On the tip of the Middle East is a small country called Oman, where Indian expatriates constitute about 11% of the total population. A majority of these Indians living in Oman are Malayalis, and they are all part of a long history of trade relationships between Kerala and this seaside country. Kerala has always been renowned for its spice trade. Since 3000 BCE, Kerala has had a prominent role in sea trade, involving Romans, Chinese and most importantly Arab traders. Immigration was part of this spice trade and it boomed when the petroleum economy started growing in the Middle East. Today, Malayalis are as ubiquitous as sand in Oman, where ancient Arab traders must have first landed after their trading pursuits across the Arabian Sea.
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Perhaps the most important connection Kerala has to Oman would be the city Salalah in the Dhofar province. Salalah is a magical place, it is almost as if someone broke off a piece of Kerala and replanted it in Oman. There are groves and groves of coconut trees, and our very own bananas, including Poovankolas. Not just trees, the landscape itself is surreal, there are mountains that remind us of Kerala’s Western Ghats, rocky beaches like those in Varkala and misty meadows like in Munnar and Vagamon. It even has a Khareef season, that is, monsoon just like us.
Salalah is at a distance of 1000 km from Muscat, the capital. It takes nearly 10 hours for a road trip to Salalah along windy desert roads or just over an hour on a flight from Muscat. Another connection Malayalis have towards Oman is the dargah, i.e. tomb of a medieval Kerala king. It is located in Salalah. According to local legends, the King, a Cheraman Perumal of Mahodayapuram (Kodungallur) converted to Islam and travelled to Mecca. On the way back however, he fell sick and died in Salalah. He is commemorated as Tajuddin, the name he is said to have accepted after his conversion.
Salalah, however, is not the only picturesque place in Oman. Another beautiful place is Musandam, a tip of Oman surrounded by the UAE. It is a great site for dolphin watching, boating in traditional dhow boats and cliff hiking. Sur, the capital of Sharqiya province is yet another great location, with great beaches and ports.
Oman’s only suspension bridge, Khor Al Batah, is in Ayjah in Sur. There is a place near Sur, called Hawwiyat Najm, also known as Bimmah Sinkhole Park. It was believed that the sinkhole was formed when a meteorite fell there, but actually, it was due to the collapse of a surface layer of sandstone.
At the bottom of the sinkhole is pristine blue-green water, and it attracts a large number of tourists every day. 60 km from Sur, is the Ras Al Hadd beach, where turtles come to lay 6000-13000 eggs every year.
Nearby is Ras Al Jinz, with its turtle reserve that allows tourists to engage in sightseeing tours among the turtles at night.
If you are into old forts, Oman has plenty of them. The most iconic fort you can visit in Oman is located in Nizwa, a city 155 km from the capital Muscat. It is a striking example of old Omani architecture and local culture. It also has a spectacular, old souk, i.e. local market. It is one of Oman’s most popular tourist hotspots. It is often visited by tourists going to Jebel Akhdar, a mountain range in Oman much like our Western Ghats. The name literally means green mountains and it absolutely delivers the beauty the name promises.
At 3000 meters, Jebel Akhdar is the highest point in all of Arabia. The climate at Jebel Akhdar is rather cool as compared to the rest of Oman, you can even get pomegranates there. The water at Jebel Akhdar is said to be so cool and so good that it can be drunk directly. The mountains are also famous for their rose cultivation and rose water production. There was once a river in this area. Jebel Akhdar was once visited by Diana, Princess of Wales. Jebel Shams, i.e. the sun mountain is yet another breathtaking mountain range in Oman.
As for canyons, Wadi Ghul, at over two hours from Muscat is often called the Great Canyon of Oman. It is nearly 200 meters deeper than its American counterpart. Wadi means ‘oasis’ and Ghul is one among several wadis in Oman like Wadi Tiwi, Wadi Shab, etc. Wadi bin Khalid in particular never dries up, it is like an emerald in the arid landscape of Oman.
When we talk about Gulf countries it is impossible to leave without talking about deserts. 82% of Oman is desert, and some of the best tourist desert destinations are Wahiba Sands, Bawshar Sands and the Empty Quarter in Dhofar. Does the last one sound ominous? It should because it is an unbroken stretch of sandy desert that is extremely inhospitable. It is called Rub al Khali in Arabic and spans several Arabian countries including Oman. It was featured in several movies including The Matrix and Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Men in Black: International. There are also several oil production centres in this desert.
Muscat is the most urbanised area in Oman, which is different from the rest of the Gulf due to its general lack of sky hugging buildings. The capital city offers the average tourist several sightseeing options, including several museums, palaces, an elegant opera house, parks and the recently opened Marine Sciences and Fisheries Center Oman – the largest aquarium in the Middle East. Want to go shopping? There are swanky malls, but go traditional. There are several souks, i.e. traditional markets, in Oman and all of them are famed for their unique Omani products including handicrafts and frankincense. It might even have you singing like Will Smith from Disney’s Aladdin, “As you wind through the streets…At the fabled bazaars…“.
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All of this should be enough and more for you to put Oman at the top of your dream destinations. If not, here is one more tidbit, in 2020, Oman was ranked the fifth safest country in the world, so as long as you travel with your wits around you, Oman is an effortlessly safe destination. Another tidbit for the wandering Malayali is the vast Malayali population in Oman. It’s pretty easy to spot Malayalis in Oman. Probably you’ll find yourself asking “Malayali ano?” within ten minutes of walking around, although Covid may or may not have impacted that.
KMCC, a Malayali organisation in the Middle East makes itself known in Oman through several activities, including iftar kit distribution in Ramadan and a Malayali educational institution in Sur. They have also been involved in organising chartered flights for Malayalis and other Indian nationals stranded in Oman due to Covid. They had also organised a rally in the city of Sohar four years back on Oman’s national day, honouring Oman’s erstwhile ruler, the beloved Sultan Qaboos, who is regarded as one of the best, most accomplished monarchs in modern world history. He was responsible for bringing Oman into the modern age, with all his development and welfare schemes.
All celebrations including Onam are widely celebrated within the Malayali community and more often than not, it involves the participation of Omanis and other expatriate communities too. As for Omanis, they are an inherently peaceful and friendly group of people. Many of them follow their hereditary occupations like fishing and farming in the wadis even today. This is one of the things that make Oman stand apart from the rest of the Middle East. As for cuisine, like us Malayalis, Omani food heavily involves spices from Asia, local fish and rice along with dates. It is a mixture of several cuisines like Arab, Iranian, Indian, Asian, Eastern Mediterranean, and African. Our naadan food is also not that hard to find in Oman, owing to the high population of expats here.
Whether it is for a short sightseeing trip, or for settling into a new job, Oman is the perfect place for Malayalis. It is more than just a stretch of Arab land by the seas to the people raised there (third culture kids, assemble!), it is truly a vikaram, a place that has it all. However, if I had to choose between places to visit in Oman, I’d recommend the beaches and the canyons most of all. They are simply spectacular, the beaches are pure magic, with wave upon wave from the Arabian Sea. It is pleasant to just stand on the edge of an Omani beach, buffeted by sea winds and to think that on the other side of the sea, is our beautiful Kerala.
Oman is truly a home away from home, and a magnificent place for any wanderer to visit. Go see for yourself!