Lady in traditional Bedouin dress
Culture & tradition,  Deserts,  Just One Person,  Oman

Lunch with a Bedouin family in Oman

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.

Rough fence on desert sand
Rough fence on desert sand
Salma’s home

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.

Lady in traditional dress with table of handicrafts
Salma with her handiwork

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

26 Comments

  • Forestwood

    Fascinating experience and post Sarah. I am in awe that the Bedoin still live and might prefer to live this way, but I am glad they honour and try to maintain their cultural traditions. Is it only the women that wear the traditional mask?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Amanda 🙂 Yes, the mask is just worn by the women. If the men need to protect themselves against the sand they use their headscarves, wrapping them around their lower face.

      • Forestwood

        That is a bit sad but I understand it is their culture. I suppose the ladies still have to wrap their headscarves over their face as well and they must remove them to eat.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          I don’t find it sad Amanda. It is as you say their culture, and I think if we consider it sad we are looking at it through our own eyes not theirs. Perhaps they find it sad that we don’t wear any face covering?

          • Forestwood

            I am sure they do Sarah but if they might think it is sad that we don’t cover up, then to use your rationale, they are also looking at it through their eyes, not ours. Having said that, I like your viewpoint. As we have discussed, it is highly respectful which I applaud and whilst I am a traditionalist, I think it still is important to be open to new concepts and ideas or other ways of doing things. It is not good nor bad, but different or new. Does she have a choice? Perhaps she is happy to be that way. Is it compulsory, I wonder- that only women wear masks?

          • Sarah Wilkie

            You’re right of course that if they think us not wearing a mask is sad then they are looking through their own eyes. I guess my thinking is that they maybe haven’t had the opportunities we have had, to travel and to understand the wide variety of different cultures and belief-systems around the world. But perhaps I shouldn’t make that assumption.

            I find her mask striking and unusual but the idea of Muslim women wearing the more standard face coverings as part of their belief is pretty normal for me, living in London. Maybe that gives me a different perspective on this Bedouin choice? It was definitely explained to us as a practical solution to the challenges of living in this environment but given the dress of her daughter-in-law I feel Salma also wears this as a religious choice. I don’t know enough about the details of Islamic belief in Oman but in the UK it is a woman’s choice whether to cover her face or not – although having said that I am sure there are plenty of examples of men, husbands or fathers, dictating that choice, unfortunately. Oman may be more traditional and put higher expectations on women to conform, I suspect – but that doesn’t mean they don’t do so willingly.

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    Great post Sarah, such an experience, this is what travel is all about and reminiscent of our Jordanian stay. I wonder what they really think about the two styles of living in these places when there are such riches in the cities and yet such a simple life in the desert. It always makes us smile when we see people living this lifestyle with few possessions then out comes a mobile phone, such a clash.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you as always 😀 Yes, a great experience. I know what you mean about the mobile phones – they seem to be the one piece of modern technology to have crept into all strata of society almost everywhere in the world!

  • Fergy.

    Yet another fascinating post Sarah and do I even need to mention the photography is fantastic but where, oh where, are the images of the scran? Was that a social no-no or were you just too busy tucking in? You know what I am like about cooking.

    You make some interesting points about the problem of trying to modernise a country or people. I appreciate the value of education and healthcare but if the people don’t want to abandon a lifestyle born out of centuries or even millennia the Sultan is really on a hiding to nothing. I have to say that Salma’s home looks very comfortable and I love the two seater settee just sitting on the desert sand, crazy.

    What do they do for water there? Is there a well / spring / oasis nearby or does it have to be transported from further away?

    Keep up the good work.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Fergy and thanks so much for your thoughtful comments 🙂 No photos of the food on this occasion I’m afraid – I don’t know that it was a social no-no but I think I felt uncomfortable taking them (silly, because at a similar lunch in Cambodia last year I had no such qualms)

      I’m glad you spotted the sofa as it was a detail that caught my eye too when I took the photo 🙂 I’m not sure about the water situation. We were offered bottled water and certainly they don’t have plumbing or any running water. But as I said to Jo below, Salma’s home is only a short distance into the sands and her son and older grandchildren can drive to the nearby town each day for work/school, so maybe they get water there? I don’t know, but could that be some sort of water tank on the ground near the sofa???

      Also as I said to Jo, I do think the government’s intentions are good even if they’ve misfired as far as many Bedouin are concerned. Hopefully they’ll manage to strike a balance between access to modern services and a traditional lifestyle. But it does seem a waste that new-built houses are standing empty.

      I found recent Omani history fascinating and must write more about that some day soon. The country has modernised at a crazy pace, from still feudal in the 1970s when the late Sultan overthrew his father, to a modern society today!

  • restlessjo

    Another interesting visit, Sarah. It doesn’t sound like the Omani government have been too successful in assimilating the Bedouins into ‘normal’ life. Theirs is a distinctive lifestyle.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Jo 🙂 I think the government’s intentions are good and hopefully both they and the Bedouin will learn how to strike a balance between access to modern services and a traditional lifestyle. Salma’s home is only a short distance into the sands and her son and older grandchildren can drive to the nearby town each day for work/school, so maybe they have the best of both worlds. But I’m sure other families live more remotely and still don’t access the free education and healthcare to which they are entitled. Oman has modernised at a crazy pace, from still feudal in the 1970s to a modern society nowadays, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that they’re still feeling their way in some situations.

  • SandyL

    Very interesting Sarah. I enjoyed this post made personal by the naming your hostess & telling us about their home. So cool that they use solar power for their mobiles.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Sandy, I’m glad you enjoyed meeting Salma. It’s not often when travelling that we get to see people in their own homes, but when we do it really adds to our understanding of where we are 🙂

  • wetanddustyroads

    Wow Sarah, this is a truly interesting story about people we don’t read much about.
    It must be challenging to keep that balance between modernisation and their culture … but I’m glad they somehow manage to do this .

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you 😀 Yes, they do seem to be striking a balance that works for them, although I wonder how it will be for those young grandchildren when they grow up?

  • CadyLuck Leedy

    I am just fascinated with lives of other people in different countries……I think they may be on to something with keeping their traditions…….I don’t always feel progress has brought us a better life……Cady
    PS Thanks for joining in with your wonderful insights every week!

  • margaret21

    This was a special opportunity – I wonder what your hosts make of you – I guess they don’t see enough of you to know how different your lives are from theirs. How much teaching on local etiquette did you need? It wouldn’t be great to upset them by doing just the wrong thing.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Margaret, yes – it was special. We had a brief chat with our guide Said before visiting so we knew what to expect but the only essential bit of etiquette was removing shoes on arrival. Otherwise all we needed were smiles and common courtesy 🙂 While it’s normal there to eat with your hands, cutlery was provided, and I was pleased that I could sit on the low benches around the edge rather than the floor (sitting on the floor isn’t too much of a challenge for me, it’s the getting up!)

      Because they host these lunches regularly, and also because the lives of other Omanis are much more similar to ours in the west, I suspect they understand quite a bit about how ours differ from theirs. They didn’t display a lot of curiosity – it was enough to know our names and that we were English. We couldn’t converse much, only through Said.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Exactly Rose 🙂 The late Sultan (who was still ruling when we were there) seems by all accounts to have done a good job in bringing the disparate communities in his country together and was talked of very warmly by people we met. But I wonder whether he was a bit off-track in his programme to move the Bedouin to modern housing? The ambition to get children educated, provide better healthcare etc is all laudable but if the people don’t want to move …? But I think over time they will find a balance and the new Sultan seems to be in tune with the principles of his predecessor.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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