The first time I set sail for Masirah was in June 2004. As the ferry boat approached the jetty at the port, amidst waves that raged all around us in the ferocious khareef, I thought only of escaping. At siesta time, the place to me looked like a ghost town.
Fifteen years later and Masirah feels like a part of me. Wherever I travel, wherever I am summoned to talk about my fifteen years of living, working and traveling in the Middle East, the island dominates my thoughts, my talks, and my vision of beauty in this part of the world. In sorts, my passage from Masirah has been the result of a kind of bewitchment. Stark, dark and sandy landscapes, mostly deprived of plant or water as well as of any common external sign of beauty, wild beaches inhabited by proud men and women, it initially seems like an intimidating world with no intention of warm welcome to the stranger.
Alas, this is just a protective veil. Soon the landscapes reveal their loveliness, the antelope-like packs of wild donkeys, hopping desert hares, lurking dhubs, an endless multitude of birds of prey and songbirds, sea turtles and their offspring on the magnificent beaches and around the reef, dolphins playing close to shore and the revealing vapor of breathing whales in the distance. Breathtaking sunsets and the gorgeous fierceness of the weather in the summer months of the khareef, it all adds up to one thing: Masirah grabs you in its wild, masculine way and imprisons you in its charms. Like a fish caught in the net, it is soon too late to escape: The island is now under your skin and there to stay.
And it isn’t only for the naturalist and the hermit. Its people, curious at first, then hospitable and kind, will make the outgoing visitor happier than ever: “Hellooooo”, scream local young men from their iconic Land Rovers when you pass them by car, and in exchange of a smile and a polite greeting the visitor will be offered fish, abundant chats and unrestrained conversation. Some newcomers from “the west” get startled by the high volume of voices here and the children chasing them for hugs in the souk area, but I come from Greece, and my Mediterranean culture just drinks it all in and fills my heart with gratitude and joy.
WORK TURNING INTO SHEER PLEASURE
I found myself on Masirah because of its large populations of sea turtles. I was supposed to study them over three years and provide results about their status and conservation to the authorities of Oman. This soon became a lot more than a job. Through the eyes of wonderful local people with whom I connected, and during my visits for combined work and enjoyment, I discovered Masirah beyond the initial captivating impressions of its wild, unspoiled beauty.
Two tribes dominate the island, the Al-Saadis and the Al-Farsis. “Foreigners” from across the channel have drifted in, of course, through marriage and circumstance, and now live here and prosper, considering this barren land as their own. “We are Bedu, and proud of it”, says Musallam with his usual smile. “Masirah has it all for us: Good educational facilities, clean environment, most everyday goods and fine healthcare. But most of all, it still has its identity intact and society is as warm and family-oriented as in the old days”. Two high schools, an elementary school, a hospital, private healthcare facilities, a dentist, a sewage plant and a newly revamped desalination plant are here for the population to benefit from. Fish factories make sure the abundant fish stocks harvested here reach Muscat almost every day, apart from the khareef months where this activity subsides due to harsh weather conditions. Children play freely in the streets and adults gather in sidewalks, squares and in front of houses, men and women, to talk and socialize – like in the old days.
Expats live here, too, mostly from India and Pakistan. They are in the workforce and helping to motor the local economy along with local Masirians. Whether in the pharmacy, construction sites or fisheries, people address each other with familiarity and respect, and the soothing effect of this friendly atmosphere penetrates the mind and soul. Lots of lessons to learn here, for many of us, from many other countries.
But it would be wrong if two major influences were not mentioned here: The presence of the Air Force Base and the local myths and legends.
THE RAFO BASE: A WINDOW OUT OF ISOLATION AND MUCH MORE
The Royal Air Force of Oman replaced the British Air Force here in the late 70ies. It provides work for most of the male population on the island as well as a daily free flight for residents to the capital. Coming from a country with more than 2,000 islands, I thought of the major contribution of this service to the islanders’ well being. “The RAFO immediately assists us in any case of missing persons at sea, evacuations like in the time of Gonu last year or evacuation of critically ill patients to the capital”, my local friend Musallam continues. Without them, Masirah would have been a place of total isolation and nobody would have wanted to live here, as it would be unsafe. The RAFO is also environmentally aware, conservation oriented, and officially provides all sorts of support to scientists coming to the island to study its amazing natural wealth.
HISTORY AND SECRET BELIEFS
From the historical passing of Macedonian mariners to the mysterious cemetery up the hill in Marsis, legends have carved life on the island and are still present and thriving. Some based on scientific research and some just recounted with a half-smile, they are there, present and part of the island’s wealth and identity.
ISKANDER, THE ROMANS AND IBN BATTUTA
Masirah wasn’t unknown to Alexander the Great – Iskander in Arabic. In his quest for wealth and empire, and between 321 and 324 AD, Alexander sent his admirals all over the Gulf to locate the best ports for trading. One of these admirals, Nearchos, came to Masirah and named it “Serepsis” in his logbook. The island is also described as ‘Sarapis’ in the ‘Periplus of the Erythrean Sea’, a Roman merchant guide of the coastal route from Egypt to India. It was an island “to stop at” but not much more is being cited. Ibn Battuta was here as well. He praises the island for… the wealth of fisheries. Obviously, the ancient mariners were not into sightseeing.
PREHISTORIC COPPER MINING
Prehistoric sites on the island indicate early habitation, going back at least four thousand years. The joint excavations of the Department of Antiquities and the German Mission in 1983-84 (sponsored by the German Mining Museum and the Institute for Prehistory of the University of Heidelberg) centered on the sources and production of copper in the prehistoric period on Masirah. This expedition offered a first archaeological look at this island. Finds and sites documented date to the second millennium (Wadi Suq), first millennium (Lizq/Rumaylah), and perhaps the Late Iron Age. One context is neolithic. Large shell middens (big heaps of sea shells, thrown away by people after eating their contents) have been found between Safaiq and Sur Masirah along the large bay at the central-eastern side of the island. Nearby were flint artifacts used for scraping the shells. But why extract copper in ancient times?
Musallam tells us: “It is believed that they were mainly after the azurite, malachite and turquoise as gemstones”.
THE “IRANIAN” CEMETERY
On an expedition towards the inland of the island, my friends and I were shown a small, apparently abandoned cemetery, different from others. Unlike the traditional stone and seashell-marked tombs, this one comported sophisticated gravestones with writing on them. “This is not Arabic”, Musallam says categorically, and an Iranian friend says it looks like Farsi, but the words make no sense. Nobody really seems to know why it’s there and how old it is. A red banner is always there marking it, but nobody has ever seen a human being in there.
THE GHOSTS OF SUR MASIRAH
A friend from the RAFO Base spoke of strange “apparitions” in the nighttime on the vast mudflats of Sur Masirah. He swears he saw white ethereal figures float purposefully over the soft shiny mud on multiple nights when he went there to birdwatch. Skeptical and much of a non-believer myself, I challenged him saying they must have been those little whirlwinds created by the winds on those impressive plains…
FOOTPRINTS OF PAST INHABITANTS
A hike on the hills that the locals will show you and a million seashells from millions of years ago await you, the bottom of the ocean on a plate up a hundred meters above sea level. Several coral fossils will be discovered in cemeteries of Masirah as well, offerings to the next world from a previous one.
GEARING UP FOR “THE RIGHT” DEVELOPMENT
Musallam holds Iman by the hand – her face almost an exact copy of daddy’s- and looks at the future. “Development is coming to Masirah, it’s crucial for it to be the right one”. He doesn’t mean heavy industry, noisy tourists and disrespectful visitors in the name of the greenback. “I hope everyone will understand that our future lies in ecotourism, rather than huge hotels that violate the landscape.” He hopes his daughters’ future shall be carved through carefully and strategically planned development, well structured and with respect to the cultural and natural heritage of the island. Musallam is young and hopes to participate at this development. His sharp brains, impressive presence, good education and excellent English skills are hopefully going to contribute to reaching that goal. “I don’t want to abandon my island”, he says in a determined tone. “There is room here for every young person to thrive, through promoting the values of our culture, the beauties of our heritage, the warmth of our hospitality. We can make the visitor part of all that, and upon their departure they can take unique memories with them and leave their footprints behind. This way we are all going to gain something, and the island gains as well, opening up to the world without losing anything from its special wealth.”
There is currently several ecotourism companies in Masirah. Run by young local businessmen, most offer high quality services of discovering the island in all its dimensions and providing valuable environmental information to the interested visitor. Recent wildlife conservation projects, focusing on marine life and birdlife, are in cooperation with tourism. To local tourism professionals, exploring Masirah “the right way” seems to be the way to go.
And remember: leave οnly footprints behind.
By Nancy Papathanassopoulou