In a sea of white, she stood their stoic. She wasn’t doing much but it was hard to miss her. Probably because in the early morning light, her long and flowy flaming red scarf was a perfect juxtaposition of the monotony of the colour around her.
Just like the men, she was there early accompanied by family members who went somewhere else to attend to other important matters. The men were coming unto her. On her hand were ropes of which tied to the other end are a couple of goats, rambunctious rams, who in her firm hands stayed calm despite the flurry of activities everywhere.
One man whispered to her something I didn’t understood. She glanced his way for a quick second and seconds later her lips pursed. She wasn’t happy about what he was saying. She said something back.
The guy talked to his friend after getting her response. It happened all so quickly like they also have a specific size and price in mind. He got back to her, this time speaking louder. They were haggling. The new offer still didn’t get her approval. When she moved her hand that was firmly clasping the ropes resulted to the goats getting agitated. Their bleats were disturbing.
After a few more exchanges, it became apparent that she’s not giving it at the price they wanted. To her, it wasn’t a fair price. The man moved on and another one came. It was the same cycle — he offered something and she responded back. The lady in red wasn’t going early today. Not unless she gets the proper pay for the goat she is selling.
Nizwa and its souq, morning market
Nizwa always had been a centre of many things in Oman. The largest city in the governorate of Al Dakhiliyah, it was the Sultanate’s capital in the 6th and 7th century. Located roughly an hour and a half drive from Muscat, it is home to about 80,000 people and despite losing its capital status, today it is still a staging site of important trade, religion, education and art events.
One of Nizwa’s popular attractions is Nizwa Fort and surrounding it are the different souqs that today, have seen great improvements. While the old traditional souq wasn’t as organised, a tour of the area will reveal that it has come a long way and the division has been smart. It has gotten easier to find what you are looking for as antiques, vegetables, fish, livestock and even traditional arts, crafts and jewelries are all put together in their respective sections.
During Eid, culture and tradition are on full display at Nizwa souq’s habta — a traditional Omani outdoor market that survived even to this day despite the proliferation of malls or convenience stores. Still happening all over the country under the shade of date palms, Nizwa souq’s habta mixes the old and the new but it retains all the unique Arabian concepts — reed mats splattered on the floor, household items covering almost all corner of it and sellers busy interacting with potential customers. It was a dizzying site with so much more to take in.
Expatriates in the country may find it intrusive to visit one of this morning gatherings but to know Oman better, it is just as important to experience traditions like this for it opens a totally different door, one that makes you appreciate the culture of the country even more.
The parade of animals
In Nizwa souq’s livestock section, a circular shed was built open on all sides. The inside of the shed was elevated with concrete. Surrounding this shed are parking lots of livestock, a prep site where owners can glam up cows, lambs or even camels before they take the centre stage.
On the day of our visit, hundreds of people — farmers and buyers, some coming from other governorates — all came with a purpose. In preparation of the Eid Al Adha, they came to purchase the best of what they can afford to buy.
Men in different shades of dishdasha gathered in that small space. Some were inside the shed sitting down so that others on the back can see the animals being paraded for sale.
Another group of men formed a circle outside the shed. There was enough room between the shed and the men in circle for the animals and their handlers to walk around. Despite the chaos, there was a pattern — as a form of respect, there is space in between men so that those in the back can also see.
On this particular day, cows and goats were the dominant commodity.
Everything begins with a hush conversation between the livestock owner and the animal handler. How the animal handler earns is that whatever he can sell, he gets a certain percentage. The livestock owner avoids the inconvenience of having to parade the animal around by himself and the handler earns.
The animal handler’s job is not an easy one as agitated cows or rams don’t make good followers. The struggle gets really difficult for big bulls who are stronger and more defiant and with their small pointed horns, they are threatening anyone who gets in their way.
The morning market usually runs for about four hours on this section. That four hours is a non-ending cycle of touching the animals, of assessing whether they are good or not, of exchanging quick chats so that a good price can be made.
Outside of this organised chaos, small, non-grand transactions are also happening in the parking lots. No one goes home empty handed. There is always something for everyone. And almost all cars drive away towing an animal behind them.
A little farther away, on corners where shades are sufficient, reed mats are splattered on the ground. Covering this mats are different household items — including skewers for kebabs or barbecues.
Everything needed in an Omani household is here — sharpened knives, condiments, even vegetables. A space occupied by lanterns is shared with bottled honey, pomegranates and even lemons.
Ropes also come aplenty and a few of them were made on the spot with the seller demonstrating how they make it. Kids also have their own section for toys and other things.
Habta is not just a gathering of farmers buying a commodity. It is also a site where fathers teach their kids the love and respect for their culture and pass down their knowledge of how things work to the next generation. It’s how they keep it alive, thriving in a time when convenience spaces like malls is the rage.
In a touching moment, they both came as we were leaving. He was about five years old holding his father’s hand tightly. When a cow mooed and stomp its hooves, he hid behind his father’s dishdasha.
“Don’t be scared,” I interpreted his father saying. His face lightened up a bit. They laughed at something that the father said. There were other kids in a distance and his father encouraged him to join them but he stayed there with him.
“Good day today, ain’t it?” It was my attempt for a small talk. The mercury was at 33 which isn’t bad.
“It truly is,” the father replied.
“Buying?” He asked. I replied no.
We talked about something else, about how long he has been going there and how much things have changed but not really. He recalled how his father use to take him when he was a boy and why it was important to him to show his son what it’s like. We talked for about 10 minutes but it felt like I’ve known him his whole life giving sense to everything that I was seeing in the market.
It was a tour down memory lane I didn’t expect but something that clarified how the changes has been happening and what has survived.
“You are welcome to join my family for dinner,” he offered as I bid my leave.
I turned it down and explained I was returning to Muscat the same day.
“You are welcome in my home, any time,” he said. I can only offer a thank you.
Hospitality and kindness despite the chaos defines a person and a tradition. Some say a market place is no place to learn anything. In this habta, where the fetid smell of animal manure mixes with sweat and everything else, there is an understanding to be gained. Just like my newfound friend, I do hope habtas will not come to an end.