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Helping out the Shihuh tribe on Oman's Musandam Peninsula

PUBLISHED: 11:51 18 July 2011 | UPDATED: 10:33 21 February 2013

Helping out the Shihuh tribe on Oman's Musandam Peninsula

Helping out the Shihuh tribe on Oman's Musandam Peninsula

The northern most tip of Oman is desolate, mountainous country. Karen Bowerman hired a guide and drove through the inhospitable landscape, where just below the summit, they ended up giving a lift to a member of the local Shihuh tribe...

The northern most tip of Oman is desolate, mountainous country. Karen Bowerman hired a guide and drove through the inhospitable landscape, where just below the summit, they ended up giving a lift to a member of the local Shihuh tribe.

I never would have spotted him: a distant figure, clambering over a crag, steadying himself with a small stick. But my keen-eyed guide, Hani, picked him out immediately.

Ive seen that lad before, he said, slowing down. Ill stop up after the bend.

He spun the wheel of our 4x4 with his typical gusto and we whipped round the mountain, as if taking part in an off-road rally competition that Hani had no intention of losing. The landrover lurched into a lower gear then pulled away and sped upwards, through the stark, limestone peaks of the Musandam Peninsula, the most northerly tip of Oman.

Giant chiselled faces with angular chins screamed down at us; slit eyes glared; grey gaping mouths morphed into jet-black caves. An abandoned dwelling with wooden struts and sandy-coloured stones clung to the mountainside. High above it a plant pushed its way out of a minute crevice, searching for light. It tumbled down the rock face like a dull green fountain, suspended in mid-flow.

Hani, in a beige dishdasha andlargeaviator shades, pulled over. He tucked our vehicle neatly into the side of the dirt track, not that wed passed anyone all day, and turned off the engine. There was silence: not even the rustle of wind.

Our hitchhiker appeared over the ridge and waved enthusiastically. He had a neatly trimmed beard, brown sandals, and a cream tunic so clean it was as if it had just been laundered.

He worked his way light-footedly towards us, but he hadnt got very far when he halted. Suddenly the ridge fell away beneath him. There was a sheer, eight-foot drop - with our vehicle parked below.

The youth looked about him for a few moments as if wondering what to do. Then he hitched up his tunic with one hand, held tightly onto his stick with the other and jumped, straight down, landing as deftly as a jaguar, onto the gravel track in front of us.

The moment he regained his balance he broke into a clumsy, uneven-paced run and raced towards the landrover with a comic sense of urgency, as if he were convinced that the moment his hand reached out to grab the door handle, wed start the engine and speed off without him.

I leant over to clear a space among the maps and guide books in the back seat. Wheres he come from? I asked.

From work, Hani replied. He looks after goats on the Sayh Plateau.

So wheres he going now?

Home, to the valley.

It was a three hour walk down rocky mountain paths.

That afternoon as Hani and I had tackled a run of serpentine bends, wed come across what at first had appeared to be a mirage: a vast, fertile plateau, bordered with almond trees, and divided with rows of sticks into small, square plots. This was the Sayh Plateau where the youth had been working before we picked him up.

He sat behind us now, in the back seat, grinning from ear to ear, revelling in the ride. Then he leant forward as if to talk.

Hani spotted him in his rear view mirror.

Our friend, Hani said quietly, belongs to the Shihuh tribe. Dont be shocked by the way he speaks. Their dialect sounds very aggressive.

I was glad of the warning; seconds later a riot of words, clipped consonants, guttural grunts and violent clicks of the tongue broke our amenable silence. For several minutes the two men yelled at each other as if embroiled in a vicious argument. Then the conversation ended as abruptly as it had begun.

He was telling me about the snakes, Hani explained. How he killed two of them on the plateau.

The youth showed me what I thought had been his stick. It was a small axe, or jerz, unique to the region of Musandam and part of the Shihuhs traditional dress. The slender handle, fashioned from almond wood, was perfectly smooth and the head was inlaid with slithers of brass that twisted prettily across the blade. The lad had made it himself.

He passed it over so I could have a look. But Id barely taken it when he snatched it back, turned it upside down and started shouting. Then he bashed the axe handle wildly against the seat, again and again and again, before he sat back, gave a huge sigh and smiled.

He was showing you, Hani said, how he whacked the snakes over their heads.

I gave our hitchhiker the thumbs up.

We dropped down, through the mountains, skirting a cluster of boulders from a recent rock fall and the rusty remains of a disused water tank. The rumble of our engine disturbed a straggly goat, unhesitant on its feet.

Distance began diluting the drama of the peaks: jagged edges that once clawed a colourless, hazy sky became insignificant slopes; the summit was swallowed by clouds.

We left the lad in the foothills and his gratitude was immense. It took us several minutes to decline tea, several more to say goodbye. I feared at one point that he and Hani really were arguing.

Eventually we all shook hands. The next moment the youth disappeared, into the rocks from whence hed come.

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