In a land steeped in tradition and culture, there is still much left for many to learn about Oman. In a political climate that breeds fear and insecurity in travellers around the world heading to the Middle East, I’m lucky enough to sit down with Muhammed, concierge at The Chedi Muscat, for a closer look at the very real, and very human aspects that make Muscat one of the premier up-and-coming destinations not only in one of the most misunderstood regions in the world, but the world over. Welcome to Muhammed’s Muscat.
The streets of Muscat are particularly more alive in the evening hours during Ramadan, and tonight we’re on our way to one of the city’s busiest joints, Kargeen. A restaurant and shisha lounge, this place is an institution amongst Omanis living in Muscat, and it’s all the more evident as we pull up. The parking lot is packed, and it takes us about 15 minutes of searching between tricked out Ferraris and beefed up Mercedes SUVs before we finally find a spot to park. “Man, during Ramadan this place is crazy,” Muhammed, my dishdasha-clad friend says. “It’s usually open until one or two in the morning, but getting a seat can take a while if you haven’t got a reservation. Just look at the parking lot.” I glance at my watch and realise it’s already about nine in the evening, and with a flight the next morning at 7:50, and no reservation for a table, I’m not sure how long I can afford to wait to see what all the fuss is about. Lucky for me though, I’m with Muhammed.
Muhammed works the Concierge desk at The Chedi Muscat, but more than that, he might be one of the most knowledgeable people regarding Muscat and what it has to offer. The kind of person you want to get to know when you’re in a foreign place, he is not only a native of the city, but a person who, before joining The Chedi Muscat, spent time at the Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah, Best Western Muscat, and even six months in the oil fields of Oman’s rugged desert interior. A person who knows just about everyone and anyone in the city, Muhammed is letting me in on Muscat’s lesser-known facets, and they couldn’t come from a better source. You would do well to have anyone half as knowledgeable as Muhammed, and lucky for you if you’re staying at The Chedi Muscat as this intelligent, well-travelled and tuned-in Omani is not more than a phone call away.
“…people have a misconception about fun in the Middle East, people want to think that there is no such thing here,” he smiles. “But believe me, there is a lot of it.”
“My friend,” he greets the hostess, “we’re from The Chedi Muscat, and we need a table for two, I know it’s busy, but it’s important we get a seat tonight.” The tanned hostess rebuffs him, claiming occupancy is already maxed. Undeterred, Muhammed responds in Tagalog, apparently her native language, that he’d kindly like to see the manager to ask if there is any way to work us in. “Where did you learn Tagalog?” I ask him as the hostess, half-shocked and half-impressed, scurries off to find her manager. “When you work in hotels long enough, and you maybe have had a girlfriend who is Filipino, it’s not so hard to pick up a word or two here or there,” he laughs. After a minute or so our hostess returns, smiles, and leads us to a seat for two in the corner of the garden — I’m not sure if it’s the Tagalog that he knows, the fact that we’re from The Chedi, or the simple fact that I’m with Muhammed, but I’m impressed, we just got a seat at the most popular haunt in town, and it took us less time than it did to park the car.
A modern spin on an authentically Omani idea, Kargeen, resembling a luxury desert oasis, has got a great vibe. Traditional coloured glass lanterns hang from wrought iron posts, and vines crawl and wrap themselves around a wood-frame scaffolding that works itself between trees and fountains of a vast assortment. On the gravel floor of the outdoor section through which we’re walking, big wooden tables are flanked by chairs adorned with pillows of Middle-Eastern-inspired designs, and upon these chairs sit a host of faces from not only around the gulf, but the world at large. Food and shishas are served by waiters and waitresses from places like India, the Phillipines and Oman, who wear outfits that pay homage to the early days of Oman’s multicultural history, and the aromas of shisha, lamb, hummus and flatbread all mix; what’s left is a decidedly cool, and uniquely Middle Eastern feel. And through all this I can’t help but feel that Kargeen perfectly embodies all that Muscat is: a city painted with diversity, yet a city that shows no restraint in boasting its impressively cultured history.
After making our way through the packed garden we take a seat in the corner and order two shishas and two lemon-mint juices and get to chatting. I ask Muhammed about the things to do here in his city, but before he can answer, I add that I want to know the things that locals are doing — the things that aren’t listed in the guidebooks. He smiles, and in his relaxed way of speaking begins, “Muscat is a fantastic city, but a lot of people have their reservations about the Middle East. They think it’s a land of fighting and war, and so they never get to see what we have to offer. The other problem is that people have a misconception about fun in the Middle East, people want to think that there is no such thing here,” he smiles. “But believe me, there is a lot of it.”
Most nights, he continues, revolve around socialising. Groups of anywhere between five and 15 friends get together at a coffee house or a shisha lounge like Kargeen and sit back and chat until the early hours of the morning before making their ways back home, but for those that are up for a bit more noise, there is also a spate of nightclubs and bars that dot the city that most visitors are unaware of. “Most people think because we are a Muslim country that there are no bars or nightclubs, but most people have also not taken the time to look.” Most of these spots, he says, are located within the hotels around the city (alcohol distribution licenses are difficult to acquire for non-hotels in Oman), but just because they are in a hotel, doesn’t mean they are a bore. “They are packed on the weekends,” Muhammed says. “Filipinos, Thais, Omanis, Emiratis, Europeans, you name it and they’re there, and if it’s any day between Thursday and Sunday (and not during Ramadan), you can bet that it will be humming.” Featuring both live music as well as DJs, these bars and clubs have varying entrance fees, which, he says, typically range between five and 15 Omani Rial and include a complimentary draft beer. I’m bummed we can’t check some of them out during Ramadan — Safari and 360 are meant to be the hotspots — but I know with Muhammed’s connections that he’ll be both ready and willing to show me the ropes next time I’m back.
Tables of six or seven smiling faces puff out thick clouds of apple and watermelon-scented smoke as they laugh and chatter the night away in their dishdashas and abayas (traditional black women’s cloak) and my eyes begin to fall heavy, surely the flavoured tobacco isn’t helping, but when in Rome, right?
It’s getting later, already 11:30 pm now, but Kargeen is still buzzing. Tables of six or seven smiling faces puff out thick clouds of apple and watermelon-scented smoke as they laugh and chatter the night away in their dishdashas and abayas (traditional black women’s cloak) and my eyes begin to fall heavy, surely the flavoured tobacco isn’t helping, but when in Rome, right? I ask Muhammed about what he or his friends might do if they weren’t resigned to the city’s confines over a weekend, and what he says immediately wakes me back up. “Fins,” he says. A spot roughly 45 minutes from Muscat by car, Fins is a spit of white sand that sits between steep rock cliffs on the eastern coast of Oman. A spot, he says, that he and his friends frequent quite often with a tent and some fishing rods. “We usually go down to Fins for an overnighter. We fish off of the rock cliffs where the water is deep and you can catch both fresh squid and fish, do a bit of swimming, and then have a barbecue in the evening before we sleep either in a tent or under the stars.” Truly a sublime experience he explains, it is one that should be pursued in the winter months when the Omani heat recedes. And for those worried about breaking the law, there isn’t need, as there are currently no restrictions in place regarding camping in Oman.
We continue our chat, and talk about his uncle who works with the royal family, his time spent on the barren oil fields of central Oman, and his enjoyment of all things Muscat, but the thing that stands out most to me is how similar life is in an area that much of the world paints as squalid, hopeless, and fraying at the seams with war to the rest of the developed world. People in Oman, and Muscat specifically, are some of the most friendly I’ve come across in my recent travels, and through my chat with Muhammed, I’m finding out that nights and days here are spent just as they are elsewhere in the world — beer, coffee, fishing, camping, talking, laughing, exploring and generally enjoying life. War doesn’t ravage Oman, and it’s not hard to see why — the people, the landscape, it’s all just too beautiful to be touched by such tragedy. So next time you’re in Muscat give Muhammed, the concierge at The Chedi Muscat a ring, not only has he got a story or two, but he’ll make you feel right at home in the ‘Jewel of Arabia.’
(Featured image: The hanging coloured-glass lanterns are one of Kargeen’s signature design elements. Scattered amongst the wrought iron posts, and wooden scaffolding, these lanterns give Kargeen both a cosy and traditional feel.)