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was met by my daughter, Delinda, a Peace Corps volunteer, who ended up marrying a fellow volunteer and staying for five years in Oman
was met by my daughter, Delinda, a Peace Corps volunteer, who ended up marrying a fellow volunteer and staying for five years in Oman
Oman 1972-1992: A Personal Reminiscence
By Richard H. Curtiss
December/January 1992/93, Page 42
My first visit to Oman was in 1972, the year it opened its first two hotels, the Falaj and the Mutrah. Both were in Mutrah, the market center and adjacent twin city to the official capital of Muscat, where the two dominant buildings were the Sultan's palace and, nearby, the British Embassy.
I was, frankly, disappointed that the hotels had opened. Prior to that year the rare American visitor could expect to be welcomed into the guest quarters of Oman's "mission hospital," run by the Michigan-based Reformed Church in America. I dutifully checked into the hotel but, after attending to my task of recruiting the first Oman stringer for the Voice of America, I paid a call on Dr. Donald Bosch, director of the hospital, which had surgical facilities in Mutrah and maternity and pediatric departments in Muscat.
He and his wife, Eloise, were famous for their hospitality and, of course, were a mine of information on the history of the Sultanate and of the hospital, which was founded in 1893 as one of four medical educational missions in Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain as well as Oman. The Bosches received me on a screened veranda, amidst a seashell collection which they had begun on picnics with their three children. Clearly, it had become of ever-increasing interest to them as the children grew up and moved away. Already they had scientifically described a number of new species of mollusks collected on tropical beaches or coral reefs all over the Sultanate.
I found them wrestling with a perplexing problem. Whereas the previous Sultan had been a remote and even reclusive ruler, his 29-year-old British-educated son and successor was determined to modernize the Sultanate as rapidly as possible. He was particularly interested in extending the kind of modern medical care offered to the residents of the capital area by the mission hospital to all parts of his large but lightly populated realm.
He had invited the Bosches to his palace not long after beginning his reign on July 23, 1970. Now they wished to reciprocate by inviting Sultan Qaboos to the hospital. There was no television then in Oman, so they were looking for an appropriate feature film to acquaint him with some of the positive aspects of the United States.
We discussed how they could obtain American films on a regular basis and, after I mentioned that I, too, was a shell collector, they presented me as I left with a spectacular shell from the Indian Ocean depths. Perhaps fortunately for me, neither of America correspondent worked out, and I had to keep returning.
There was no shortage of charming and friendly Omanis eager for the job, but in Oman's expanding economy, whomever I hired shortly became too busy with his or her primary media job to put much time into filing low-paying reports to a distant American radio station.
My visits gave me opportunities to photograph the colorful mixture of native Omanis, Baluchis from the Makran coast in present-day Iran and Pakistan, and Africans mostly from Zanzibar, both parts of a bygone Omani empire, who thronged the Mutrah souk. Meanwhile I became increasingly intrigued with the unique Omani silver jewelry, still being made in patterns going back to the Middle Ages.
To this day my wife wears a heavy necklace made of 350-year-old "Maria Theresa" silver "thalers," intermingled with beads of silver and of red carnelian. Such traditional Omani jewelry has proved so popular with Western visitors that, on a drive through the back country, I discovered not only the necklaces but the "Maria Theresa's" themselves still being made in a local silver souk from original dies and still bearing dates from the 1600s.
There were also strangely shaped and painted terra cotta incense burners from Dhofar province, the frankincense itself, and the beautiful silver gambiyas, curved daggers in elaborate hammered silver sheaths that virtually every adult male Omani wore suspended from a belt over his white cotton or linen robe.
On a subsequent visit to the former mission hospital, I learned that it had been "nationalized." This meant the staff was invited to stay in Oman, and Dr. Bosch was authorized to hire more personnel, expand hospital facilities, and advise on construction of a network of modern government hospitals. This happy culmination to the Reformed Church in America's medical mission saga in Oman was one of which most other medical and educational pioneers could only dream.
I enjoyed all of those early trips to Oman except for one aspect. Landing an airplane at the tiny airport, set in the middle of expanding Mutrah, involved a steep descent into a narrow cleft in the mountains that came almost to the edge of the town. Halfway along, this wadi made a sudden turn and, perforce, so did each landing aircraft. The wrenching turn by the airplane just before it emerged from the end of the canyon to come to a screeching halt on a very short runway was a startling experience.
In other capacities I continued to find reasons to visit Oman almost every year. The United States opened what eventually was to become the American Embassy chancery and residence in a multi-layered stone-block building almost as picturesque as the adjacent British Embassy on the Muscat waterfront. Both looked out on a tiny harbor on whose enclosing black rocks visiting sailors, most of them British, had inscribed in white paint the names of their ships and the dates of their visits.
The history-recording graffiti spanned much of the 19th century and spilled into the 20th, by which time either the Omanis or the visiting sea captains apparently became sufficiently environmentally conscious to halt the practice. On one of my visits, the first American chief of mission, C. Patrick Quinlan, offered to take me to see the site of the future Foreign Ministry and diplomatic quarter, where the U.S. would someday build a new chancery and seaside housing for its staff.
To exit Muscat, you had to go through a city gate built on a pattern identical to that of the 3,500-year-old "Ishtar" gate at Babylon, with benches inside upon which guards could lounge and, presumably, travelers could wait while the ruler decided whether or not to admit them. We drove through the gate and out of Muscat over a new back road being cut through the black lava hills ringing the tiny walled capital.
As we skirted Mutrah, also a port surrounded by low hills but with a little more space to grow into than Muscat, Pat mentioned, to my relief, that the miniature airstrip, by this time nearly surrounded by encroaching buildings, soon would be replaced by a full-scale international airport to be built on the far side of the future diplomatic quarter toward the town of Seeb.
We went through another cleft in the hills leading out of Mutrah into Ruwi and then drove for several miles along a largely uninhabited coastal plain broken by rocky outcrops and skirting deserted beaches. "Great shelling along that beach," Pat noted casually, and I surreptitiously checked the mileage on his speedometer in order to find my way back sometime.
By now Dr. Bosch was no longer giving away shells to every one of the increasing numbers of foreign visitors trooping into the Omani capital, and I knew I was on my own. When we stopped at a low rise overlooking the "great beach," however, I thought my host was joking. "Why would you locate the embassy way out here, so far from the capital?" I asked.
"The Foreign Ministry will be right over there," he said, pointing to a featureless sandpit in a reed-filled wetland, "and the airport a few miles further along this road." It seemed utterly improbable but I didn't worry about it. Instead, the next day I took a dilapidated taxi back out to the "great shelling" beach, which lived up to its notices.
More years passed, and on a subsequent visit I arrived at the new, sprawling Seeb international airport in the middle of the night on a much-delayed flight that left my luggage in Abu Dhabi where I had had to change planes. I was met by my daughter, Delinda, a Peace Corps volunteer, who ended up marrying a fellow volunteer and staying for five years in Oman.
She was teaching English in a girls' school in Sohar up the coast. (Some of her then-elementary students now are enrolled in Oman's new university.) We had been invited to stay with Marshall Wiley, ambassador in what had become a full-fledged U.S. Embassy, still in the picturesque portside embassy residence. Delinda already had telephoned him, however, to say that since my plane was so late, we would spend whatever was left of my first night in the Muscat Intercontinental Hotel near the airport.
The next morning, my daughter invited me to join her for a walk on the beach in front of the hotel before we drove on to the capital. "There are some beautiful shells on the beach," she said, and the moment I stepped out of the five-star world class hotel with its luxurious rooms and a full-fledged restaurant occupying only part of the ground floor of its 10-story-high atrium, I knew she was right. It was the same once-remote beach along which I had taken a solitary walk only a few years earlier.
Four years later, no longer with the government but making an educational film about all of the Arab states of the Gulf, I stayed in the home of another daughter, Diana, and her husband, who was public affairs officer in the U.S. Embassy in Muscat. Their new house was close to where that same lovely beach and adjoining wetlands, by then the Omani government's Qurum Nature Reserve, culminates in another ridge topped by the popular Gulf Hotel.
Now almost another decade has passed and sparkling rows of ministries line the crowded road from Mutrah to the international airport. On one side of the Muscat Intercontinental Hotel is the foreign ministry, a beautiful building of Arabesque exterior and marble interior walls and floors. On the other side of the hotel are dozens of embassies. Near the new American Embassy is Oman's natural history museum.
Lining limestone tiers rising from the beach to the hill-top television station and archaeological museum are the white villas of businessmen, bureaucrats and technocrats, all engaged in turning Oman into a modern state that provides excellent health care and education to the remotest seaside, mountain and desert villages. Oman has become an extremely pleasant place to live.
On my visit at the end of 1992, Dr. Bosch, now 75 years old, and his wife were back in town. They spend summers in a house in South Carolina and winters in a house the Sultan has made available to them for the rest of their lives.
You can buy their beautifully illustrated books on the seashells of Oman and of Arabia in the bookstores of any of Oman's two dozen major hotels, including the Al Bustan Palace, on the other side of Muscat from the Intercontinental, but under the same management, and reputedly even grander, if that is possible.
Meanwhile Oman has issued a series of postage stamps celebrating its natural heritage. One of them shows some of the shells unique to its coasts, many of them first scientifically described by Dr. Bosch. Among more than 50 embassies in the capital, the British Embassy has not moved to the "diplomatic quarter." It still remains near the Sultan's rebuilt palace, both just a few steps from the antique gate, through which automobiles now pass in such a steady stream that they are directed by a smartly uniformed traffic policeman.
Late afternoons and evenings on the once-deserted beach outside the Muscat Intercontinental Hotel, young men play soccer, matronly women promenade on the sidewalk separating the beach from the hotel and the adjacent embassies, and jump-suited joggers and power-walkers of both sexes churn doggedly along the hard-packed sands of the Qurum Nature Reserve.
At dusk, on my last night in Oman, with the sun already having set behind jagged peaks, and the luminous orange sky reflected in golden swatches across tide pools and surf, I waded one last time near the hotel where my daughter had luxuriated during her brief interlude from spartan Peace Corps quarters. A little girl of eight or nine approached from the direction of the "diplomatic quarter" to ask in perfect schoolgirl English what I was doing. I showed her a shiny cowry shell I had just pulled from a rivulet of water connecting the wetlands on one side to the surf at the other side of the wide beach.
She exclaimed at its beauty and dashed back to inform her mother higher up the beach, "Il cherche des coquillages." Then she and her mother walked on toward the comfortable houses where my other daughter had lived for two pleasant years.
As I walked back across the hotel's green lawns, under trees alive with twittering birds settling down for the night, I thought back over the past 20 years, in which both daughters had graduated from college, lived abroad for long periods on their own, married and now were raising children of their own.
During exactly the same period, Oman had changed just as profoundly, in only one generation. A place that had deteriorated from an illustrious past into a land with, literally, no vestiges of a modern infrastructure in 1970 had now, marvelously, blossomed into the Arabian peninsula paradise around me. In this once-harsh country of extraordinarily friendly and gentle people, comprising the eastern fringes of what the Romans called "Arabia Felix" (happy Arabia), it seems that most endings truly are happy ones.