Saayyid Saaid cornered us in the center of Tiwi village. Within less than a minute, we were following him through a maze of dusty, narrow alleyways, past the laundry shops and barber shops and ubiquitous Omani coffee shops to his family home up on the hill. A photo and a cup of coffee, he’d gestured, along with an armload of Arabic gibberish. Dressed in a dark striped dishdasha and a loosely wrapped headscarf, he looked like an innocent old man, so Bruno and I shrugged a why not shrug and accepted his offer. What could be the harm in a cup of coffee?
We’d already had an eventful morning. We’d visited the deceptively turquoise water of the Hawiyat Najm Sinkhole, a crater-sized pool of water deep below the ground. The side ledges were reflected in the water in such a way that I swore I could see a shallow bottom. It’s an optical illusion – no one actually knows how deep the waters are, only that a demon lurks in its depths.
Then, we’d driven along the jagged cliffs of Oman’s coast, identifying possible camping locations for later that day. It was the weekend, and we were not the only ones wanting to set up camp – camping is extremely popular in Oman, dating back to its nomadic Bedouin roots. People had already set up vast camps along one edge of White – or, Tiwi – Beach, so we decided to scope out the other side.
We didn’t get very far. Bruno didn’t put Totoyaya into 4WD, and so got stuck in the first bit of deep sand. It was pretty embarrassing since Bruno is usually an expert off-roader, especially when no less than a dozen young Omani men emerged out of a tent that didn’t look big enough to contain half of them. We’d had a larger audience to our mishap than we’d thought. At least we had a lot of spare muscles to help push us out (though we were still required to deflate our tires to get out of the sand – but more on techniques for driving in sand in a future post).
Finding a compressor to reflate our tires is what had brought us to Tiwi village, and ultimately into the home of Saayyid Saaid. He welcomed us into his diwan, the reception room at the front of every Muslim home, as he shooed out his grandchildren, who had been playing video games there. The cushions they had scattered all over the rug were swiftly placed upright along the edge of the walls, and I was shown to the cushion in the corner. A moment later, a plastic bag full of photos was emptied into my arms.
I grabbed a few photos, happy to have something to look at, since neither Bruno nor I could communicate with our host. The first photo showed a European couple smiling, with Saayyid Saaid in the center. The second photo showed a white man dressed in Omani clothing, holding a khanjar (a traditional Omani tribal dagger, curved at the end), posing next to Saayyid Saaid. The third photo showed a blonde women smiling awkwardly next to Saayyid Saaid, their arms wrapped over each other’s shoulders.
“Photos of tourists,” I said to our host, even though I knew he couldn’t understand us. I hoped my smile and enthusiasm would be conveyed, rather than my sideways glance at Bruno. He was going quickly through a pile of photos, all featuring similar Western tourists.
It appeared our invitation to coffee had come with ulterior motives. We were to be two more tourists for Saayyid Saaid’s collection.
As we looked at photos, a few people poked their heads into the room, most disappearing without a word. Hello, said one man in English. I am son.
I said a grateful hello and put down the strange collection of photos. I was happy to have someone to chit-chat with in English, even if it was broken.
“How many people live in this house?” I asked. The man paused for a moment, counted and recounted on his fingers. “Fifteen children”, he declared proudly. “Come, I show you.”
And with that, he whisked me through the diwan into the back of the house, which was basically a large hallway with doors on either side. The man proceeded to open one door at a time without knocking, and I was given a glimpse of its inhabitants. In one room, couples and children watched TV; in another, some adults sat on the ground while a newborn baby slept; and in a third room, I’d definitely stumbled into some women-only gossip. When they spotted me, they shyly covered their uncovered heads.
“Whole family home for weekend,” explained the man as we nestled back into the cushions in the diwan. “On weekend, we all come here, us from Sur, sister from Muscat, brother from Ibra. On weekday is only father, mother, and young sister.”
That explained the full house. I’d heard that Omani families often travel back to their villages on the weekends.
Saayyid Saaid re-entered the room, carrying three tiny cups and a large pot of coffee, a tray of fruits, and a plate of cake cut into little squares. I’d seen him a moment before rummaging through the fridge with his wife, looking for something to feed his impromptu guests. Such is Omani hospitality, no matter how unusual the intentions.
“Coffee?” asked the son.
“Yes, thank you,” we said. Normally I hate coffee, but I don’t mind the Arabic version, with its watered-down flavour and hint of cardamom spice.
Saayyid Saaid drank with us. Kahwa, he said. Kahwa, we repeated. The Arabic word for coffee.
“Eat,” said the son. I grabbed a slice of apple. Saayyid Saaid gestured to the cake. I took a piece. He gestured again toward it. I took another piece.
“Kahwa,” said Saayyid Saaid. Kahwa, we repeated. I gave him my cup. He poured me more coffee. Then he thrust one of the photos lying on the ground into my hand. It was of him and a white woman in an oasis, holding a giant bunch of bananas.
“My father wants to take you to Wadi Tiwi,” said the son. “He grows mangoes and bananas there. He would like to show you.”
The next day, we would visit a different wadi, nearby Wadi Shab. More famous than its younger sibling, Wadi Shab is a giant canyon, filled with turquoise pools, palm trees and waterfalls, that sheds rain water from the Hajar Mountains into the Gulf of Oman. We would take the little motor boat over the first pool at the mouth of the wadi and walk among the irrigation systems (one new black pipe and one ancient cement slide) that water the date palms and banana trees planted here by locals.
It would be too cold that day to swim in the famous cave pool – it had rained heavily the night before, and drizzle still spat on us every once in a while. Instead, we would hike up the rock walls and past the pools, winding deeper and deeper into the heart of the wadi, until we were so high and so far that I felt more like a mountain goat than a tourist.
But today, we didn’t want to visit a wadi, especially with our host. The tourist collector was beginning to give me the creeps. As I picked my way through his stack of photos, I noticed more and more uncomfortable expressions on the faces of his tourists. This was especially true of the women, around whom Saayyid Saaid’s arm was always wrapped so fully that it looked as though he was grabbing their breasts. The chummy way the women’s arms were draped around Saayyid Saaid’s shoulder looked incongruous with their facial expressions, and I wondered why they’d placed their arms there in the first place (especially in Oman, where it is taboo for unrelated men and women to touch).
Besides, we knew from the photos that visiting the wadi was only phase two of Saayyid Saaid’s tour. Phase three would be an invitation to lunch; phase four, a game of dress-up; and phase five, a sleepover. While we appreciated Saayyid Saaid’s hospitality, we weren’t ready to commit to twenty-four hours with our eccentric host. We just wanted to drink our third cup of coffee (the minimum required by short-term guests) and leave.
“Kahwa?” asked Saayyid Saaid a third time, and I handed him my cup, thankful that it was not much larger than a thimble. I chatted with the son about his time in Europe, and marvelled that he didn’t despise Europeans when this is the type of hospitality an Omani expects.
“Kahwa?” asked Saayyid Saaid again. “No, thank you,” we replied. “We’ve had enough.” We began to take our leave, making excuses and apologizing for not being able to visit Wadi Tiwi with our host.
Saayyid Saaid walked us out of the house. He walked us out the gate. He walked us down the alleyways, past the shops and the mosque – which was now calling the faithful to Friday noontime prayer – and to our Toyota.
Photo, he gestured again (he’d asked us several times in his home, not believing that we didn’t have a cameria with us). I grabbed my camera and, remembering Saayyid Saaid’s wandering hand, gestured to Bruno to stand next to him. Saayyid Saaid pulled his typical arm-around-the-shoulder pose, but Bruno kept his to himself. I snapped the photo.
Shukran, we said, trying to say our goodbyes. No, he gestured. You, come. Me. A photo. Crap.
Saayyid Saaid grabbed my arm and hoisted it over his shoulder. Then he wrapped his over my shoulder. I blocked him from going further down with my free hand. I smiled awkwardly for the camera, just like all the women before.
Saayyid Saaid pulled out his business card again (he’d done that, too, many times during kahwa). Photo, he gestured. And we finally understood. He wanted us to photograph his business card, which had his address on it, and send him the photos we’d just taken. So he could add us to his collection.
A couple of weeks have passed since our encounter with Saayyid Saaid, so he should receive his photos in the mail pretty soon. In the meantime, I’m sure the Tourist Collector of Tiwi has kept busy – collecting more tourists.