Oman's rich historical heritage dating back to the copper era. Oman is a country of seafarers, and through the corridors of the museum, we traverse across time and space to learn about the sultanate that successfully defeated the Portuguese under Naser bin Murshid before expanding well into Zanzibar. We are taken back in time as we engaged with objects and rare artifacts from the 18th century when Gujarati merchants made Oman their home. The smell of Omani frankincense along the hallway brings the place alive, reminding us of Proust’s famous madeleines.
In theoretical terms, I have realized that the Middle East is a cultural bazaar negotiating its ‘Triple Heritage’. While noted scholar Ali Mazrui used this term to explain Africa’s negotiation with its multiple religious and cultural identities, I feel this analogy is suited to the Middle East, for state-making is still an ongoing process in the region. The Middle East is a region in transition and is not a wall-to-wall carpet but a ‘patchwork quilt’ that is still defining itself. Every travel experience is enriching and leaves us with much to ponder over.
As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy