‘Travel helped me comprehend many things’

Sergey Plekhanov sergey.plekhanov@gmail.com

The temperature near Nizwa (Saih al Barakat area) was 34ºC on November 9, 1999 — no more than a pleasant summer’s day to the Omanis in their dishdashas, but I felt surprisingly comfortable too in my wool suit, as the air in this region is dry and it is easier to tolerate the heat there than at the sea coast. Probably I wasn’t hot because I was seated in a large green tent awaiting an audience with the Sultan and was in high spirits.
I knew it was not the first time the Sultan’s camp had been pitched on this plain with rare acacias, surrounded by mountains in the north and open to the winds of the desert in the south. Complete silence reigned. It was hard to believe that somewhere near the pulse of the state machine was beating. In the numerous tents, equipped with the most up-to-date communications systems, ministers and generals are at work. The might of this nation is commanded by the man sitting over there on the carpet in his crimson tent.
As the sun sets, the desert grows cool. A guardsman enters our tent. I pick out a familiar word in his rapid speech — malik, king. I am given a signal that it is my turn.
Our jeep takes us over a rutted dirt track, its headlights picking out the rocky soil. Then suddenly the headlights are extinguished and the darkness closes in. Our guide’s torch shines, and we get out and follow him. Through the darkness I see a tent and in the light of its overhead lamp I see a small linen peak trimmed with braid. On the carpet at the entrance of the tent there is a slim figure in a white dishdasha. His face is still indistinct, but the short beard that frames it is instantly recognisable.
An energetic and heart-felt handshake. The Sultan greets me with a gentle smile and a warm but penetrating gaze. How little he resembles in comparison with the pictures I have carefully studied. He looks at least ten years younger in the flesh. The nobility of his bearing and the brightness in his eye, which cannot be captured by the camera. The bearing is of a man whose ancestors have sat upon the throne for two hundred years.
We sit in easy chairs, with a thin Persian rug on the floor and a small round table between us. From time to time during the conversation the Sultan waves his right hand. He has a narrow palm, long fingers and a silver ring on his little finger. His movements are gracious, understated yet full of resolve. His manner is regal, yet he smiles easily and sits relaxed.
The conversation moves smoothly from His Majesty’s childhood to his studies and military services, touches his views on Oman’s historical past and its current problems, his musical tastes and favourite books. Everything I hear adds to my knowledge and makes me re-examine the facts. Hearing the sincerity with which the Sultan speaks about the souls he holds dear, about education and moral values, I learn more than I ever could from the written accounts of him.
After having given a short thought His Majesty answers my questions.
What moments in your life influenced you most?
“I think of the most exciting event of my life was when I was promoted to officer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. And in my youth, at the age of 18 — when they told me that I would go abroad to study.”
He tells with humour that his new friends looked puzzled hearing that he came from Oman. So he bought a pocket geographic atlas and carried it with him to be ready to show where his country was. Yes, in those times people knew little about the Sultanate as it was a closed country. He himself, admits the Sultan, has got an opportunity to know better his country only when he was 30.
This seems a paradox: by that time His Majesty Qaboos bin Said had graduated from an English school, a military academy after it, had served in the army in Germany, had made a trip around the world, but in Oman knew nothing except Salalah.
I heard that his father Sultan Said bin Taimour didn’t like to leave Salalah, so he kept his son in the Al Hisn Palace like a bird in a golden cage. And now the Sultan himself confirms it: “It was very exciting and impressing for me to visit Muscat for the first time. The mountains, surrounding the capital of my country, majestic forts, the ancient Al Alam Palace. I have many recollections about my first trips around the country, palm groves, fishermen, peasants working in the fields, barasti — simple and comfortable houses of palm fronds. I was thrilled to get acquainted with new phenomena and new faces and at the same time I was considering various ideas of how to make the life of these people better.
I want to understand whether he has got reformist views due to his education and life experience. What influenced him? So I ask him to tell me about the first books he read, his hobbies, important things he saw in foreign lands.
“I was lucky to have read some good books. For example, I am grateful to Kamal Kalani, a writer who has adapted Shakespeare for Arab children. Another favourite book of my childhood is Kalilah and Dimnah.”
He tells me about his many months trip to Europe, Asia and America, during which he saw the most famous monuments of the ancient civilisation and of a modern one, such as the Empire State Building in New York. He recalls how every now and then he took out his camera to capture natural sites and masterpieces of cultural heritage.
“I have learned many new things in this journey. I have got another vision of the world. The fact that I have got in touch with life and culture of other peoples has enriched me very much. My father asked me: Have you learned what you had to? Yes, of course, — I answered — I think the travel was very helpful. It helped me comprehend many things.”

To be continued…..

Sergey Plekhanov is a Russian scholar and author of A Reformer on the Throne. In a 2-part article, Sergey writes about his meetings with His Majesty Sultan Qaboos and traces the formative years of the late Sultan. A Reformer on the Throne portrays multi-faceted personality of the late leader, ranging from experienced politician and benevolent leader to music-lover.