On the night of my 29th birthday,
I found myself in the courtyard of a date farm in the seaside town of Barka in Oman. The days were hot – regularly over 40 degrees-- and the night had barely cooled. My husband and I, along with six local Omani men, were gathered around an outdoor folding table surrounded by date palms, snacking on mandarins and watching what was apparently quite an exciting camel race on the on the small portable TV. As the camels jockeyed awkwardly toward the finish line, all knobby knees and comically-long strained necks, the men babbled excitedly in Arabic.
Our host was a man named Hamid who we had met by happenstance a few weeks prior on the date-lined backroads of Barka when we were clearly lost and he had stopped to help. Wraparound sunglasses under his wraparound turban, a hand full of gold and a gleaming smile, Hamid waived us over to his Landrover. Come to my home, he’d insisted, pointing down the road.
Arabic hospitality is legendary. It stems from the desert culture where long travels through the harsh and unforgiving landscape made it imperative to be kind to strangers, and until today the Omani are steeped in generosity. Hamid had welcomed us into his living room, a large open room with ornate carpeting and velvet banquette seating. The walls were a painted mural of palms and men on camels, and the ceiling that of a starry night sky. There wasn’t a surface that wasn’t gilded, tufted, or embellished. We were served trays of fruit and dates by Hamid’s wife, a shy woman dressed in a swirl of glittery fabric. I sat on my left hand to be sure not to accidentally use it and offend our hosts, and shook the thimble-sized cup as I was taught to decline more of the bitter Arabic coffee before we bade them farewell.
Having a goat was a lifelong fantasy of mine and no place seemed better suited for such a pet than Oman, where these hooved creatures roam freely, from the village streets to the tippy-top of the cliffs of Jebel Shams, munching constantly on everything from gnarled bushes to discarded plastic. Hamid had told us then of his date farm and the 400 goats he owned, so it was him we thought of when our search for a baby goat proved to be more of a challenge than we’d anticipated. My husband was an adventure tour guide at a resort in Barka where, to our surprise, they were more than happy to let us have a goat, apparently unconcerned by the thought of a horned rascal traipsing around their beach bungalows.
While many locals have a herd of their own, they are used as livestock and saved for slaughter during the year’s various religious holidays, not as pets. Which is to say that the idea of white foreigners with a pet goat was endlessly amusing to the Omanis we met, and why Hamid had laughed and invited us to come to his farm that night. Like the king of his domain, he waved over his assistant, who stepped out of the warm darkness holding a small brown baby goat. Its ears were long and floppy and spotted and two tiny horns, no bigger than a fingertip, emerged from his tufted crown. A tiny upturned tail, like a brown pompom lined with the softest black leather, punctuated his tousled coat. Hamid gifted us the goat without cost or expectation. I named him AliBaaBaa, Bob for short.
In the weeks prior to our fortuitous encounter with Hamid, we searched for a kid the only way we heard how: at one of the cattle markets in the mountains. One Friday, we made the nearly three-hour journey from the coast to Nizwa for the weekly livestock market. It was only nine o’clock when we arrived but the vendors had likely been there since daybreak and were already starting to pack up. Villagers from nearby mountain towns and Bedouins from the desert came with truck beds filled with an assortment of goats, sheep, and cattle which they tied to the wooden posts of the outdoor market.
Landlocked in the scorching heart of the country, surrounded by an immense date plantation that stretches for eight kilometers, the city of Nizwa is an emerald jewel in the rocky Hajar mountains. The souk sits along the edge of the 17th century fort, a remnant of a time when Nizwa was once a major trading hub in Oman. The warm morning light caught the dust in the air, kicked up by the feet and hooves of the villagers and their bovids gathered in the outdoor arena of the souk. By this point at my time in Oman, I had surrendered to the heat and dressed myself (always covering elbows and knees as socially required) knowing that I would sweat through my layers various times throughout the day.
Though some had gone, there was still quite an assortment of fauna in shapes I’d never seen before. The greyhound version of a sheep-- tall and skinny with long legs and an even longer face-- gave me the side eye while lazily munching on some hay. One goat had a huge schnoz and a mop of shoulder-length hair to rival an 80s hair band guitarist, while others had recently seen the barber, their usually long mane cut in horizontal stripes across their body that resembled the steps of a mountain rice paddy. One particularly impressive specimen was huge—he easily would have towered over me when standing on his hind hooves—and he stunk of the funky musk of goat urine. A cloud of flies moved as he tilted his head to allow the point of his horns, a half-meter long and curlicued straight out to the side, to scratch his rump.
Men clad in traditional white dishdashas (shirtdresses) cinched at the waist with a silver khanjar dagger milled about the animals. “Omani hosh!” exclaimed one, while poking a goat with a shaggy coat and tufted goatee with his pencil-thin walking stick. “Better than African hosh! Very healthy, good for shuwa!” The white African goat with sleek hair and strangely small ears did not look amused by the reference to the national Omani dish of spiced roasted goat.
Despite the selection, there were no kids for sale that weren’t still dependent on their mothers, so we decided to explore the market instead. We dipped into the covered walkways between a warren of stalls that wind along the edge of the fort, temporarily blinded by the moody shadow of the inner souk. Dust and the smoke of burning frankincense danced in the white knife-slices of light cutting through the latticed windows. Waist-high burlap sacks of nuts and spices lined the floor of one vendor’s stall, while another’s was packed to the brim with clay pottery of every shape and size sourced from the nearby town of Bahla. A huge poster of the beloved and omnipresent Sultan Qaboos took watch above the humming maze.
Outside we passed the fruit stalls selling basketfuls of Nizwa’s own khalas and khumaizi dates, the most prized in the country. Old men with creased faces and turbaned heads who look like they stepped out of the Bible salaamed us and we exchanged the requisite greetings in my limited Arabic. As-Salaam-Alaikum! Wa-Alaikum-Salaam. Kef halek? Kulu tamam? Asking if all was well and singing blessings on our families. We left empty-handed and drove back to our coastal home, the sand in the air blurring the horizon between the pristine highway and the unburnished sky.
I knew that goats were herd animals but I confidently stated that we—my husband, Bob, and I —would be a herd. The reality was that my husband was gone on tours all day and I was left with the goat. And a goat, it turns out, can never be left alone. I naively thought that while I was, say, working on the computer, Bob could munch on some grass in the garden. Out of eyesight, though, and his alarmingly human-like cries would echo through the hotel and wouldn’t stop until he saw me again, shaming me into exclaiming that he was fine, and that, yes, I was a good goaty-mother. At night, he lay curled between us on a pile of towels, his own constant chewing lulling him to sleep. I slept with one eye open, waiting for the moment he would stand up and utter a half-hearted bleat in the middle of the night, knowing that a tinkle would come immediately thereafter. In one quick movement, like a ninja with years of training, I would swoop him up and place him on the tile floors, narrowly avoiding the shower of black droppings that quickly followed.
One day when walking through the hotel grounds with Bob in-tow, a guest noticed me talking to the goat. Khalifa was a local and a regular, and he died of laughter at my goat and his name and, when he heard of my travails, he too invited us to his farm. Again we were served coffee and dates, met the whole family, were treated like kings, and were gifted another baby goat.
AliMaaMaa had the same shaggy coat as Bob in a darker shade of brown, mottled ears, and a white nose that looked like she’d dipped the tip in soot. She was nervous and scuttled about, dipping just out of reach of my touch. But soon she settled in when she realized my presence often came with a treat of tomato or kiwi, flaring her nostrils as she slurped them up. Bob, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with her. He paid her no mind unless it was lunch time, when he would head-butt her out of the way to get the lion’s share of the alfalfa bushel, but her presence was tolerated enough to stop his cries. At long last, we were all content.
We came to have a routine with the Alis. In the mornings they greeted me with triple saltos in the air at the promise of food, and in the afternoons we went on leisurely walks on the shore once the sultry temperatures had lowered. As the call to prayer echoed over the beach from the neighborhood mosque, my goats dutifully followed me along the sand.
Much like having a human baby, strolling with my goat would invariably garner unsolicited advice. Omanis had a wealth of goat-rearing knowledge they were eager to share, and the Alis became the key to experiencing a side of the country we’d otherwise never see. We bought alfalfa hay from a hidden neighborhood market and learned to trim their hooves from the Pakistani groundskeeper. When we inquired about a vet, we were passed the number of a sweaty Egyptian man who showed up looking like his previous patient had been a camel with a digestion problem, his shirt covered in a shower of dung.
A few weeks later we took the Alis on a hiking trip to a wadi just outside the capital of Muscat. We parked just past the seaside promenade and headed up into the hills behind the government buildings. Rocky mountains in shades of rust and ochre framed the capital and gave us an unimpeded view of the mega-yachts and military vessels in the port below, the bright blue Gulf of Oman undulating along the coast. We took it slow and steady in the afternoon heat, often wetting our hats in the stream to stay cool, while the Alis scampered up the cliff face. My heart was in my throat watching as they balanced on the tiniest ledges at fear-inducing heights, their floppy ears blowing in the wind, undeterred by the landscape. We inched along the narrow falaj walls as if on a balancing beam, an ancient aqueduct system that still spreads the precious water to nearby farms and villages, and cooled off in the crystal-clear wadi pools.
Frequently we’d pass men strolling the beach or come across some picnickers at the wadi, and invariably they’d stop in surprise, wave their friends over, and exclaim over my goats. “How much?” they’d ask, to which I replied one of my few memorized Arabic phrases for “not for sale.” This always elicited a hearty laugh and started a conversation, their excellent English echoed by my broken Arabic. More than anything, Omanis want to share—their food, their culture, their wealth-- and the greatest gift my goats gave me was a common ground to share with them.
[A longer version of an article written for Women’s World, Lufthansa Magazin, June 2019]