dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

Time Travel

 The following story first appeared as an Op-Ed feature in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on June 5th, 2012.

“We’re looking for a red Mazda,” our Omani host said, as we cruised along in a sport utility vehicle down a long stretch of highway within the interior of Oman. We were two Christians and five Muslims, an assortment of men and boys, by now traveling in a valley surrounded by the sparse, rugged Hajar Mountains.

At the very exclusive invitation of our host, we were making our way to a traditional Omani wedding—the groom’s portion at least—in a small village within Samail, about 90 km from Muscat. T.S. Eliot once famously poeticized: "I have known them all already/the evenings, mornings, afternoons/I have measured out my life with coffee spoons." But on this afternoon and evening, arriving in early January on the Arabian Peninsula, time was served up in a giant ladle—its contents seemingly spilling over the sides.

Before our rendezvous with the elusive red Mazda, our motorized camel had taken the religiously scenic route in this Muslim-majority country. Off the main highway and tucked inside a lush grove of date palms was the unassuming site of the tomb of Mazin bin Ghadhouba, traditionally viewed as the first Omani to embrace Islam. Mazin, it is recounted, hailed from Samail and became a Muslim in the 620s after trekking Arabia to visit Muhammad.

The tomb of Mazin bin Ghadhouba in Samail, Oman

A modest, open-air structure, Mazin’s tomb channels perfectly the austerity of Ibadism, the prevailing expression of Islam in Oman, as well as the overarching Muslim sensibility to not allow human honor to rival what God alone deserves. Frankincense punctuated and perfumed the cool, quiet air among the trees. I watched curiously as our host sat his boys down along the concrete rails of the nearby falaj—an ancient-styled water distribution system—to once again redistribute the formative story of this first Omani Muslim.

With a bit of time to spare, we drove to another part of Samail—to see the oldest mosque in Oman. Along the street leading up to the mosque we witnessed a solitary farmer engaged in an epic, old-world tug-of-war with a stubborn bull.

Mazin bin Ghadhouba Mosque

Named for Mazin, the mosque’s foundations date to the 7th century. Inside the separate space where wadu (the ceremonial washing for ritual prayers) is performed, you can peer down into a deep well and ponder the spiritual efficacies of water. Directly across the street, meanwhile, there’s a little shop that touts the practical benefits of a bag of potato chips and a cup of chai for the road.

Re-emerging on that long stretch of highway, we would eventually find that red Mazda. And I would find myself thoroughly—undeservingly—immersed in someone else’s grand occasion.

Arriving in the village, you could sense the communal anticipation—as irrepressible as the dusk taking shape across the sky. It was absolutely fitting, then, to leave my camera in the car; given this moment, that was exactly where a camera respectfully belonged. Following our host, we took our shoes off, climbed a small hillside and came to a sort of miniature plateau beside the local mosque where approximately 200 men were gathered.

A multi-family wedding, several different grooms were participating in the traditional religious and cultural rites. You certainly know you’re not in Kansas anymore when your host is assuring you not to be concerned about the presence of daggers on the belts of Omani men (a wedding custom); also, he begins tutoring you on the fine art of how to eat rice with your hands—with one hand, in fact.

We processed through the grooms’ receiving line, smiling warmly, shaking hands, looking into eyes and offering blessings in broken Arabic for the households-to-be. Once through the line and seated on the ground, we observed the dramatic protocol where each groom receives a set of terms from his bride via the wedding officiates. This dynamic exchange was highlighted by an extended handshake that gives the word gravitas a casual feel.

Next thing you know, bring on the platters of food! Not to mention the one-handed rice ball-making. You can imagine what percentage of rice actually made it into this Westerner’s mouth. Despite the peculiar dining experience, however, there was something not at all unique about men encircling a plate of beef. That part was socially comforting.

As we began our descent of the plateau and reclaimed our shoes among the brown feet of Omani boys and men, I began to wonder—as an Anglo, from America—if anything could be added to time’s ladle for this day. Where else could this foreigner possibly travel in one afternoon and evening?

Cue the brother of one of the grooms—the driver of the red Mazda. He insisted that we come to his father’s house for a kind of groom’s reception. And what can a person say? I was the guest, and it was written.

Out on the terrace and under the luminous moon, a final sacred moment unfurled in another image both caught within and transcendent of time and place. Somewhere between bounties of fruits, endless cups of coffee and handfuls of halwa (a dense, gelatinous confection), I glimpsed an exuberant father embracing his married son—with a party happening in the background.