Thursday, August 18, 2022 | Muharram 19, 1444 H
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33°C / 33°C

The adventure of a blonde and a very old car #18

“I really, really need a cup of tea”, Mrs J was getting afternoon cranky and we had not even reached Mirbat yet.

So, we pulled off the main road for a tea break. As so often before, we just chose a random car tire track leading towards the mountains. If there were tire tracks it meant that someone had gone before us, was our logic.

Soon the track turned in to rocky ground and the Pajero huffed and puffed and tried to slalom around the biggest and sharpest of the rocks in our way.

“What if we get a puncture? How would we ever get a recovery vehicle in here?”, Mrs J wondered slightly worried. Hmm, as much as I hated to admit it, she had a point. We parked the car in the middle of the now non-existing track and got the little gas stove going. While we waited for the kettle to boil, we sat next to each other and just took in the magnificent view of green lush mountains and solitude. Almost. In the distance we could see a herd of cows and trailing behind them, a human shape with a large stick.

The tea was ready and it was almost as though the cow herder had picked up the scent of sweet cardamom flavored tea from a distance. Or perhaps it was the Hobnobs. He left his animals to graze and walked towards us with long strides. As he got closer, Mrs J started to fret slightly. “There is something odd about him” she squinted slightly to get a better look at the figure approaching “something odd, I can’t quite put my finger on”.

We knew enough to know the golden rule of Omani hospitality and always to ‘feed and water a visitor to the tent’. Granted, we hadn’t put up the tent yet, but we quickly got out an extra mug anyway.

Old Salim was a formidable man.

Striking with his long grey curls held firmly in place by a braided leather head-thong (known as a mahfif) wrapped around his head several times. Mrs J stared, with her mouth slightly open. In front of her was an old man wearing a traditional Dhofari loin cloth, a checkered shirt from Gap, a tasseled shawl over his shoulder — and the head thong — making him look incredible tribal (well, apart from the Gap shirt, obviously),

“Is it just me, or is this man blue?” she whispered. And he was. Everything about Old Salim, who had now joined us for a cup of tea, was indeed blueish. His long hair and beard had a blue tint not too dissimilar in shade to an American lady having had a tight perm and a ‘blue rinse’. His fingertips and nails had a distinct blue hue, and around his eyes - blue. I realised, that the visitor we had sitting on our mat, enjoying tea and hobnobs, must be one of the old jabali tribesmen, known by early travellers to the Sultanate of Oman as: ‘The Blue Men of the Mountains’.

Of course Salim wasn’t really blue, but a long life of wearing clothes and his mahfif dyed with natural indigo seemed to have permanently coloured off on him. Indigo was for thousands of years cultivated and processed in the Sultanate of Oman, and Dhofar had near-perfect climate for the plant to thrive. Indigo powder had been a treasured commodity on par with frankincense and taken in caravans all the way to places like Damascus and Alexandria. The deep blue, almost black colour, was used to dye fabrics and even used in tattoos. The Sultanate of Oman had a booming indigo trade going until 1883 when Adolf von Baeyer (yup, the same guy best known for Aspirin) managed to invent a synthetic blue chemical dye. This new much cheaper powder almost completely knocked out the natural indigo production globally. During the industrial revolution the demand for indigo had soared to new heights with the introduction of, believe it or not, ...Levis jeans! So Baeyer had hit jackpot. In fact, he later received the Nobel Prize for his invention of synthetic indigo.

In the Sultanate of Oman, however, the natural indigo industry continued for quite a while, mainly due to the local strong belief that indigo had talismanic and medicinal properties. Traditionally the dye was rubbed directly on to the face and neck in the belief that the blue pigment would ward off illness, misfortune — and even an unpredictable jinn.

Old Salim had finished his tea, picked up his stick and thanked us with a smile. Mrs J watched him walking back to his cows. “Was he real — or did we just have hobnobs with an avatar?” I smiled back, knowing that we had just had the privilege of sipping tea with a real Blue Man from of Mountains.

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