Payphones on their way out

By Kabeer Yousuf — MUSCAT: Jan. 28 – When mobile phones hadn’t yet invaded our lives, we were dependent on the omnipresent box-like structures holding two phones on the either side. Once a lifeline for both residents and expatriates, these payphones are now making way for development. More than 50 ‘defunct’ payphones, rendered redundant by the handheld devices, have been removed from several places in different parts of the country, according to Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA). These phones have been removed to make way (space) for development, said TRA.
In the seventies, Omantel had installed 6,850 payphones at every nook and corner of the country, with Muscat accounting for 55 per cent of them.
A number of payphones were installed at key places, including the airport, ONTC bus station, Muttrah Corniche and Ruwi. With the help of calling cards, available at the nearby shops, one could make calls, both local and overseas. The cards came in different denominations starting from RO 1.
On the other hand, the number of mobile phone subscribers, both prepaid and postpaid, has seen a steady rise.
Abdul Kareem, 57, who runs a small tea shop in Muttrah, has a deep connect with these phones. “It was the only way to know about the well-being of my people. I’m sure many would have stories to share with the younger generation about how they stayed in touch with their families back home.”
Unlike in the present times when all one needs to do is dial the number on the smartphone, those days were different. “We would see long queues in front of these phones until a decade ago,” says Kareem, who began his life in Muscat some three and a half decades ago.
Queues were longer on weekends (Thursdays and Fridays then), he says. Kareem said people would watch others’ expressions before and after talking to their loved ones back home.
Mohammed Ashraf, who has been here since 1980s, said from Thursday itself he would be “dreaming about talking to my family the next day”. Queues used to be long and those who came early were lucky,” he said. It’s not just expatriates who are saddened to see these payphones out of sight. Many citizens recall having used them for making international calls. Sulaiman al Fouri, an octogenarian, used to make calls from a payphone in Ruwi to enquire about his sister undergoing treatment in Thailand. “It was useful to know her medical condition every day. On learning about his sister’s condition, those waiting in the queue would allow me to call first.” He, however, added his sister didn’t return alive. She lost her battle to cancer.