I am D. Michael, a teacher living and working in Muscat, Oman.I love to travel independently, find unique out of the way places to see, and interesting things to do. Welcome to my website where I share with you what I love about Oman.
Imagine yourself on a cold, flat, desert plain surrounded by sharp towering dunes, days from anything that resembles a village. It’s winter, so your feet ache as the soft sand sucks the heat out of your soles, yet the only thing you care about at the moment is eating your breakfast, freshly prepared desert bread, baked in the charcoal fired sand oven. With you are a dozen or so friendly Bedu that you hired to guide and protect you as you become the latest in a handful of westerners to ever cross the treacherous Rub’ al Khali.
Wilfred Thesiger woke up on the Arabian Peninsula to many scenes described above in the mid to late 1940’s. Later he published the travel classic Arabian Sands, in 1959. In it he describes, in great detail, Bedu culture and their life in the Rub’ al Khali (Empty Quarter).
In this episode of the Sultanate, I sit down with Tom Ordeman to discuss Wilfred Thesiger and his memoir Arabian Sands.
Tom Ordeman, Jr. is an information security practitioner at Oregon State University, and a part-time military historian. When he was an anti-terrorism consultant in Kuwait from 2010 to 2012, Oman became part of his responsibility. Later, Tom fell in love with the Sultanate of Oman during a life-changing visit in 2012. He’s written several articles for Small Wars Journal, and he’s previously discussed Oman on the War College podcast and the International Spy Museum podcast, called Spycast.
Join us as we discuss Wilfred Thesiger and Arabian Sands.
Sultanate Ep 033: Arabian Sands with Tom Ordeman Links
Tom Ordeman, Jr. joined me on episode 33 of the Sultanate podcast, and left us with a gift: a list of five riveting historical reads related to Oman. It is an eclectic grouping of books, but it has a little something for everybody in the family.
First on the list is the book we discussed in the podcast, Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger (1959) – “This is the kind of book that everyone can enjoy, but I think especially young men. It’s a romantic portrayal of rugged individualism [on the Arabian Peninsula.] It’s just a wonderful read,” says Tom.
If I could only read one book on this list, I’d choose this.
Off microphone Tom and I discussed this conflict, and interestingly Wilfred Thesiger had and idea something was boiling over in Buraimi, fascinating.
In the Service of the Sultan by Ian Gardiner (2006) – Tom says it’s, “perhaps the best overview of the Dhofar Rebellion, which was Sultan Qaboos’ first major challenge to overcome upon assuming the throne. Includes descriptions of the government’s initial efforts to apply oil revenue to development and infrastructure, and the Sultan’s efforts to unify the politically disparate regions of the Sultanate.”
This title landed on my kindle wishlist years ago as heard many good comments about the book. Still, I haven’t gotten around to reading it. Maybe after I finish Arabian Sands I’ll give it a go.
My first experience with Oman’s chip culture came very early in my time here. I rolled up to a “coffee shop”, honked my horn, as you do, and asked to see the menu. This menu was eccentric and whimsical in it’s own right, but that’s a topic for another day. Yet, one sandwich caught my gaze. CCEO. “What the crap is a CCEO?” The young man responded proudly, “Croissant, Cheese, Egg, and Chips Oman.”
“I’ll try that.”
This might be the perfect meal. A hot sandwich with a toasty sweet bread that nicely holds creamy white cheese. The omelet fried egg adds a perfect soft base to bite into, while the Chips Oman surprise you with a blast of salt, spice, and crunch. Yum.
All the chip brands in the sultanate, including Chips Oman, are third level cool. First, they taste great. Spicy, sweet, cheesy, salty… there’s something for everyone. Secondly, they are fun. Salad Chips, Pizza Chips? Enough said. Lastly, they are more than just silly chips.
Chips Oman are the unofficial cultural identifier for this great nation. Quietly spicy, unassuming, surprising, and lovable the world over. Exactly as it’s country namesake.
Interestingly, there is a disproportionate number of chip brands for this small population kingdom. Chips Oman are popular for sure. But are they the most popular chip brand? Let’s find out.
Chips Oman Controversy
In this episode of the Sultanate, I sit down with my friend Nadhira al Harthy to discuss why there are so many chip brands in Oman, the quirky ways to consume the sumptuous fried snack, and conduct a taste test to find the most popular chip in Oman.
Be apart of the conversation. What is your favorite chip in Oman?
If you fancy making your own sandwich with Chips Oman, try this recipe from the epically funny Misadventures in HR blog:
Sandwich Sand Landaise.
1 large piece of flatbread
4-5 slices of processed cheese product
12 packets of mayonnaise
4 packets ketchup
1/2 cup mixed vegetable pickle*
1 packet of potato chips, crushed with the aid of a computer mouse
Method: Clear reception counter of any work-related items. Place large piece of flatbread directly on top of reception counter. Unwrap processed cheese slices and lay evenly across flatbread, pile discarded cheese product wrappers elsewhere on reception desk. Remember, it is the “office boy’s” responsibility to dispose of these wrappers, not yours!
Next, open packets of mayonnaise with your teeth and squirt them on top of the cheese product. Use your index finger to spread the mayonnaise evenly across the cheese product. The mayonnaise layer must be at least 1/2 cm thick.
Employ the tooth technique to open the ketchup packets and use the tip of your index finger to swirl the ketchup through the sea of mayonnaise. All mayonnaise and ketchup packets should be piled on top of cheese product wrappers. Don’t worry if a packet or two fall on the ground, just point it out to the office boy when he walks by.
When you have blended the ketchup into the mayonnaise, scatter mixed vegetable pickles across your concoction.
Next, take a small packet of potato chips. Let the air out of the bag and place the flat bag on the reception counter beside your sandwich. Pick up your computer mouse and use it to crush the potato chips into a fine dust. Sprinkle potato chip dust across the top of the sandwich.
Now for the final flourish, starting at the left end of the sandwich, roll the bread tightly – just like a sushi chef rolls a tuna maki.
Do you have any fun stories about chips in Oman? Let me know in the comments below.
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Ashura is a significant occasion for all Muslims, but it is particularly important for Muslims practicing the Shia branch of Islam. Little known to outsiders, Shias in Oman quietly observe this occasion openly among the narrow streets of Muttrah. Join me as I share with you the unique sights and sounds of Ashura in Oman.
Ashura Etymology and History
Ashura means ten or tenth in Arabic, and more specificially the tenth of Muharram, a month on the Islamic calendar. Under the orders of Yazid I in 680 AD, Imam Hussain bin Ali was killed, along with 72 of his followers, in the Battle of Karbala.
According the Shias, Hussain is a martyr, and see him as a defender of Islam. However, it is here, after the Battle of Karbala, where Sunni and Shia theology splits. More interestingly, Hussain is the last Imam all Shia sub-sects mutually recognize, making the Ashura commemoration even more poignant.
Commemoration rituals are different around the world ranging from memorial services, mourning processions, tomb visitation, battle reenactments, and flagellation. On my visit this year I observed three of these rituals.
As an outsider looking into the Muttrah events, my most notable observation was the variety of the ritual practices conducted by the different cultural groups. You see, It’s not just Omanis down here conducting a single procession. In true Omani fashion the larger group is mixed with Omanis, Pakistanis, Indians, and Iranians from all the Shia sects. Yet each subgroup recites the poems and chants slightly differently. The result is a haunting gathering memorial for Hussain bin Ali.
Do you know of other Shia events happening in other parts of Oman? Let me know in the comments below.
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Here in the Muslim world it is the holy month of Ramadan, where worshipers fast during daylight hours to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Mohamed. The major mosques in the sultanate host post-fast meals called Iftar which take place at sunset and before the Maghrab prayer.
For this audio postcard I’m here in Ruwi, which is the business district of Muscat, observing the moments before Maghrab and Iftar.
In the parking lot of Sultan Qaboos Mosque, an area is cordoned off for a communal feast of rice and grilled chicken. There are hundreds of participants here all seated in long straight rows, sitting on ground mats in front of large round aluminum platters folding their feast. Near the platters are large bottles of cold water, cartons of laban (a yogurt buttermilk) and dates.
Officially the fast ends as soon as the Muezzin starts the Adhan. Everyone breaks fast together.
So, I specifically went to Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Ruwi (not to be confused with Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque) to photograph and make this recording because I knew they would be serving an Iftar meal in a way I could capture a decent image with the mosque in the background. I arrived well before Maghrab, started my microphone recording to capture everything, and wandered around outside the perimeter to grab just a few shots. Trying to keep a low profile. I didn’t want to disturb anybody.
Everybody was just sitting there waiting for the loudspeaker to crackle to life. So, needless to say everybody saw me, but nobody acted in a way like, “hey, don’t take my picture.” There’s no practical way to ask for everybody’s permission, but I knew the end image would only show the foreground subjects in limited detail. So I proceed to grab a few shots to share. Nothing closer closer than what you see here.
However, one of the catering staff came up to me, telling me I can’t take pictures. I kind of figured this would happen. I said, “no problem.” He then invited me to sit with them….. Here’s where my questions to you come:
How would you answer? Remember you specifically traveled to this location in Ruwi to discreetly and respectfully observe a religious moment from afar. You were told to stop taking photos, as opposed to being asked.
What’s the deal about no pictures? Peaceful muslims get unjustly categorized as dangerous by people who are ignorant, but hiding your practices from curious people isn’t going to look good. Maybe I’m missing something here.
As you can probably tell I am a little bummed, but it’s not a huge deal. I just thought it would make a good discussion and possible learning moment.
Let me know if you have any thoughts on my experience in the comments below.
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On March 20, 2018 I lost my best friend Jeff Brown unexpectedly. It’s been a trying time to say the least, remembering all the good times. There are so many way to memorialize or speak about Jeff, but Jeff was the ultimate influence on my travel experiences, which I am grateful for.
Jeff was born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a disease that essentially makes your muscles weaker and weaker, day by day. We met in high school in an English class. He pulled his wheel chair right next to me, and we’ve basically been friends ever since.
Our travels together started closer to home. We’d go on day trips to places like museums, downtown San Diego, or Joshua Tree. We eventually started to do weekend or over night trips to San Francisco, Yosemite, Sacramento, and Santa Barbara. These were amazing times. We were young, had lots of support from our parents, and no worries in the world.
All of these trips were initiated by Jeff, every single one. I’ve been to most or all the places he approached me about visiting, so it wasn’t my personal top priority. I was agnostic about travel at that time. However, I was happy to accommodate for Jeff physically, and just enjoy spending the time with my friend. Ultimately, I was traveling for the sake of Jeff.
The real turning point into my outlook on travel came in 2005 while on our tour farther from home, Ireland and The Netherlands. Originally I agreed to go, like always, for Jeff, but Europe was fresh for me. Here I found sights, sounds, smells, and cultures that were exciting and fulfilling. Amsterdam was especially notable as it was the place I thought about the possibilities of living and working overseas.
Unfortunately, this Europe trip would be Jeff’s first and last major overseas excursion. The physical demands of long flights proved challenging for Jeff, something we experienced on our return flight. However we did manage more trips closer to home. Fishing out of La Paz, Mexico was a highlight. Jeff was also with me, in a way, on many of my trips; I have countless emails from him asking for updates while I was traveling. He had so many questions.
Without that unforgettable two weeks in Europe I would not be here in Oman writing this from the back of my Land Cruiser. Originally I traveled for Jeff, then he showed me that travel can be more. It was his adventurous spirit and determination that rubbed off on me, showing the way.
Today I am blessed to take that spirit with me all over the world and Oman. I travel to see and experience cultures, people, and places that are on the edges of popularity. I want to see it for myself, not through the lens of a guide.
It’s clear why I travel, this whole blog is devoted to that, but why do you travel? What do you like to have, see, or do while traveling? Let me know in the comments below.
There are so many stories I can tell about our experiences together, but I think the excerpt from my speech given at Jeff’s celebration of life is a good one:
Now let’s move forward to our next adventurous leap. Europe 2005. Jeff, Matt (Jeff’s cousin), and I spent two weeks visiting Ireland and the Netherlands. We had to figure out how to bring Jeff’s ever growing entourage of equipment along with us. But we did it, and had a great time along the way. In Ireland we visited churches and said our prayers. We ate horrible fish and chips. Viewed the famous Ring of Kerry. Drank a pint or two at St. Jame’s Gate and Temple Bar.
In Amsterdam we again visited church to say our prayers. I lost count to the number of churches we visited. We went to the red li…… ummmmm. We visited the Van Gough Museum. Jeff ate a whole box of….. ummm, never mind ….. then we went to the coffee shop and…..
Matt (speaking to Matt in the audience), do you have any stories we CAN tell?…. There was that church we prayed at….? Look, I won’t turn this into a roast….
I’ve got one, Jeff had a hankering for Indonesian food. What’s Indonesian Food? We had no idea at the time, but we went for it anyway. We asked the concierge for a recommendation, who promptly sent us across town to find the best Indo joint. It maybe took 40 minutes to reach and a bit of maneuvering to access the tram, but these three goofballs made it to the front door. Mind you, this was before iPhone and google maps.
Beyond the front door was a set of stairs like no other. No landing, no turns, and as tall as jack’s bean stalk. After a discussion of our options and a few choice profane words directed towards the concierge who sent us to the restaurant at the top of the world, we decided we didn’t come all the way to the Netherlands to eat Dutch food. Step by step, Matt and I hauled Jeff up to the world’s best Indonesian Resturant at the top of Mt. Everest.
What’s great about this story is it isn’t the adventure of overcoming dutch sized stairs, or trying unique curry. Rather it’s a story about Jeff’s fearlessness in allowing two goofballs to carry him DOWN those obnoxious stairs, all while heavily under the influence of Asia’s finest beer.
Look, I can’t stand up here and make meaning of Jeff’s life or give you peace in his absence. But I can stand here and tell you that Jeff lived an adventurous, amazing, rich, complete, and joyful life.
Jeff, I miss you greatly and I hope one day to join you on your new adventure. I just hope it’s not too soon. There’s more to see in Oman, and I’m not done yet.
This month I am sending you an audio postcard from the town of Ibri at the animal market.
One of the popular activities tourists do in Oman is visit the animal market in Nizwa on Friday. While this is nice to do, it gets overrun by tourists at times. What people don’t know is these animal markets happen all over Oman in the major towns. So, it’s not just unique to Nizwa.
The Ibri market happens on Saturdays, and as you can hear is very lively. The buyers stand on the outer perimeter of the shaded pen. While the sellers circle in the middle calling out their asking price for their cows, goats, sheep, and camels.
At anytime a buyer can stop and inspect an animal or start negotiating.
What I like about visiting less known animal markets is the locals aren’t too used to foreigners and tend to be more receptive of your curiosity, but maybe that’s just me. So, wether it’s Nizwa, Ibri, Rustaq, or Sinaw a visit to an Omani animal market makes for a fun morning.
On March 21, 2018, the government of Oman opened the doors to the new Muscat International Airport terminal. While this is the logical next step for a country seeking to attract increased revenue from tourists and air traffic, I use the new terminal with mixed feelings.
The Good: New Muscat International Airport
Space – The biggest benefit from opening the new terminal is the huge increase in space. Everything from parking to airside seating is bigger and better. If this was the only change from the old terminal it would still be a win. It’s like moving from a studio apartment to a mansion.
Capacity – This bigger space opens up a lot more opportunity in the form of capacity. The increased capacity is a necessity for Oman to achieve its targets. But space is only one factor that we see which increases capacity. The improvements that we don’t see are advances in efficiency like runway access, baggage handling, and traffic flow. Everything that makes the airport experience more smooth.
Airbridges – The greatest things that I love at the new Muscat International Airport are the airbridges. I can’t stand having to load into a bus between the airport terminal and aircraft. I wouldn’t mind just walking to/from the plane myself, but the bus is a major hassle. Today we have full luxury and the ability to directly access the aircraft from the terminal. I big win in my book.
Baggage Claim Viewing Deck – The last good item I’d like to point out is a little more obscure, any maybe something visitors haven’t noticed, yet. The airport designers included a viewing area directly into the baggage claim from the land-side food court. Here you can wait to spot your friends and family as they exit immigration and wait for their bags. I find it much more enjoyable than waiting at the exit of customs. However, I wish the managers at the new Muscat International Airport would install more arrival information screens closer to the viewing glass where guest stand and wait. The current screens are too far away to view them without leaving the glass. A small suggestion but not a huge deal.
The Bad: New Muscat International Airport
Sadly I am more critical of the new terminal.
Space – For starters it’s too small, but maybe I am spoiled from other large airports in the region. Firstly, I find the gate concourse too narrow. This is especially apparent when you use the moving walkways. They are located in the center of the wings, but travel through an almost enclosed area, making it feel like a tunnel.
The concourse that is straight ahead from the central hub that features the airport history is the prime example of the narrowness, and general lack of space. Two people can barely walk side by side when transitioning from the central terminal shops/ food area to the gates. Very weird.
I also found very poor use of space at the security area for departures. You must enter the checkpoint though a glass gate first, then snake hard 90 degrees to access the x-ray belt. Here I found my fellow travelers taking advantage of the poor flow to try and cut in front and place their bags on the belt instead of waiting for the people in front to move through the metal detector. This hard turn is required because of the clashing designs of the security gate, and x-ray machines. It’s like x-ray machine purchasers didn’t talk with the airport designers or vice-versa. A shame for a brand new airport.
Incomplete – If you are looking to experience the world’s newest complete airport, you will be largely disappointed. The new Muscat International Airport opened before it was fully complete. At least I hope that is the case. Bathrooms are missing key features like soap dispensers, and many signs are printed on a laser-jet and posted with clear tape. Generally the many missing details will make you question the high price paid for this new building.
Poor Housekeeping – I hope this improves because it’s an easy one to fix. On my last flight through the new Muscat International Airport I found discarded meals sitting at most of the tables in the lounge areas, windows that looked like they’ve never been washed, and waiting chairs haphazardly arranged. Just a general lack of cleanliness and attention to detail at a brand new airport touted as “premium.”
Lack of Character – Lastly, I’ve spoken to people who like the look and feel of the new airport. However, to me the designers missed a great opportunity. We see some of the local designs queues coming through with the palm tree and desert motifs. But this doesn’t compliment the modern styling of the building. I wish they would have just stuck to one design theme. Either go full Omani and design the airport with total Arabic design, furniture, and feel. This would be my first choice and the most unique among all airports. Or the designers should have gone full modern like Doha, an airport often compared to the new Muscat International Airport.
In my opinion there is little comparison. Doha is fully modern, has amazing staff who direct, clean, and organize a beautiful, large, wide, and comfortable ship. Muscat doesn’t compare.
The new Muscat International Airport terminal employs a lot of great features will make our flights easier and enjoyable. However there is a lot left on the table. Somethings can and should be sorted, others cannot. At the end of the day this new terminal is an improvement from the old terminal, but I still miss that old building with all its downsides. It had character, something you can’t build with concrete and rebar.
Nestled at the entrance to the world’s largest contiguous sand desert, al Hashman is a calm oasis in an inhospitable neighborhood. To your east and west your neighbors sit 70 kilometers away. North of you flows a sea of angry red sand. Those who are crazy enough to venture into that sea should hope to find the Saudi border before being shot at.
Al Hashman is fascinating place. At first glance you wonder, “why would anyone live here?” However, look deeper and you’ll realize al Hashman is more than a dusty outpost.
Audio Postcard – al Hashman
I’m trying out this new audio postcard format on the Sultanate. Do you like it?
Surely, this formant will not stay forever, but let me know if you like it or not in the comments below. Also, let me know if al Hashman sound like a place you want to explore.