Saturday, January 21, 2012

Pauline Searle’s DAWN OVER OMAN

Pauline Searle’s DAWN OVER OMAN (Pt. 1)

Searle, Pauline, Dawn over Oman, Muscat: International Printing Press, 1979.

By Kevin Stoda

Oman of a half century ago would be unrecognizable for many visiting here today. The late 1950s and 1960s found Oman in the midst of a civil war. Meanwhile, both the Cold War spies & insurgents plus the drumbeating led by religious wars of the region also shook the Land of Frankincense and Myrrh. This was occurring in a land that had only recently officially abandoned slavery.

Las autumn, when I first moved to Oman, I came across Pauline Searle’s three and half decade-old primer on the country, entitled DAWN OVER OMAN. Because Oman is such an ancient land, the book still reads rather well in helping any reader to come to terms with current Omani culture and history. Searle, whose husband worked with Petroleum Development Oman in the days before national reform took place, spent the better part of two decades getting to know Oman as wife, employee, and journalist for Reuters. She lived in the country starting from a period when ground wars still enveloped the land through the actual dawning of an age of peace in Oman. This occurred after the present ruler, Sultan Qaboos took over in the 1970s.

On the one hand, through carefully gleaning Searle’s publication, DAWN OVER OMAN (1975, 1979), for pearls of insight into era’s gone-by, one can discover what most modern travel books might otherwise provide on Oman’s geography, peoples, languages, and traditions. On the other hand, as the title, “DAWN”, of her classic work presupposes, Searle gave witness to a major new set of developments in Oman (since the early 1970s). This “DAWN“ and its fruits are what one now witnesses in Oman. In short, in a few short decades, Oman has moved from a medieval world into a modern age. Meanwhile, the very same Sultan Qaboos, who took over in 1970, is still on the thrown here.

An example of the “gleaning approach”that I take when reading a historically important works, such as Searle’s DAWN OVER OMAN, might include simply looking at the variety of quotes cited at the beginning of certain sections and chapters of this well-packed 150-page work. Searle wrote:

“The Kesra named Oman Mazun
And Mazun, O Friend! Is a goodly land
A land abounding in fields and groves
With pastures and unfailing springs.”

That selection of poetry, attributed to a pre-Islamic poet, reveals that two to five millennia ago, the land where the country of Modern Oman is located now was once a plush and green place for agriculture—quite different than many of our modern images of this part of the Arabian Peninsula. Naturally, Oman has historically secreted away great aquifers of water—even through this present day--, however, the temperate climate of the 3rd millennium B.C. can only be understood (or tasted) by the retelling of the thoughts of a poet in his or her own words—i.e. as Searle chose to do when she wrote on Oman and thus pealed-back the layers of hidden mystery which had here-to-fore covered the former hermit sultanate’s reality through the better part of the last century.

In her own words, Searle begins her narration by reminding us: “Until mid-1970s Oman was among the least known countries in the world. Geographically isolated by the Arabian Sea to the east, the Empty-Quarter to the west and mountains to north and south, ruled over by a backward-looking and autocratic Sultan with no apparent resources, Oman could have remained this way indefinitely. But” Searle adds, “the discovery of oil was to change everything.”

In the very next paragraph, Searle prophetically reveals what we know to be true today. “Oman is a country ruled over by a progressive… Sultan, and is a member of the Arab League and the United Nations. Ministers fly around the world conferring on political matters; buildings rise overnight; an international airport handles the largest jets and traffic drives bumper to bumper….”

Naturally, we all know, however, that having lots of cars, lots of oil, and lots of GNP does not make all peoples lives better. Nevertheless, one major report from the United Nations, i.e. “The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development”, in 2010 reveals that a progressive spirit has dominated the land for over 4 decades now. This UN report stated that Oman was the most improved country on the planet over the previous 40 years, in terms of developments of its peoples, its societies, and its political economy. “Oman took the top position in the rate of progress in human development from among 135 countries worldwide.”

In short, in the early 1970s, Searle was certainly correct in saying that Oman passed from a sort of medieval night or darkness and surged into a new dawn—that is leaving many breathless. However, in contrast to the neighboring UAE, there are still a lot of off-the-beaten-track activities or traditional images of Oman which one can experience, observe and witness today.

There are families that still own thousands of camels. As Searle wrote, there are still small boys who see themselves as “a miniature warrior and men of every age carry rifles and khanjars, the silver dagger in the ornate sheath that has become the symbol of Oman itself.” Meanwhile, Omanis are still considered very friendly to travelers—a custom of hospitality dating to their Bedu ancestory and upbringing in many cases.

In short, more than any other Arab land, Oman has been opening up itself to the West (and to the East) over the past few decades as a safe land to travel in and get to know the citizenry of in the Middle East. “The renowned National Geographic magazine has ranked the Sultanate as one of the 20 top tourist destinations in the world.” [“The Sultanate was the only Arab country to appear in the magazine’s rankings published in its latest edition.”]
Despite this openness, Searle also noted four decades ago, “Oman is full of mysteries—the round stone grave mounds topping the mountains, the fossil shells hundreds of miles into the desert, the hollow geodes whose origin puzzles even the geologists, and stone implements and potsherds found in the most unexpected places.” Searle seemed to be saying that with the opening up of Oman, i.e. post 1970s, new discoveries can and will be made here, but there will continue to be many mysteries and surprises for all visitors here. After living here a while, I agree with Searle that for many reasons the secrets of Oman are still being kept to a great extent. This continuing sense of mystery is one reason I still recommend Searle’s classic primer on Oman. The book DAWN OVER OMAN should titillate you into learning more about this fast changing (but tradition preserving) land and people


“The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development 2010”

Oman Ranked the Most Progressive Country

Pauline Searle,

Promo Oman

Sultanate on Top 20,



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