Muscat Festival offers a fascinating window on our world and a celebration of Oman’s culture, heritage, artistry and talent. Alvin Thomas reports.
There’s a beautiful and meaningful saying that goes: “The greatness of a culture can be found in its festivals.”
However, as we progress in this world, there has certainly been a shift in the way we approach the historical and cultural values of our own countries.
And festivals have long been the last strand of hope – a ray of light, if we may say – for the citizens of a country to look back and reminisce, cherish their roots and embrace the true nature of their existence.
Don’t believe us? Simply take a look at the religious festival of Holi (also known as the festival of colours) in India, in which more than 800 million Hindus across India, Nepal and Sri Lanka celebrate by throwing coloured powder and water over each other. This festival has also been in practice for many centuries now.
Meanwhile, the La Tomatina event in Spain attracts thousands of participants who throw squashed tomatoes at each other for fun, and the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, attracts tens of thousands of spectators, who gather in the streets to witness the annual fun-filled festival of party, dance and music.
These are just a few of the many festivals that are held across the globe annually.
In Oman, however, things are a bit different: there’s no throwing of colours or tomatoes on each other, but the Muscat Festival, which is the Sultanate’s biggest and most prominent annual festival, does not lack for zeal or fervour.
And walking through the colourfully decorated gates of Al Amerat Park on a chilly sub-20-degree Saturday evening, it becomes all the more evident that the Muscat Festival, which marks its 17th season this year, is not just an annual occurrence but more of an emotion and a celebration of our cultures and traditions.
For most people living in the Sultanate, the chilly weekend evening would have been the perfect time to curl up at home, spend some time watching television or simply indulge in some family chat. But, for the thousands of visitors – both young and old – who have flocked to the festival village, the temperature is a mere hindrance, and the prospect of learning about cultures and traditions, and the idea of imparting knowledge about the history and art of the Sultanate into the minds of young children is paramount.
In its efforts to promote the Omani culture of handicrafts and artistry, Muscat Festival houses numerous stalls in the “Heritage Village” section that showcase paintings, clay pottery, the lost art of net making using natural fibres, as well as jewellery making and knitting. It’s like a window through time and a fascinating insight into the country’s rich history.
Salma al Hakhma, a doll maker who hails from Bahla, says: “The Muscat Festival is the best platform for people like us to showcase our works. Most of our works lie in our family shop in Bahla but now we can show our works to the world.”
All the products are for sale, thus motivating more Omanis to promote their work as well as create a sense of awareness among the youth. However, all the products are priced competitively to draw more buyers. For instance, Salma’s handicrafts and toys cost between RO3 and RO5. If you like, you can also have her make a bespoke doll for you.
But the most popular products with visitors are frankincense and perfumes, pots, jewellery and several food products such as honey, sweets and dates.
For instance, 18-year-old perfume seller Yasir al Mahri, who has travelled all the way from Salalah, sells bahur sandal, ouds and frankincense, which are priced from RO1 to RO7. He tells Y that his products can cost anything between RO5 and RO20 in the souqs of Muttrah and Seeb.
“All of the items you see here are from Salalah. We own a family business there. But we make sure to head here every year and showcase our things. The business has been good but for us, this is not about making a sale but about showing the people how good Omani products are,” says Yasir.
He also points out that business has been stable, thanks to scores of crowds visiting the festival on weekends.
Abdullah al Raeesi, a resident of Wadi al Kabir and a father of two young boys, says: “Oman is all about embracing the Arab culture. Anyone who lives here long enough would know how culture-oriented we are.
“And that is also why I believe that the Muscat Festival is vital to our country’s heritage. I still remember the time the Muscat Festival was only coming up. People used to criticise it and compare it with the Dubai Shopping Festival but in truth, we weren’t trying to copy them in the first place.
“Look around you: the Muscat Festival is all about showcasing the various talents of Oman, our roots and where we hail from.
“This not only gives us an opportunity to reminisce on our past but it also gives us the chance to show our kids things that the internet will not teach them. They need to see how clay pots are made, how we used to go fishing, how we used to draw water from the wells and so on.
“The Muscat Festival is the only place where all of this lines up and we can see it all in one visit.”
Also attracting crowds is the stall set-up by the Oman Association for the Hearing Impaired, which aims to raise funds for the charity. In the process, the stall showcases numerous handicraft items such as bags and paintings that were created by members of the organisation.
The stall also provides handbooks and quick training to visitors explaining various sign language to converse with those with hearing disabilities.
Also garnering a lot of attention is the visually impaired pen maker, who is carving out custom-made pens out of a block of wood. The pen maker not only uses his skills to the full but also manages to create a visually stunning instrument using only his sense of touch and a high-rpm wood-carving machine.
Shankar, an Indian expatriate who is watching the pen maker at work, says: “It is amazing how the disabled people are using their talents to create some beautiful forms of art. I am amazed by the blind pen maker, and I am waiting for him to finish so that I can buy one.”
One collector, Abu Hamad, is also back this year with his collection of pots, guns, Omani swords and record players. His collection of pots date back almost 100 years. Some of Abu’s guns are extremely rare – his collection includes a Flintlock musket – and date back to the 19th century.
However, the collector from Nizwa prefers to let his wares do the talking and respectfully declined our offer of an interview.
The “Heritage Village” is also home to numerous Arabic food stalls selling traditional Omani food. However, we find that Omani halwa makers are missing from the scene this year.
“Fresh Omani halwa has been something of a crowd-pleaser in previous festivals,” says South African expat Joanne.
“I used to come here with my husband and we used to purchase enough halwa to last us two weeks. This time, I cannot seem to find a stall that seems to sell the halwa,” she adds.
Also missing from the festival at Al Amerat is the Dinosaur Park, which was a disappointment for numerous visitors with children.
However, Al Amerat Park still comprises numerous rides such as bumper cars, the rollercoaster, electric swings and pendulum rides. If you’re up for the challenge, you can also walk on water at the Water Zorbing arena.
Meanwhile, a huge crowd is seen gathering around the Muscat Festival stage, where Russian acrobats are performing. Among the performers is Urah, a Ukraine-based performer who is in town only for the Muscat Festival.
Urah is enthralling the audience as the legendary Charlie Chaplin, whom he has grown to “admire and love” since he was a youngster. He also tells us that he will be starring in an adaptation of Star Wars for one of the coming performances later tonight.
Adjacent to the stage is the fire-show arena, which is surrounded by hundreds of people – all scrambling for the perfect spot to catch a glimpse all of the action. The performers – both men and women – are throwing lit-up sticks in the air and performing numerous acrobatic movements, all the while playing with fire.
The fire show only lasts for a few minutes. But just as the clock strikes 8.30pm, visitors are treated to something truly amazing: fireworks begin lighting up the sky in different colours, illuminating the the darkness for a few seconds at a time before returning to its state of calmness.
The five-minute long show has everyone stunned in sheer silence, their heads turned upwards towards. Some youngsters are also taking this opportunity to capture some stunning photographs and videos.
“The Muscat Festival has provided us with a lot of memories,” says Fatima and her group of friends who have headed to the park from Sohar.
“We have been coming here since we were kids and this is our bonding time,” they chuckle.
“We have seen both the festival villages – at Naseem Garden and Al Amerat Park – and I can tell you that the one here is much more cultural and Omani. I think there are a lot of options for you to learn many new things about our cultures and traditions,” Fatima says. “The one at the Naseem Garden has more for you if you’re hoping to have some fun, as there are more rides there. But I think it is best to come here and shop. I have already purchased a new burqa and some jewellery from one of the vendors today.”
Various shows and activities have been held over the course of the past three weeks at Naseem Garden and the Oman Automobile Association (OAA) in Seeb and Al Amerat Park.
Naseem Garden has been the star of this year’s Muscat Festival, with visitors raving about the new rainforest, which is filled with exotic plants and flowers, ducks and rabbits.
Also, if you have a sweet tooth, there are Omani halwa stores at Naseem Garden.
More activities and events are lined up as we enter the final few days of this year’s Muscat Festival, so make sure you visit one of the two locations before the festival season ends. You’ve got until February 11 to pay a visit.
• Muscat Festival will run until February 11.
• Al Amerat Park and Naseem Garden will be open for visitors between 4pm and 11pm Sunday to Thursday (4pm-12am on weekends).
• Tickets are 200 baisa per adult and 100 baisa per child.
• Mwasalat has introduced special services to transport festival-goers to the two locations.
• For more information, go to muscat-festival.com