Of white buildings, Islamic architecture and progressive women (Letter from Muscat)

March 15th, 2009 - 1:52 pm ICT by IANS  

By Kavita Bajeli-Datt
Muscat, March 15 (IANS) As the flight descends in the Oman capital, the first impression is that of serenity and peace - perhaps because of the overwhelmingly white and off-white buildings.

As this reporter, part of a four-member media exchange programme to Oman, went around the beautifully kept city, it was intriguing that the only spots of colour were to be found on top of mosques.

So it didn’t come as a surprise when Saif Suba Al Rashidi, the director general in the Directorate of Information and External Relations, said they had strict rules about the colours of buildings here - only white, off-white or beige is allowed.

“We follow a certain pattern while making our buildings. If we find a building is not meeting our standards, we ask them to make it again,” Rashidi said.

An eye-catcher in this oil-rich Sultanate is the touch of Islamic architecture in most constructions, including shopping centres and the few high rises.

Little islands of landscaped gardens, flowers and fountains all along the roads also stun an outsider in this planned city. The blooming red, violet, yellow and orange flowers add to the vibrancy of Muscat, which is surrounded by majestic mountains on one side.

One man who sure takes pride in the city is its head Sultan Hamdoon Al Harthi. He says that the Muscat Municipality won the the United Nations Public Service Awards in 2003 for achieving a high standard of cleanliness.

“I can describe my city as cute and pretty. But there is no city without problems. We try our best (to solve them),” he added.

Motorcycle-borne men clean the streets early morning. There are no mud splattered or dust covered cars here - simply because one is fined for keeping dirty cars.

A common sight is rows and rows of car showrooms. The city of over 45,000 people has no public transport, so people usually drive their own cars.

Unlike India where few adhere to traffic rules, in Oman, people follow it totally thanks to stiff fines and the prospect of jail. Though traffic policemen are not visible, huge billboards announce that the roads are being monitored by radars.

“People abide by traffic rules. If someone jumps a red light, no one can save you. It’s a simple three-night stay in jail. Also, one has to stick to the lane system. One cannot take the slow or parking lanes to speed ahead of others,” said Ahmed, who works as a driver in a government office.

A walk down Muscat’s old quarters, Muttrah, which is Oman’s ancient trading port and now wears a completely modern look, reveals some stunning women. That’s because they love to shop at the souk in Muttrah where most of the sellers are Indians.

Wearing abayas, these women may at first give the impression that they lead restricted lives, but in reality they go to college, office or shopping malls, just like women anywhere else.

One of these is Sabah Al-Balushi. She is 29 years, teaches English at the Sultan Qaboos University, is unmarried and prefers to stay alone.

“My mother trusts me now. Of course, girls my age are married. But I have no problem. I am enjoying myself and my life,” said the beautiful Balushi, who drives her own car.

“Women are doing much better than men. They are excellent students and they are working in private and government offices,” said Balushi, who went to the US for her masters degree.

Beneath their flowing abaya gowns, women wear the latest designs and best brands of clothes. Most of them enhance their eyes with elaborate makeup and their hairdo, replete with buns, is reminiscent of the 1960s heroines of Indian films.

Balushi said women don’t mind splurging even on the abayas, which are sometimes decorated with real crystals.

Many women also visit nightclubs, one the most popular and expensive being at the Grand Hyatt. “Not only foreigners but Omani girls and boys come here to enjoy,” said a manager of the nightclub Copacabana.

The country is home to a 550,000 strong Indian diaspora and Omani people, especially women, love Bollywood. Take, for instance, Balushi who adores actor Aamir Khan.

“I want to go to India. I rarely miss out any Bollywood movie and love Aamir Khan. I just love the colours, the dance and the handsome-looking men of these movies,” she said.

Suriya Ali, who studies commerce, finds it difficult to choose her favourite from among Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan or Hrithik Roshan. She says: “I love them all!”

(Kavita Bajeli-Datt can be contacted at kavita.d@ians.in)

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