Before I begin, I’ll let you know that rather than fight to get a few photos to sit properly in the text, at the end, I’ll include a slide show of pretty much what I’ve just described. That way I don’t have to cut them down to half a dozen, and you get to see them all (if you chose) at a decent size.
We left the mountain lookout just a bit before sundown, and headed into the nearby small town of Al Hamra. It is about 400 years old, and some of the oldest houses in Oman can be found here. In the old section beside the date palm orchard and the falaj or water channel, there are mud brick houses 2-4 stories high, with ceilings made of palm beams and fronds topped by mud and straw. Some of these are still being lived in!
We had been told that there is a house there that has been turned into a museum, and we wanted to find it. We parked our cars beside the falaj, and began to walk through the streets, dwarfed by these old houses. soon, we met a couple of Omani men, who said we should go straight ahead for the museum, but we must hurry, as it closes at 5 pm. Off we scrambled, in a crazy zigzag of streets made of the slabs of rock the town is built on. Along the way, we met three young ladies and some small children. One of the girls has a sister working at the museum, and she ran ahead to let them know that we were coming. We took this lovely photo of the children (the young ladies asked not to be photographed) and scurried on.
When we arrived at Bait al Safir, we were graciously welcomed, even though it was already 5 pm. The man we had talked to earlier had also gone straight away to alert them of our arrival. As it is a private museum, the house being vacated by the family 25 years ago and refurbished, we paid a minimal fee and were escorted into the house.
We were surprised at how open and spacious the house was. The floors were of earth, but mostly covered with carpets of wool or woven straw mats. In the first room, a lady was kneading and rolling out what looked like some strange kind of dough. The girl showing us around showed us a basket of small, dry tan things that we discovered were horseradish root, grown on Jebel Akhtar nearby. They pulverize the root, cook it and then knead the mass and roll out the oil. We all got a sample of the nearly scentless oil – historically it has been used as a beauty oil, and also for fever, digestive complaints and urinary infections, arthritis and rheumatism.
At the opposite end of the large room, we saw how they ground the grain into flour for bread, using a simple mill of two stones with a hole in the top one to pour the grain into. After a demonstration, we were invited to give it a try. I quickly volunteered, and was surprised to find that it was quite light to spin.
Next we saw how they made butter by swinging milk in a goat skin, and then the floor loom much like the ones I learned to use in Kuwait. And then, up the stairs we went.
The fire had already been put out, so they were unable to make fresh bread for us, but an older lady showed us how it was made on a round pan rather like a pizza pan, using only flour and water. She had a sample for us as well…. it was so think and crisp, I was surprised.
From there we went to the coffee preparation – first roasting the beans in a small pan over an open fire, and then reducing them to a powder. The rhythm of the crushing reminded me of a dance rhythm – our guide was quite surprised when I began to shuffle in a step much like their traditional dance. I explained that I had been invited to an engagement party in Kuwait.
Before we actually got to taste the coffee, we were in for one more unexpected demonstration. They mixed saffron with sandlewood and a bit of rosewater (made from roses grown on Jebel Akhtar) to a fine paste. This was just for the ladies, a smear on our foreheads. It was used as a cleanser and mask. Because of the saffron in it, it was a bright, fluorescent yellow. I’m sure the men were jealous of our warpaint!
The lovely young man who had assisted in our tour gave us a very quick explanation of the costumes from different parts of Oman, and then we were invited into the majlis or “place of sitting” – what we would have called a diwaniya in Kuwait. Here we sat on lovely woven cushions and were treated to Arabic tea first – made with ginger, mint and sugar very medicinal but tasty), and then dates and Arabic coffee (ground as we had seen before, with cardamon added. We said we would love to buy some of their dates – grown right there in Al Hamra.
When we were finished, the men were lead one way, and we were lead another, into a back room. We though that there was something else for only women. Imagine our surprise when we found ourselves outside by the back door! What on earth????
Very soon, the men arrived by the same door – they had been taken to the shop to purchase the dates.
As we made our way back through the darkening streets, we were followed by the lady who had prepared the coffee beans, balancing a large plastic tub on her head. Colleen had to give it a try… but with a “helping hand”.
And so away we went, back to Nizwa for dinner and then the drive back to Muscat. It was quite a day, and this was only the second one our cousins had been here in Oman. What a great place to visit… or to live!