Monday, June 30, 2008

Leaving Oman

(This was published in the National newspaper)

Allow me to make a few generalisations, which will be as unfair as generalisations always are.

There are two kinds of Arab country. On the one hand, those with a vast and living history and a social life that makes London feel cold and dead, but where the people contend with too much political and economic pressure to be more than occasionally happy. And on the other, those countries with the comforts and ease provided by the oil economy, but so culturally dislocated, so alienated from themselves, that you feel Year Zero was declared when the oil started flowing. The kind of place where expats drink too much.

Oman, which I left last week, has in some measure the advantages of both kinds of country, perhaps just the right measure, and I love it. I call it my favourite Arab country, which is a high honour with me.

Although everyone meets in Muscat, Oman still has a village society and a working tribal system. Its traditions survive as more than mere tourist brochure selling points. In other words, it feels like a real country and not like an endlessly extended airport. Not many countries these days can claim so much. Like Britain that I’m arriving in, Oman built an empire by way of the sea. As a result, the Omani cultural zone stretches around the Indian Ocean from Iran and Pakistan to Kenya and Tanzania, and the Omani population includes Baluchis, Lawatis, and Swahili-speaking Zanzibaris. So Oman manages to be cosmopolitan – and that’s before its importation of an oil age working and professional class – at the same time as being slow and rural.

It’s as developed as it ever needs to be. There’s a reasonable schools-and-hospitals infrastructure, and more than enough good, fast roads. If you so wished you could shop for brands or watch Hollywood movies in Muscat. But there’s not yet so much of that. Compared to Dubai or Doha, Oman’s lack of glitter is its allure.

Time more than distance makes places foreign. What my English grandfather told me of Britain in his youth – the solidarity, the cooperation between neighbours, the relative absence of crime – reminded me of contemporary Syria, which suggests that key cultural differences are made by social and economic change rather than by religion or language. Syria today is much more similar to contemporary Britain than it was a decade ago. And therefore I wonder, fearfully, how much of Oman’s character will remain whenever I manage to return. I fear that the current 5-star development plan may banalise the country. Just in my half-decade of residence, miles of formerly public beachfront were eaten up by luxury hotels and ‘gated’ residential communities. The recent inflationary surge has also exacerbated already widening class divisions.

But here in Scotland I settle nostalgically on my fixed picture of Oman, whose mountains and deserts seem wild and imperturbable enough to shrug off a few short decades of fast captalism, and already I miss it so much I wonder if I’ve made a huge mistake. I remember the heat like arms around me, while here I am poked by niggling fingers of cold. Under these low, clouded skies I remember the generous clarity of the Omani stars, and how comfortable it was to lie on the rocks or sand underneath them.

I remember too the warmth of the Omanis. Although Omani social life revolves first around the family and then the tribe, which means an outsider certainly doesn’t need to fight off invitations from the locals as he might in Syria or Egypt, the Omanis are such civilised, friendly people that to leave them feels like falling from the earth onto a distant and unkind planet. I remember, back on earth, eating slow-cooked shuwa meat from the same plate as twenty men and then sitting for hours drinking coffee in the majlis. I remember the women who offered us cold water and the men who guided us as we walked through mountain villages. I remember the smiles and cooperative spirit which took us through the aftermath of the Gonu cyclone and floods. I remember shaking hands after the prayer in mosques perfumed by frankincense (I can think of a nearby country where the mosques smell of feet). The Omanis practise a gentle, community-based Islam unwarped by modernist neuroses, and they are at almost all times fundamentally decent.

In Britain there are rougher and colder ways.

I remember Muscat’s foreign residents: my colleagues of thirty nationalities at the university, the Friday night crowds in Ruwi’s little India, the manly Pakistani labourers waiting for work in al-Ghubra, the Egyptians and Filipinos I met in shops. All those Keralan nurses with names like Baby, Girly and Shiny.

Like everywhere else in the region, Oman has its Iraqi refugees, mainly doctors and professors who would be targetted at home. Some of these were our friends, as well as people from Australia, Pakistan, Lebanon, America and Palestine. And it is our friends who we will miss most. For the last two days we ate only food cooked by other people, and were wrapped in their tenderness until we reached the airport.

What else do I miss? The non-human aspect of the place, its vastness. I remember the midnight turtle that crawled onto the beach next to our camp to lay its eggs, the antelope that skipped away as I crested a mountain ridge, the wind-polished rocks that I gathered on the edge of the Empty Quarter. I remember those creatures – like the Egyptian vulture, the Indian roller and the sunbird – whose unusual (but in Muscat, prosaic) beauty forced me to learn their names.

It all makes me sigh. It was easier to live in the Gulf. Here I have the income tax system to understand, and council tax, and car tax. Here I can’t find a man to fix everything in my house for only a couple of riyals. Here, my wife may be the first hijab-wearer on the streets of this little town, my children the most unusual in their school. There will be no Arab community, no Indians, no mosques or halal butchers. It isn’t cosmopolitan.

My children have British passports but have never lived in Britain. My Syrian wife, adaptable and intelligent, has lived in four very different countries, but never outside the Arab world. These factors are enough to make a couple of years in the cold a worthwhile adventure.

And there are certainly benefits to Scotland. It’s green as well as grey. We have a garden. I expect to go for daily walks in the surrounding countryside. I even expect to grow vegetables, and to stand with my children in the rain discussing them. Beyond that, the place we’ve moved to is constructed on a human scale. The high street businesses are family-owned, small scale and high quality: the butcher, the cobbler, the tailor, and so on. People know each other’s names and aren’t afraid of eye contact. They go so far as to shake hands. Thus far, we’ve been warmly welcomed. In that respect, it isn’t too different from Oman.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Advertisements for Myself

My close associate Robin Yassin-Kassab has written a novel called The Road from Damascus. It was published by Hamish Hamilton on June 5th.

You are strongly advised to invest heavily in this book. Buy Buy Buy! Good for house insulation and firestarting as well as reading.

Clearly it is a great honour to have a book published. The exciting moment was on souq al-Khoud one hot evening more than a year ago, when my agent called to say the book was sold. But the publication itself, seeing the book in the bookshops, has softened the trauma of moving from Oman to rural Scotland.

I was in London for a publication lunch at al-Waha on Westbourne Grove. There was agent, publisher and publicist, good people all, and my friend Giles Coren, and the lovely Melissa Katsoulis. There was the writer Diran Adebayo, who was talking about ‘post-black’ universalism in relation to Obama and a girl who left Diran because she thought he was too preoccupied with black issues. Too old-fashioned. He called a friend and told him: “I’ve just been post-blacked.” There was the very intelligent Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of the Independent, and my brother Ahmad who’s in this country doing a medical attachment. There was my son Ibrahim, who easily won his eating competition with Giles.

The food in al-Waha is excellent, but I didn’t much notice it because I was excited and all was fragmentary.

After the meal I went round bookshops with Penguin people signing books so that the sellers would put ‘author-signed’ stickers on them and display them where people might buy them. Amelia told me how publishers have to pay bookshops to put books on display. Even those staff recommendations you see in some shops are not really staff recommendations at all but books the publisher has paid the seller to display. It wasn’t this way when independent bookshops still ruled.

I was interviewed by Tina Jackson for Metro:

and by David Mattin for the National (a paper recently set up by British journalists in Abu Dhabi):

I met Wassim of the Maysaloon blog (see the link above left), and went to the Revenger’s Tragedy with him. I took Ibrahim to the Dr Who exhibition at Earl’s Court, where we were both scared by a dalek. We went to the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, the IMAX 3-D cinema, and Hampstead Heath. I took him to Scotland, stayed a few days, returned to London, where I met some old friends and a new one: Muhammad Idrees of the Fanonite (see link above left), full of ideas.

The book was reviewed by Maya Jaggi in the Guardian:,,2285426,00.html

Then by Tim Teeman in the Times:

And by Aamer Hussein in the Independent:

And in the evil Daily Mail, but I can’t find it online.

Allan Massie in the Scotsman:

Abu Kareem has been very kind:

They are good reviews. They contain two main criticisms: the didactic way in which some of the ideas are presented, and having too much crammed in. Fair enough. For the first, I’d say mine is a novel of ideas (I know the term sounds pretentious), and ideas are not that popular. (I mean, Dostoyevsky got away with endless staged fights between religion and anarchism, so why not me? Is it because I is Anglo-Arab?) Beyond that, I tried not to adopt a didactic tone – I tried to banish it to Qunfuzland – but probably did some of the time, due to lack of experience. Sorry. For the second criticism, the overpacked unwieldiness of plot, perhaps I like the massiveness of my novel and the tenousness of some of its plotting. I’m not sure yet. I can’t reread the novel now – to be honest I hate the sight of it. Having written it, having reread it tens of times, having done a final edit and then a proof read, I feel a kind of nausea when I look at it. I suppose I love it, and my nausea is temporary. But it is obviously a first novel, and the novel I’m writing now has started life much more structured. I’ve learnt a lot and I’m still learning. Alan Massie said cut pages, and that’s what I think whenever I read a contemporary novel.

He also said some of the characters are stereotypes. Maya Jaggi called Gabor “a straw man set up to embody a predatory Orientalism.” I hope that Gabor was more than this, although I admit that’s how he ended up. Because of my opposition to stereotype, and because I thought I was working against stereotype when I was writing, I was at first confused by Allan Massie’s comment. But then I saw that it too was fair enough, because behind the central drama of my two main charcters, the backdrop is satiric. This means that the backdrop characters are stereotypical, or at least try to be. So fair enough, again. Nothing wrong with satire, but it is an immature form. If I’m capable of it I would like to get away from it one day. But it’s a lot easier to write satire, at least some of the time, than to write anything else.

My favourite review is the comment someone left after the previous post.

Meanwhile, for those awaiting more opinionated Middle Eastern ranting: fear not. Normal service will be resumed shortly.