Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Road to Buraimi

The value of a program like this comes when you actually run into the reality of something you’ve been talking about in class. We’ve spent the past several days crisscrossing the UAE and Oman, getting a sense of the diversity of this small corner of the Arabian Peninsula. There are enormous differences between one place and another, and yet many places that share almost everything are arbitrarily divided.

At about 11 am we began working our way to the port of Sohar in Oman, where Sinbad the sailor is said to have been born. I suspect the promise of an Indian Ocean beach town was meant to lure us out of the Emirates for the day’s main attraction, the Buraimi Oasis. In a region so geographically divided by deserts and mountains (as we’ve seen vividly the past few days), a community like Buraimi (and Dubai) is at once a self-contained island of human activity, and intimately and inseparably linked with other such islands all over the Peninsula, the Indian Ocean, and the world. This web of community centers doesn’t quite fit our classroom maps, where different countries fit together like puzzle pieces, so when the UAE and Oman agreed to split the oasis in the 1970’s, life went on as usual until just a few years ago, when UAE decided the border must be regulated, putting an enormous barbed wire fence through the middle of the city and calling its half Al Ain.

Driving down the new highway that follows a line of ancient forts over the mountains, Isa called a former student of his and asked if she could show us around. We were stamped out of Oman way outside the city at about 5 pm, and weren’t stamped into UAE until after 8 pm when we were finished in Buraimi. We were stateless persons for about 3 hours.

When we arrived in town, Isa’s student showed us through an antique shop that held leopard pelts and century-old Ottoman textbooks, past a marketplace set up on the asphalt near the old fort, full of fresh dates and baskets of dried-up fish, and of course past the border post where Gulf citizens have to flash their passports or ID cards before crossing to the other side of the city. Most of the jobs are in Al Ain, but of course that means the rent is much more affordable in Buraimi. There are Omani and Emirati flags flying everywhere, just in case people get confused.

After the sightseeing, Isa’s student invited us in for tea and snacks, serving dates, figs and mangos with rose juice and Omani helwa, which is . . . not entirely unlike the filling of a pecan pie. Oman and Bahrain both claim their version is better, and all I can say is that Bahrain has a tough act to follow. Conversation went from pop culture to politics, including “how everyone in Dubai now thinks they’re the cool place to be. Well, fifty years ago, everyone thought Buraimi was the cool place. That’s not even a lifetime.” It’s hard for a city to be the center of it all when it’s split between two countries. That said, we thought we’d have to go all the way outside the oasis to get our UAE entry stamps, but there was a border post open to non-residents not far from the center of town. Things are getting a little closer together.


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