Previously in Atlantic Abroad
Monsoon Time (Rahul Goswami, Dubai, March 1, 2000).
Rank Strangers (Jeff Biggers, Italy, February 9, 2000).
Midnight Express (Akash Kapur, Romania, January 5, 2000).
The Price of Devotion (Jeffrey Tayler, India, December 22, 1999).
Israeli Forms of Identity (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, December 1, 1999).
New Year's and Nothingness (William Tyree, Indonesia, October 27, 1999).
Searching for El Chapareke (Jeff Biggers, Mexico, September 29, 1999).
Opium in the Naga Hills (Rahul Goswami, India, September 1, 1999).
A Saturday at the Auction (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, August 4, 1999).
The Bulls of Goa (Rahul Goswami, India, June 16, 1999).
The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo (Jeffrey Tayler, Nigeria, May 26, 1999).
Hotel Alf (Akash Kapur, Poland, May 12, 1999).
Strolling Moscow's Broadway (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 28, 1999).
Uygur Luncheon (Jeffrey Tayler, China, April 14, 1999).
Onion Logic (Akash Kapur, India, March 31, 1999).
Dreamcasting Japan (Trevor Corson, Japan, March 17, 1999).
Talmud in a Taxi (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, March 3, 1999).
A Place of Healing (Jeffrey Tayler, China, February 17, 1999).
The Tiger Queen (Akash Kapur, India, February 3, 1999).
For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.
Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.
March 29, 2000
His forearms lashed to three large goats, a young boy ran by me on his way into the circular pen that served as the livestock showcase. It was difficult to tell whether he was leading the goats or whether the animals were dragging him.
Leaning over the rails of the pen, long-limbed men dressed in ankle-length Arab dishdash robes, sandals, and skullcaps jostled boisterously and shouted out bids for the boy's goats. I could not see an auctioneer, but somehow a tally was kept and a winning bidder declared. A portly, bearded young man in a flowing pastel robe stepped forward and claimed the goats he had just bought. Twirling a mobile phone in his free hand, he led the animals to his Range Rover, where two women helped him load the livestock into the jeep, packing the goats in amongst CDs, cartons of figs, and other items he had purchased that morning.
I spent all day at the weekly goat market held in Nizwa, a midsize city located in the central region of the Sultanate of Oman. I had come to Oman for vacation, lured by a friend's raves about Omanis' hospitality and about the country's scenery: dramatic dunes, high peaks, imposing fortresses. Staying in Nizwa overnight on my way to southern Oman, I stumbled upon the market.
I was surprised and somewhat relieved that, as one of only two Westerners at the livestock market, I did not draw more attention. Six months earlier I had wandered into an open-air poultry market in rural Laos and become the entertainment for the day. Kids jumped on me, adults offered me good deals on chicken necks, and town elders stared at me until I left.
But, according to friends who lived on the Arabian Peninsula, Oman is one of the most easygoing of the newly rich Persian Gulf countries. A British friend who loves Oman told me that the country has achieved the best balance between its historical Bedouin culture, its oil-based socioeconomic development, and its recent influx of foreign workers and travelers. Perhaps Oman's ability to blend the modern and the traditional and to welcome outsiders is owing to its relatively equal distribution of wealth among city and rural dwellers, its tolerant brand of Islam, called Ibadism, and its long history of contact with foreign states (between the late sixteenth and early twentieth century, Oman was a center for trade and maritime exploration).
This acceptance of different lifestyles was apparent at the Nizwa market. Omani nationals from Muscat (the capital), who had driven to Nizwa for the day in their shiny BMW coupes, shared figs with local Indian and Pakistani workers and with Omanis from the countryside, who had come to the market on camels. Clearly, many of these people had been meeting here every week for years, not only to swap goats but also to trade gossip about life in the desert and in Muscat's concrete jungle. On the fringes of the market, teenaged Indian girls dressed in jeans and Western-style makeup laughed at stories told by Omani women attired in full abbaya robes, headscarves, and burqa face masks.
Terrific, I thought, as I strolled around the market, seemingly anonymous. I can just fade into the shadows, take lots of pictures, and absorb some local color.
But I was mistaken. Well aware that a man without a goat is a man whose life is incomplete, a wizened old Omani with a plug of tobacco in his mouth approached me and offered a medium-sized goat for thirty-five rials ($90). It was a good-looking animal, its coat shiny and strong. If I lived in Oman, I might have bought the goat and taken it home to give to my children as a pet, to milk, or to slaughter for the Eid al Adha feast of sacrifice. But I was returning to Bangkok in two days. Thai Airways is known for its service, but they probably wouldn't allow anything on the plane that had cloven feet.
"No thank you," I told the goat merchant. But the man was insistent. (Like many Gulf Arabs, he spoke English well, so there was no question of miscommunication.) Thinking that I was just a shrewd bargainer, he lowered his price. "Twenty-eight rials," he said, as he grabbed my hand and forced me to touch the goat, to verify the animal's health. Together, we checked its teeth, patted its fur, and even grabbed its genitals. "You need to know it is good there, so it can have babies," said the merchant. All parts were in order, but I still wasn't buying.
"Okay, last price," said the man. "Twenty-two rials ... you cannot get a cheaper goat anywhere." I began to walk to my rental car. The man followed. I could see that it might be difficult to get rid of him, and I suddenly remembered a song that my family used to sing during the Passover holiday called Had Gadya -- "One Only Kid." One only kid stood between me and the rest of my vacation.
Just then, the merchant put his hands on my car, raising his robe enough to reveal the stunning khanjars strapped to his waist. Khanjars are traditional handcrafted jewel-encrusted silver daggers that many Omani men tuck into their belts and that I'd admired since I arrived in Muscat.
Hmmm, I thought, now things are getting interesting. "Okay," I volunteered. "Twenty-eight rials for the goat, and you give me one of your khanjars as well." The man looked confused, as if I was trying some new negotiating technique that he did not know. Why was I raising the price? However, he quickly overcame his initial fear that I was somehow pulling the (goat's) wool over his eyes and agreed to the exchange.
A good deal is one in which everyone prospers. Khanjars are a dime a dozen in Oman, but good goats are rare. The merchant did not quite understand why I would pay more to get something that he strapped on his waist every day. I did not comprehend why it was so important to him that I leave the market with a goat. But we both came away happy.
I put the goat in my trunk and released it into the woods about a hundred miles south of Nizwa. I hope it found somewhere suitable to graze. More importantly, I hope that it did not return to the goat merchant -- I would not want to have to explain the situation to him next time we meet in Nizwa for figs and coffee.
Joshua Kurlantzick (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Bangkok correspondent for Agence France-Presse.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
Photographs by Joshua Kulantzick.