One of the first things I found myself needing after arriving in Muscat was a strong cup of coffee. Fortunately, coffee is somewhat of an Omani national pastime. Drinking coffee together is an integral part of local culture, so much so that the traditional coffee pot, or dallah, has become an unofficial symbol of the Sultanate, representing the legendary hospitality of Omanis. Enormous gold dallahs festoon roundabouts, paper dallahs hang in store windows advertising sales. Even in the lobby of our tiny hotel apartment, a plastic dallah filled with coffee rests on a table, waiting to be poured for a guest.
A structured dance of hospitality involving coffee and dates unfolds each time a guest enters an Omani home. The first step is to visit the majlis, or sitting room. Majlises differ depending on the tastes and social status of Omanis — some are the traditional style, with embroidered floor cushions around a rug, while others, particularly in Muscat, contain elaborate plush couch-and-chair-sets. Men of the family sit in the majlis before and after meals (and some even take meals there), and the leisurely aura of the room is reminiscent of what Victorian visiting hours must have been like. As the majlis is almost always the room closest to the main entrance of a house, you never know who will pop in. Neighbors, cousins, relatives of all kinds, friends — anyone can and does stop by for dates and coffee, to catch up, and to relax and be entertained in the majlis.
Then comes the all-important greeting, a lengthy and repetitive series of questions mostly answered by thanking God (more on that below). The conclusion of the greeting is signaled by saying tafaddal, meaning “be at ease” or “go ahead,” and offering the guest coffee and dates, the staple of the hospitality ritual. Fruit and sweets of other kinds can also be offered. In the rural interior of Oman, I was once hand-fed apple and orange slices before moving on to fly-covered dates and coffee — it is considered rude or even mean-spirited to turn down anything that is offered. Despite being covered in flies, the dates in the interior were some of the most fresh and flavorful I’ve ever had. The coffee, called qahwa, is always flavored heavily with cardamom, served from either a thermos or a dallah, and poured sips at a time into tiny porcelain cups. The cup is offered and received with the right hand, and filled up until the drinker is done. It is customary to drink at least two cups, but it’s almost impossible to stop there — you will invariably be pestered by your host to continue having your cup filled. The coffee itself is usually weak, allowing for many cups to be consumed. Furthermore, small pours are given so that the host can prolong his guest’s visit by continually taking the time to fill his cup. Though people are often proprietary about their particular method of coffee preparation, time spent in the majlis is less about the coffee and more about the fellowship of spending time with one another, chatting, and the act of hosting and being hosted.
When not visiting an Omani home, I sometimes take my coffee in one of the many international coffee chains here in Muscat, particularly in the numerous shopping malls scattered throughout the city. That way, I’m able to get the caffeine I desperately need, albeit without the pleasant but time-consuming hospitality ritual. Chains like Starbucks and Costa Coffee are now predictable sights in major cities across the world, and Oman’s capital is no exception. There are three Costa Coffee outlets in Muscat’s diminutive airport alone, two of which are only steps away from each other in the departures terminal. Throughout the city, the options are seemingly endless: Caribou Coffee, Gloria Jean’s, Tim Horton’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Illy, Second Cup, Café Paul, Caffe Vergnano, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf — the list goes on.
It’s perhaps surprising that these Western chains have caught on here in the Arabian Peninsula, one of the birthplaces of coffee. Persian and Arab physicians were prescribing coffee as a health tonic in the Abbasid Period as early as the ninth century. Omani Sultans and European traders bought in to the lucrative coffee trade from the Yemeni port of Mocha in the early modern period. The port lent its name to the bean and many drinks thereafter (think Venti Mocha Caramel Frappuccino). It is thus somewhat of a homecoming for the mighty bean that Starbucks and other chains sell by the million, although now it is grown in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America, roasted in the U.S., and shipped to the Peninsula. Unlike the Levant or North Africa, however, there was never a café culture in Oman for the Western franchises to build off of — the self-proclaimed “first restaurant” in Muscat opened in 1973. Bedouin and urban families have instead enjoyed the stimulating benefits of coffea arabica in the comfort of their majlises for generations, making it a familiar and homey taste. The Western chains have eagerly capitalized on this familiarity with their wide offering of frothed and frozen delights, and the relatively recent novelty of public dining. No longer is coffee confined to the realm of the majlis, or to the exacting recipe of coffee, cardamom, and water.
So, like visiting an old friend, on our first morning out of the house in Oman, Emily and I paid a visit to Starbucks in Oman’s shiniest new mall, which opened earlier this year. There was no drip coffee that morning — only pour-overs, which the barista unenthusiastically said would take a few minutes to make. I went with an Americano instead, which cost 1.5 rials (US$4), and it wasn’t quite worth it. In the following days and weeks, I punctuated my days by popping into the different coffee chains and malls around Muscat. I was hoping to find the elusive affordable cup of drip coffee, but was distracted by the unwavering popularity of each mall and the coffee shops therein, irrespective of location or time of day. At one mall that boasted ten (!) different Western franchises, I circled the parking garage for 40 minutes on a Tuesday afternoon before finally giving up.
Just as Starbucks has appeared in contrast the humble majlis, American-style shopping malls have materialized alongside the souq (Arabic for market.) Some malls are even organized like traditional souqs, with stores clustered by type: stores for gold and silver, incense and perfume, and electronics each have their own “avenues.” The Gulf countries have a reputation for conspicuous consumption, and while there is certainly evidence for this in parts of Muscat, somehow stepping into a mall in Muscat feels like more than just a shopping experience. Malls function instead as a collective sidewalk of Muscat, a rare refuge of cool where the heat is deadly half of the year, and where your neighbors and friends are around every corner.[i]
During one of my first weeks here, I ran into an old colleague of mine at one of Muscat’s most popular malls, City Centre. He was standing at a kiosk, eyeing bejeweled cases for Samsung Galaxy phones. We caught up for a moment, exchanged numbers, and he informed me that he had to get going back to the village; he was just passing through the mall to pick up last-minute provisions for his family before heading on his two-hour drive back over the mountains. Many people commute to Muscat from the villages of Oman’s interior, and the gleaming malls of the capital prove to be a perennially attractive destination for Bedouin visitors. Members of each strata of Omani society flock to malls to stroll, socialize, and relax in the air conditioning. Coffee shops and restaurants mimic French cafés, with wicker chairs and fences adorned with fake plants spilling out onto the malls’ walkways. Western retailers like Gap and H&M sit beside tailors for custom made dishdasha for men and abayya for women, the flowing national dress of Oman. And, of course, the international coffee chains, strongholds of expensive lattes and stale pastries.
At any time of day, the Starbucks and Costas and Caribou Coffees of Muscat’s malls are filled with dozens of men in finely pressed dishdashas and wool turbans, chatting and gesturing with another, peering into their smartphones, or eating a two rial croissant with a fork and knife. Groups of Omani women clad entirely in black chat in hush tones and lift their niqab for a sip from a Frappuccino. Omanis articulate their elaborate orders in English to Filipino baristas, and then spend hours enjoying them sip by sip, relaxing, idly chatting — long after British and German patrons have left for hurried meetings with a to-go cup. In this way, Western style coffee shops have become a type of new majlis, albeit one that comes with uncharted territory in host-guest relationships. Recently, in Starbucks I saw two men in dishdasha almost devolve into fisticuffs over who would pay for coffee, rising from their chairs, grabbing each other’s wrists, poking chests, and pushing the wallet hand back into each other’s pockets.
This month, I had my own dispute over paying for coffee, albeit not as heated. I met up with a couple of my old Arabic teachers, Maryam and Abdullah, at a Costa Coffee in Muscat Grand Mall, which was their suggestion. I first sat with Maryam for about a half-hour as we talked about how Oman has changed, and how we’ve changed, all the while attracting stares from other patrons, no doubt curious about what I was doing alone with an Omani woman about my age. When Abdullah finally arrived, I rose to greet him and we stood together, holding each other’s hands, smiling wildly, and reciting the aforementioned standard greeting formula:
Scott: Peace be upon you, O Nasser!
Abdullah: And upon you be peace and the grace of God and his blessings
Scott: How are you?
Abdullah: Praise be to God, I am well, what is your news?
Scott: No news, thank God, what news is there for you?
Abdullah: O welcome, no news, how are you? Well, if it is God’s will.
Scott: Praise be to god, I am well, how is your health?
Abdullah: Thanks to God, good. How was your trip?
Scott: Praise be to God, good. How is your family?
Abdullah: Praise be to God, OK, may God grant you life.
Scott: May God grant you life.
Abdullah: You have arrived in Oman.
Scott: I have arrived, by the grace of God.
Abdullah: How is Oman?
Scott: Sweet, always sweet, as is God’s will
Abdullah: It is God’s will. Be at ease.
“You remember how to say hello like an Omani,” Maryam said, in English. Abdullah and Maryam no longer work together, and social expectations limit them from seeing one another often, so our little reunion felt just as much about them as it did about me. Abdullah was dejected when he discovered that I had already paid for my coffee, which we tussled about, but he was content knowing he would get to host me in his own majlis: “You will come to my village soon, insha’allah.”
While I’m sure I will make the visit, the prospect of coffee in Abdullah’s village did not resolve my continuing quest for good, cheap coffee. At the time of writing, Emily and I are still living in temporary accommodations while our paperwork gets sorted out, so buying a coffee-maker when we might need to leave at a moments notice seems premature. Furthermore, it is nearly impossible to find a portable coffeemaker, like a French press or a simple plastic pour-over. And while I would be happy to drink several Americanos from Costa every day, I knew I had to find a more reliable and affordable routine, which is when I remembered the magnificent karak shai.
Driving around in the neighborhood I lived in when I was last here, I remembered that my host father Nasser used to drink tiny cups of karak shai, or “strong tea,” from roadside shops, often situated near gas stations or on-ramps. In what must be one of the original drive-through concepts, patrons drive up close to the storefront while gently honking, and an Indian or Bangladeshi man in a paper hat walks to your car window to take your order. Omanis place their orders for large or small teas in pidgin Hindi using hand gestures (a “C” with the thumb and forefinger for a large, and pinching the same fingers like holding an invisible pill for a small).
By quantity consumed alone, it is the unofficial national drink of Oman — each morning, the small parking areas in front of the teahouses are a circus of creative parking, reversing, honking, all with one hand clutched around their tiny cup of tea on their way to work. Blocking one another in is routine, and desperately honking to tunnel a way out is ignored, except of course by the tea servers. To an outsider, honking at the servers might seem rude, but it’s de rigeur. In fact, I’ve tried slowly coming to a stop directly in front of the stores and rolling down my window to make eye contact in lieu of honking. But like waiting for a Pavlovian signal, they stay put unless honked at. Most of the storefronts don’t have enough space inside except for their cadre of servers, and the few occasions I’ve gotten out of my car, again, experimenting at not being “rude,” the men look surprised if not frightened.
As the weather begins to cool (into the breezy 90’s), plastic tables and chairs will be set out like true dhabas, the roadside cafés of India and Pakistan. But for now, most people aside from migrant workers opt to stay in the cool comfort of their car, ordering and sipping tea. The drink itself is an approximation of masala chai — black tea brewed in milk with mixed spices, and served in small quantities. Unlike masala chai, there is no clove, cinnamon, or black pepper — only cardamom — and there are no elaborate performances by chaiwallahs so beloved by visitors to India. Nor are the men who serve the tea referred to as chaiwallahs at all: they’re instead called by pet names like “my dear,” “sheikh,” and “professor.”
Each cup of karak shai is only 100 baizas (US.25¢), and nearly every roadside stop in Muscat sells it, but not all are worthy of a repeat visit. Some are made with condensed milk instead of fresh, others are brewed in water instead of milk and taste weak, some are served too hot and develop an unappetizing skin on top before cooling to drinking temperature. So, with price and availability in mind, I resolved to replace coffee in my morning routine with several tiny cups of karak shai throughout the day. And like my original quest for the elusive cup of good coffee, I began frequenting every hole-in-the-wall teahouse Muscat had to offer, asking around as to which one makes the best cup.
On visiting one such place, which happened to be situated near a Costa Coffee, something about the diversity of hot beverage consumption in Oman struck me. On one hand, qahwa drank in the majlis will always take precedent in any conversation about Oman and coffee. However commodified the ritual has become, the majlis remains the sanctum of Omani hospitality, and therefore private. Majlises are opened to close friends and relatives, but few beyond that. Enter Starbucks and the other Western chains, where Omanis now engage in their private catchings-up in the public sphere, holding court and rubbing elbows with Europeans. At the one-off tea joints, Omanis patronize the same establishments as workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India, though separated from the laborers by their car windows.
Each enterprise has had Omani traditions imposed upon it, leaving it altered to suit the needs of the host society. For the Western chains, the space is “Omanified” — Qur’anic recitation plays over the speakers while patrons relax and spend hours chatting as if in a majlis. For the teahouses, both the space and the product are modified — patrons sit in their cars and drink masala chai stripped of its more pungent ingredients (pepper, cinnamon) and left with cardamom, the perennial Omani favorite and primary non-coffee ingredient used in qahwa. In both cases, the intimate experience of sharing a drink with a companion is reenacted, bringing intimacy into otherwise public spaces.
In this way, the Sultanate often acts as a cultural sieve: outside culture and innovations pass through, with those deemed choicest by Omanis retained, refined, tailored to their druthers, and cherished. Products from around the world have been folded into and enveloped by traditionalism throughout Oman’s long trade history. Habsburg-era Maria Theresa coins, which served as Oman’s primary currency for over a century, were welded onto necklaces as status markers, alongside pieces of coral serving as good luck charms. In souqs outside of Muscat, you can purchase British Martini-Henry and Lee-Enfield rifles adorned with silver rings and verses from the Qur’an etched into the butt. Electric frankincense burners that plug into a car cigarette lighter are sold in most every grocery store. Twitter and WhatsApp are used to announce the date and location of camel races and poetry gatherings in the desert. Colgate sells miswak-flavored toothpaste, a riff on the traditional tree-bark tooth cleaner used by the Prophet Muhammad.
The sieve doesn’t stop at material culture either: abstract concepts like urbanization pass through and are modified to fit Omani society. As I mentioned earlier, many people commute hours each day from the rural villages of Oman’s interior to work in Muscat, despite the availability and affordability of housing across the capital. Entire apartment blocks built to accommodate thousands sit empty, FOR RENT signs gathering sand and dust, waiting for the urban swell of Muscat that has yet to arrive. Villagers have instead opted to capitalize on the inexpensive price of gasoline and robust infrastructure connecting Muscat with the hinterlands, emerging from the interior using cars and roads that didn’t exist a decade ago, and transporting building materials and other fineries back with them.
Entire villages outfitted with running water and LED streetlights are plopped next to the old, mud-brick ones, which are left crumbling as an ominous reminder to Omanis of Oman’s their recent and ‘undesirable’ past. Whereas it once would have taken all day to drive on the dirt road from Nizwa (the heart of the interior) to Muscat, and weeks to transport enough material to construct a modern building, it now takes less than two hours on a multi-lane highway blasted through the mountains. Instead of migrating to and further urbanizing Muscat, communities are content to remain steadfastly in their traditional village lifestyle, albeit with added luxuries like plumbing and electricity plucked from the sieve.
A note jotted in the margin of my 2009 journal reads “intersection of tradition and modernity.” Oman seems to inhabit both the traditional and modern worlds seamlessly, or at least with very few seams, and this is in part what makes the Sultanate such an interesting place. By “tradition,” I mean the components of Oman’s cultural heritage that have been deemed necessary, timeless, and canonical. Examples of this are wearing the dishdasha (required of Omani men), the ever-present smell of burning frankincense, and curved daggers worn proudly at formal events. “Modern” in this sense does not strictly mean a technological advance, or necessarily a Western innovation, but rather anything that exists outside the canon of what is “traditional” Omani culture.
Looking through the lens of traditionalism fused with modernity, examples begin to appear everywhere: camels with woolen bridles couched into the back of a 2015 Toyota pick-up truck, a man walking through the airport with a falcon perched on his arm, a woman in a Bedouin-style niqab facemask window shopping for luxury watches — sometimes, the intersection of these worlds feels like living in a 21st century Orientalist tourism poster. Historically, the colonial-era posters were simplistic but evocative representations of the Arab world as romantic, uniform, and exotic. Many companies use the antiquated colonial term “Arabia” to describe the market here (e.g. Head & Shoulders Arabia, Eataly Arabia), compounding the disorienting nature of space and time in the contemporary Gulf.
Emily recently remarked how different it is being in a place that is so “un-Western.” I say “un-Western,” because neither “anti-Western” nor “non-Western” appropriately describe the station Oman occupies. Emily has traveled and lived in non-Western countries, but mostly ones that have uniquely Western cultural and historical ties, like Ghana, Panama, and the Philippines. Wholesale acceptance of Western culture, values, and imagery is widespread in these and other countries, and English is spoken nearly everywhere. In Manila, for example, Catholic churches serve as primary landmarks, and streets are named for General MacArthur, and Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and McKinley. Here, most streets don’t have names at all, and the ones that do are named after His Majesty or important dates in history. Moreover, things taken at face value in the West, such as the structure of the week, are different — during my last visit, the weekend was Thursday and Friday. After a royal decree in 2013, the weekend became Friday and Saturday to conform to other countries of the Arab world. Even the workday is structured around prayer times, with a long break each day between the noon and afternoon prayers.
Of course, English, Christianity, MacArthur, and “conventional” workweeks are all remnants of the Philippines’ checkered colonial past. Part of the “un-Western” atmosphere in Oman stems from the fact that Oman was never colonized. The British Viceroy of India had an office in Muscat, but it was never incorporated into the British crown, thus leaving only a faint trail of British presence in the form of maps and administrative records. As I mentioned in my previous newsletter, both the Portuguese and French also tried to secure Oman and its territories under their hegemons and failed. Had they succeeded, Muscat today might look more like Goa, Mombasa, or Madagascar; places where colonial legacies of politics, culture, and architecture remain. Oman intentionally strives to maintain this history and culture as discrete from the West, while using the “sieve” to allow desirable aspects of Western life in and discarding the unwanted excesses.
The developing and developed worlds are often seen through a binary lens: the developing world is dusty, provincial, traditional, lacking in infrastructure, while the developed world is clean, cosmopolitan, modern, and industrialized. In today’s world, no country fits into this mold — from Lagos to Cairo to Muscat and everywhere in between, the provincial intersects with the cosmopolitan, the dusty with the clean. In a New York Times op-ed last year, Dayo Olopade echoed Bill Gates’ sentiment that “the terms ‘developing countries’ and ‘developed countries’ have outlived their usefulness,” and one-upped Gates by proposing the terms “lean” and “fat” (the correspondence should be obvious). The African examples Olopade uses to support her new terms make sense, but in the Gulf, where GDP and oil consumption resembles “fat” countries more than “lean,” but where national resource mentality and standard of living for many looks more “lean” than “fat,” the descriptors fall short. Life in Muscat typifies the intersection of these worlds, and of the worlds of traditionalism and modernism, and Omanis continue to inhabit both worlds and the space between with aplomb, a discerning eye, and a healthy dose of caffeine.
[i] The temperature averaged at about 110º Fahrenheit during both day and night during the entirety of our first month here, and the humidity maintains at a stubborn 70-80%. Being outside for any period of time is exhausting — like living in an industrial steam sauna. Glasses fog up without exception, and any skin exposed to the air is instantly coated in a thin film of moisture. Despite this, nearly everyone drinks hot beverages all day citing pseudoscience that they feel cooler when internal body temperature is elevated.