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Monday, 17 January, 2000, 17:21 GMT
Oman's traditional treasures

Nizwa: Fine views of the date palms

By Jonathan Fryer in Oman

At noon on Fridays, the trees in downtown Nizwa are full of shoes. Leather sandals, plastic flip-flops, the odd pair of smart brogues, hanging from the branches, like fruit in a surrealist painting.

The owners' feet are neatly aligned, as the town's men prostrate themselves in prayer in the central mosque. The imam's voice is carried by loudspeakers over the rooftops.

In the streets, barely a soul stirs. The shutters of the shops are down. And in the goat market, a solitary, portly old lady sits on a stone, her morning's purchase bleating at the end of a string, as they wait for a lift home.

Not far from the mosque, an old fort dominates the town, solid and round, offering fine views over the surrounding date palms.

It's been heavily restored, and the stone steps that lead up to the balustrade these days bear the weight of German tourist groups, who have added Nizwa to their exotic itineraries, rather than light-footed Omani guards.

But the day I went, the doorkeeper of the fort gave the few foreign visitors barely a glance. He shrugged and sighed as I went in, apologising for his lethargy, saying he'd been inundated with official guests on their way back from the National Day celebrations in Ibri.

A dot on the map

Having just come from there myself, I could imagine what that meant. The elaborate courtesy, the hospitality, the 1,001 little details that have to be taken care of in a society that is determinedly clinging on to its traditions, while at the same hurtling into the 21st Century.

Ibri itself is barely a dot on most maps. Few tourists coming from the south stray further than Nizwa, while travellers from the United Arab Emirates in the north rarely get beyond Buraimi.

It is as if the sultan is father to his people, revered yet intimate, formal yet accessible
Yet as I saw for myself, Ibri has been radically transformed over the past 12 months, as the beneficiary of massive investment and government interest. That's what happens when Sultan Qaboos, Oman's benign absolute ruler, chooses a location for the annual National Day celebrations.

These move round the country over the years. And for a whole month in the run-up to the big day, the sultan's birthday, in fact, he travels round the district from a base camp, looking at projects, meeting people, discussing their concerns and problems.

This consultation process is an old tradition of Arab desert cultures, though few countries have preserved or indeed developed it quite so vigorously as Oman. It is as if the sultan is father to his people, revered yet intimate, formal yet accessible.

Massed military bands

Around the time of the National Day, the road from Nizwa to Ibri was lined with thousands upon thousands of photos of Sultan Qaboos, as well as the national flag.

And in the spanking new stadium on the outskirts of Ibri, the whole town - or at least, most of its menfolk - seemed to have turned out to welcome him, and to watch a display put on by massed military bands and hordes of children in bright costumes.

As the sultan arrived at the stadium by helicopter, a roar went up from the ranks of spectators, every single one of them in the national dress of a long cotton dish-dash and elaborately embroidered round caps. Then an extraordinary pageant of co-ordinated manoeuvres took place, the colours of the children's costumes making kaleidoscopic patterns.

I'd never thought of camels as particularly elegant before
Much of the technique was familiar from the sort of highly-disciplined displays put on by the People's Republic of China or North Korea. But there was a singularly Omani additional dimension: Formation dancing by long lines of camels.

I'd never thought of camels as particularly elegant before. Or even very compliant. In fact, travelling by camel across the Western Sahara a few years ago left me with little faith in their character.

Yet here at Ibri were literally hundreds of the beasts, gently loping across the stadium floor with all the smooth ease of the Hollywood aquatic film star, Esther Williams.

Sultan's message: Diversify

After about two hours of this amazing spectacle - during which honoured guests were plied with canapes, sweet cakes and mineral water - a hush descended on the assembled crowd. Then the sultan gave his annual address: Brief and businesslike, as one might expect from a graduate from Sandhurst, Britain's military academy.

He urged the country to diversify away from over-dependence on oil revenues. And he called on young Omanis to work hard for their country's future. Then suddenly, the whole thing was over.

The sultan was whisked away in his helicopter, and it was as if a starting pistol had been fired. The crowds poured out, clambering into their four-wheel drives and chartered buses, and the whole lot moved off at once.

As the surrounding land is almost as hard as the nice new road that's been built, the vehicles just headed for wherever there seemed to be a gap. Within minutes, the whole of Ibri had disappeared in a huge cloud of sand and dust.

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