Archives for category: Oman
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A ring for each finger

Most antique shops in the Muttrah souk in Oman have an open container with odds and ends thrown in – key chains, hair ornaments, pendants and an entire selection of silver rings of different shapes and sizes. Customers who are blue blood collectors sit and patiently sift through the semi-precious rubble to find what they are looking for. “I am leaving the country in a few days and I want to complete my collection of Omani silver,” says a French collector bending over the silver bric-a-brac.  In her hand she carries the photocopy of a dog-eared page from the book, “Omani Silver” by Ruth Hawley. “I am taking back a sample of each item of Omani jewellery and now need to find only the finger rings,” she says putting her head back to work to find the missing objects, oblivious of the retail chatter round her.

Countries of the Arabian Peninsula are well known for their unique finger rings. H.R.P.Dickinson in his book “The Arab of the Desert” says that in some Middle East countries up to four rings are worn on one hand at one time. Women in Oman have done better. They used to wear a ring on each finger. Five rings on a hand – ten on both hands! In Oman, until not so long ago, rings were made in pairs. It was the practice to give the bride a gift of ten rings – with one design for each finger. Each ring had a special name and some of them also had a purpose in addition to ultimate adornment. There was no special wedding ring – every finger was already adorned. There was a deep belief that silver possessed qualities to shield the wearer from the evil eye and also had the ability to ward off disease. Both men and women have worn talisman rings for centuries.

Ruth Hawley says that it is very difficult to be precise about the name of the various pieces of silver in Oman as the name varies from place to place. The name for a ring in the Muttrah souk may be entirely different from what it is called in the Nizwa souk.

The origins of designs found on Omani rings date back thousands of years. Some designs are difficult to trace with accuracy.  It is presumed that geometric designs originated from Yemen.  The Nizwa design of flowers date back to the T’ang or Liao dynasty of the 10th century, a period when Oman had trade links with China. The dome shaped cage ring was possibly of a Jewish wedding ring design. The techniques used in the crafting of rings included chasing, engraving, piercing, filigree work and granulation.  Each part of the ring had a name. The hoop of a finger ring is called the khawatim.  The decorated upper part, the bezel and the encompassing band usually holding the design or stone is the collet. In addition, the rings for each finger had a different name.

Silver was melted in a crucible over a charcoal hearth.  It was then rolled into sheets or rods that were then cut and shaped in a brazier.  All the rings of yore were made in silver and some were treated to a gold wash.

The most important ring is the one worn on the index finger or fore finger known in Arabic as the al shahid. The khawatim shahadah is shaped like a large drop, sometimes stylized, but always with a pointed tip. Every Muslim points his finger when saying the shahadah, the affirmation of faith. In wearing the ring, the person re-endorses faith in the one God day after day. It is important to note that this ring is known by just one name.

The ring worn on the thumb is a wide silver band called the jabiyrah.  This ring is also referred to as batham, maramiy or ha’is masbuwqah. The ring for the second finger is rounded or rhomoid and has several names – it is called mahar and also referred to endearingly as Abu Fawz or khatim abu fawz.  The third finger is always adorned with a square called kanabir or khatim abu sath murabba.  The ring for the little finger, khanafir, was the only one that was embellished with a stone.  This ring was usually made from a common umla (coin) and in size was smaller than the rings that adorned the other fingers. Rings worn on the toes were simple with bosses – a round knob or stud or other protuberance. Rings for men were usually set with the fairuz – a turquoise stone.

Gold has usurped the place of silver and it is the yellow metal that is now preferred for rings and other ornaments. But there are collectors like the French aficionado at the souk who are looking only for the silver with history. She planned to display her Omani silver collection. What better peg for an after dinner story than one about men who gifted their women with a ring for each finger?

 

incense-burner                                

 

During the 2006 Smithsonian Folklife Festival program on Oman, the Sunday Shopper feature in the Washington Post profiled a product familiar to everyone in Oman – the incense burner. Thousands of visitors to this Festival in Washington picked up an incense burner and a little bokhur (incense) as a keepsake of their visit to the festival and perhaps as their first introduction to Oman. Most of the tourists who come to Oman do the same – the incense burner or mijmar as it is commonly called is about the most popular souvenir to carry back from the country. What people take back with the mijmar is a slice of Arabian civilization – the mijmar has been around in Oman from the years of the first millennium B.C.

In Oman, the mijmar is taken for granted and every household owns a couple of them. The incense burner in this role is just a household item of daily use and shares the same status as the ladles and spoons in the kitchen. Walk into a mall or the Souk Muttrah and the mijmar is a tool for marketing. The slow curling smoke arising from the mijmar can lead one blindfolded to a shop selling fragrances and bokhur. In government offices, the fragrance arising from the mijmar vies with the smell of freshly brewed khawa (coffee).  The mijmar is a part of office equipment in both government and private establishments.

Mijmars may have evolved in design and become more decorative or progressive. HowThe Spice with a Taleever, their basic design has undergone little change from the days when it was first conceived and put into use thousands of years ago. Every excavation that has taken place around Dhofar has thrown up ancient samples of incense burners. The Khor Rori Report I (part of the  collection Arabia Antica) has a chapter written by Alessandra Lombardi devoted to Small Finds From the Gate Complex at Sumhuram in the Dhofar region. The report says that the Khor Rori was a port of Hadramawt which was constructed near one of the most important incense producing areas of the time. The author adds: “Among the stone finds, we have been able to identify some objects which may be interpreted as incense or aroma burners, definable because of morphology and marked traces of burning in the used area.”

What did these early incense burners look like? At Sumhurum archaeologists have found simple round limestone incense burners with three or four legs and the classical small cubic or rectangular basins. Some of the earliest incense burners even had incised decorations on the outside walls. Tub-shaped, stone incense burners with truncated pyramidal shaped bases supported a parallel piped tub with various religious motifs and symbols on the outside. Illustrations of these early burners show them to be of rough manufacture. Some of them have a functional stub as a handle and all have extreme structural compactness. Excavations in the Dhofar region have brought out limestone incense burners and a few made of basalt as well. Historians conclude that the limestone mijmars were fashioned from stone found in the Dhofar region while basalt mijmars were probably brought into the area on one or other of the myriad ships that plied the incense trade. Each of these finds also showed traces of burnt incense in the low hollow cavity of the burner. These early incense burners are from the pre-Islamic era and from the days when Sumhuram and Khor Rori flourished as centres of trade.

To this day, the design of the incense burner remains robust. One has never heard of a traditional Omani pottery incense burner toppling over or falling apart because of an unstable base or weak sides. A traditional burner sits firm on the surface, has sides that protect the coal and also has an open space between the base and the burning area.  A few design changes in the mijmar have been introduced to make them look more appealing and decorative. Shopkeepers are quite aware of the fact that visitors to Oman who buy the mijmars do so to add to their collection of travel memorabilia. There are models that are tall and slim and others that are fine glazed and many that are lined with a stainless steel sheet inside to collect the ashes. Most mijmars are decorated with bright colours all around the sides. The most progressive design complement to the incense burner is the addition of an electrical fitting that enables the user to plug it in and do away with the bother of live coals or the special start-up lighter bricks.

In parts of the Middle East, the incense burner is also known by the name mabkhara . Modern versions of the mabkhara are made of shiny plated sheet metal and decorated with mirrors and coloured metal. While the Omani mijmar is squat and sits firm on the base, the mabkhara is tall and slim in design. Both mijmar and  mabkhara come in different sizes – some small enough to fit into carry on baggage and others large enough to serve as a container for a festival gift of dates or chocolates.

There are other designs of incense burners too. Well to-do families in Oman have for ages used silver incense burners. The most common design among these come with a cup-shaped silver bowl fixed to a silver tray and topped with a perforated hinged silver lid that allows the fragrant smoke to permeate the area. A small length of silver chain on the side holds the bowl and the lid together. A scaled up model of this can be seen standing out like a hydrographic marker at the Riyam Park in Muttrah.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has some fine samples of incense burners that go beyond the traditional. One bronze piece from the first millennium B.C. from Southern Arabia features two intertwined snakes and an ibex. The head of the ibex serves as a handle for the metal burner. Another is a lion-shaped burner in which the head can be lifted out to place incense in the cavity. The metal body and neck of the animal are perforated to enable the fragrances to float.

Incense burners have been used from ancient times to provide pleasing scents and to cleanse the environment. A visitor to Oman in the 18th century mentions that visitors are greeted with perfume sprinklers, dates and coffee. However, he adds that after a meal the incense burner is taken around the room and it is a signal for those present to say their farewells and leave.

The time-tested design of the mijmar has been used extensively for civic aesthetics. Planters shaped like the traditional Omani incense burner may be found all over the country and in all sizes. The incense burner in the centre of the Wadi Kabir roundabout is a landmark that few can forget. At night, the coals in the burner glow at the base and give passers by a quick picture of ancient traditions that Oman is keen to preserve at all cost. The rose water sprinklers all around the incense burner complement each other as two of the symbols of Omani hospitality.

 

 

 

Little things in every day life in Oman tend to go back hundreds of years. They open up stories that are fascinating and contribute both to culture and history. The reference here is to cloves – a spice that is found in every Omani kitchen. Stop at any of the hundreds of shawarma outlets in the country and the aroma of cloves floats up and fills the senses together with the aroma of the meat being grilled on the vertical spit. The smell is a high note, distinct and full of flavour. How did a dry and arid country with little else than dates and sardines introduce cloves into their diet? And where did it come from?

Like many of the other introductions to life in Oman, it was the spirit of adventure of the Omani sailor that brought the clove to the country. It is difficult to give an exact timeline to it but it was certainly hundreds of years before the western powers ventured into the Indian Ocean and beyond. The Omani mariner could have come upon the clove when the nakhooda anchored for fresh water and food among the legendary Spice Islands now forming part of Indonesia. Or, he could have come across it at the court of one of the Chinese emperors. Cloves were in use in China from around the 3rd century BC and they were also known to the Romans. The Chinese kept a single clove in the mouth to sweeten the breath. It took hundreds of years from there for the western world to understand the economic worth of the spice trade. By the time the European countries woke up to cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and pepper they were already a part of the Omani diet. The foreign powers waged spice wars that were fought ruthlessly on both land and at sea.

At the end of a voyage, many an Omani sailor would have put a few cloves in his pocket and taken it home to his wife and instructed her to add a little of it to the family cooking. She must have experimented with it and tried it in turn on rice, lentils, fish and meat. There is no way one can put a date to when it started but it was decidedly hundreds of years before the rest of the world stumbled on the flavour. Cloves gradually became ubiquitous in Omani cooking. The spice is referred to as coronfil (or qaranful) on the grocery shelves in Oman. The name bears a close resemblance to the name for cloves used on the West Coast of India – karambu. Both names again take their source from the botanical name for the tree Syzgium Aromaticum or Eugenia caryophyllata).

For a brief period in history, clove cultivation was confined to just two islands in Indonesia. The Portuguese and then the Dutch held the global clove trade  monopoly. To control the world market, they eliminated the trees from all but one or two islands like Amboina and Ternate.  In the second half of the 18th century, the French smuggled cloves from the East Indies to the Indian Ocean islands and to the New World breaking the Dutch monopoly. Thanks to this, clove trees began to thrive in several parts of the world. As a trading nation Oman watched these developments with keen interest.

In the late 17th century, Zanzibar came under the control of the Sultanate of Oman.  Sayyid Said Bin Sultain bin Al Imam Ahmad bin Said Al Bu Saidi or Said Sayyid as he was popularly known was born in 1791 and came to the throne in 1806.  Said Sayyid made Zanzibar his capital city in 1832. A few years into his reign cloves found their way into Zanzibar and the cultivation of this spice tree started on the east coast of Africa. The temperature, rainfall and humidity were ideal for the crop and the trees took root without problems. In 1828, Said Sayyid visited Zanzibar and Pemba and acquired two properties on which cloves were cultivated. During his lifetime these two places became the largest clove producers in the world.

“At the beginning of the 19th century, clove trees were introduced to Zanzibar and Said had the good business sense to grow them as a plantation crop for export …..” writes Patricia Rosso in her book Oman and Muscat. The ruler’s efforts must have been so successful that he made Zanzibar his primary residence after 1841. American ships from Salem Massachusetts had been trading with Zanzibar for several years. During the reign of Said Sayyid, the US government took the initiative to make trade relations easier by removing the customs duties payable on its exports. President Andrew Jackson sent Edmund Roberts to Muscat to begin trade talks with Said Sayyid. It was not difficult for the Omani merchant to trade in cloves or carry cloves to different markets. But the fortunes of the clove trade were mired in both politics and the vagaries of economics.

In 1861 after the death of Said Sayyid, Zanzibar was separated from Oman and became an independent sultanate.  Cloves continued to dominate the fortunes of Zanzibar and contributed in great measure to the economy of the island. A hundred years later, the short lived Sultanate of Zanzibar and Pemba created a flag that had two cloves in a circle of green on a full red base.

While political and economic fortunes changed with the passage of time, the properties of cloves remained constant. The clove still continues to play a dominant role in the kitchens of Oman. Today, cloves lend flavour to everything from Bizar Al Omani  (Omani Spice Mix) to Bizar Shuwa (Shuwa Spice Mix). The list of Omani recipes that need a few cloves to round off the flavours is by no means limited. They are found in recipes originating in every one of the regions of the country. Traditional preparations like Foaq Al Aish (Over the Rice) and Tahat Al Aish (Under the Rice) use whole cloves to lend the distinct flavour.  Its whole cloves that go into the Ouzi or Baryani and the Ka’ata Bil Laham as well. In some of the preparations the cloves are left whole. In others they are crushed in a mortar to release the flavours before adding to the food or as in the Spice Mix mechanically pulverised at a commercial food factory to come up with the right blend. Cloves are added to rice and lentil dishes as well but are not very popular for the catch of the day.

Clove production in Zanzibar has diminished and Indonesia has regained its former status producing nearly 20% of the world crop. Other countries like Brazil, Sri Lanka and India have also got into the business. Clove prices shoot up every time there is a shortfall in one of the major producing areas. For those living in Oman who will always continue to use the spice, the comfort is that it takes just one or two of these spice buds to flavour an entire meal.