Deeba Hasan sits down with Maxine Burden, who tells the story of Muttrah souq in her new book, Throw Down the Anchor
Maxine Burden is an Australian expat who has lived in Oman for seven years now and, like many others, has fallen in love with the labyrinthine alleyways of Muttrah’s souq, Oman’s spectacular traditional bazaar. But unlike other visitors to the souq, she decided to do something a little different. The 65-year-old visited the souq every Sunday for two-and-a-half years from 2009, gathering the unknown stories from the souq’s ancient passageways to publish in her recently launched book, Throw Down the Anchor. “‘Mutrah’ means to throw something down, hence the title of the book,” she says. Maxine is a volunteer at the Centre for Omani Dress and the book was dreamed up as a fundraising drive. “Our director put down a list of things that could be done to raise funds for our museum and researching the Mutrah souq was one of them. I had always loved the souq, which is why I leapt at the opportunity. Back then, we didn’t really know if we would ever come out with a book,” says Maxine.
Throw Down the Anchor was a longstanding labour of love for Maxine, who has filled it with the fruits of her extensive research, beautiful photographs old and new, as well as some nostalgic memories from the souq, which is believed to be about 600 years old.
“For the first few months, it was very difficult to get something out of the merchants and people who worked at the shops. They were wary because no one had ever asked them about the story of their shops and the history.” It took 12 months, but Maxine’s persistence and weekly visits paid off and the merchants finally began to open up to her, sharing the stories of their products and the souq as a whole. Some still resisted, though. “There was this store which has been in Oman for a long time. I tried talking to the owner, but had no luck. I was persistent and patient, but it didn’t work out.” Of the stories she did manage to collect, some are amazing.
“I came across an old man who didn’t know English, so we talked through his brother. He narrated the story of a kahwa [coffee] seller from the souq, who was a friend of his grandfather. He sold kahwa for one baisa per cup until the age of 104 and managed to save enough to visit India, Salalah and London, with his last big trip being the Hajj in Mecca.”
Maxine first came to Oman in 1992 and lived here until 1996. She moved to the UAE before finally coming back to the Sultanate in 2007. Before coming to the gulf, Maxine worked in the travel industry organising cruise tours. This is the first time she has written a book. “I had previously done some promotional writing and also did some writing about my camping trips, but this is my first book.” There’s a good chance it won’t be her last either because there are still stories from the souq that Maxine wants to gather.
“I love the souq,” Maxine says. “I love the old anywhere. When we travel, it’s always the old that interests me and the souq just has a great ambience about it. “You can get in and spend hours around there.” Unfortunately, Maxine thinks that people who arrive on cruises focus only on the souq’s main alleyway despite there being so much else to explore. While in the souq, Maxine learnt just how much it had changed over the years. “The main entrance was never the entrance up until 1970 and there used to be a donkey market at the car park of the Police Station in the souq.” These and many other stories are still lingering around in the souq, waiting to be told to people out there – hopefully in Maxine’s next book.
For more information on Throw Down the Anchor and to find outlets where you can buy it, go to www.centreforomanidress.com
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