“Lo! The angels said: ‘O Mary! Behold, God sends thee the glad tiding, through a word from Him, (of a son) who shall become known as the Christ Jesus, son of Mary, of great honor in this world and in the life to come, and (shall be) of those who are drawn near unto God. And he shall speak unto men in his cradle, and as a grown man, and shall be of the righteous.’ ” Qur’an 3:45,46 (Asad).
It was Sunday night, the third Sunday of Advent, the candle of Joy had just been lit, and I had been invited to hear the angels sing in Ruwi, just outside Oman’s capital, Muscat.
I heard the angels sing in Kannada, Sinhala, English, Telugu, Urdu, Isoko, Konkanni, Arabic, Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and Tagalog.
I witnessed black, brown and yellow angels. Old angels, young angels and perhaps some wanna-be angels. There was only one white angel present that night — and she seemed to be singing the hymns from memory.
Together, the angels sang and danced to Isaiah, Luke and John.
The angels wore saris and skirts, jeans and dress suits. Children scampered between the rows of folding chairs, and, as at gatherings everywhere, adults kept a vigilant eye over all the children as shepherds watch their flocks by night.
More than 200 people had gathered in church to sing hymns and carols, to celebrate the approach of Christmas in a hall named after Dr. Donald Bosch, the American missionary doctor who hosted me when I first went to Oman in 1970.
As I listened to the angels sing I recalled the life of a man who had made it possible, through his eagerness to share his and his wife’s love of Oman, for me to visit the country so long ago — and indeed it was on the rooftop of the missionary hospital where I passed my first days in Oman, as there were yet no hotels.
In the 1950s, before oil was discovered in the sultanate, Dr. Bosch and his wife Eloise moved to Oman. For a long time Bosch was the only surgeon in the sultanate, and there were reportedly times when he would see more than 200 patients, and perform 10 operations, in a day. No one was ever turned away: Patients who could not pay the mission hospital fees often paid with chickens, goats, eggs, dates, sometimes gazelles and sometimes with volunteer labor.
Dr. Bosch died last February at the age of 95, in a home along the Arabian Sea that had been given to him by the sultan to honor his lifetime commitment to Oman.
Earlier that same Sunday, at lunch, I had honored the memory of another man who had moved to Oman as an adult, and who had become my friend: another man who had made my life in Oman possible.
Nasser, who had been born in Zanzibar (which then belonged to Oman) had been forced, with his family, to flee that East African island during its 1963 revolution. Unfortunately, Oman’s Sultan Said, its oppressive ruler, refused the exiled Zanzibarians refuge. Perhaps he feared their high level of education — perhaps he feared that they had been tainted by revolutionary zeal; regardless, Nasser, his family and thousands of others became part of a Diaspora that lasted until 1970 when Qabus deposed his father, Sultan Said, and came to power in a bloodless coup supported by the British. Once enthroned in Muscat, Sultan Qabus urged all Omani expatriates to return home and help the sultanate emerge from its feudal state.
Nasser, educated in Cairo and Baghdad, was working in Abu Dhabi when Qabus took power and he was finally able to repatriate to his homeland where we met, he to begin a career that would culminate with becoming an ambassador; I, to further my career as a budding photojournalist.
On this day, the third Sunday of Advent, I had lunch with Nasser’s widow, herself a schoolteacher from Zanzibar, their children and grandchildren. Although Nasser had died before I was able to return to Oman, I witnessed, in the home that he had built, the fulfillment of his aspirations, both for his family — and his country.
Finally, I visited the Muttrah Suq to find a wedding present for Sara, whose imminent wedding in Dubai was the reason for these December travels to the Arabian Peninsula.
“Frankincense has many qualities,” Nasser’s son had counseled over lunch. “The whiter it is the better — and make sure there aren’t bits of bark in the bag. The purer the better.”
In Abdulaziz’s shop, along a winding pathway in the traditional marketplace, bags of ordinary frankincense were piled high against the narrow walls. I checked them out and saw nothing worthy of gifting to a king — or to a bride.
“Have you anything better?”
He pulled out more bags. Still decidedly unappealing.
“No, no!” I said, shifting from English to Arabic. “I want the really good stuff.”
His eyes lit up and he smiled. From a shelf high on the wall he brought down a well-worn sack and opened it. Inside, lumps of frankincense glowed. Treasure from Dhofar, Oman’s southern province. Large chunks, white, some nearly iridescent.
“Al-Hojari,” he said.
Al-Hojari! The good stuff. The stuff for angels and kings and people of good will.
As I drove to Dubai the scent of frankincense filled the car: I was going to Sara’s wedding, and I was bringing a gift. I had a present worthy of the bride, whom I had known for years.
A present worthy of an angel.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.