As many in New Hampshire were looking forward to celebrating Christmas later this month, I spent this past week packing, preparing for my return, after several decades, to the Land of Frankincense, the Sultanate of Oman.
In 1970, on a morning in Beirut that was so beautiful that it could stand as a proof of God — the Mediterranean could not have been more blue, the snow on the Lebanon mountains behind me could not have been more white and the coffee I was drinking could not have been richer. On days of such beauty possibilities are limitless.
I remember sitting on the terrace of The Hotel St. Georges casually reading the International Herald-Tribune while dipping a remarkably flaky, fresh croissant into my coffee when a small news item caught my eye: The Sultan of Oman, Said ibn Taimur, had been deposed by his son, the Sandhurst-educated Qabus bin Said.
I had only a faint notion about Oman. It was backward, inaccessible and separated from Arabia by the Empty Quarter, the largest sand desert in the world. It didn’t welcome tourists or journalists.
I read the news item as a challenge: I was going to Oman. I got the promise of an assignment from Time Magazine if I could get permission to enter Oman, and then I contacted an American missionary who ran a leper hospital in Muttrah, close by the capital of Muscat
Miraculously, I got a visa. I was in.
It was at once the most beautiful and exotic place I had ever visited — and one of the most primitive. I fell in love with the people, the culture and the landscape and over the course of several years visited often.
On one visit I drove from Muscat to Salalah, the capital of Dhofar, Oman’s southern province. That trip took more than five days over dirt roads — five miserable back-jarring days in a Land Rover that tested both my and the vehicle’s endurance.
While in Dhofar I was taken to see a grove of frankincense, a collection of wizened gnarly trees from which sap was extracted — a three-step process that took about 40 days — to form the gift that the Wise Men took to Bethlehem to honor the birth of the infant Jesus.
From Dhofar to Bethlehem.
From Exeter to Muscat.
In 1970, there were no roads in Oman. Communications with the outside world were limited. Sultan Said spied on his people through binoculars, people weren’t permitted umbrellas for fear they could shield their identities, and the gates to the capital were locked at sunset.
Oman’s intellectuals and entrepreneurs lived in exile. In Dubai, Beirut and London, Omanis made lives for themselves without being able to be rooted in their homeland. When Sultan Qabus deposed his father the gates to the entire nation were unlocked, the people exulted and the expatriates returned home.
And when I arrived in Muscat in those heady days full of promise, Omanis welcomed me with open arms; they wanted me to celebrate with them. They fed me, housed me (there were no hotels in Oman when I first arrived) and showed me their country.
It was love at first sight.
As I traveled throughout the country taking photos and recording my experiences for an article that eventually appeared in my first National Geographic story in February 1973, a small casual encounter in the town of Nizwa illustrated how cut off from the outside world Oman had been.
A group of boys clustered around me gesturing to me and my cameras smiling and saying, in Arabic, “Take my reflection, take my reflection.”
They didn’t know the word for photograph.
This week I am going to Dubai to celebrate a wedding, but first I am going to Oman, driving overland to Muscat to visit families who hosted me so many years ago.
More, next week, when I will share with you readers my own reflections on travels in Oman and weddings in Dubai. In the meantime I expect to have a week of many pleasures.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.