Strolling in old Muscat

Muttrah, the anti-Dubai

Like any city, perhaps, Muscat is a Russian nesting doll.

Unlike other cities in the Arabian Gulf region, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, Muscat, has continually and elegantly pursued the fine art of balancing its ancient heritage alongside inevitable modern development. Visually speaking, no sky-scraping buildings punctuate the skyline and there is a decided absence of the glimmering sheen of glass or acres of concrete.

Muscat is in contented possession of its own veritable identity, which sharply individuates it from its regional urban siblings.

Its 500,000 inhabitants, Omanis from all over the country and expatriates arriving from a global spectrum, harmoniously live, work, and play alongside each other. While bling and dressed-up glamor define the heartbeat of its admittedly much more well-known neighbour, Dubai, Muscat is in contented possession of its own veritable identity, which sharply individuates it from its regional urban siblings.

One of the largest sea-ports in the region, Muscat is also home to older quarters, such as the souq area. Indeed, Muttrah allows the newcomer to witness a mode of life which seems to have evaporated from the villages and condensed upon tiny urban pockets. Peel away the photogenic prettiness of the Corniche and the suitably exotic Muttrah souq and you’ll unearth the most unassuming layer of Muttrah.

Silence is an impossible notion here, words continuously winging their way through the air.

Kilometres away from the undoubtedly regal grandeur of the newly launched Royal Opera House Muscat, behind the pulsating façade of the Muttrah souq, a slower and more nuanced city of old and young souls continues to thrive. As if in deliberate oblivion to the other surrounding cities, Muttrah’s traditional houses studded with shuttered windows, its tailoring establishments, playful cats and wheelbarrows stuffed with lemons peacefully co-exist.

Little, nondescript shops retailing colour and simple luxuries line the alleys. Multi-whorled food aromas emanate from coffee-shops, whose owners courteously offer free cans of Pepsi to those whom they deem as guests in their city. Clusters of elderly men still gather around to gossip post-dusk; children tear through the gullies, which function as their home and playground and constitute their personal universe. During twilight, neighbourhood women emerge, catching up on the whispers of the day. Silence is an impossible notion here, words continuously winging their way through the air.

Yet, for all its authenticity, this is also admittedly a city in decline.

Many call Muttrah their home: residents originally belonging to the area, as well as Indian Gujarati merchants — generations of them having lived there — souq shopkeepers, and the seasonal flocks of tourists. Each imparts their individual perspective and influence upon Muttrah, vigorously contributing to the kaleidoscope of stories it is.

There is a palpable, vivid character to this city, quirks embedded in its skin, which distinguishes it from its increasingly plastic, hollow cousins sprouting elsewhere. Mobile numbers are inscribed upon the walls. Mannequins haughtily pose outside tailoring shops.

Yet, for all its authenticity, this is also admittedly a city in decline. Many original inhabitants have long left Muttrah to live elsewhere in Muscat, locking their centuries-old homes to silence and in some cases, unwittingly subjecting it to destruction. Those who remain in here inevitably embrace it as home, while an undeniable sense of transition palpably hovers in the air, the residents and the city in anticipation of the forthcoming changes.

When Muttrah’s bi-lanes continue to thrum with life, one simultaneously cannot be blind to the decaying architecture and more poignantly, gaping, blank spots where history once lived. What has gone has gone — yet, the question that arises is: what will eventually happen to all those stories of Muttrah falling out from the windows and carried on the breeze that drifts here and there?

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