by Sandra Arnold
Tendrils of white smoke spiral upwards from hundreds of clay frankincense burners on the stalls that line the souk. The smoke mingles with the scent of jasmine and sandalwood and fills the warm evening air with fragrance.
The Frankincense Souk in Salalah, in southern Oman, is the best place to buy frankincense in the whole of Arabia. Rows of women in black abayas and burqas look at me hopefully, calling out ‘Merhaba’ (welcome) as I walk by their stalls, feeling suddenly self-conscious in my blue jeans and pink t-shirt. I wish I had thought to cover my arms, which seem to extend in acres of bare flesh as I reach out to take some yellow crystals a young woman holds out to me in a woven palm-leaf basket.
Only the woman’s hands and her Kohl-outlined eyes are visible. She gestures at me to smell the crystals, then sprinkles a couple of them over a piece of hot charcoal in a little clay burner. I breathe in the heady scent and she beckons Rob to do the same. Already overwhelmed he is trying hard not to breathe at all. He holds out some money to pay for what I have chosen, hoping that might encourage me to leave before he passes out. The woman covers her hand with her abaya before she takes the money from him, careful to avoid touching an unrelated male. I turn to see a man in a blue turban and long white dishdasha approaching.
‘Good evening,’ he booms, ‘I’m Abdullah.’
Grinning at our startled expressions he explains he’s the guide we’d asked our hotel receptionist to find to take us on the frankincense trail next day. He stretches out his arm to shake Rob’s hand. I don’t offer my own in case he is offended. However, when he extends his hand to me, I shake it, with the prickling sensation of dozens of pairs of curious female eyes watching us.
Next morning Abdullah collects us in his battered old Landcruiser and drives us out of Salalah into the Dhofar Mountains. Salalah, 1,000 kilometres south of Muscat, is the second biggest city in Oman, bordered by Al Wusta in the east, the Arabian Sea to the south, the Yemen in the south west, and Saudi Arabia across the desert known as the Empty Quarter. As we hurtle round a corner on the motorway Abdullah slams on his brakes to avoid colliding with a camel. He hears our gasps and reassures, ‘Don’t worry, I’m used to this! It’s not possible to fence off the desert, you see.’
Abdullah explains that 5,000 years ago the south of Oman was the centre of the world’s frankincense trade. The climate, hot and dry for most of the year, but lush with rain and mists during the monsoon season from June to September, provides the ideal growing conditions for the little twisted trees known as olibanuin, which grow on the desert side of the Dhofar mountains.
We pull into the side of the road and head toward a grove of the trees. Abdullah makes an incision in one to show us how the sap runs out and hardens into a crystal. ‘These,’ he says, ‘are collected after two weeks and sold in the markets. Omanis buy them to scent their homes and clothes. In ancient times frankincense was in great demand in the temples of Rome and Mesopotamia. A whole year’s supply of frankincense was burned at the funeral of Nero’s wife.’ He turns to Rob and says, ‘Some historians say that at least one of the Magi started the journey to Bethlehem from Southern Oman.’
Dusty and hot we stop in Razat, where springs flow from the mountains. Abdullah spots some of his friends there who’ve been selling goats in the market that morning. They are cooking rice and fish and insist we join them for lunch. One of the men unrolls a mat on the ground and sets down a large communal plate, inviting Rob to sit cross-legged beside them. Unsure whether to join them, I wait at a distance from the group. When the men see this they beckon me over. Considering close proximity of unrelated males and females is forbidden, I am touched by their hospitality.
One of the men shows us how to take the food with our right hand and roll it into a ball to eat. Rob manages to get some of the rice to his mouth, but I feel like a child who hasn’t learned to eat properly and, to my embarrassment, end up with grains of rice and bits of fish all over my hand and knees. I’m grateful when Abdullah explains that we use knives and forks in our country and don’t know how to eat with our hands. The men express regret that they don’t have a fork to give me. One of them turns to Rob and asks, ‘Americans?’
‘No, New Zealanders.’
Abdullah explains that New Zealand is near Australia.
Another man says he has four wives and twelve children and they all live harmoniously together in the same house. Through Abdullah, he asks Rob how many wives men can have in New Zealand.
‘One. That’s more than enough for harmony,’ Rob replies.
When Abdullah translates this the men slap their sides with delight. They wind a turban round Rob’s head which sets the whole group off laughing again.
When they finish their meal, one of the men takes off his turban and spreads it on the ground as his prayer mat. Apart from Abdullah, who wears the traditional long white dishdasha, the men all wear a wrap-around piece of cloth covering their legs from the waist down, Yemeni-style. In ancient times there were no borders between the Yemen, Africa and Oman, and in the Dhofar region the Yemeni style is still evident in the way of dress and in the rectangular, high-windowed, mud-brick houses. As we leave we thank the group and promise to send the photos we’ve taken of them to Abdullah.
Our next destination is Kawr Rori, a natural harbour on the coast where there was an archaeological dig going on in nearby Sumharum. The excavations had uncovered the ruins of a palace, thought to have been built by the Queen of Sheba who lived in the Yemen and came to Sumharum for the frankincense trade. The ruins are fenced off and the elderly guard says we aren’t allowed in. However, Abdullah manages to wangle the key out of him and leads us around the ruins, pointing out the different rooms and the store for the frankincense. He finds a tiny piece on the ground and gives it to me. ‘Maybe the Queen of Sheba held this very piece.’
Here, five thousand years ago, Frankincense was loaded onto boats in the harbour where now camels are swimming and hundreds of flamingos are resting in the inlet. I wonder if the Queen of Sheba set out from here on her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem with her gifts of frankincense, ‘coming up from the desert like a column of smoke, breathing of myrrh and frankincense’.
Our next stop is Job’s Tomb. A simple white building, with a gold-painted dome, it’s forty kilometres from Salalah on Jabal Lyttin at the end of a road lined with crimson flame trees, almond, jasmine and pink bougainvillea. At the entrance to the building, an enormous footprint, reputed to be Job’s, is encased in stone.
‘Job was a giant,’ says Abdullah. ‘But as excavation of the tomb is forbidden no one has been able to verify it.’
An old grey-bearded man hands me a green headscarf and gestures to us to take off our shoes. As we drop pieces of frankincense into the burners around the green-cloth-covered tomb and watch the thin spirals of smoke waft up to the ceiling Abdullah says, ‘The smoke of frankincense is sacred. It carries our prayers to Heaven.’
Rob says, ‘My mother used to say she needed the patience of Job when I was a child. I never actually knew who Job was and why he needed patience.’
‘He was a prosperous man with ten healthy children and devoted to God,’ Abdullah tells him. ‘Even when he lost all his wealth and all his children died he still kept his faith without complaining. Then all his friends told him that God does these things for a reason, so Job must have been really bad to have been punished so much. Job asked God to tell him what he had done wrong. God replied that the universe was beautiful and unknowable and that God was not answerable to man.’
Next day we begin our trip into the Empty Quarter, at 5.00am, to avoid the worst of the heat in one of the most arid, dry, and blisteringly hot deserts in the world. The mist of the coming monsoon obscures the skyline and the vast featureless expanses of empty grey sand. For one hundred kilometres we follow the route the explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, took in the 1940s with his Bedouin companions. It was the route taken centuries ago by the camel caravans of the frankincense trade. The Duru tribe of Bedouin still live here. In times past, Abdullah tells us, they used the stars to guide them at night, and the direction of the wind in the daytime. Water was so scarce they drank it only every three or four days. ‘Nowadays,’ he says, ‘water tankers bring them fresh supplies every week.’
We stop near a small stone house occupied by a solitary Bedouin named Mohammed. A few camels are tethered nearby in a barbed-wire enclosure. After greetings and exchanging the ‘news’ Abdullah asks him if he will give us some camel’s milk. Mohammed takes a basin over to the enclosure and ties a protesting camel to a stick, then takes off the bag that covers her udder to stop her baby suckling. As soon as the baby sees him removing the bag it sprints over and hangs onto one teat while Mohammed grabs another. All the while mama complains loudly and this sets off a responding roar from a huge black male camel which is inside a separate enclosure. As I wonder how easy it would be for the roaring male to break out of his restraint, Mohammed hands me the basin full of warm, frothy milk. Reminding myself that Thesiger had survived for months on camel’s milk and dates, I sip it. It tastes like sweet cow’s milk. Abdullah explains cheerfully that I can expect ‘stomach troubles’.
Mohammed invites us into his little house, furnished with a bed and some pans on a small stove. He won’t allow me to take his photo as he says he isn’t dressed properly. Through Abdullah I ask him if he rides the camels. ‘No,’ he replies, ‘I sell them in the market for meat.’
I ask if he ever gets lonely. Shaking his head he proudly shows us his new mobile phone. He stands at the door waving goodbye till we drive out of sight.
We pass a truckload of camels going to market. ‘We regard them the way you regard cows,’ Abdullah says.
Our final stop is Shisr, the lost city of Ubar. I tell Abdullah that when I was a child I read a story about this city in The Arabian Nights. He says it was also mentioned in 200 AD by Arabian geographers and was marked on a map drawn by Ptolemy. ‘It was a rich market town at the crossroads of the frankincense trade. The Koran tells us that God punished the inhabitants of Ubar for their sinful ways by destroying the city and making it vanish into the earth.’
Several western explorers, including Thesiger, had failed to find the city, until in 1990 American satellite pictures taken over the desert showed traces of ancient caravan routes converging on the area. These pictures, together with help from local Bedouin, enabled a team of archaeologists to locate the ruins. Their excavations revealed an underground stream that had gradually eroded the limestone under the city, causing it to collapse, and creating a huge sinkhole into which most of the city had fallen. The desert eventually crept over the once fertile land and the winds covered it with sand. Now, all that remains above ground are a few stones from the towers that once stored the frankincense before it was transported across the desert by camel trains.
The museum next to the ruins is closed. However, Abdullah finds the man with the keys and gets him to open up the museum. His name is Mabruk and he has lived in the area all his life. He speaks good English and describes how, as a child, he listened to his grandfather’s stories of a fabled city that had disappeared overnight because of God’s anger at the profligate lifestyle of the inhabitants. When the American archaeologists arrived and started excavating, the locals were very excited, he says, and helped them. He shows us photographs of the dig and tells stories of the archaeologists. I ask him if he has any conflict in reconciling the archaeological evidence of the slow erosion of the limestone with the traditional belief of God’s wrath destroying the city overnight.
‘Not at all,’ he replies. ‘The Koran is God’s word, so there can be no conflict.’
Mabruk tells us that the frankincense trade, which had once brought enormous wealth to Southern Arabia, died with the rise of Christianity. Christians were urged to bury their dead therefore the vast quantities of frankincense previously used at cremations were no longer needed. The economy remained at subsistence level for many centuries until the discovery of oil in the 1960s brought a new cycle of prosperity. Schools, hospitals, and proper housing sprang up on the edge of the desert. Pick-up trucks and four-wheel-drives have replaced the camel.
‘What frankincense was to ancient times, oil is today,’ says Abdullah.
We thank Mabruk and say goodbye. On our way back to the Landcruiser a group of little boys in white dishdashas and embroidered caps follow us, laughing and chattering. They stand waving as we drive away.
On the motorway back to Salalah I see dozens of migrant Indian workers sweltering in the heat, sweeping sand from the road to keep the ever-encroaching desert at bay. I think of the civilisations that have risen and fallen here over the millennia, all traces erased by the desert sands. I start saying this to Abdullah when he suddenly swerves round a camel lying in the middle of the motorway. We gasp and hold on to our seats.
Abdullah grins and says, ‘At the end of life there is only the sound of the desert wind and the tinkling of the camel’s bell. That’s what the Bedouin say.’
Sandra Arnold is an award-winning writer who lives in New Zealand. Her flash fiction appears or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Blue Fifth Review and the UK 2017 National Flash Fiction Day international anthology, Sleep is a beautiful colour.
Learn more at www.sandraarnold.wordpress.com.