This border is not one-dimensional like the fine, fountain pen line between the US and Canada; the vague area between the Emirati back door and the entrance to Oman could be drawn faithfully with a Crayola marker on a globe. But after ten minutes of driving through no man’s land, we were in every man’s land.
Fiftyish men puffed fiftyish shishas, drank tea, and watched us be Western at a roadside cafe half-hour into the country. A huge projector blasted Spanish soccer to the going-out crowd of northwestern Oman. The coffee tasted dark and sweet, not like the light brew served too often in the Emirates, and the mint tea smelled like Morocco and older traditions. I went to ask for more coals for the shisha.
“You speak Arabic?” The owner asked me. Again, same words — completely different question. A minute later, he was introducing me to his favorite customers — a group of five Omani men — and we three American travelers were welcomed into their circle.
We talked about soccer, about Oman, and about finding a wife for the owner in Washington before telling them our travel plans (drawn on a napkin) and the difficulties of making reservations anywhere without phones or internet.
“Ahmed, go get a SIM from the car.”
My useless Emirati phone was taken from me, popped open, and charged with Omani hospitality (and a ton of credit). And after sitting for hours, Malik paid for everything we’d touched the entire night. No, no, a friend explained as we squirmed at the niceness, he’s the boss.
As for our travel, we never made it on to Muscat, where we’d planned to stay the night somewhere. No, when you’re in Oman, you’ll be hard pressed not to be invited into someone’s home.
We slept in Malik’s guest house — as it turned out, he also had morning plans to head to Nizwa and we would just follow him. You do not say no to these offers. You do not say, well, it sounds nice, but it just seems a little more convenient to wake up one hour closer to the next stop in the book of my to-do list, checked out from the School of Western Missing the Pointism. Like a smoke detector in a bakery, the alarm that may sound in your head as you ask yourself, what’s in it for the other guy? is completely obsolete — open doors are the default. It ain’t fire, it’s cookies.
It also turned out Malik was BMOC in the costal town of Saham. Every neighbor, every kid on the beach, every guy in the streets or stooping it was a friend. He greeted the harbor security guard like an old buddy, and we drove through the gate toward the fishing ships.
“Asmak wahid, Asmak ithnayn,” I read the names. Fish One, Fish Two. “Not very imaginative.” Malik laughed, his family owned some of those boats.
The next day at seven, an elderly Indian cook brought us hot, fresh roti and bottomless cups of sweet chai haliib (tea with milk). We set off for Nizwa, my friends following with our rental, Malik and I blasting Arabic music in his hulking Lexus SUV.
Even along the highway, Malik stopped to pick things up from friends, gathering food and people until we parked our own car, and piled into two 4x4s to head into a wadi — a rocky valley riverbed lined with high mountain walls and crystal clear swimming pools. And still the tea flowed, even in the car — a warm reminder that no matter how rocky the road or how cramped the backseat (four gangly grown men), hospitality prevails.
We swam and jumped off rocks as a whole goat simmered in a pot, basking in the chilled mountain water unfazed by blistering sunshine. And then we ate: some things I’d never imagined before — goat’s liver, kidneys, lungs and brain — and some things I’d forgotten about since seventh grade, like Mountain Dew, the inbred cousin of decent soda and gatorade.
“Will the brain make you stronger if you eat it?”
“Only if it was a smart goat,” Doctor Ali answered. “If it was a smart goat, it wouldn’t have gotten slaughtered.”
So we sat in precious shade, eating dumb goat brain and daring each other to eat more. Doctor Ali mongered the eyeballs. At first, I thought my squeamishness was the product of cultural difference (it’s my nurture, not my nature), but no — everyone thought that was weird.
As the day progressed, the Arabic I had once understood was lost entirely to the rapid-fire Omani dialect. I struggled to redefine the relationship I had had with Malik, which was conceived in only Arabic, and was now defined by the company of new friends who spoke to us only in English. Such a change required a whole new meeting — before, I was the foreigner, but English made him the stranger in his own home.
That evening we drove 10,000 feet up into Jabal Akhdar, the Green Mountain (aptly named for its coat of well-watered shrubbery) — camping tentless in 10-dollar blankets as night fell and pushed the heat of the desert afternoon far, far away. It was freezing. I had forgotten pants.
Halfway through the night, I had the bright idea to spoon the campfire, embers still glowing and giving off much more heat and hope than my thin, too-short blanket. Even with my head on a rock, I was comfy. Cozy and warm, I stayed asleep as our ten hosts woke for the pre-dawn prayer, and as the embers alit and fire tore holes through my blanket.
But in the high-altitude daze of the morning, nothing seemed to matter — I was being taken care of. It is true what they say about Omanis. In a time of truth and mistrust, some stereotypes are better left alone.