Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Oman/Kuwait: Water is Life

Earlier this week, in what I expect will be my last trip outside Israel and its immediate neighbors, I ventured over to Kuwait. There is, of course, a great deal to tell, and tell it I shall, in due time. For now, though, I'll note that one of the country's highlights is the science center in Kuwait City, and particularly its aquarium. Many cities have aquariums, but this one happens to be the largest in the Middle East, and the largest tank holds well over one million liters of water. Among the exotic Gulf fish are not only the usual small guppies, cuttlefish, and tiny sea horses, but giant sting rays and several reef sharks, swimming rapidly around their tanks' rock formations with vicious-looking teeth and white-tipped fins to the wonder of the crowds passing by.

Although it's formally called the aquarium, it might be better thought of as a general wildlife complex divided into desert, coastal, and water zones. The coastal zone was the most interesting to me, focusing as it did on an ecosystem that was not so much a mix of land and water the way I'd always thought of it, but a special ecological niche with its own rules, species, and formations. I learned more about sabkha, the salt flats I see referred to again and again in my primary sources, where evaporation and receding waters have left behind soil not just of high salinity, but woven with veins of sediment and laced with small pools which either fill temporarily with the tides coming in and up through underground channels or more enduringly as capillary action draws up water from aquifers near the surface. The latter conditions mean they can also occur inland, and one of the largest is near the Empty Quarter in Oman and called the "Mother of Poisons" in Arabic. One common mineral in Arabian sabkha is gypsum, and when crystals of that transparent substance form around sand, the result is the desert rose. Another interesting point is that mangroves aren't just on shores, but they actually work to extend them outward, as they obstruct the flow of water and lead to the more rapid deposition of sediments. Both sabkha and mangrove swamps create unique ecosystems and forms of life.

It was, however, the desert animals I enjoyed looking at the most. I don't think they were quite as well cared for as those in the Sharjah Desert Park in the UAE, nor were there as many, perhaps because Kuwait is simply a smaller, more ecologically homogeneous country. Also, whereas in Sharjah I was struck by wonder and enchantment, in Kuwait my main sense was cuteness. I was prepared for the special desert adaptations, such as the nocturnal habits and huge ears to help keep the body cool and provide extremely sensitive hearing to help them find the rare desert prey, and so could see them more naturally. Everyone probably knows about owls and kestrels. In addition, there were jerboas, the small, mouse-like creatures which according to the sign could jump a whopping two meters into the air, as well as a proud caracal, a feline predator which usually stood near the glass partition watching the passing people watch him. Winning the cuteness award, however, were the fennecs, the desert foxes which are less than a foot high and weigh only about three pounds. While I watched a jerboa devouring a leaf of lettuce several times larger than him or herself, I heard a young girl proclaim "salaam." Assuming this was yet another local child eager to greet the strange foreigner, I turned around to say, "and aleikum as-salaam," but she was actually talking to the fennecs. What's more, she was actually part of an Arab-American family just in Kuwait for a visit, and "salaam" was one of the only Arabic words she knew, though she had apparently decided it was the appropriate salutation for Kuwaiti wildlife.

The aquarium brought home yet again the importance of water to sustaining life, something I already mentioned in conjunction with Oman with all its fertile wadis and sophisticated ancient irrigation methods. These stable water supplies have lent its settlement geography a stability not found anywhere else along the Gulf coast. To take one example, a city called Izki is known as the center of some sort of minor state contemporary with the Assyrians. Its region, on the desert side of the Sumail Gap in the Hajars connecting the inland with the Batinah coast near Muscat, would be a common one for political powers long after Izki itself declined. Oman also has what is unquestionable the greatest natural beauty, of which I was able to see far too little. Still in my future are the cool hidden valleys of Jebel Shams, one of the highest mountains, and many other valleys of which some are still reportedly unmapped, though in this age of Google Earth those days are probably numbered. Its surface features are also of great antiquity, as the Hajar Mountains are the remains of an obduction zone at the floor of the Tethys Sea which separated Laurasia from Gondwanaland in the early Mesozoic Period.

One of my trips inland was on my first Friday day. I'd taken a shared taxi to Barkah, a coastal city where the road to Rustaq left the main coastal road between Muscat, Sohar, and ultimately the east coast of the UAE. I was actually there hoping to find out about bull-butting, a traditional pastime along the Batinah coast, now long in decline thanks to the encroachment of foreign sports such as soccer. My inquiries, admittedly somewhat random and hesitant since I suspected it would be an odd thing to be asking about, drew mostly amusement. That settled, I took a taxi to Nakhl, a city at the edge of the Batinah where it meets the mountains. This city, like all others on the site of a reliable wadi, is known mainly for its imposing fort. Nakhl and Sohar are among the places in Oman where Sassanid Persian presence is asserted textually but undetected archaeologically, though the fort itself was reportedly begun by the Sassanids and restored under the Second Ibadi Imamate during the 9th century, by the Nabhanids during the 16th, and by the currently ruling Al Bu Said in the 19th.

I arrived just as the last shops in the city were closing, and had not yet realized that taking the heat of the afternoon off in Oman was simply the thing to do, especially on Friday. Because of this, I mistakenly believed it would be easy to hop a minibus bound for Rustaq up in the mountains. Unfortunately, all the minibuses I saw were actually headed into Nakhl, where the ath-Thowrah spring which kept the wadi flowing was a popular afternoon attraction for the locals. One minibus full of young people was incredulous I wasn't joining them. As I stood at the stop by the highway a couple of truck drivers also offered me a lift, but they, too, were going to ath-Thowrah. Eventually I just decided that I should go to ath-Thowrah and relax, but by then there was no more transportation. I guess everyone was already there =) I did, however, encounter a random taxi headed toward Rustaq, which I was able to commission for the beautiful trip into the mountains.

Rustaq, too, has an imposing fort, and the literary sources claim it was the Persians' inland administrative center. I wound up at a spring rather than the fort, though there was an old ruined fort of some kind there, next to a recently built mosque. I did find the main fort, on the grounds of which was a mosque where Ya'ariba imams would often give their first sermon after elevation. Some locals were gathered around the spring for a picnic, thougng h clearly not as many as at ath-Thowrah, as the spring itself was being developed in some manner I couldn't quite make out. Aided by Paolo Costa's guide to Oman's sacred monuments, I also sought out the tomb of one of the Ya'ariba imams, whose tomb was still a pilgrimage site much like the tombs of the walis in Morocco.

From Rustaq I had hoped to go to Wadi Bani Khurus, one of the countless wadis named for the tribe which owned it. This one, which is being intensively studied by the Palestinian scholar Mu'awiya Ibrahim, stands out because four of the imams during the Second Ibadi Imamate, Oman's classic period, were of Khurusi origin. The source of the wadi is also part of a rock formation that dates from the late Pre-Cambrian Era, a truly staggering age. Unfortunately I couldn't get a single driver to take me there, leading me to suspect it's one of those that requires 4WD to get to. I settled for a drive through Awf in the Wadi Ma'awil down on the plains beneath Nakhl, the center of power for the tribe of the Julandas who ruled Oman at the time of the coming of Islam. There, past the row of shops in the form of a traditionalish strip mall which you find on the road into many small Omani towns (and Emirati ones, now that I think about it), you get to the area watered by the falaj system, with date palms densely packed together around newer buildings, but still with traditional architecture as is the Omani way.

It was near the end of my stay that I finally made it to Nizwa, another city at the desert end of the Sumail Gap, and Oman's main urban administrative center for most of the last 1400 years. The huge oasis is divided into tribal quarters, though I spent all my time around the city center, which was disappointingly touristy. The main suq was in yet another modern-yet-traditional building, and divided into areas for local crafts (aka tourist souvenirs), fabrics, meat, vegetables, fish, goats, and dates. Yes, I checked out the goat suq, but they were out of goats, though there were a bunch of small iron bars where they had been tethered. In the date suq, I actually bought dates. Nizwa dates are supposedly some of the world's best, and they lived up to their billing. I then ate in some sort of supposed "authentic Omani restaurant," though my Omani friends hadn't heard of anything on their menu. Nizwa Fort, the largest old fort on the Arabian Peninsula, also lived up to its billing. Built at the dawn of Ya'ariba rule during the 17th century, today the government is clearly trying to develop it into an comprehensive historical educational experience for the tens of thousands who visit it each year. Much is still on the drawing board, but there is already a room where people can try on traditional Omani clothing and a gallery with a weapons exhibition.

Behind the fort are a bunch of narrow, winding residential streets, on one of which I finally found the ruins of the 9th-century fort built by the Imam Salt b. Malik, whose deposition was one of the most controversial events in Omani history, one debated for centuries after the fact. It's always hard to explain what I gain from an exposure like this, aside from the fact of being able to look at a place and run through details of its history. Still, one thing I've come to appreciate profoundly during the past 14 months is a sense of historical geography, of the places and distances people traveled and of their relationship with the land they inhabited. I've often said that geography is not just about toponyms, but represents the physical infrastructure for civilization, one an appreciation for which enhances one's perceptions in almost any human-related discipline.

(Note: I realize this is probably a crime, but when I went to Oman, I, uh, forgot my camera. The links above have some good pictures, though.)

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