Selected Literature Review of Texts Pertaining to the Dhofar region of Oman

(photo by Hussein BaOmar)

Overview of texts

History/ Governance

Anthropology

Explorers/ Early Travel Writers

The Dhofar War (1965-1975)

After 1970

  • Environment
  • Archeology
  • Oman guides/ memoirs
  • Dhofar guides/ memoirs
  • Fiction
  • Arabian Peninsula

Summary

 

Overview of texts

This is not intended to be comprehensive list of all texts on Dhofar or Oman; for example Bidwell’s “Bibliographical Notes on European Accounts of Muscat 1500-1900” (1978) runs to over 30 pages just on that limited selection of texts.[1] Janet Watson has an excellent “Bibliography of the Modern South Arabian Languages” which includes some works concentrating on history and or anthropology, as well as languages [file:///C:/Users/user/AppData/Local/Temp/Bibliography_MSAL_20181015.pdf]. Peterson has a comprehensive “Bibliography of the Arabian Peninsula” at http://www.jepeterson.net/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/Peterson_Bibliography_of_the_Arabian_Peninsula.pdf.

Among the texts, there are few works by Omani authors. For example, the collection of essays, Oman: Economic, Social and Strategic Development (1987), has no Omani authors, although the editor Pridham asserts that “the Omani point of view is well represented in several contributions” (xiv). Most of the scholars citied in the Ministry of Information’s Oman in History (1995) are non-Omani. A later collection of essays, Regionalizing Oman: Political, Economic and Social Dynamics (2013), has only one Omani co-author, Rahma Al-Mahrooqi.

Books by Omanis include Ghubash’s Oman: The Islamic Democratic Tradition (2006), Al Farsi’s Democracy and Youth in the Middle East: Islam, Tribalism and the Rentier State in Oman (2013) and Al Kabani’s A Soldier from Oman: Memory’s Nectar (2015). There are also some small booklets, such as Al Farsy’s Happy Platinum Jubilee to the Al Asaidiya (2015), and articles, such as Al Hashimi’s “The Omani Spring: Towards the Break of a New Dawn” (2011).

Most texts by Dhofari authors are locally printed/ distributed. Most are short personal memoirs, collections of stories/ poems or treatises on a particular feature such as traditional boat making, animals, trees or food of Dhofar. There are also a few pamphlets or books about the Gibali/ Sheri or Mehri languages.  The texts in Arabic can sometimes be found in the Arabic bookstores but there is no systematic distribution, nor one particular store which attempts to collect/ display all the available texts.

Abdulqadar Al Ghassani, who was a teacher at the one small Salalah school that was open before the war and, later, the Director General of Education in Dhofar, dedicated his book collection to Dhofar by creating an open public library in downtown Salalah, the Dar al-Kitab.[2] This helpful center is run by his son, Mustafa Al Ghassani, and greatly facilitates research opportunities. One of the books on Dhofar is written by Salim bin Ahmed, a cousin of Mustafa, called (in English) The Way and the Guide (2010), a memoir of his life, including a vivid account of him escaping from Salalah during the war.

In addition, the Journal of Oman Studies has articles on a wide-variety of topics such as architecture, poetry, archeology, settlement patterns, flora and fauna surveys, etc. but is sometimes difficult to subscribe to/ get a hold of.

History/ Governance

John E. Peterson is the éminence grise of Oman history. In addition to other posts, he was the official military historian of the Oman armed forces so his work on occasion skews slighting pro-military and pro-British but he used his resources and access to write many factual and readable works which stand the test of time. In comparison to more recent works about Oman government/ history by writers eager to push a specific agenda, Peterson writes soberly, giving opposing points of view fairly and taking great care to back up his assertions with citations. Some of his texts include: Oman in the Twentieth Century: Political Foundations of an Emerging State (2016, first published 1978); Oman’s Insurgencies: The Sultanates Struggle for Supremacy (2007), and Historical Muscat: An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer (2006).  Of particular interest is his work on Dhofar: “Oman’s Diverse Society: Southern Oman” published in Middle East Journal in 2004.

Of the various other authors on Oman, Wendell Phillips Unknown Oman (1966) is notable for being a Western writer who had access to the country before 1970, although his POV is idiosyncratic, not to say, biased: “if the truth were told a high percentage of Arab wives are among the world’s most embittered and frigid, while the Arab make is among the world’s unhappiest husbands” (136).

Another early author is Ian Skeet, who is more even-handed. He published Muscat and Oman: The End of an Era in 1974 but it was written in 1968 and he did not update it after the coup that put Sultan Qaboos on the throne; it is thus a very valuable reference as to what the country was like in last years of Sultan Said’s rule. He later wrote Oman: Politics and Development (1992) to describe the modernization of Oman.

Wilkinson, who works on issues of land and power also wrote some early articles on Oman including “The Oman Question: The Background to the Political Geography of South-East Arabia” in Geographical Journal (1971), “The Origins of the Omani State” in The Arabian Peninsula: Society and Politics (1972), and “Traditional Concepts of Territory in South Arabia” in Geographical Journal (1983); a later work is Water & Tribal Settlement in South-East Arabia (Studies on Ibadism and Oman, 2013).

Other books written after Sultan Qaboos took power in 1970 include Price’s Oman: Insurgency and Development (1975), Kelly’s  Arabia, The Gulf and The West (1980), Risso’s Oman and Muscat: An Early Modern History (1986), Riphenburg’s Oman: Political Development in a Changing World (1998), Allen and Rigsbee’s Oman Under Qaboos: From Coup to Constitution, 1970-1996 (2002), Allen and Ahmed’s Oman: Creation of the Modern Middle East (2002), Owtram’s A Modern History of Oman: Formation of the State since 1920 (2004), Plekhanov’s A Reformer on the Throne: Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said (2004). Kechichian’s Oman and the World: The Emergence of an Independent Foreign Policy (1995) and Political Participation and Stability in the Sultanate of Oman (2006). Rabi’s The Emergence of States in a Tribal Society: Oman under Sa’id bin Taymur, 1932-1970 (2006) is noteworthy in that he takes a more positive view of Sultan Said that most writers.

There is not a lot of current work on the history and or politics of Oman as most people who write about the Arabian Peninsula focus on the problem areas and issues: Yemen (Houthis/ Al Qaeda/ Daesh), Saudi Arabia (sectarian violence, political instability, loss of oil revenues), the Emirates (culture wars, loss of oil revenues) and Bahrain (sectarian violence, political instability). Current works include Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (2010), Funsch’s Oman Reborn: Balancing Tradition and Modernization (2015) and Worrall’s Statebuilding and Counterinsurgency in Oman: Political, Military and Diplomatic Relations at the End of Empire (2014).

There are a few publications relating to Oman during the upheaval of the Arab Spring (2011) such as Worrall’s “Oman: The ‘Forgotten Corner’ of the Arab Spring” in Middle East Policy (2012) and Davidson’s After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies (2015), a book whose tone on Oman is quite similar to Halliday’s Arabia without Sultans: A Political Survey of Instability in the Arab World (1975). Three books which discuss Omani government/ politics in more detail are Beasant’s Oman: The True-life Drama and Intrigue of an Arab State (2002/ 2012), Valeri’s Oman: Politics and Society in the Qaboos State (2009), and Takriti’s Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans and Empires in Oman 1965-1976 (2013).

Anthropology

There has not been much anthropological work done in Oman. In a survey of anthropological work published between 1970- early 1976, there were no studies on Oman (Cohen 1977 318), and although several books and articles have been published since there, they are few and concentrate on “the north”[3]. The main anthropology/ ethnography studies are Limbert (Bahla – 2010), Chatty (Jiddat-il-Harasiis – extensive publications including 2000, 1997, 1976), Wikan (Sohar – 1984, 1982, 1977), Eickelman (Hamra – 1984), and Barth (Sohar – 1983).

The book that best catches daily life is Behind the Veil in Arabia: Women in Oman (1982). A recounting and examination of her eight months of field work in Oman, Wikan writes, “I harbored a dream to meet the real, authentic Arabia” (3). However, Wikan notes that the women’s “calm, quiet, self-control, that mute self-assured poise, was to prove the major obstacle all the way through to getting to know, really to know, the Soharis” (10). In the introduction and appendix, Wikan makes it clear that she finally understood after leaving Oman that this “gracious facade” (13) was the fundamental truth, “what matters is how the other acts, not what he or she ‘really’ thinks”; it is “an axiom of Omani culture that persons are endowed with different natures which determine the way they behave. It is for others to acknowledge and accept this” (13, 238).

Eickelman (1984) echoes Wikan’s comments: “the most striking characteristic of daily life in Oman, in contrast to many other Middle Eastern and Mediterranean societies, is the lack of open conflict and pervasive civility and tact that mark all social conduct” (112). Specifically, she discusses the “extreme care everyone takes to avoid open conflict within the family cluster and in the community, and the mixture of tact, civility, and circumspection with which family members neutralize their meetings with persons outside the family” (93).

There has been little recent anthropological work on the cultures within the Dhofar region beyond the work of Janet Watson, Miranda Morris and Saeed Al Mahri and their team [https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/languages/staff/151/janet-c-e-watson and https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/modern-south-arabian-languages%5D. Two earlier texts are Tabook’s unpublished dissertation Tribal Practices and Folklore of Dhofar (Exeter University 1997) and Miranda Morris’ “Dhofar – What Made it Different”  (1987). Morris is also a co-author of Plants of Dhofar, the Southern Region of Oman: Traditional, Economic, and Medicinal Uses, (Miller, Morris, Stuart-Smith 1988) which contains, in the information about how/ when/ why various plants are used, a lot of anthropological information.

Tabook’s Tribal Practices and Folklore of Dhofar is an extensive look at, mainly Gibali, culture. It is extensively researched and covers all aspects of life in the Dhofar region, from geography to “tribal stratification,” birth/ circumcision/ marriage/ death, folk medicine/ stories/ tales/ songs,  traditional crafts, and economic structure. The work is a careful balance of explaining what Tabook has himself seen and careful research and explanation, for example

There are perhaps two reasons why, in the opinion of the researcher, people believed in Saints more than Prophets; the first was the deep ignorance of the people of their religion, the second is that those tribes and families who managed to convince the local inhabitants to believe in them, did whatever they could to promote their manipulative sanctity at the expense of the true values of Islam. Similar examples can be found in many countries, such as Hadramawt, Egypt, and Morocco. (168)

He describes local traditions which are still in evidence. The shrines he mentions are still kept-up and visited (163); the food he describes is still cooked in the same manner for Eids (i.e. 179); the dances are still performed (300-302) and the book makes clear the continuing preference of Gibali men for working in the army (237).

Explorers/ Early Travel Writers

There were few non-Omani travelers to Dhofar until the 1970s.[4] One early traveler is Ibn al-Mujāwir, who wrote approximately 1226-1230 CE.  Dhofar, according to Ibn al-Mujāwir, had at one time been connected to Baghdad by a trade route which was cut off in 616/ 1219 CE (2008 261). Mujāwir mentions that the people feed “riding animals” dried fish; camels and cows are still fed dry sardines during the hot weather. Some of the trees and plants he mentioned, including coconuts, sugar cane, bananas, pomegranates, lemons and limes, are still grown here. (See Ibn al-Mujāwir A Traveler in Thirteenth-Century Arabia: Ibn al-Mujāwir’s Tarikh al-Mustabir 2008 and Smith 1985).

“Ibn Battuta visited Dhofar in 1325 and again in 1347” (Morris 1987 55, see 51-60 for an overview of early visitors). He mentions that horses were exported from Dhofar to India, the abundance of fresh fruit and the use of sardines to feed cattle. He also describes coconut trees. There is no description of the inhabitants beyond “its people closely resemble the people of Northwest Africa in their customs” (Ibn Battuta 1929).

There is a short shipwreck narrative of two Spanish Jesuit priests on their way from India to Ethiopia who were kidnapped by pirates on February 14, 1590. Antonio de Montserrat and Pedro Páez landed at “Dofâr” where they were held for several days until they are told that the “captain of the city” was going to send them “to the place where his King was staying so that the latter could condemn us to whatever death he chose” (Beckingham and Sarjeant 1950 195). They were taken to Hainan, then to the Turkish leader in San’a, proof that at that time the coast of Dhofar was under the rule of Turks based in Yemen (201, 203, see also Beckingham 1949).

In Ovington’s A Voyage to Surat in the Year 1689 (1929) there is a very brief description of Dhofar, confusingly in a chapter about locations in the Red Sea. He mentions the production of frankincense, coconuts and butter (268) and, again confusingly, a kind of frantic/ trance inducing dancing which I have not heard other references to.

Another shipwreck narrative is by Daniel Saunders, who was castaway when his ship, Commerce out of Boston, sank on July 10, 1792 near Mirbat. His brief re-telling of his adventures has no information on Dhofar but is available in an undated reprint edition from Gale Ecco Print.

The first English explorers in the Dhofar region are Captain Haines and his crew from the Indian Navy who surveyed and explored the Dhofar coast in the Brig “Palinurus” in 1834, 1835 and 1836. Commander J. P. Saunders,  with the same ship and some of the same crew, continued this surveying work in 1844-1846.

Haines published his “Memoir to Accompany a Chart of the South Coast of Arabia from the Entrance of the Red Sea to Misenat, in 50, 43, 25 E. Part I”  in 1839 with “details the coast from Bab el Mandeb, at the entrance to the Red Sea, to Misenat, at the mouth of the Wadi Sheikhawi, where the “Mahrah territory commences” (155). Part II came out in 1845.

In the second article, Haines mentions one of his officers, James Smith, purser, left the ship and traveled through the Sumhan mountains under the name ‘Ahmed’ but there are no details of the trip recorded by Haines or Smith. Smith, with Jessop Hulton, did publish two short articles about inscriptions they found along the coast (Hulton and Smith, 1835 and 1839). Hulton’s journal was recently published by a family member (Hulton 1844/ 2003) but there is no mention of Smith’s journey which I believe to do the first time a western person visited the Dhofar mountains.

Saunders’ “A Short Memoir of the Proceedings of the Honorable Company’s Surveying Brig “Palinurus,” during Her Late Examination of the Coast between Ras Morbat and Ras Seger, and between Ras Fartak and the Ruins of Mesinah” was published the following year. In 1896, John Anderson briefly reviews some of the articles published by Haines, Saunders and various officers in his “A Sketch of the Physical Features of the Coast of South-East Arabia.”

The primary focus of these journeys was  to figure out how the lands investigated might be of use to the British government and merchant class, as when Haines (1845) tells Sultan Omar that “to carry on steam-communication between India and England, a depot under British control was requisite.” Haines, therefore, wanted to buy the island of Socotra from Sultan Omar (108).

When  the brig’s assistant-surgeon, Henry Carter,  wrote up a brief archeological survey of “The Ruins of El Balad” (1846), in addition to explicating what he sees, the author explains how what he sees might be helpful to the British empire, i.e. he explains that the source of fresh water in the ruins “is one of the cheapest and most convenient places on this coast for a ship to water at” (190). After a description of the ruins, Carter visits the Sheikh of Diriz (Dhariz) who recounts the history of the ruins and his family; Carter also includes a succession of rulers/ governors of the Dhofari coast (196-98).

Some of the articles by members of the expedition contain mentions of Gibalis, at this point in time referred to as Gara/ Gurrah. Cruttenden’s short article details his journey from “Morebat” (Mirbat) to Dyreez” (Dhariz), approximately 71 kilometers.  He indicates he also visited “the ancient town of Hasec” (Hasik, also mentioned by Mujāwir) and, as Mujāwir, sees Doum trees and various fruit trees including limes (1838 184, 185).  He also discusses indigo plants, whose dye was used until modern day for coloring the fabric worn by the mountain people. Their language is “very nearly similar to that spoken on Socotra. It is so harsh and guttural that it is almost painful to watch a man speaking, and I gave up the attempt to imitate them in despair” (188). In typical imperialistic fashion, Cruttenden ends by noting that “I do not think that any town on the coast is better than Dyreez for supplying of vessels with provisions;” of course, he means British vessels (188).

Theodore and Mabel had already explored in Italy, Greece, Bahrain, South Africa, Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen when they arrived in Oman. Their trip to Dhofar began when they  left “Maskat” (Muscat) December 17th, 1894 and traveled by ship south along the coast, arriving in Mirbat on January 20. They left the Dhofar region from Al Hafa (part of modern day Salalah) on January 23, 1894. They traveled along the coast and a short distance in the mountains in the late 1800s; I believe they are the first Westerners to visit the Dhofar mountains to write a description of it.

Although James and Mabel Bent were not in the employ of the British government, they were quintessential Victorian age travelers who, in their writing, specifically support British imperialism in their  Southern Arabia (1900/ 2005).[5] The book, written by Mabel after Theodore died soon after they returned to England from Oman, viewed all landscapes through the perspective of how the land might be useful to the Empire:

If this tract of country comes into the hands of a civilizing nation, it will be capable of great and useful development…and a health resort for the inhabitants [i.e. British inhabitants] of the burnt-up centers of Arabian commerce, Aden and Maskat (274).

The Gibalis, here referred to as Qara, traveling with the Bents, however, saw the Bents as equals. The Qara men she traveled with always addressed her, to her anger, only as “Mabel” (with the prefix when calling a person “ya,” i.e. Ya Mabel!) and informed the Bents that “they did not wish us to give them orders of any kind as they were sheikhs” and “We are gentleman” (258, 266). The mountain people of Dhofar, Mabel Bent writes, are “endowed with a spirit of independence which makes him resent the slightest approach to legal supervision…They would not march longer than they liked; they would only take us where they wished… and if we asked them not to sing at night and disturb our rest, they always set to work with greater vigor” (248).

But she does include a fair amount of real information, taking the time for example to explain how indigo is used to dye clothes (145).  She describes the scenery with careful attention to plants, rock formations, distances, etc. (e.g. Wadi Ghersid, 256; Wadi Nahast,  265) and, noticing that the language spoken in the “Gara” [Qara] mountains was not a dialect, she includes a few words (275). Some of her information is still current. She mentions, for example, that oaths “to divorce a favorite wife, are really good” (180) and the technique of cooking on stones (250) which I have seen practiced several times.

The Bents eventually stop struggling to control and “we gave up any attempt to guide our own footsteps, but left ourselves entirely in his [Sheik Sehel] hands, to take us whether he would and spend as long about it as he liked” (257) but her summation is typical of British Victorian-era travelers:  “we had discovered a real Paradise in the wilderness, which will be a rich prize for the civilized nation which is enterprising enough to appropriate it” (276).

The next visitor is Craufurd, who stopped in Dhofar for one day in April, year unspecified.  He makes clear in his essay, he had not read the Bents book when his boat “After five years’ continuous service off the bleak Arabian coast” landed in Dhofar. As a naval officer his primary interest is the boats and the method of maneuvering past the breaking swell; he states, “their manner of working through the surf was exceedingly clever” (1919 100).  He notes that “in the Dhofar district there lies a fertile land of some 40 miles from Bander Reisut to Merbat, with an average depth of 12 miles. The whole of this presumably fertile region is practically virgin soil uncultivated for lack of incentive” (103), but also gives the local point of view:

The Sheikh’s son pointed out to us that the inhabitants of Dhofar are perfectly satisfied with the smaller means of life. They have the powerful Sultan of Maskat to the eastward, The British protectorate lies westwards. There is therefore no anxiety from the restless tribes of the interior. If they began to trade they would merely be exciting cupidity. (102)

A geologist who traveled with Bertram Thomas on a short visit to Dhofar in the 19020s  writes

Regarding the interesting non-Arab tribes, the Mahri and the Gara…They are entirely nomad, and live under the shelter of trees or caves. They have no cultivation, but live on the produce of large herds of cattle and some camels. I found them always very friendly, and on several occasions I was persuaded to partake of a meal with them…Their diet consists exclusively of meat and milk products. Firearms are very scare among these tribes, instead they are armed with very poor quality swords and small shields of wood or shark-skin. They are also very adept at throwing a short pointed stick. (Lees 1928 456, 457).

As the title suggests, Bertram Thomas’s Arabia Felix Across the Empty Quarter of Arabia  (1932) is happy book which details his famous first crossing of the Empty Quarter starting from Salalah. He begins the book with a general history told with imperialistic British moralizing judgment, i.e. “for where treachery is a habit of mind, men are actuated by the stern necessities of the moment, not by any principles of morality.” As the Bents discovered, Thomas asserts that  “A European who would travel happily must be prepared to adapt himself to their standards” but “[o]ften I found myself the only member of my party in the saddle, while the others walked for long hours to spare their mounts” (192, 176).  The main differences between Thomas and the Bents is that he traveled later, (he arrived in Salalah October 8th, 1930), did longer and more difficult journeys and was more interested in recording the Omanis’ speech and habits.

Many of the details he sets out are still  prevalent as with the cushions hard as “medicine balls” in “bright scarlet or emerald-colored trappings” (17), the description of a dance (34), food preparation (e.g. making bread 166) and the list of shrines (85). He notices that men in the mountains do not eat chicken, a habit that is still followed by older men from the mountain tribes (59). Thomas tells the story of killing a chameleon brought in by an old man who then exclaims “it is treachery. I found it [the animal] innocent in a bush and it came along with me trusting and this is what I consent to happen to it” (63). I see exactly the same framework of not killing an animal being used by the Gibali men I know, to the point of a man not killing a scorpion which has stung him.

Thomas and Thesiger are divided by the Second World War. Thesiger traveled through present day Oman, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates between 1946 and 1950. In addition to Arabian Sands (1959), he published many articles on his travels (1946, 1948, 1949, 1950). Thesiger marks a break with the previous writers as he is neither an accidental traveler (like the shipwreck narratives) nor is he traveling for imperial benefits (anchorage/ supply depots) or even to collect knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but for personal interest and personal challenge

Thesiger, like Thomas, crossed the Rub al Khali but he spent more time with his guides and was far more interested in their lives than Thomas. In talking about Dhofar, he mentions the traditional dark blue cloth (45), mountain honey for costal sardine trade (49), and throwing sticks (49) that are evident in the Bents’ and Thomas’ description, but he goes farther than any of them in explaining both his point of view and the point of view of his companions.

Thomas reports that “each of my companions not only knew at a glance the footmarks of every camels and man of my caravan, but claimed to know those of his absent tribe, and not a few of his enemies” (178). Thesiger gives the same information but includes specific examples (e.g. 122). Thomas notes that “where food or water were short, no one of them would think of not sharing it equally with his companions, and if anyone was away, perhaps tending his camels, all would wait his return to eat together” (157); this is an accurate description (still in practice today) but he did not ‘live’ this as Thesiger did, sitting thirsty and impatient for the others to come (65).

After Thesiger, the next travel writer is Jan (then James) Morris’ journey with Sultan Said bin Taymur from Salalah to the north of Oman in 1956 as described in Sultan in Oman (1957/ 2008). Whereas Dhofaris are discussed with accuracy and respect by Thesiger, Morris lets loose with insults as demeaning as the Bents. It is rather a surprise, after the gradually lowering racist/ condescending tone seen in the arc from the Bents through Thomas to Thesiger, to read her smug, complacent, and judgmental book.

She begins by widely overstating her achievement, declaring that she undertook “The last classic journeys of the Arabian Peninsula,” as if being driven in a jeep from Salalah to Muscat in 1956 was on par with Dougherty or Philby (1). To drive home the (moribund) English tradition, she notes that “Curzon and Gertrude Bell rose with us approvingly” (2).

She describes Gibalis as

tribes of strange non-Arab people…with their poor clothes, their indigo-stained faces, their immemorial prejudices. [In the monsoon season] the plain was full of these queer Stone Age figures, lean and handsome, and they wandered like fauns through the little marketplaces of Salala. (22)

They have “shaggy,” “strange” and “fuzzy” hair and practice “obscure rituals, taboos, and prejudices” (30, 39, 31). In keeping with the general tone of relegating the inhabitants to prehistoric times, there is no mention of guns. The people “hurl in the general direction of their neighbors the heavy throwing sticks (less scientific than boomerangs) with which they were sometimes quaintly armed” (40). It is clear than even in Thomas’ accounts, much less Thesiger, that the men of this region had access to and knowledge of guns. In fact, the cover of one edition is one of Thesiger’s photos showing Bin Ghabaisha holding a rifle.

The descriptions illuminate more about Morris’ travels than Oman, i.e. Risut is “Like a bay in Cornwall or northern California” (20).“The deeper we penetrated into these Qara foothills, the more lifeless and unearthly the country seemed… It was like an empty Lebanon;” the “abyss of Dahaq” is compared to “Boulder or Grand Coulee” and the Qara mountains “felt like England without the churches, or Kentucky without the white palings” (27, 27, 38). A small lake is “‘Better than the Backs,’ said my companion, ‘not so many undergraduates’” which only makes sense if the reader knows this is a term referring to the place where several Cambridge colleges back onto the River Cam (30).

Writers from the War

After Morris, the Dhofar War (1965-1975) interrupted travel for almost a decade but several soldiers and officers wrote about the war including Tony Jeapes, SAS: Operation Oman (1980) John Akehurst’s We Won a War (1982), David Arkless’ The Secret War: Dhofar 1971/1972 (1988), Ian Gardiner’s  In the Service of the Sultan (2007), Bryan Ray’s Dangerous Frontiers (2008); Paul Sibley A Monk in the SAS (2011) and Andrew Higgens’ With the S.A.S. and Other Animals: A Vet’s Experiences during the Dhofar War 1974 (2011).[6]

Jeapes’ book is excellent in that it was published fairly soon after the conflict ended and he pulls no punches. He includes more specific details of the Dhofaris he fought with/ against and has none of the burnished patina of the later books. He recounts what happened with his unvarnished opinion and the result is a book which shows the progression of the war in a more down-to-earth manner than any of the other books.

Arkless’ book is rather like George MacDonald Fraser’s Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma (1995), a quiet sort of war book told from a low-ranking soldier. Arkless was responsible for loading airplane shipments and he describes the day-to-day life in camp. Gardiner’s In the Service of the Sultan (2007) was the first book in English on the war that was openly available in Omani bookstores. There was a huge splash when it was published; there were posters up in bookstores in Muscat and he did a small author’s tour. His book is the best overview of the war from the UK point-of-view and he is very positive: “Omanis were wonderful people to live with. They were superbly honest…They were generous to a fault and…they didn’t take themselves too seriously… [they] wished to be at peace with any man who was ready to be at peace with them” (2010 58).

Sibley stayed on in Oman after the war, finally leaving in 1984, so his book is interesting in that it gives a clear impression of how Oman changed. Higgens’ book channels the All Things Bright and Beautiful vibe with portrayals of himself as a bumbling vet trying to improve animal health.

Ranulph Fiennes’ book about the Dhofar War, Where Soldiers Fear to Tread (1975), as his other books about Dhofar, The Feathermen (1991) and Atlantis of the Sands: The Search for the Lost City of Ubar (1992), include statements which contradict all other writing about the war and my years of observations, thus I am inclined to view his writing as non-fiction enlivened by imagination, the desire for sensation and/ or self-aggrandizement. The movie made from his book The Feathermen, Killer Elite (2011), is entertaining if viewed as fiction and an abomination if viewed as having anything connected to the Dhofar region.

There are a few overwrought books about the war, specifically the battle on July 19, 1972: Cole and Belfield’s SAS Operation Storm: The SAS under Siege: Nine Men against Four Hundred (2011) and White’s Storm Front (2011).

After 1970After the war, researchers came from a variety of fields.

Environment/ physical landscape

Miranda Morris, while working with early health care initiatives, studied not only the Gibali language with Dr. Johnstone, but also the plants, resulting in an encyclopedic book which includes a wealth of folk lore with the descriptions of plant usage: Plants of Dhofar, the Southern Region of Oman: Traditional, Economic, and Medicinal Uses, (Miller, Morris and Stuart Smith, 1988).

Janzen arrived in January 1977, staying until August and then returning from January to May 1978. He published Nomads in the Sultanate of Oman: Tradition and Development in Dhofar (1986, a translation of his dissertation, originally written in German) about the traditional lifestyles of three primary groups in the Dhofar region: Bedu (desert), Jebalis (mountain) and Hadr (people living on the coastal plain, the term is currently used to refer to ‘town’ people) including many photographs. Janzen returned to Dhofar several times and later published an article which describes the changes he witnessed between his first arrival in 1977 and later visits, “The Destruction of Resources among the Mountain Nomads of Dhofar” (2000).

The Eltahir Research Group at MIT conducted research between 1987-1999 to

understand the different natural factors and study the human activities that influence on the ecosystem in Dhofar, as well as to develop strategies to prevent and combat desertification in the region. (“Pilot Study on Biosphere-Atmosphere Interactions in Dhofar, Oman”)

What they found was that there is more moisture found under trees than is recorded at meteorological stations in Dhofar. This is because the trees “comb” water from the fog moisture. Also, the clouds act as a shield from solar radiation, preventing water in the soil from evaporating too quickly and thus allowing more biomass to grow in an otherwise dry region see Hildebrandt and Eltahir (2008, 2007, 2006) and Hildebrandt et al (2007).

Galletti has also worked on landscape and climate change in the mountains surrounding Salalah, including his article with Turner and Myint “Land changes and their drivers in the cloud forest and coastal zone of Dhofar, Oman, between 1988 and 2013” (2016).

Archeology

There are three main archeology sites open as tourist attractions with museums: Shisr on the far side of the mountains, Sumhuram on the coast at Khor Rori/Ruwi close to Taqa, and Al Baleed on the coast of Salalah.

The first excavations were done under the leadership of Frank Albright and the American archaeological expedition in Dhofar, Oman, 1952-1953. Wendell Phillips, when it was no longer possible to work in Yemen [see Phillips’ Qataban and Sheba: Exploring Ancient Kingdoms on the Biblical Spice Routes of Arabia (1955)], also came to work in Dhofar with his American Foundation for the Study of Man. He later wrote Unknown Oman (1966) and Oman: A History (1967). In the early 1970s the Harvard Archaeological Survey under the direction of J. Humphries also excavated in Dhofar.

In 1991, Nicholas Clapp put together the Trans-Arabian Expedition, which is recounted in The Road to Ubar: Finding the Atlantis of the Sands (1999).[7] Although it is now agreed that the site they referred to as “Ubar” is a trading post, not the fabled lost city, the books includes an extended discussion of pre-historic and pre-modern southern Oman.[8]

Juris Zarins was part of the expedition and ended up coming back to Dhofar for years and doing extensive archaeological research and publishing including his The Land of Incense: Archaeological Work in the Governorate of Dhofar, Sultanate of Oman, 1990-1995 (2001). Ali Ahmed Al-Shehri, who is a native of Dhofar and worked with the expedition, has published several essays about pre-modern grave sites and cave paintings (1991, 1991).

Currently the Italian Mission to Oman, with Alessandra Avanzini as Director since 1996, has been working on the excavation and restoration of the two ancient Omani cities of Sumhuram in Dhofar and Salut, in northern Oman. The IMTO is also responsible for the archaeological park at Khor Rori and the Museum of the Frankincense Trail in Dhofar, as well as the archaeological museum at Salut. The IMTO has several publications and there are a few surveys such as Naveem’s The Sultanate of Oman: Prehistory and Protohistory from the most Ancient Times (c. 1,000,000 B.C. to 100 B.C.) (1996) and Yule’s Studies in the Archaeology of the Sultanate of Oman (1999), as well as various articles on specific subjects such as Charpentier, de Voogt, Crassard, et al “Games on the Seashore of Salalah: The Discovery of Mancala Games in Dhofar, Sultanate of Oman” (2014).

For several years, Jeff Rose working with various co-authors has been excavating and researching the prehistory of the Dhofar region; recent articles include Rose and Marks “‘Out of Arabia’ and the Middle-Upper Paleolithic transition in the southern Levant” (2014); Rose and Hilbert “New Paleolithic sites in the southern Rub’ Al Khali desert, Oman” (2014); Rose, Černý, and Bayoumi “Tabula rasa or refugia? Using genetic data to assess the peopling of Arabia” (2013); and Rose, Usik, Marks, et al “The Nubian Complex of Dhofar, Oman: an African Middle Stone Age industry in southern Arabia” (2011).[9]

Another current researcher is Hilbert, whose articles include Hilbert, Usik, Galletti et all “Archaeological evidence for indigenous human occupation of Southern Arabia at the Pleistocene/Holocene transition: The case of al-Hatab Dhofar, Southern Oman.” (2015); Hilbert Parton, Morley et al “Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene archaeology and stratigraphy of the southern Nejd, Oman” (2015) and Hilbert, Rose, and Roberts “Late Paleolithic core reduction strategies in Dhofar, Oman” (2012).

Oman guides/ memoirs

Oman usually merits a chapter in books about the Arabian Peninsula, usually in reference to Thomas and/ or Thesiger, for example in Bidwell’s Travellers in Arabia (1994), Taylor’s Travelling the Sands: Sagas of Exploration in the Arabian Peninsula (2005) and Al Yahya’s Travellers in Arabia: British Explorers in Saudi Arabia (2006).

In the last 10 years, several travel guides have been published that focus only on the Sultanate, such as Walker and Owen’s Off-Road in the Sultanate of Oman (2007), the Lonely Planet Guide (Walker et al. 2010) and Thomas’ The Rough Guide to Oman (2011). Ward’s Travels in Oman: On the Track of the Early Explorers looks back at early explorers (1987).

Given Oman’s geographical and cultural diversity, there are several coffee table books such as Norris and Shelton’s Oman Adorned: A Portrait in Silver (1998), Sheldon’s The Heritage of Oman: A Celebration in Photographs with photographs by Ozzie Newcombe (1995), Al Zubair’s Oman – My Beautiful Country (2004) and Hamilton’s An Arabian Utopia: The Western Discovery of Oman (2012).

There are also various books, almost all by people who lived in/ visited Muscat, telling the story of Oman from a personal perspective such as Searle’s Dawn over Oman (1975), Critchfield’s Oman Emerges: An American Company in an Ancient Kingdom (2010), and Nielsen’s Oman: Stories from a Modern Arab Country (2014).

Heines’ My Year in Oman (2005) and Another Year in Oman (2008), and Rory Allen’s Oman: Under Arabian Skies (2010) focus almost exclusively on the authors’ feelings, and when describing Omanis, the prose turns a distinct shade of orientalist purple, as in:

There is a sense of lawlessness [with the Bedu of Sharqiyah]…this anarchy gives one a sense of freedom and of a being without constraint. Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” comes to mind when looking at these Bedu, and they are noble and have not lost that primitive force inside. In Jungian terms their primitive psyche remains intact, that primeval power and urge that makes the Bedu so strong, so essential, individual, intuitive and spontaneous and above all it makes him so vital and impossible to control or rein in. This makes him the free spirit that down deep we all want to be. (Allen 2010 61)

Dhofar guides/ memoirs

There are several books by travelers or ex-pats about Oman which include a chapter or two about a weekend or short vacation in Dhofar. One of the first, and worst, examples is Suzanne St Albans, who visited in the late 1970s and wrote Where Time Stood Still: A Portrait of Oman (1980). Reminiscent of Jan Morris, she says of Gibalis that “certain freakish customs still linger on among the more primitive tribes” and gives “witchcraft murders” as an example (25). The Jibalis are “wild savages” who “refuse to be absorbed, disciplined or even understood” (153).  She refers to them as “primitive aborigines in the Qara [Mountains]” and “grand, pastoral, cave-dwelling noblemen have never worked with their hands” (152).[10] How would “primitive” people living in caves and herding flocks have survived if they had “never worked with their hands”?

Her writing creates a vision of an ancient, primitive people which erases the reality of the Dhofar region in the late 1970s. St Albans only carefully describes the life of a small percentage of the inhabitants, living in caves and rough dwellings in the mountains. She discusses “witch doctors” but not the many mosques or daily religious practices of Dhofaris (154). In Salalah at this time there was an airport, Holiday Inn, “shops and offices and ultra-modern television centre” and hospital (180) but she never shows Omanis interacting in/ working in these modern surroundings. The “comfortable seaside bungalow” she stays in is owned by British ex-pats who are described but when visiting the “model farm” she discusses the cows; there is no reference to Omanis who work there (163, 164).

Her account of the Dhofar War (1965-1975) shows sympathy only for the British soldiers who fought on the side of the government, which makes sense given that the first ‘thank you’ in her Acknowledgements section is to Brigadier Peter Thwaites. The second is “The Sultan’s Armed Forces provided transport where I wanted to go” (ix). Most of the other people mentioned are also British and military.

Musallim bin Nafl, the first leader of this revolution, is dismissed by the Duchess as “a useless loafer” and a “shiftless, bitter, dissatisfied layabout” but when she visits mountain villages she is appalled at the conditions (155, 156). She never connects the revolution encouraged by Musallim and the desperate poverty endured by his people. The difficulties of daily life she herself witnessed encouraged the mountain people to fight against their government which denied them the basic amenities of modern life such as schools and electricity.

Maria Dekeersmaeker’s The DNA of Salalah, Dhofar: A Tourist Guide (2011) is a guide just for the Dhofar region but it is unfortunately confusing with sentences such as “Horizontalism and parrellism are the trends in urban development of Salalah city. Off roads are the guidelines to the Rub al Khali Desert, the Dhofar Mountain Range and the coastal plains” (153). She lists several topics as “DNA” strands because “DNA contains information and influences most of the characteristics of living beings; every chapter in the guidebook contains a ‘main theme,’ a so-called cliff-hanger” (8). The first ‘strand’ is his Majesty Sultan Qaboos; the first facts given are that he was born in 1940, in the same month as “personalities such as the Italian designer Roberto Cavalli and the American-Chinese Hong Kong martial arts actor Bruce Lee was born” (11).

The non sequiturs make the book difficult to read. The first section is called “In the Footsteps of the Sultan.” One sub-section entitled “Beloved Mother” about the Sultan’s mother starts with a discussion of falaj, water channels (32). The sub-section “Renaissance Landmarks Education” includes several paragraphs about football (soccer) stadiums and clubs in Salalah (34). The sub-section “Landscape Architecture” is about the Salalah Port and the next sub-section, “The European Connection,” is about the cement factory.

Her discussion of modern Dhofaris makes misleading mistakes to highlight the exoticness, i.e. “real Dhofar men wear a skirt and a t-shirt” (163) with a focus on the rural/ pre-modern. She divides Dhofaris into three groups (Bedu, Jebali and Hadr) and then describes their lives in terms of what animals they take care, as if in 2010 all three groups only herded animals and fished (55-56).[11]

Her Treasure Chest Salalah, Oman Serial 1 (2011) is just as confusing but her next book Whispers of Oman (2015) is a helpful collection of short essays about/ interviews with  various Omani women, two men and a few non-Omani women who have lived in Oman for a long time. The pieces cover a wide-range of people from traditional artists to occupational therapists to a government Minister. Each section contains an inspiring story of over-coming a challenge and/ or devotion to Islam with accompanying photos. The advantage of the book is that it is letting people tell their life story mainly in their own words, with minimal editorial comment. Given how much is written about Oman without ever quoting Omanis, it’s good to have a book that lets people have their own say.

Fiction

The main literary genre in Dhofar and Oman in general is poetry. The first written sources are from the linguists: Johnstone’s  “The Language of Poetry in Dhofar” (1972) and Morris’ “A Poem in Jibbali” (1985). There are now many printed collections, such as Al Balushi’s Contemporary Omani Poetry in English (2016), but YouTube is also a valuable resource with videos of Gibali poets (some now deceased) reciting their own poems, either in informal settings or taped for broadcast on Oman TV.

Another important genre is folk/ fairy tales. Again, the earliest sources are from Johnstone: “Folklore and Folk Literature in Oman and Socotra” (1974), “A St. George of Dhofar” (1978) and “Folk-Tales and Folk-lore of Dhofar”  (1983). Khadija bint Alawi Al Thahab’s collection of folk stories has been translated into English as Stories of My Grandmother (2012) and Muhammad bin Musallim Al-Mahri published his Dhofari Folktales (in Arabic, 2010). Other texts Omani texts include Al Taie and Pickersgill’s Omani Folk Tales (2008) and Todino-Gonguet’s  Halimah and the Snake, and other Omani Folk Tales (2008).

There is a growing number of Omani novel and short story writers such as Al Farsi’s Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs: A Modern Omani Novel (Trans. Nancy Roberts 2013). Michalak-Pikulska gives an overview in her Modern Poetry and Prose of Oman: 1970-2000 (2002), but most of the writers are from the north.

In terms of western writers, the story of Emily Ruete Sayyida, Princess of Zanzibar [Memoirs of an Arabian Princess from Zanzibar,  (1886/ 2009)] is fictionalized in Bird’s The Sultan’s Shadow: One Family’s Rule at the Crossroads of East and West (2010). Webb’s The English Girl (2016) is set in the north at Jabrin fort. Wilson’s Alif the Unseen (2012) does not specifically reference Oman, but the country depicted is clearly an amalgamation of Oman/ Emirates and Saudi Arabia. James Rollins’ Sandstorm (2004) is supposedly set in the Dhofar region, but it  bears little resemblance to reality.

Arabian Peninsula

Although the Dhofari mountains were never under outside rule, I have found it useful to read memoirs by (usually British) administrators of other areas to note the contrasts, for example Boustead’s The Wind of Morning: An Autobiography (1971/ 2002)  and Henderson’s This Strange Eventful History: Memoirs of earlier Days in the UAE and the Sultanate of Oman  (1988/ 1993). More modern books about the Emirates, such as Tatchell’s A Diamond in the Desert: Behind the Scenes in Abu Dhabi, the World’s Richest City (2009) and Cooke’s Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf (2014) are also helpful in noting differences, for example in how the word “tribe” is used.

Books about Yemen are particularly worthwhile as many Dhofari tribes are said to come to Yemen and many Dhofaris still have links to Yemen. Reading about Yemeni guides, soldiers, travelers, and hosts provide valuable comparisons and contrasts to Gibalis in books such as van der Meulen’s Aden to the Hadramaut: A Journey in South Arabia  (1947/ 1958), Hamilton’s The Kingdom of Melchior: Adventure in South West Arabia (1949), Groom’s Sheba Revealed: A Posting to Bayhan in the Yemen (1948/ 2002), Doreen Ingrams’ A Time In Arabia: Life in Hadhramaut (1970/ 2013) and Harold Ingrams’ Arabia and the Isles (1943).

 

            [1] See also Clements’ Oman (World Bibliographical Series, Vol. 29, revised 1994).

            [2] There is no English language bookstore in Salalah although a few Arabic bookstores have a small English section. The best places to pick up the small paperbacks that appear is the small necessities shop in the lobby of the Hilton which carries the most variety of books on Dhofar, including pamphlets with small print runs such as Winning Hearts and Minds: Development as an anti-insurgency Weapon – The Dhofar War by Al Hamdani (2010).

[3] “From the north” is a term used widely in Dhofar region to refer to any Omani from outside Dhofar, but the term is borderline insulting to those from Muscat, Sohar, Nizwa etc. who never refer to themselves as “northern” and see themselves as belonging to a specific region and/ or town.

            [4] In the northern part of Oman, there is a fair amount of writing by British officials linked to the Sultans in Muscat, such as Samuel Barrett Miles (1919) who was the Political Agent five times between 1872-1887 in Muscat and Percy Cox (1925) who was Consul in Muscat from 1899 to the beginning of 1904. See Bidwell, Robin. “Bibliographical Notes on European Accounts of Muscat 1500-1900.” Arabian Studies 1978 IV 123-159.

            [5] See Reilly 2016 for an overview of western travelers to the Arabian Peninsula.

            [6] These can be compared to memoirs from the Jebal Akhdar War (1952/52 – 1957/59) in northern Oman in terms of the descriptions of soldiers. See for example, Smiley’s Arabian Assignment (1975), Kitson’s Bunch of Five (1977), Deane-Drummond’s Arrows of Fortune (1992) and Gwynne-James’ Letters from Oman: A Snapshot of Feudal Times as Oil Signals Change. (2001).

            [7] Gibalis show up in the book as the comic and / or exotic other. During his group’ first reconnaissance of the area, their helicopter drops them off in a remote wadi. A herdsman complains that the noise has killed/ frightened several of his goats. The next morning, Clapp says “the disconsolate Jebali herdsman of the day before had returned back by half a dozen of his clansmen, all armed with Belgian FAL automatic rifles” (128). The adjective “disconsolate” is odd, given that the Jebali was quite able to be find a way, with his gun and tribesmen, to be ‘consoled’ for his loss. This is played partly as a joke, partly as a danger, “Nothing really scary, but we clearly had to make the right moves” (128). The final price for the goats was $130, a rain poncho, a crate of apples and a Batik shirt (129). He paints the scene in terms similar to Yoda going through Luke Skywalker’s belongings when Luke crashes his plane, and in the same way that Luke first sees Yoda as a harmless pest, Clapp treats the men as children, happy to find a shirt that is too big for them.

Clapp doesn’t acknowledge that a loud, sudden noise which scatters animals could, in fact result in the death of an animal and additional work in collecting the herd back together. The difficulty of herding goats in an area that is desert for 10 months of the year, the danger of losing goats, the cost of goats, the difficulty of a herder to get to Salalah for new clothes/ fresh fruit makes no impression on him. He doesn’t seem to see the great disparity between his life (research/ movement by helicopter) and the life of the herder. There is no thought of, for example, giving the herders anything extra such as food or water when the helicopter arrives to take the group back to the Salalah. Even in now, when driving in remote wadis, the Gibali men in my research group and I offer whatever food and water we have in the car to herders, whether Omani or ex-pat.

            [8]See Barri Jones, Geraint. “The Myth of the ‘Lost City of the Arabian Sands’” in Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies (2004), 34:105—20.

            [9] Articles in which in which he is not the first author include Usik, Rose, and Hilbert, et al 2013 and Al-Abri, Podgorna, Rose, et al 2012.

            [10] She has done some reading about the history of Oman but her opinions reflect no ability to understand the reality of the people. One example, of many, is her assertion that

There is a company in England which manufactures florescent braces to make camels visible in the dark, but no Bedu in his right mind will go to the expense and trouble of importing this equipment for his animals. It is very much to his advantage anyway to get them killed on the roads, as the compensation for such a casualty is £500 each. (146)

How would desert-dwellers in Oman in the late 1970s have access to information about companies in England? How would they have access to things such as post-office boxes and credit cards to enable such a transaction? It is not to a camel owners’ “advantage” to have his livestock killed by a car, as the meat cannot be eaten and camels wander for afield, the owner may never know which vehicle killed the camel, not to mention the fact that camel owners grow attached to their animals.

            [11] The photographs included are only of nature, animals, traditional houses and people dancing, singing or doing something simple such as picnicking on a beach, sitting next to a camel, or holding a fish.  There is one small photo of a street with shops and streetlights; the stores are all closed. There are only four other photos of modern structures. Two are photos of mosques, one is a half-finished house (to illustrate the sub-section on the cement factory), the last is a photo of a modern shipbuilding yard in Great Britain. The one photo of children in a school is from 1965.