Salalah, Oman - The sumptuous smell of grilled swordfish hangs languidly in the air. A golden sunset sparkles off the sea and blankets the cafés. My companion, Grabbir Boubi, a 15-year-old savante organist in the Royal Opera House of Muscat, orders a black coffee, despite the 106 degree heat.
“This place has wonderful Halawa”, he whispers in perfectly crisp English, “but you still have to shit in a hole in the back.” And so another window opens into the mindset of the Omani youth. Content in the present, jittery about the future.
“So it seems with your Sultan,” I reply. “A man of great character, having trouble exiting the stage.” The comment lands with a thud on the table. I cooly slosh down my lemonade and lean back in my chair. “You swallowed that fly in your lemonade.” he shoots back. He’s evading, but I don’t push.
Muscat, Oman - the capital city. I pop dates into my mouth as I stroll the Sultan’s palace, waiting patiently for my chaperon Shaif Hirboush. My immaculately white dishdasha billows around my thighs in the high powered air conditioning, sending chills up my leg. Shaif arrives out of breath and waving his bamboo camel stick. “The dishdasha! You wore it! You look amazing!” We shake hands and begin walking arm in arm. “It feels amazing!” I reply. “Conservative on the outside, party on the inside!” “Ah! You are learning the Omani way.” Shaif bellows. “Come Come! We have much to see!”
We tour the palace and royal court buildings. Shaif bubbles with enthusiasm as he describes the many places Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has stood, sat, and leaned. “The palace today is largely used for ceremonial purposes,” Shaif admits. “The Sultan now prefers his quiter seaside residence near Seeb. But you can still feel his warmth in the hallways no?” “I can.” I agree. “But for how much longer? The Sultan has been ill no?” Shaif chafes at the question. “Sultan Qaboos is fit as a violin! Such nonsense you hear in the streets!” He leans close to my ear. “Meet me back at your hotel in one hour.” With a flap of the robe he is gone. Where is my hotel?
I meet Shaif in the lobby and we climb into his idling Suburu. Shaif remains silent as we drive down Sultan Qaboos road, past Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque and Sultan Qaboos University, on our way through Medinat Sultan Qaboos. We’re soon in the middle of the Gulf of Oman desert. The sun blazes overhead as heat waves dance on the horizon. Shaif pulls off the road and we careen through the sand, bouncing over dunes like waves. Finally Shaif kills the engine and hands me a shovel. “Dig.” he commands. After an hour of back breaking labor, we find ourselves at the bottom of a deep hole in the sand. “Now we can talk.” he declares.
It’s cool and dark in the pit. I nibble on a piece of bundt cake I discovered under my car seat. Shaif lays it all out for me. “It’s true Sultan Qaboos has been sick. He is now an old man, and with no children or chosen successor we are nervous. He has been a wise and benevolent ruler, so his replacement must be these things also.” “That’s it?” I ask. “That doesn’t seem so bad.” “Yes, I guess not.” responds Shaif. “Perhaps we should not have dug the pit.”
Back in Muscat I’m finishing my room service dinner of curried beef kabobs, when there’s a knock at the door. Grabbir Boubi stands timidly in the hallway, tracing the carpet with his sandal. “I was wondering if you were coming to the opera house tonight. I have an organ solo.” “Of course.” I reply. “You couldn't keep me away.” Grabbir relaxes. “It is rumored Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said may attend as well.” he whispers. “Well you tell Said al Said that I said I said he’d be a fool to miss it.” I respond smiling. “You have sauce all over your dishdasha.” Grabbir replies, and he turns down the hall. I stand plaintively in the hallway. For Oman’s sake, I pray Sultan Qaboos chooses his successor before it’s too late. There’s still time for this autocrat, to auto-correct.