In the souk of Mutrah, smells of spices and incense tickle the nostrils to the stalls of multicolored cotton veils, cashmeres from India, African Wax and white fabrics called “Japanese”. These are perfect for carving crease-resistant dishdasha , the traditional Omani-style menswear that resembles a long tunic. A few steps further, the windows flow with gold and precious stones. The souk is an open book on the history of Muscat that has long relied on trade and trade, its port being on the road to India. Today, the city relies on tourism. It is quickly around despite its extent. First there is Old Muscat, the Royal Opera House and the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque , inaugurated in 2001, where volunteers offer cardamom coffee and a few dates (tradition of local hospitality) to talk about the city. ‘Islam. There is also the recent National Museum retracing the history of the country, before and after the oil, or the very pretty private museum Bait al-Zubair giving a glimpse of the local life through reconstructions of interiors of house.
Housewives become businesswomen
“Traditionally, the decoration of an Omani house is quite simple,” explains Maha Al Lamki. In the past, houses were earthen and had little furniture. There was no table but a rug, cushions and palm-leaf mats on which we ate. This is still the case in some houses. Elegant and dynamic, Maha founded the interior design firm M Décor, coupled with a decoration shop (currently being opened). She works with the young French interior designer Maud Al Manari Quinault who adds: “Omanis still have little need for their interior. It’s cultural. Religion also plays a role since it is forbidden to hang figurative paintings of faces or animals. The decoration remains quite sober unless you fall in the opposite excess and bling-bling. Maud and Maha both have atypical paths. The blonde, with big hazel eyes, has married an Omani and speaks the local dialect; the brunette, also with hazel eyes, has become a model for many women. She says, “I divorced at age 41 after 21 years of marriage. Here, in some families, divorce is still not accepted, especially when it is initiated by the woman. Nobody supported me. I had to fend for myself financially while I was not working before, my husband did not wish it. I knew that I could not become a secretary because I am dyslexic. So we had to find something else. “I bought audio books on the business. The key is to put the right people in the right place. Maha had flair. Thanks to her well-chosen collaborators, she now runs an event, visual communication, decoration and, as four walls were not enough, an outdoor sports activities agency, Twenty3 Extreme .
It’s a square of chocolate that puts us on the trail of another woman defying her also clichés. Aisha Al Hajri, co-founder of the Salma’s Chocolates chocolate factory , explains: “I worked in the bank, and my sister in an administrative office of Sultan Qaboos University. We were looking for a hobby that could one day become a profession. Chocolate ! After having followed several production courses, we launched our brand based on local ingredients: lemon, honey, herbs, rose and incense. At first, we kept our initial work and doubled our hours of work with our factory. Six years ago there was no chocolatier except Godiva who closed and another. Since then, there are plenty. But their cocoa now has a place in their shops and the best addresses in the city. In addition to their sweet success, the two sisters also show that everything is possible in Oman despite the weight of tradition. Both single, they live alone away from their families – which is rare here – and Salma adopted at 46 a little girl – which is even rarer out of wedlock. An exception in this patriarchal country to absolute monarchy. Despite the openness of the country, the weight of tradition is still very strong and women are often left behind during divorce or inheritance in particular.
In search of Lawrence of Saudi Arabia
Leave Muscat for Wadi Bani Khalid, a three-hour drive away. It is said to be one of the most beautiful and easiest wadis in the country. In this natural pool with crystal clear waters, swimming is pure bliss – when there are not too many tourists. We come to seek the freshness on its banks before facing the desert of Sharqiyah Sands, also called Wahiba. We will stay at its doors, in the sprawling camp of 1,000 Nights . In these tents or hard housing, we will not be alone in the desert – the tourists being numerous. Purists will regret it, fans will find the experience perhaps more reassuring and more comfortable. The sunset will be unanimous when the silence envelops the golden sand dunes that extend to infinity. In the evening, one falls asleep while dreaming of the méharées of Lawrence of feminine Arabia. The tidy Gertrude Bell, adventurer, archaeologist and secret agent, rode the Rub al-Khali, the “desert desert” of 650,000 km2 only in tailored dresses in England. In the book that Christel Mouchard dedicated to him, one learns that “the Bedouins called it bint arab (the desert girl)”.
There is another girl in the sand, Wisal Al Harthi, with a mischievous look and a dimple that grows when she smiles. When her father died, she took over the 1,000 Nights camp. Director since 2012, she had to win in the desert, in an isolated, hostile and extreme conditions – in summer the temperature can rise to more than 45 °. “The first two years were difficult,” she says. Everyone doubted me. Some had trouble with the authority of a woman. It’s better now. I studied management and my father had prepared me a little. As a child, I often came with him. I remember a first meal with the Bedouins where I was a little shocked: they did not eat with their guests to give them more freedom. At the camp, we kept strong links with this community. We organize meals with the Bedouins. Some hosts complain sometimes because they find them too modern. In fact, they live with their time and travel by car. They have kept their house in palm leaves but they also have a house in town. Modernity is not a mirage. She arrived in the remote sands.
A market reserved for women
In the early morning, we take the track where we meet camels on the ridge of the dunes. Last pictures of the desert before joining the city of Ibra and its women’s market which takes place every Wednesday morning. “It started naturally in the 1980s, says my guide Juma who lives here. In the hospital, the consultation for pregnant women was on Wednesday. While waiting for their appointment, the women began to trade. In this part of the souk where men are excluded, there are handmade embroideries that will brighten a sleeve or a pant bottom or dress a wedding dress. But it’s mostly the old Ibra that is worth it. Most of the abandoned earthen buildings give an idea of the richness of the city in the past. It is good to stroll there, glean architectural details in ghost streets. The inhabitants have left the place for more modern homes. But it is already time to leave for Misfat al Abreyeen, a village of nearly 600 years, perched 950 meters in the mountains. A real favorite. The enthusiasm of the sympathetic Abdullah al-Abri has undoubtedly also played. He runs the B & B Al Misfah Hospitality Inn and strives to restore abandoned homes to turn them into tourist accommodation with still basic comfort. He just finished his grandfather’s house where he grew up. The stroll in the alleys is soothing, probably because we feel the water flowing in the fallajs , the irrigation system. It is thanks to this learned process that the village lives from agriculture – including dates. Women still have a space dedicated to them: the laundry. Some still prefer it to the washing machine because it still offers a social connection. They also come for water. As night falls, the village becomes deserted. The inhabitants have abandoned the old houses for new constructions on another side of the mountain. Only then do we notice the silence broken by the croaking of frogs and a distant sound of television. And that’s all. A delight that you take with you to the fort of the seventeenth century Nizwa and its castle and mosque of the ninth century before leaving. With, already, the furious desire to return.
Portfolio, Female Oman
The Maisons du Voyage offers the circuit “Oman, perfumes mixed Sultanate” 9 days / 7 nights between sea and desert, mountains and wadis, perched villages and palm groves from € 2,104. The tour begins in Muscat and continues, among others, to Nizwa, Misfat and the Wahibas desert. Flights and transport, hotels, full board and English speaking guide included. Such. 01 56 81 38 30. www.maisonsduvoyage.com .
The airline Oman Air offers a direct flight Paris-Muscat from 697 €. Since its creation in 1993, it has expanded destinations outside the Middle East and Gulf countries. It serves today, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China, Kenya, etc … Good to know: in collaboration with the Ministry of Tourism and some hotels, Oman Air offers a stopover in Muscat offering a free night when booking two or three nights on site. www.omanair.com
Tourist Office of the Sultanate of Oman: www.experienceoman.om .
Visa for Oman: evisa.rop.gov.om .
Or sleep ?
The Chedi Muscat
A member of The Leading Hotels of The World, The Chedi Muscat Hotel has a minimalist and zen style combined with simple and symmetrical Omani architecture. The 158 rooms and suites are planted in a garden whose fountains murmur the tales of the Thousand and One Nights. In addition to the private beach, the hotel has three swimming pools including one of 103 meters. The gym, not far from the spa, is a rare elegance thanks to its spaces separated by book libraries. Only downside: the lack of lighting rooms, especially villas, very dark.
North Ghubra 32, Way No. 3215, Street No. 46. Tel. +968 24 52 44 00.
Double room from 318 € in low season (excluding tax) and 716 € in high season (excluding tax). Buffet breakfast included. www.ghmhotels.com .
Where to eat ? Where to have a coffee?
Created in 2004, the Sidab Women association aims to help women in difficulty or low financial income. Through sewing workshops, she gives them work. Their cloth bags cut in tent cloth are sold in the shop. We will go especially for a coffee or a lunch having taken care, in advance, to advertise and reserve. Cooking classes should be offered soon.
Muscat Hills Resort
Away from the city, well hidden, this resort has a beautiful beach and a restaurant. It’s The Place to Be . It floats a little air of Ibiza on the Mediterranean map – the chef is Spanish.
Restaurant: Tel. +968 9121 6645. Beach: Tel. +968 2485 3000. www.muscathillsresort.com .
Where to have a coffee? Where to eat in Ibra?
Driven by her husband, the discreet Aida prepares a choice of coffee and some sweets or a lunch in her modern home. One way to push the door of an Omani house that has kept the lounge dedicated to men and another for women. Call Juma, Aida’s husband, to reserve. He will give the exact address.
Such. +968 92607475.
Where to sleep and where to eat in Misfat al Abreyeen?
Al Misfah Hospitality Inn
Nestled in a restored old house, this small bed and breakfast offers a terrace with incredible views of the canyon and the palm grove. If the comfort is rudimentary (the showers are shared, mattresses often on the floor), the personality of Abdullah makes forget all these details. He has the art of hospitality. Nice, he proposes the visit of the village giving a real glimpse of the local life. It also offers tours via its Canyon Adventures Tours site .
Overnight with dinner and breakfast from 80 € in low season and 102 € in high season.
Misfat, Tel. +968 9110 4466.
In the Sharqiya Sands desert
1,000 Nights, Sharqiya Sands Camp
It will be necessary to deflate the tires of the 4×4 before venturing on the track leading to 1000 Nights. Planted in the dunes, the camp is a vast installation that combines modernity and comfort with tradition. The hotel has a small pool and a restaurant.
The “luxury tent” has two large windows to see the sunrise and sunset on the dunes from his bed. We will probably prefer to live the outdoor experience … Overnight for two people, with dinner and breakfast, from 300 €. Air conditioning, hot water, fridge, hot drinks and fruits included.
Such. : +968 99448158 and +968 22060243. www.thousandnightsoman.com .