Where goats climb trees

Musandam is on the northern peninsula of Oman, separated from the rest of the country by the eastern part of the United Arab Emirates. It is on the southern side of the Strait of Hormuz and was once a military zone and closed off to tourists. Isolated from the rest of the country, the locals were known to be hostile to visitors. When my husband and I lived in Oman for a year in 2004, it was still the least developed and least accessible part of the country although roads were being built and the government was trying to develop tourism. The whole area is bleak, mountainous and heart-achingly beautiful.

The population of 28,000 come from one tribe, the Shihuh. Some claim to be able to trace their lineage back to Bildad the Shuhite, one of Job’s comforters, mentioned in the Bible. Job is buried in southern Oman. There are two tribal divisions within the Shihuh, the Bani Hadiyah and Bani Shatair. They say their ancestors were driven into Musandam by ancient tribal conflicts. Unlike other tribes in Oman, those in Musandam are not nomadic. Most of the population live in Khasab where the economy is based on fishing, agriculture and trade. Part of this ‘trade’ involves selling to smugglers from Iran who buy enormous quantities of cigarettes and take them back to Iran in small boats, at night. This is considered smuggling in Iran, but legitimate trading in Oman. The locals live high in the mountains in winter, in tiny stone houses or converted caves, looking after their crops and animals. In the summer they migrate to the sea to fish and harvest their dates. The villagers speak a language that is completely different from the rest of Oman ‒ a mix of Farsi, Hindi, English, Portuguese and Arabic. Nowadays, the children are taught Arabic at school, but at home still speak their local dialect.

On our first of three days in Musandam we walked around the harbour and watched the wooden fishing boats and dhows. To a group of old fishermen I said ‘As salaam aleykum’ (the Arabic greeting, meaning, ‘Peace be upon you’). They beamed and started talking animatedly to us in Arabic. Not a trace of hostility to visitors there.

On day two we spent seven hours on a dhow, an old traditional cargo boat. The deck was spread with brightly coloured carpets and cushions and we sat on those chatting to the other passengers ‒ a Scottish couple who had lived in Muscat, the capital of Oman, for ten years; two nurses from Canada and the USA who worked in Abu Dhabi; a Dutchman who was visiting his friends in Dubai, and an elderly couple from Kent who were visiting their son in Bahrain. We sailed around the coastline of the Persian Gulf exclaiming over shoals of electric blue fish in the clear-as-glass water and watching dolphins swimming alongside the dhow. The boat took us into little bays where the Bedouin villages, accessible only by boat, were located.

We stopped at Telegraph Island, one of the most remote bends in one of the most remote peninsulas in the world. It used to be a base for the British Telegraph lines to India last century. Some of the British workers who were assigned to work there went mad because of the isolation and this madness became known as ‘going round the bend’.

On day three, we went on a 4-wheel drive excursion into the mountains to Jebel Harim (Mountain of Women) which is the highest mountain in Musandam at 2087 metres. The mountains loomed grey, forbidding and barren as the road took us around hairpin bends up almost vertical slopes. There were goats and donkeys up there too and a few rice fields. After the spring rains the whole area becomes green and fertile, though because of the long drought we saw only bare rock. It defied belief to see houses perched on rocky ledges with a sheer drop down into the gorge. I asked the guide how the families kept their children safe and he said they tied the children’s legs together to stop them running off the ledge.

Some of the houses were tiny stone dwellings about three metres square with roofs made of tree trunks and covered with a mixture of mud and stones. These bait al-qufl  ‒ lock houses ‒ are used to lock up the owners’ possessions when they migrate to the coast for the fishing season. They are also used to sleep in during cold winter nights. The silence was broken only by the occasional bleat of a goat.

Back on the plains the guide showed us inside a bait al-qufl that had been built three hundred years ago. A hole in the ceiling allowed smoke from the fire to escape. Near the fire there were two raised platforms, one for sleeping on and one for storing large clay jars of water. He said it was no longer used as the family who owned it now had a proper house. We walked past acacia trees and around donkeys and goats grazing on the parched scrub. The irrigations channels seen in the rest of Oman were not used in Musandam because of the terrain and the lack of water. Instead, the villagers built walls to deflect rainwater which was then collected in stone cisterns. However, because there had been no rain in the area for seven years, the government had set up a scheme to deliver water to all the villages. I wondered aloud how the animals could find enough to eat. The guide replied that, like the human inhabitants, the animals had to use their initiative. He pointed to the top of a tree. On the highest branch perched a goat, staring down at our popped eyes and open mouths with an expression of ‘Yeah? So?’ We had no answer to that.

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