Salma is an Omani Bedouin. She lives part of the time in a tent on the fringes of the vast Wahiba Sands; and part of the time in a modern house in the nearby town of Bidiyyah. She wore the traditional Bedouin face mask, designed to protect from sandstorms and the elements in general, as she and her daughter in law served our lunch of traditional bread, rice, dhal, chicken, fish and salad.
Like Bedouin everywhere in the country they are trying to balance old and new, tradition and modernity.
The Bedouin lifestyle in Oman
As everywhere in the world, the traditional life-style of the Bedouin is threatened by modernisation and a trend for younger people to move away to the cities. The Omani government is encouraging this move by building homes in towns; these are offered at low cost or even free to the tribal people. The motive, we were told, was to help unify the country by bringing people closer together, as well as enabling everyone to benefit from modern health services and schools.
But I’m not sure how well it is working; in places (near Salalah in the south for instance) we saw new houses standing empty because the Bedouin have moved back to their tents or to villages nearer their traditional homelands. The fast pace of modernisation in Oman, which in less than fifty years has moved from a largely feudal to a technologically advanced economy, is perhaps having its greatest, or at least its least positive, impact on these people.
Meanwhile tourism, including hosting visits like ours and working as guides in the desert, offers those Bedouin who want to continue to live around here the opportunity to do so. Many, like Salma’s family, split their time between a home here and one in town. Possessions are for the most part small and portable; apart from a wooden dresser, a trestle table and some low benches, there is little solid furniture. The family sit and sleep on the colourful cushions made by Salma and her daughter in law; the sandy floor is covered with a patchwork of rugs; and family photos and small ornaments hang on the walls of the two rooms.
The only incongruously modern notes come from the mobile phones propped on a ledge to charge (they have solar power) or used to keep the children occupied.
Meet the family
In addition to Salma and her daughter in law, we met her husband and their two youngest grandchildren. Two other, older, grandchildren were at school and her son was at work in the town. Our guide Said had already told us that we were free to take as many photos as we wanted; so we did, asking permission however when we wanted to photograph any of the family. I am not sure what they thought of our interest in their various possessions; but I guess they are used to visitors taking photos of such things!
After we had eaten we moved to the room on the other side of the sandy open area. There we had coffee and dates, and learned a bit of Omani coffee culture from Said. He taught us to shake our cup if we wanted to indicate that we had had enough, or to hand it back directly if we wanted more. I handed mine back without shaking!
The family had set up a small stall of handicrafts, most of the items woven by Salma herself. The bigger items included scarves and bags, while the smallest were key chains, bookmarks and bracelets. I felt we should buy something to repay their hospitality. So I picked out a mobile phone pouch to serve as a case for my compact camera, something I did genuinely need.
We left feeling that our visit had benefitted both us and our hosts. We had gained real insights into their way of life; while they had, we felt sure, received a fair price for the meal and their time from our genuinely ethical tour company, Undiscovered Destinations.
Salma is Just One Person from Around the World, trying to do the best for her family.
I visited Oman in 2019