Footloose in Oman
At 2,171 metres above sea level I'm being photographed by a bunch of impossibly beautiful young Hattali girls. While Zahara moves sideways with her camera phone looking for the perfect angle, Arwa is trying to keep my hair from flying into my face in the mountain breeze. It's been almost two hours since we drove into Qiyoot, a quaint village hidden right on top of the Western Hajar, and parked next to the lone Land Cruiser pickup next to a stone-and-clay house.
Qiyoot is just over 25km from a turnoff after Tanuf on the main road to Bahla but it could be in a different world altogether. The village, which clings to the edge of a precipice so precariously that you worry when the village children run over the rocks, offers some incredibly beautiful views.
It has the kind of character that develops only when generations have lived in one place, not moving away in search of food or water or livelihood. The kind of character that comes with the acceptance of life as it is, the kind of character that comes with the lack of decadence. The people haven't gone to civilisation; it has come to them but without corrupting the spirit. There is no signpost to the village from the main road. It is the road that goes up the mountain that catches the attention - like a child's drawing it snakes up in smooth curves as far as the eye can see and then gets lost somewhere in the clouds.
Some roads are fascinating to the extent of having a hypnotic effect on you. Once you notice it, you won't be able to ignore it forever - at one point it will lure you into taking it even without knowing what lies ahead. In the morning we had done just that and driven on in a barren landscape that offered no respite, sticking to a track that seemed to go on endlessly in a series of rises and falls despite the sign at the bottom saying almost innocently: Qiyoot 23km.
The way up does offer some vantage points with spectacular views and the area is full of possibilities for campers who may find Jebel Shams too commercialised. But no landscape, no matter how beautiful, is complete without the people who lend it a unique character. It is in this search that we drive further up. The track has to lead somewhere and there has to be a reason for it being so high up in a barren, almost hostile landscape - stunning views alone can't obviously sustain life. So that's how we reached Qiyoot two hours ago. As we parked the vehicle and got out we could hear the sounds of life - the crowing of a cock and the bleating of goats - but the village appeared deserted.
The stone houses rose one above the other in a kind of predetermined fashion merging with the rocks around interspersed with some mud-plastered ones. Each house flowed into another, a continuation, a natural progression, as if they were meant to be. There had to be more life than just the animals - a patch of farmland in the middle of rocks with limes and onions, a couple of dish antennas, fibreglass water tanks and the overhead power cables - all pointed to that.
Just as we started to worry came the surge. First the kids came running out, then a couple of mothers, who were the guardians of the village for the day as the men folk had left to attend a wedding in Jebel Akhdar. From then on it was one discovery after another. That life is not easy but happy nevertheless. That the first Hattali who settled here came up almost a century and half ago and his name was Ali.
That the 16 children who go to school leave at 4am to arrive on time. That they go down in two pickups. That a modest living is earned by selling goats and poultry to the townsfolk in Nizwa. That drinking water comes up in a blue tanker once every two days. That the ten Hattali families at this deep end of Western Hajar will soon move into the government-built modern concrete houses just a couple of kilometres before the present settlement.
Ashraf, the driver, has taken on the role of a translator. It is Zahara - whose name I discover only a little later - who comes up with an ingenious solution to establish direct communication. She runs to her house and returns triumphantly waving a pocket book of Arabic-English phrases. She turns the pages and points out the first question in English: "What is your name?" "Letha," I say and in turn point the same question to her. Lots of giggles and poking around among them before she says "Zahara." Then there is a flurry: "Arwa, Hassan, Ali, Mustafa, Hilal, Ahmed... "
Zahara soon points to "Please come" followed by "I'll show something". I get up from the rock as she pulls me and follows her to a ridge along the mountain. Just over a kilometre of easy trek and I gasp - there in the middle of all the rocky terrain, at a height of over 2,000 metres, is a pool of deep water. The kids burst into a peel of laughter at the look on my face, obviously happy that the desired effect has been achieved. So this is what made the first Hattali set up home in the middle of a barren landscape a century and half ago. Hattalis are originally from the wilayat of Adam - by all means it is a long way away, especially 150 years ago.
What made him come all the way up? Was he on the way to some other place when he discovered the spring and decided that this would be home? Was he driven up by some tribal feud and needed to seek refuge away from the valley when he saw the spring and decided that it would be good place to rear his family? No one has any answers.
All that they know is that the name of the first Hattali was Ali and the family has lived here for generations and the entire village traces its roots to him. This time the guidebook is of no use: neither the questions nor the answers are in the book. Ashraf resumes his role as translator. Apparently there is a perennial spring at the site.
Until a few years ago this was their only source of water and the villagers trekked here every day for all their needs. Now life is easier - the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources has built a dam around the spring and laid a pipeline that brings running water to the village. Hattalis no longer drink the spring water since it now trucked in from Tanuf. Thus the Hattalis, all cousins, live a life uncorrupted by the civilisation below. They don't want anything from you. Neither do they want to sell you some trinket.
Instead, they insist on serving you kahwa and dates, show you around their village and the great grandmother who wears silver rings on all her fingers and doesn't want to be photographed. They will touch your face, tame your hair, giggle at the photographs you show them, inspect your camera lenses carefully, check out your GPS and hold your hand when taking you on the ledge.
You can stay on in the face of such simplicity and warmth. But it is precisely when such thoughts begin to look appealing that you know it is time to leave. It is at those moments you have to tell yourself that no matter how fascinating you find it, that this life is not for you to live. You were the guest and you were taken care of. Now it is time to return to a life you are familiar with and leave them to a way of life they have known for ages.
Published on 4/15/09