What is it that attracts certain people to ruins? Ruins have of course long been a source of inspiration for poets, writers and painters and, more recently, photographers, but there is a much broader interest that that. Children especially love to ramble and explore old castles and abandoned buildings. Is it because such places present us with a jigsaw image of some past epoch with many of the pieces missing and that our imagination yearns to fill in those empty spaces?
There are those who view ruins that date from the pre-industrial era with teary-eyed nostalgia. For them, the wreckage of a peasant village is an elegy in rubble to a simpler and supposedly more virtuous time and way of life. To such individuals, ruins offer an imaginary escape from the mundane drudgery of modern life.
Yet others see in ruins powerful metaphors for the human condition. For some, ruins stand as memento mori, stark reminders of their mortality, while those of a more melancholic bent often see in ruination potent symbols for the ultimate vanity and futility of all human endeavor.
My own attraction to ruins is mostly at a visual level. I love the way the duality of light and shadow plays out in the uninhabited interiors like the dialogue between the Ego and the Id. And I revel in the sumptuous textures and subtle colours that have resulted from weathering and decay. Even though ruination is chaotic by nature and often ugly and malodorous, I can nevertheless usually find some beauty and harmony among the disorder and decay.
Ruins most often come about as a result of some natural cataclysm, such as an earthquake or a volcano, or through the man-made disasters of war or economic collapse. When exploring such ‘unhappy’ ruins, I often feel an unmistakable morbid pall pervading the shattered buildings and sometimes think that I can detect the faintest hint of smoke in the air.
Once, when dreamily wandering around the extensive ruinfield of a medieval city that had been badly damaged by an earthquake in the 15th century and then razed by invaders in the early 16th, I even fancied I could hear the muffled screams of the terrified former inhabitants as they fled their blood-thirsty attackers. But when I reached the edge of the plateau upon which the city stood, I realized that what I’d in fact heard were the raucous voices of schoolboys playing football on the wadi floor below!
Many of the ruins that we have in Oman, most notably the now obsolete mud-brick dwellings and settlements of the interior regions, are what I call ‘happy ruins’. No saturnine tingling runs up my spine as I wander their now deserted streets or explore the dimly lit interiors of their vacant and crumbling dwellings. Why should this be so? To find the answer, I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to ask someone from the last generation to be born and raised in one of these archaic and now silent uninhabited houses?
With the help of the Editor-in-Chief, I tracked down and met with Salim, the boy in the photograph, now a father in his 40s working in Bahla. He smiled as he studied the picture of his former self on the Al-Hamra Club Membership Card and told me that he hadn’t even visited Muscat when the photograph was taken. He then kindly drove me to the old settlement where he had grown up. The house where I’d found the card had in fact been his grandfather’s house, while his own home was one of the adjacent buildings.
I asked him about life as he remembered it back in the early 1980s and he sketched a picture of women sitting on doorsteps grinding spices and chatting, of men carrying bundles of fodder on their heads and of children running and playing in the narrow streets. Electricity had been installed in some of the larger houses in 1982 but by 1990, most people had moved away to newer habitation in the surrounding area.
And what did his own sons think of the place whenever he brought them to see his childhood home?
“They can’t believe that I once lived here,” he said with a laugh. “To them, it is a completely different world.”
“Is it a world you miss?” I asked. “Do you feel sad when you see your grandfather’s house and all the surrounding area going to wrack and ruin?”
“No,” was his simple reply. “Now everything is so much better. What do we have to be sorry about?”
And there’s the answer to my conundrum. The inhabitants of the traditional mud-brick settlements left merrily of their own accord, eager to participate in the break-neck social and economic development that has characterized the Sultanate of Oman since 1970. There are no regrets about having left and no particular nostalgia for that now superseded way of life. Consequently, the silent and decaying dwellings have no melancholy air about them; they are happy ruins.