No Place Like Oman

From its cinnamon dunes and lush shores to its prismatic culture, the intoxicating country is a study in dazzling contrasts.



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THE RED SAND under my feet feels cool. The sun greets the distant dunes. With a burst, it turns the sky into a violet and gold panorama. A crescent moon slowly continues its transformation into a celestial sphere. Local Bedouins have dug a hole in the ground, cooking goat over charcoal, simply salted. The meat will collapse in our mouths, and I will claim this to be one of my most profound memories of food. We are in Oman; our precise location is Wahiba Sands, an 8,000-square-mile stretch of majestic dunes that cover the central portion of the country. This is the country I called home for a large part of my life, where my parents lived for 33 years until they moved back to their home city of New Delhi, India, about six years ago. And it’s been six years since I’ve returned, but I’ll get back to that.

Oman, with a population of 4.63 million people (3.8 million being Omani), is situated along the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, with Yemen in the south, Saudi Arabia along the west, and the United Arab Emirates further north. It is a vast terrain of deserts, mountains, dramatic cliffs, and pristine beaches outlined by islands with reefs that captivate scuba divers’ dreams. In its southern Dhofar region, it’s like the tropics, lush and laden with palm trees, while in Musandam — Oman’s northernmost point — arid, rocky plains juxtapose vertiginous peaks. In the winter, at the highest point of the Hajar Mountains, Jebel Shams, there's snow.



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This extremity of terrain sits in stark contrast to Oman’s reputation as the Switzerland of the Middle East, brokering peace negotiations in the region — most famously the Iran nuclear deal — but its over 1,000 forts and watchtowers are reminders of its tumultuous past. Originally a tribal society, the country was a natural target for invasion, considering its strategic maritime position along the Strait of Hormuz. For centuries, Oman navigated Ottoman, Persian, Portuguese, and British colonization, finally gaining independence in 1951.

That being said, the colony was also a colonizer: Zanzibar, an island off Tanzania, came under Omani rule in 1698. Then, in 1856, Said bin Sultan’s will decreed that the kingdom would be divided into two principalities, each governed by one of his sons: Zanzibar would be ruled by Majid bin Said, considered the first Sultan of Zanzibar, while Thuwaini bin Said became the Sultan of Oman. Zanzibar eventually gained its independence in 1963, but the diversity of Omani culture and ethnicity is a clear, vivid by-product of the country’s migration and location, conquest and confluence.

With a Hindu father and a Christian mother, I was raised celebrating Christmas and Diwali, going to the local Protestant church and the Hindu temple — as well as visiting our Omani and Muslim neighbors on Eid. I grew up with the call to prayer echoing from the minarets that lace the region. I have fond memories of smoking shisha (hookahs) and eating shawarmas with our friends at iftar (the fast-breaking evening meal) during Ramadan, catching the World Cup at local cafes, learning to play tennis and swim at the Al Bustan Palace, and bargaining at the Mutrah Souq in Muscat. I remember dolphin watching from the Daymaniyat Islands, scuba diving near Barr Al Jissah, seeing turtles hatch at the Ras al Hadd, and taking long walks on Qurum Beach.

The smell of frankincense also takes me back to my childhood when our house was bathed in this incense. In fact, the resin was once a source of great financial success for the country prior to petroleum and gas, and it is said that one of the Three Wise Men must have been from Oman since he came bearing frankincense. Oman is a place of many fables — from stories of the greatest sailor Sindbad to the housing of the Queen of Sheba’s tombs to suspenseful accounts of djinns, shape-shifting spirits who dominate the region’s mythology.


In contrast, the warmth and generosity of the local Omani is also often marveled at by the tourists who come to this beautiful country, including my Norwegian in-laws, whose first visit to Oman coincided with my return to the country this past winter after a half-dozen years. It was a strange and surreal trip — to come back to a place I once called home, where I didn’t have a house anymore, to feel like a tourist in a place that had been my sanctuary.

We traveled again to Wahiba Sands, this time staying in a luxury camp. While racing up and down the dunes, our Bedouin guide’s SUV tire punctured. We stepped out of the car and waited without urgency. We soaked in the winter heat and observed a distant caravan of camels chewing on the greenery from recent rains. Once the tire was fixed, our guide adjusted his dishdasha (national dress) and retied his muzzar (turban). He insisted on taking us to his village to meet his family. We sat on the ground pillows of his two-room house as his young daughters in matching printed sirwals (dresses worn over trousers) brought us freshly brewed cardamon-laced khawa (coffee) and a rich, chewy mash-up of dates.

That evening, the sun continued its journey and the sand cooled against my toes in the same way I remembered it had about 25 years ago. We drank wine and ordered from the camp restaurant. It was a modern experience compared to the times we slept in sleeping bags and tents under the stars, but it reminded me, Oman will always be home.

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Our Contributors

Shruti Ganguly Writer

Shruti Ganguly is a filmmaker and writer based between Oslo and New York City. She is currently writing an adaption of Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s book “Secret Daughter” for Amazon, which will star Sienna Miller and Priyanka Chopra Jonas, and her debut feature as a director, “Tripped Up” will be in theaters in fall 2023, distributed by Decal and Universal.

Bryan Derballa Photographer

Bryan Derballa is a New York–based photographer with experience shooting a wide variety of work, from documentary to portraiture to fashion, for numerous newspapers, magazines, and commercial clients.


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