Shah’s Shop

Where Everything is Possible

A five-minute walk and a skip away from the Al Amana Center, deep into the Mutrah Souq and around the corner is a cute little shop where I like to spend my days. Colors literally wind about the walls as they make up the expertly woven rugs and embroidered scarves folded neatly on shelves. Customers from German tourists to Omanis in dishdashas and abayas chatter away and feel the extraordinary fabrics as they debate which one to take home. A sweet gray, spotted cat sleeps on a stack of square pillowcases and cuddles up to the intricate designs. Further back, there is a leather desk chair with a red patterned seat cushion spinning because a man just leaped up to get some tea for his guests. Welcome to Shah’s shop, where I introduce you to the owner of that chair, Shah, and the generosity and hospitality he has taught me.

Shah has lived and worked in the Mutrah Souq for about eleven years. He is a friend of our program director and was the first local we were introduced to when we arrived in Muscat three months ago. Except, he isn’t local at all. Shah is from Kashmir and works in the souq while his family weaves and works back in his home. The spotted cat Monica has become one of his pets and is just one of many cats who linger and whine in the paths of the souq searching for scraps and sleeping in corners. Another cat named Pumpkin, because of his shiny orange fur, we call him Mushkillah (meaning “problem” in Arabic) lingers as well. As a younger cat, he lives up to his nickname by mauling the valuable merchandise and demanding attention. They have found a home in Shah’s shop. With free hot dogs for breakfast and dinner, pets from Shah and other strangers, and surroundings of luxury carpets and other linens, who can blame them for staying?

The comfort Monica and Muskillah feel is why I too have become attached to this carpet shop. But, I know that it’s not just the location that keeps us coming back. It’s the smile and the hospitality we are met with from Shah every day. The souq, which I mentioned in my “In the Neighborhood: Muscat” blog is a huge market with a maze of shops and stalls to explore. It is hard to choose who to buy items from and where you are getting a bargain, especially because most of the shop owners call me madam and sweet-talk me as they invite me inside. Shah didn’t need these extra flatteries or compliments because we knew him through stories from our Program Director Justin. He simply invited us to sit, brought us some Chai Karak (Chai means tea in Arabic— remember that next time you order your “Chai tea” at Starbucks) and began a conversation. No questions asked, he serves and loves rather than aggressively offering you trinkets probably made in China that you don’t need on your desk back home.

The invitation to sit and read on a rug in the back of his shop, come by for tea and samosas and chat, or even to ask him burning questions about Kashmir, Oman or Islam always stands. Which is part of the reason “everything is possible” is Shah’s favorite catchphrase. Aside from his afternoon break from 1-4:00pm (when the afternoon heat is so unbearable all the shops in Mutrah close), he spends almost all his time in this shop. Never once have I heard him complain. Rather, he has befriended the neighboring shop owners and devotes his time to hearing stories from us and welcoming other expats and tourists to Oman. Justin even lets his kids stay with Shah while he runs errands. They bounce around the loft/ extra stockroom above the shop and receive huge bear hugs from Shah before they leave.

I trust Shah more than I trust some of my neighbors back home. I’ve learned much from him, from how the beard of a goat turns into the lovely, soft Pashmina scarf for sale in his shop, to the political struggle in Kashmir and the sides of the conflict in Syria and beyond. His selfless giving to others, whether it’s tea or a whole meal, or simply just listening to personal struggles, renews an honest spirit of people here in Oman.

“I trust Shah more than I trust some of my neighbors back home.”

While the media has painted images of violence, pain, and mistrust in the Middle East, Shah is just one example of the need for new pictures of hospitality, peacefulness, and kindness of those who live in the Gulf. Shah too knows the media is often mushkillah when it comes to portraying the Middle East, especially in the United States. I asked him what he wants people back home to know about this community in Oman and he said, “Omani people are more tolerant and very much hospitable to other communities. Omani tribes take good care of each other which is a very good thing. Oman is all about mutual trust.” He told me this after I asked him if I could quote him in this blog to which he replied, “everything is possible. No mushkillah”.

I am so fortunate to have met Shah and to make memories in his shop.  I’ve found that the more people one meets in a place, the more that place feels like another home. A couple of days ago, I bought a beautiful, blue cashmere scarf to remind me of that little home. Shah embroidered my initials and his name in the corners taking care to keep each knot straight. While I will always treasure this piece of the shop, the urge to pick up the whole shop and take it with me is strong, but impossible. However, the examples of selflessness, friendship and hospitality I can and will take with me. Thank you Shah, for your messages and your kindness.


In the Neighborhood: Mutrah

For three more weeks, I get to wake up and go to sleep in my cozy room at the Al Amana Center in Muscat. I finally feel as if I know this neighborhood and some of the patterns the locals take each day. I’d like to take you through the streets and let you smell the smells and feel the sweet sun on your face. I hope that pictures and descriptions will work, although I encourage you to one day walk through Mutrah, Oman (a specific section of Muscat) and if not Mutrah, then take a walk through a neighborhood very different from your own. The people you meet and hidden gems you find may leave impressions on you like tattoos on the heart.

Every morning around 7:00am, David, Laurel and I make our way across the street to Hammer Gym to get some lifting in before it gets too hot. Surrounded by men lifting and grunting on their machines, I can take a spot on a treadmill that faces the Al Amana Center. Straight below is a clinic and I watch women dressed in all white from hijab to sneakers arrive for work. Sometimes I’ll see kids in school uniform on the staircase to the gym, but other than that the mornings are quiet aside from the morning prayer call just before dawn.

Past Hammer Gym and around the corner, a taxi stand is busting with men in dishdashas and kumas hoping to find some luck transporting a tourist today. They know our group well enough by now that they don’t ask “taxi?” and instead offer a greeting “As salaam alaikum” (peace be upon you).  Occasionally, a new driver might ask if we need a ride earning him a shove or a light slap from the guy sitting next to him. “They don’t need ride, their bait (house) is right around the corner”. It’s nice to be recognized. Across from the stand, a walled-in, makeshift garden has smoke rising from a kitchen chimney. Smells of meat and fries float from the restaurant. We call this place “Plate O’ Meat” because they offer a mean Turkish grill under strung up twinkly lights in the evening complete with juice and mint tea. Yum!

Down the street, shops upon shops lead up to the entrance to the Mutrah Souq. The souq (market in Arabic) has supposedly been planted in Mutrah for around 600 years. It holds hundreds of stalls and salesmen who day in and day out sell dates, incense and frankincense, scarves, rugs, spices and other trinkets and souvenirs. Both the local Omani and the tourist shop here and it’s right in my backyard. I love walking through in the morning and at night as I blend in with the droves of shoppers looking for a bargain. I love the mix of people and the maze of paths to take. The smell of floral perfume sticks to the walls and most days I can’t shake the smell off of me for hours after visiting. An entire section is devoted to just gold which is designated for only women in Islam. I’ve stuck to smaller items, but I’m still drawn to the glitter of the gold and the interesting designs of abaya I find in the shops.

If you continue down the main stretch of the souq, you walk right up to the corniche, a path right along a harbor which is fed by the Indian ocean. In the Mutrah harbor, the Sultan’s two yachts anchor next to temporary cruise liners and military boats. Occasionally, I can hear the boats honking all the way back at the Al Amana Center. I once spotted a sea turtle here and always meet with swarms of seagulls on the shore. The water is a deep blue and the sea breeze does nothing to mask the thick humidity of spring.

To the west, a Shi’a mosque boasts brilliant teal and blue colored minarets. Just near the towers is the best shop for Karak tea (a secret recipe of spices and condensed milk added to black tea) and samosas. These are staples in the Omani diet.  Beyond that, is a giant fish market. Anything from huge sharks to fresh shrimp can be found here along with fresh produce and fruit. I came home one day with a huge hunk of honeycomb from Iran that a sweet, older Omani sold to me for a bargain. For those who know me, this honey kept my tea sweet and my heart happy for days following.

To the east of the souq, you can find the best little shawarma shop in Oman run by twin brothers who always greet you with a smile. It was here that I wrote about “Juice Dates” in another blog and it’s a great spot to people watch at night. If you keep walking, you’ll see Mutrah fort up a hill and even further is a monument meant to boast Oman’s frankincense trade. Up on its hill, the world’s largest frankincense burner sits in the rocky hills. Mountain after mountain encircle the village of Mutrah and I’ve climbed some of the peak with friends here. The city at night is certainly different than the sunny mornings. My favorite time to climb is in the evening when I can sit on the rocks and listen to the final prayer call. From above, I am surrounded with chants on all sides, though lately the heat is still blistering even at night.

The word Mutrah means “to throw something down”, and ships have thrown down their anchors in this major port city for centuries. Living in Mutrah has caused me to want to plant myself within the community and learn more and more about the people here. But, anchors are not supposed to stay embedded in the sand forever. Rather, they must be lifted back in their boats and carried off to somewhere new. I look forward to heading home in a few weeks. However, until then, I’m planted here to take in all the sights of the neighborhood that I can. My individual anchor may not leave an impression, but I hope I’ll remember the impressions this place has left on me.

Me on top of a mountain looking out over Mutrah