“The Green Mountain”—Jebel Akhdar, Oman 2022
The mountains are a stony brown mass of rock speckled with patches of green from the rosemary bushes, junipers, and sundry shrubs that drape the landscape. At 2,000 meters above sea level, Jebel Akhdar (“The Green Mountain”) stands 500 metres lower than Machu Picchu. The air is cool, approximately ten degrees lower than in the capital Muscat. Driving here is a feat of considerable dexterity that requires quick attention to the spiralling roads that corkscrew around valleys of endless ochre rocks. The winds are sharp, a welcome relief in the early summer, although one can imagine their fierceness in winter
Mahar, my guide, bears a modest and calm demeanour. His smile is gentle and easy. He has a stocky frame that contains a vigour and energy hard to match for someone not born and raised in the mountain as he was. “We have workers from the Maldives,” he says. “They have to spend two weeks resting at the hotel before they start working.” He claims, with a gentle grin, that he always beats these workers in ad hoc football matches, a subtle boast that seems credible given the ease with which he tightropes over the sides of narrow irrigation canals and steep streets in the three semi-abandoned villages close to the hotel.
Jebel Akhdar is a hard place that yields infinite treasures to any plant, animal, and human willing to accept its harshness. Mahar points to a faraway eagle that floats in the wind with an enviable grace. Geckos look upon us from the bushes. I note to Mahar a brown fox seen early in the morning from my hotel balcony the previous day. “They only come out at night,” he says, making me wonder if the fox lives with a loneliness more acute than that experienced by its lowland cousins.
Survival is made possible by the rain. I experienced one such rainfall the day before visiting the villages. The sight of greying clouds pouring into the sides of desiccated mountains was unexpected. To the locals, the rain was a blessing. Goats were sacrificed in gratitude as the falaj canals filled with torrents of water flowing downward from the mountaintops to the terraced orchards below. Mahar describes a list of crops and flowering plants grown in the mountais: corn, apricot, pomegranates, rose bushes, mint, walnuts, jasmine, and garlic. Long ago, the government built modern towns for the inhabitants, leaving the villages only partially lived-in, typically only visited to tend to the crops. That farmland itself was a government gift, as parcels of village land were distributed to locals for their own use. Mahar—trained as an engineer, and working as a local guide—still feels tied to the farming life of the community. “It’s good to work the land,” says Mahar, with enthusiasm. “You feel healthy.”
The pastoral peace of the mountains has not always existed. In the nineteen-fifties, the area was the setting for one of Oman’s many internal disputes between the British-backed central government and regional authorities for control of the land and the oil resources buried beneath the country’s interior. Along mountain trails, Mahar points out gravestones of villagers buried on the side of the road, a tactic employed by locals during the Jebel Akhdar War to avoid funerals being strafed by British jets in the service of the then reigning monarch Sultan Said. The British would employ other tactics in support of their proxy-ally in Muscat, including bombing the aflaj (the centuries-old irrigation systems) as a means of undermining local independence.
It was Sultan Said’s successor, Sultan Qaboos, who managed to integrate Jebel Akhdar into his new kingdom. Removing his father in a bloodless coup amidst an insurgency in the Dhofar province, he visited Jebel Akhdar as his very first royal duty stating—at least according to Mahar—that Oman’s oil money was for the locals, and he was there to serve them in whatever capacity he could. This generous narrative seems true. Mahar points to water trunks bringing desalinated water all the way from the coast. The roads and dozy towns seen on the way to Jebel Akhdar speak to the vast resources poured into developing a region that had no paved roads until after Sultan Qaboos’ accession, necessitating the Sultan having to resort to helicopter travel to speak to villagers face-to-face.
Beneath his tranquil demeanour, I sense a passion in Mahar for the community he was raised in. He has nothing but pride in his country, but his pride for his home—its sense of independence, the willingness the people have to eke out an existence with only what the mountain provides—is palpable. I struggle climbing the lurching streets of the villages, asking Mahar if the people of the mountains have trouble doing the same. “Not really,” he says. “My father is 89 years old, and he still works the land daily.” The statement seems less a criticism of my lacklustre physical performance and more as a way of highlighting how the mountain breeds strength and stubbornness. “I take him to Muscat sometimes to eat at restaurants and he never wants to have anything. He says ‘I only eat what I can grow.’”
I can appreciate his father’s sentiment. Why consume those things you never see flourishing with your own eyes? Why take more than what you need when all you require comes from within your home? Why ignore the greatest blessing, that one can feed off a land that, except for God’s grace, should be barren and fruitless?
The cliched description of places like Jebel Akhdar is that it of a “timeless” location unyielding to change. The people of region are certainly far from timeless, inasmuch as they, like all of us, have to face the aggressive pull of time whether wished for or not. They have been moved and battered by history—by war, by colonial interests, by the will of powerful men living far the mountain’s heights.
It is said that mountains have spiritual value, emerging from the beneath the ground, passing through the planes of humans existence to reach towards the sky. All that is ephemeral—the lizards, foxes, birds of prey, pomegranates trees, villagers who plant seeds in the hope that the rains make them bloom—exist only to survive in this most extreme of environments. One can wish that its beauty remains quarantined, even if we know that only mountains remain inoculated from time, and that the creatures who dwell in them live with the hope of shelter and comfort from a world that seeks to bring them to the surface, close to the earth, and far from the heavens.