In days of old, the people who farmed Wadi Bani Habib lived in what appear to be two stone villages, now deserted, perched on the steep sides of the valley, though from what I understand they were considered as one village, known as Al-Habib. I have been visiting Wadi Bani Habib for years and although I always greatly enjoy its natural charms, my regular returns are primarily motivated by artistic concerns, which brings me to the subject of this article.
The humble dwellings of Al-Habib village have between them more painted rooms than any other traditional Omani settlement I am aware of. And not only are there more of them, they also exhibit a richer palette and more varied iconography than I have encountered elsewhere.
Why this should be so is, of course, a moot point and offers exactly the kind of vacant research space into which itinerant and wooly-headed nincompoops such as I like to park our rusty intellectual caravans and start expounding half-baked explanations!
Years ago it occurred to me that all these beautiful rooms in one place might be because a rampant aesthete had once been on the loose in Al-Habib, an inveterate painter who offered his skills to unsuspecting inhabitants for free. I’d once met and interviewed such an individual in Al-Ghafat who had painted murals in the houses of his uncles and cousins. I soon realized, though, that this was not the case in Al-Habib as all the major works in the village were clearly painted by different hands.
Then I wondered if perhaps there had been some mysterious aberration in the local populace, causing them to be more aesthetically gifted than the rest of the country. I no longer subscribe to this ludicrous idea either. Instead, I now believe that a confluence of two circumstances could have given rise to the surprising efflorescence in folk painting to be found in Al-Habib village.
The first and more mundane circumstance might be that the inhabitants of Al-Habib had greater access to painting materials than village dwellers elsewhere. Al-Jebel Al-Akhdar has long been a military zone and the camps would no doubt have been well supplied with all manner of materials, including paints for buildings and machinery. Would it be unreasonable to suppose that unused and unwanted paint supplies found their way to Al-Habib?
The second circumstance relates to that enduring question, ‘What makes people happy?’ The well-established view is that there are seven markers of happiness, namely wealth, family relationships, career, friends, health, freedom, and personal values, though not necessarily in that order. There is mounting evidence, though, of an eighth marker of happiness – living in beautiful surroundings.
Living in beautiful surroundings! Show me a more beautiful place than Wadi Bani Habib, if such a place exists, and I bet it will long have been an inspiration for painters and poets, sculptors and musicians. Natural beauty begets artistic beauty. Beautiful surroundings coupled with an availability of colourful paints may be the explanation for the flowering of folk art painting that we can see in Wadi Bani Habib.
I think I can now say that I have seen and, thanks to a technique known as digital stitching, photographed all the painted rooms that still exist in Al-Habib village. In most cases, the rooms would have served as nuptial bedrooms, decorated to make new brides feel welcome much in the same way that soon-to-be bridegrooms of today rush out and spend large sums of money on new bedroom suites. Without exception, all the painted rooms face outwards, with spectacular views of the pomegranate plantations on the wadi floor and the mountains beyond. Floral and vegetal designs, and in particular the pomegranate tree with its lush red fruit, form part of the iconography of some of the rooms, suggesting a wish to bring the outer beauty inside.
As our personal relations play such an important role in our personal happiness, is it not natural to try and enhance that happiness by making the surroundings in which we conduct our most personal relations as beautiful as possible. The inhabitants of old Al-Habib village had very limited means to do so, but what means they could lay their hands on in the form of left-over paints from the nearby military camp, they put to stunning use.
CLIVE GRACEY -