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SOFIA, Bulgaria- For many years I harbored a complete distain for digital photography. Digital photography killed film as a mass-consumer medium. Digital photography killed Kodak and my father’s job and the swath of the globe that I call home.

I come from a place that was built on film.

To my credit, in the early days digital cameras were awful. They’d take ten seconds to boot up and another five seconds after you pushed the shutter button to actually take each photo. I found them unusable for travel photography — by the time they’d be ready to shoot something it would already be gone.

I stuck to film for as long as I could … well, until I started blogging seriously and realized that I wasn’t going to go through the arduous process of both developing and scanning my photos. That was in 2005, and while digital cameras were not very good then they were at least functional — and the ability to publish and distribute photos via this blog almost instantly was a major point in its favor.

It’s the later half of the 2010s now and digital photography has gotten to a level that I would describe as incredible. The cameras are as fast and the image quality and feel — while not approaching that of film — is still adequate.

I gave in bought my first mirrorless digital camera at the end of last summer and decided to treat digital photography with a little more respect.

After all, the technology was first invented in my hometown.

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SOFIA, Bulgaria- I’m not sure if I ever imagined such a place. It’s two old traditional-style buildings side by side. On the ground floor of one building is a professional photography shop with a photo-themed cafe above it. In the other building there’s a photography gallery. In the alley between them there’s another cafe / bar that has a retractable glass roof over it.

When I first walked into the photography shop I was looking for a Metabones speed booster, BMPCC to Canon EF, and figured they wouldn’t have one and may not even understand what I was even talking about. Instead, they directed me to an entire display case full of them…

… Which was right next to a display case full of Blackmagic cameras. Not common.

I go to camera shops all over the world, and this one was among the best. I passed on the speed booster — if I wanted to spend $650 to use Canon lenses I would just buy a Canon camera. Anyway, adapters complicate the process — although the super 16 sensor in the BMPCC means a crop factor that’s impossible to work around, I suppose “style” is 50% working around limitations.

I choose to use a BMPCC for a reason. It’s a small video camera that produces the closest images resembling film that I’ve observed yet from a digital camera.

I’m from Rochester, NY, the birthplace of Kodak, the birthplace of film. My father worked for 20 years at Kodak. When I was a kid I believe he boxed film on an assembly line, then he drove a forklift in a warehouse, then he did an apprenticeship and began working as a sheet metal technician. Then he got laid off along with everybody else in the city.

I can remember going to Kodak to pick my dad up from work or meet him for lunch with my mom. It was just this fortress of a place — this strange other world where all kinds of magical things would happen. My dad told me about the machine that made film that was three stories high and as long as a city block. The factory was an entire city within the city. My mother worked there for a while as a mailman and she’d bring home the maps of the place to show me. All of the buildings were referred to by their number, and everybody in Rochester knew what someone meant when they said “Building 48” or “Building 29.” The place was its own society.

When you’re a kid from this city whose dad works at Kodak you come into the world with an inherent taste for photography. There is this certain proclivity to love cameras, to love film —  love the act of capturing light, archiving time, preserving memory, basking in the ephemeral. Kodak was a company who built its business model on nostalgia — they were the first to package photography and deliver it to the masses — and now when you make a mention of what this place was, when they tear down the factories one by one, nostalgia is what my city feels.

I’m not sure if there are multi-generational factory towns in the world anymore. Big factories now pop up in places fast, shut down fast, and then move on to somewhere else. The jobs that they provide are those that people do “for a while” and then go on to doing something else. Most of the fishermen of Penang were factory workers a generation ago, and then the plants closed so they went back to fishing.

When Kodak effectively shut down in Rochester one of the places they moved to was Xiamen in the southeast of China. They had a factory in an industrial zone next to a Black and Decker plant, but by the time I showed up in Xiamen in 2013 they both were already gone without a trace. I wouldn’t even have known about it if it wasn’t for some old expat who told me. Before Xiamen, Kodak was in Shantou.

The identities of cities were once inseparable from the things they made. All through history this was to the point where you’d say a city name and immediately follow it up with, “You know, the place were they make ___.” Today, these connections rarely exist. Sure, Seattle is Amazon and Mountain View is Google, but these are exceptions — and are in no way guaranteed to last very long into the future.

More often than not we have no idea where our stuff comes from and even the people who live in the cities that make it often don’t really have any clue either.

Your iPhones come from a place called the Zhengzhou Airport Economic Zone. Your iPads come from a place called Tianfu. By the time you read this there is a reasonable chance that they will no longer be made there anymore … but somewhere else, like Horgos, perhaps.

It’s kind of ironic, but most people in Rochester don’t know that all motion picture film is still made in Building 317.

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SOFIA, Bulgaria- I’m back. Not much to report. The planes left when they were supposed to and arrived in the same fashion. I’m now looking at a couple more weeks in Bulgaria.

I need to engage this place a little more before going. I have a filming segment set up with a street violinist, but I need to add on a couple more segments as well.

But at the same time I still have an entire month of articles to write. I’ve done it again. While I finished one article for a Harvard journal I didn’t produce any articles towards my quota in the first part of a month, which has again left me scampering around at the end of the month — when the stories are due. I’m probably going to end up stuck in a room for the last week … like usual.

Although I’m happy to be back. I’m happy to be riding on the subway back to my wife and kids. I’m happy because I’m going to get off at the Cultural Palace, grab a bottle of beer, and drink it on the walk home.

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TRANSIT ZONE, Dubai- The flight to Oman was full of young Ugandan women. They were on the way to begin their tenures as domestic servants, working in the homes of Muscat’s wealthy and wealthy-ish. I sat next to a couple of them and asked if they were afraid. They said that they weren’t, paused, and then admitted that they were. As we rolled over the tarmac towards the gates of Muscat’s new airport they looked out the window at a world nothing like anything they’ve seen before: dry, parched desert being grinded down by a sandpaper-harsh sun.

I cannot say that I saw many of these women throughout my stay in Oman, and I kind of forgot about them. They essentially become shadow people upon arrival, disappearing into homes, displaying little in the streets which alludes to their existence. They are not like the Filipinos or Indian workers, who have a very public presence in Oman.

But as I was at the airport leaving Oman I again began seeing droves of Ugandan maids:

They are wearing extremely colorful robes. One is all yellow, the girl sitting next to her is all red, next to her is blue, white, and then the one on the end is wearing a mix of purple, black, and green. They are around 22 or so years old — a group of domestic workers going home after serving their terms in the homes of Muscat’s rich. They are talking loud and laughing.

I began to talking with one of them. While all the rest were colorfully clad in robes and head scarves, she was decked out in dark western style clothes — a tight black long sleeve athletic shirt, dark grey sweat pants, and a dark grey hoodie. It was L.A. style — dark colors to blend in with the streets. Urban camouflage. The contrast between how this girl was dressed and the rest of the group made me curious. I began talking with her. I seemed to have freaked her out.

As I was wandering around the airport in Dubai, two hours into a ten-hour layover, I suddenly looked down to see the girl in the dark grey hoodie. I nearly stepped on her — she was sitting up against a support beam off to the side of a crowded corridor. We both kind of surprised each other and flashed a look of mutual recognition — she was the girl dressed in dark colors and I was the guy that tried to talk to her in Muscat. We said hello, she smiled and was open to talking, and I sat down next to her. She told me the story of what life was like working in the homes of Oman.

She terminated her contract early, only working 10 months of what was supposed to have been a two year term. She couldn’t take it anymore — being away from home, being yelled at, being continually watched and punished. She still danced, but had to do so from the privacy of bathrooms. She still made phone calls home, but had to do so while hiding from her employers. She didn’t have a very good run in Oman, but she got out and was on the way home.

“You don’t just marry a wife there, you marry a wife and a maid,” she joked. “They don’t know how to do anything. They don’t know how to cook, they don’t know how to clean. They can’t even boil an egg! They have other people to do everything for them.”

Nearly half of the people in Oman are foreigners working for Omanis. Over the past few generations, the oil-rich nation has been able to lean back and depend on foreign labor to do their dirty work. Filipinos, Indians, and Ugandans are imported in droves and have become a vital national resource, as many Omanis seem to have forgotten how to do what most cultures would call the basic acts of life — they’ve never cooked, never cleaned, never …

She told me that they lady she worked for wasn’t very nice; that she smoked five packs of cigarettes per day and yelled at her regularly. She said she nearly had what amounted to a nervous breakdown and tried to quit. Her employer told her that she could quite and that she was going home on multiple occasions — ‘pack your bags, you’re leaving today’ — and then leave her sitting there waiting until she eventually realized that it wasn’t true. When she was actually taken to the airport it came as a surprise.

“The sun is so hot that nobody goes outside,” she described Muscat. “I think God is punishing those people. Punishing them for how they act.”

I invited her to join me for a cup of coffee. There are a few options for this in the budget terminal of Dubai — McDonald’s, Costa Coffee, and some French chain — and I went for the later. It was more expensive and the seating was nicer.

She told me that she was from a village outside of Kampala. Her parents built their own house, adding on additions as needed. “People of my generation built their houses from bricks they made themselves. Your generation can’t do that,” her mother sometimes tells her.

She heard about the opportunity to go to Oman to work from friends and decided that she wanted to do it. Her mother and father were against the plan but she insisted.

“Let me try to find out.”

Finally, her mother relented. “You want to find out? Go find out then.”

She ended up spending the next ten months waking up at 4:30 in the morning to make chapatis. She was told she that would be paid 80 rial per month but was actually only given 70.

“But still you see all of these girls going to Oman to work. They know how it is but they don’t care. They go anyway.”

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MUSCAT, Oman- Truck fishing. That’s the only name for it that I can come up with. It’s pretty much what it is.

After stumbling out of the bar at the Hyatt I went for another walk down the beach. Oman is arid and dry and the beaches here are overtly refreshing — not the soggy, sticky type of the more humid stretches of the tropics. I enjoyed the sea breeze and strolled. I watched kids play tag, men play soccer, and women play gossip. I chatted with a guy up in a tree. He had a long pole and was knocking down fruit to his buddy. His buddy gave a sample of the fruit they were getting. I ate it but have no idea what it was.

I floated around looking at it all in the orange evening sun. Then I came up to a group of young guys practicing martial arts beneath a palm tree.
They had taped a pad to the tree and were punching and kicking it. They were the local badasses. I hung out with them for a while, had they do cool stuff so I could film it. They were better than I thought they would be — doing back flips and spinning cinema kicks.

Then one of them pointed to a truck that was speeding down the beach.

“You should take a picture of that,” he said.

He was right.

Why was a pickup truck driving fast down a beach full of families?

So I left the martial artists and raced down the tracks left by the truck. When I caught up it was at the other end of the beach, idling perpendicular to the surf. There was a group of young guys gathered around it. One of them had tied a rope to a tow hook on its front bumper. The rope stretched taunt way out into the waves. I could not determine what it was attached to.

“What are you doing?” I asked one of the young guys.

“Fishing,” he responded simply, as though everybody fishes like this.

“What do you mean fishing?”

All I saw at that point was a pickup truck and a rope. But then the truck roared into reverse, pulling back the rope, which one of the young guys unhooked as the truck drove forward into the waves. He reattached it and the truck went into reverse again, pulling back the net.

At the other end of the beach there was another pickup doing the same thing. Boats had previously stretched a colossal net out over the sea, covering the entire area in front of the beach. Incrementally, the trucks would move forward and backward, essentially becoming giant four wheeled winches. With each cycle they would move in a little closer to each other, pulling the net both into shore and cinched up together like a bag.

I hung out with the young guys manning the rope and took pictures. A guy in a white robe and taqiya began calling out orders. He seemed to be a supervisor so I interviewed him.

“Have you always fished like this?”

“Yes, for many, many years. We always fish like this?”

“With trucks?”

“Before we used boats. Boats that use wind.”

He then smiled a little mischievously and began calling out for a black guy from Africa to come over. “He is the one buying the fish. He sells to local restaurants and if anything is left takes it to Dubai. Take his picture,” the supervisor said with a laugh. The African had no interest in having his picture taken.

As the evening turned into night a crowd materialized — they were there for the fish. When the edges of the net first started being pulled up on the beach the scavengers dug in. They untangled fish from the net and stuffed them into plastic grocery bags. I’m not sure what the arrangement was. I did not see any money exchange hands but this doesn’t mean anything — maybe this was the social fee for the fishermen taking over the beach or maybe the scavengers were paying for the fresh fish they seized.

Eventually, the two pickups were side by side and a group of a dozen men were standing in the waist high surf around the reeled in net. I removed my boots, attached a light to my camera, and went out and joined them. One guy called out something and pulled a long barracuda from the net. It hung down from his waist to his feet and he carried it to shore separately. By now the buyers truck was here and the men pulled in the net by hand, carried it to the truck, and dumped its contents in the back.

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MUSCAT, Oman- Bars in Muscat tend to be in basements, which really lends a literal interpretation of the term “underground.”

Oman is a Muslim country, though it is one that doesn’t get too bent out of shape about some of the things that other Muslim countries do. Oman seems to realize that it is not an island, that other people from other parts of the world are necessary for the country to function and progress — and, more importantly, they seem to realize that these other people are not necessarily going to be Muslim or want to live by Sharia rules.

Roughly half of the people who live in Oman are not Omani — they are foreign workers brought in from elsewhere. This has created an overtly international country in the core of the Middle East, and, for the neighborhood they’re in, a tolerant country.

But nearly every bar in Muscat that I went to was located in a basement.

Drinking in Muslim countries is always, let’s say, interesting. The crowd that is attracted to bars in these countries are usually the white people, the free thinking, internationalized sect, or the dregs of society.

However, I’m interested in how many native Omanis drink in bars here. For some reason I assumed that the bars would pretty much be for foreigners only, with “no Muslims allowed” signs on the doors, like they are in some other countries. But most of the crowd is usually Omani in their white robes — which are sometimes topped off with baseball hats.

I thought the bars would be closed here today, as it is a holiday, but the sports bar at the Hyatt is open. I thought that many of the locals would have stayed home, but they didn’t. They were out in force today — a day off, a day for drinking.

Drinking in the Middle East is like going to a speakeasy of sorts — even in countries where it’s not overtly prohibited. It’s kind of like being part of a club — “the people who drink beer.” Although this is a club that doesn’t tend to be particularly decadent. I haven’t seen one overtly intoxicated person out in the streets yet. Omanis tend to drink beer as if it was tea. They drink, hang out, and then go home.

***
Someday soon the world is going to view Oman as the Singapore of the Middle East. International companies are going to flow in, activity is going to drop south from Dubai, and this place will prosper. Muscat will become a world city and Duqm will be a place you will hear about. You are going to know about Oman and you’re probably going to come here.

***
I grew weary of the basement bar at the Hyatt. The place was filling up and, under normal circumstances, I would normally declare it a good crowd. But most of the crowd were too absorbed by the divas on the TV who were rolling around on astroturf pretending to be hurt. I was just kind of hanging out alone, typing, daydreaming, typing.

Three pints of Tiger and a beef salami pizza dropped me thirty bucks. I figured it was time to call it a day. Oman is not a cheap country — even during happy hour.

I stepped out into the breezy warm evening and walked back to the beach.

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TRANSIT ZONE, Muscat- I’m back in no-man’s-land. The transit zone.

There are no bars in this one, but there is a group of young Rwandan woman. They are wearing extremely colorful robes. One is all yellow, the girl sitting next to her is all red, next to her is blue, white, and then the one on the end is wearing a mix of purple, black, and green. They are around 22 or so years old — a group of domestic workers going home after serving their terms in the homes of Muscat’s rich. They are talking loud and laughing.

I began to talking with one of them. While all the rest were colorfully clad in robes and head scarves, she was decked out in dark western style clothes — a tight black long sleeve athletic shirt, dark grey sweat pants, and a dark grey hoodie. It was L.A. style — dark colors to blend in with the streets. Urban camouflage.

The contrast between how this girl was dressed and the rest of the group made me curious. I began talking with her. I seemed to have freaked her out.

***
This is one of those heavy-hearted departures. Some countries I don’t really care about leaving. Others I know I’ll probably return to, so leaving is no a big deal. But in some others I have a real good time but I’m not so sure when I will be coming back again, so leaving is much like departing from a friend. Oman was of the latter group for me.

This visit to Oman seems to have been a success for a first visit on a new city project. I got what I was after, I was able to make friends, and engage the place a little closer because of it.

This is one of the major benefits of my work. I have a people job. I need to meet people, talk with people, learn from and about people. Through this, friendships often develop, which makes it all the more difficult to get on that plane and leave.

This is a good thing, and is exactly what I strive to feel every time I enter a new country.

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MUSCAT, Oman- I’m now back in Muscat. I got what I was after out in Duqm and now I can put together a nice little story about the place.

I’m now just sitting at a beach cafe — a pavilion, really, which is the perfect kind of beach cafe — just drining a mango juice, watching the waves come in, and taking notes about everything that happened over the past week in Duqm.

When out collecting content, every day is a full on torrent of informational in-take. You’re meeting people, asking questions, making friends, evaluating risk vs. reward — reward always wins — and doing whatever you can to obtain a rough picture of what is going on in a certain place in the world at a certain time. In this setting it is sometimes difficult to break character and cross over into the content processing phase — where you synthesize said newly acquired experience and knowledge into deliverable packages: articles, blog posts, documentary shorts, etc.

I took massive amounts of notes, pictures, and videos when out in Duqm, and I have a weeks worth of work to do processing, editing, transcribing it all — creating a foundation from which I can extract the essential elements and assemble my final products.

But now I’m just sitting back in my chair on the beach in Muscat, daydreaming and outlining what I’m actually going to do with this project.

I imaging I will pump out at least two articles, a doc short, a vlog, an array of blog posts, and maybe even a mini book about the visit.

I’ve decided to forego long narrative, highly researched blog posts because they take too long to process and ultimately screw up the linear nature of the project — blogs need to go in order, and in-depth posts clog up the works. There are also some things that I can’t openly publish online. But producing a detailed, day-to-day narrative of what I observe, learn, and experience is both important for me personally as well as for anyone who may be interested in the topics that I cover.

You see, when doing a big book project — such as the one that I’m struggling to complete on the New Silk Road — massive amounts of otherwise interesting or important details don’t make it into the final product. The thing would be too long and gangly otherwise. Intermittently, I have been publishing these types of stories on this blog in pretty raw formats, and, rather peculiarly, they are often the stories that generate the most attention from people who are researching the topics that I cover. There is a reason for this:

Personal narratives about global movements or “news” are simply not published very often. Journalists and videographers go all over the world documenting some of the biggest upheavals going on but we rarely hear the whole story. What we get instead is very finely edited, overtly vanilla, dummied down, heavily augmented, “lowest common denominator” versions of the story.

While I don’t claim to offer the “whole story” — I don’t have time for that — I do provide a stream of information that is at least a little different. As my friend Moni pointed out:

“Everybody is drawing from the same information. We all read the same reports and the same websites. You, on the other hand, bring something new to the discussion because you actually go to all these places.”

The idea is that I can do these high-res narratives and let other researchers who sit back in office headquarters piece it together and fuse it with their own work in their own way.

But I’m becoming aware that I need another outlet for the high-res narratives. Perhaps short books of around fifty or sixty pages each? They would read like blog narratives but include the formal interviews that I do along with outside data and supplementary research.

***
I’m writing this on the beach in Muscat. This is a city that crawls down a coastline and then turns inland and shoots down through a valley. I don’t believe this place is more than a few blocks wide at any point. It’s a long, skinny, serpentine city — Muscat doesn’t sprawl, it slithers.

Muscat is a relaxing place. The traffic density is low, the streets are wide, the tarmac is as smooth as a race track. The city’s sheer length and lack of an adequate public transportation system keeps it segmented in neighborhood sized parcels, which gives it a pleasing sense of diversity. You can go from one part of Muscat to another and it feels like you’re in a different place. The downside is that you’re going to drop ten to thirty bucks on the taxi to get there…

***

I decided to stop typing and just look out at the sea.

I want a drink.

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MUSCAT, Oman- Ever since that woeful event a few years ago on a flight from Urumqi to Almaty I’ve been a little paranoid about getting ill on airplanes. It’s to the point where I try to sanitize my diet a day or so before flying, trying to eat only stuff that appears low risk — which is a fool’s endeavor, by the way.

However, the food in Oman is good, cheap-isa, but not really what I would consider low risk.

I’ll put it this way:

I was standing out in the burning noon sun in the Ruwi district of Muscat looking at a Pizza Hut to my right and some local restaurant to my left. I already wasn’t feeling very good. For some reason the heat was getting to me — which is highly unusual and is something that I blamed on the McDonald’s breakfast. But I realized that it didn’t really matter what  restaurant I chose that the result would probably be the same.

I went for the local place and feasted for two rial — $5.

I ate too much. I walked back out into the sun and then retreated into a Costa Coffee. I blogged, then went out with the intention of going to Ruwi High Street — which I was told by Moni was an interesting commercial area.

I walked down the street in the sun.

Muscat has a distinct lack of shade, which seems to be by design: you’re not supposed to walk in this city, you’re supposed to drive. When you see someone walking down the street here you wouldn’t be foolish to assume that they were either somehow distressed or a migrant worker from South Asia on the job. The people here left walking in their nomadic, camel herding past. They don’t walk anymore — especially in the middle of the day.

But Americans walk.

By the time I arrived at High Street I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. I had no interest in being there. I didn’t feel well and feared that I would soon feel worse. I turned around and went to the bus station and got on bus to the airport.

I arrived five hours early.

I went through my options and put together a plan in case I did become ill. Everything checked out — there was only one obstacle: don’t end up sick in Dubai.

I have a 12 hour layover in the Fly Dubai (budget) terminal in Dubai. This isn’t the worst transit den in the world but it is definitely not a place that you’d want to be ill in. Think crowded bathrooms here, with long lines of dudes waiting outside the crappers. No, I can’t go to Dubai if there is even a remote chance of being sick. No way. I would stay in Muscat and book another flight if it came to that.

So I sat in the Muscat airport and evaluated my condition. I had time.

This is definitely not the worst place in the world to be in this state. The airport is brand new — having opened hardly a month ago — and it is beautiful, very low density, and, at this juncture, uber-comfortable. There is an entire floor for dining and hanging out with big long booths and tables, but there is hardly anyone here using it. I can lean back, work, and rest.

***

Funny, as I’m writing this another guy sat down at a nearby table and put his head down. His be-robed friend just walked up to him and asked what was wrong. He said he wasn’t feeling well. His friend offered him some Benadryl. He looked like complete shit — like, really sick.

Humans tend to view the world through a framework of relativity — relative to that guy I’m chipper, spry, and … ready to fly.

Somehow that makes me feel better.

I’m going to get a coffee.

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DUQM, Oman- A giant white village arose out of the desert on the horizon, glimmering in the evening sun.

“What is that place?” I asked the Omani guy who was driving me to the airport.

“That’s a new city.”

“Who lives there?”

“Nobody.”

In an interview that I did in Muscat with the director of the Duqm Special Economic Zone I asked some questions about the people who were living out in Duqm before they started building a new city there. Duqm is being built out in the middle of the desert. There were not many people out there, but there were some: Bedouin — fishermen and semi-nomadic herders. Bedouin that needed to be moved somewhere else.

“We had the usual problems,” the director responded.

The usual problems usually means forcibly relocating people to places they don’t want to be.

The Duqm SEZ authority actually made an entirely new town for the Bedouin who needed to be relocated. It’s an attractive, modern, middle class-looking town. The houses are two stories high and have garages. There is a mosque in the center. It looks like a glistening mirage of marble when viewed from a distance.

But it is completely empty.

“The government built a new house for them but they don’t want to go. They say the fish where the port is is better,” the Omani driver explained. “They don’t want to move. All they want is their camels.”

“Why don’t they want to go there?”

“They say they want Bedouin houses.”

“What’s a Bedouin house?”

“One here, one there, one over there. You know, scattered. They want places for their camels.”

“They don’t want to stay in accommodation provided by the state because they find it very unnatural,” my friend Monishankar Prasad explained to me later. “But modernity has to catch up with them, and the development paradigm gives them an opportunity to move into the modern economy, whether they like it or not.”

Moni did the environmental and social impact assessment for the new city of Duqm.

Photos of Bedouin in Duqm

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