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  • Well, Mr. Zaidi, for your sake I’ll repeat myself

    Posted On November 1, 1999

    By Karan Thapar

    We all know which is the most polluted city in the world or the most expensive or even the most dangerous. That’s the sort of detail the papers never fail to give us. But have you any idea which is the most clean? I’ve never read about it in any newspaper in any country and yet I know. How? Because I’ve just been there and even a week later I can’t stop marvelling about it.

    The answer is as unlikely as its surprising.  In fact, so spotlessly clean is this city that it makes Singapore look grubby.  Yet it’s not a european metropolis nor an american town.  It’s asian, it’s poor and it’s not that far away from us.  It’s....wait for it..... it’s Muscat. 

    I was invited to speak to the resident asian community about India after the recent elections.  Saeed Naqvi and Suhel Seth were also there.  As I drove into town from the airport I turned to Humayun Zaidi, my host, to exclaim at the cleanliness.

    “Oh that” he nonchalantly replied.  When things are so clean that one fails to notice them you know that it is the normal state of affairs.  “Khushwant once wrote that a man must see Muscat before he dies.”

    It was a sentiment the asian community echoed for the next two days.  As far as they were concerned old KS had hit the nail on the head.  But Muscat does anything but inspire thoughts of death.  It’s a place one wants to live in and, if you do, then obviously you hope you won’t ever stop doing so. 

    But first, so that you know what I am going on about, let me describe the place.  Muscat is a strip of magical habitation on the south-eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula between the deep blue water sea and the rugged, brown, barren Al Hajjar mountains.  By law all the buildings are either beige or white.  Outdoors the men can only wear their traditional flowing dish-dashes and on weekdays they

    have to be white.  Everywhere the roads stretch like plasticine, smooth, straight and seemingly forever.

    At one corner of this unlikely paradise is the Al Bustan Palace Hotel.  It’s where Mr. Zaidi had arranged for me to stay.  As you enter your eyes shoot skywards but, in fact, all they are doing is to follow the contours of the arches.  They rise five floors, like the gates of heaven, except these are lined with arabesque and the atmosphere is heavy with the smell of camphor and incense.

    “Maya” I said to the lady who drove me around the city.  She’s a cousin of my late wife but that relationship is inadequate explanation for her kindness.  “Is there anywhere in Muscat that is dirty?”

    “Well it’s relative”  she replied.  “Try the souk.”

    We did.  We walked its entire length – a full mile or more – and all I could find  were six cigarette stubs and four discarded wrappers.

    That night – it was my first – I met Muscat’s Old Doscos.  Deepak Atal, an old school friend, had arranged a gathering of the clan and in the Arabian desert it felt like an old soldiers’ reunion.  There were many I had not seen for a quarter century.

    “There are two things about Muscat you have to remember” Arjun Rana helpfully warned.  At first I was amazed he remembered  me but then, within minutes, I was deeply grateful for his tactful advice.

    “And what’s that?”

    “Keep your eyes open and for God’s sake keep your mouth shut.”

    “Why?”

    “Because there’s lots to see and like but when that’s done with there may not be that much you want to talk about.”

    Arjun was hinting at the politics of Oman.  It is an absolute monarchy.  Sultan Qaboos is both very gifted and very guarded.    There is no opposition although his admirers claim there is little need for one.  The Royal Family and religion are never discussed.  Yet without such delicate warning a blabber-mouth journalist like me would have transgressed these surreal albeit simple rules.

    So, I kept my lips sealed, my eyes wide open and my ears cocked.  It’s the best way to observe and study but journalists, who can’t stop talking, never seem to realise this.  Arjun’s advice ensured that I took in more than I gave out. 

    On the second night, as Suhel, Saeed and I started to repay our host with our little perorations, Suhel joked about the presence of the Indian Ambassador in the assembled gathering.

    “A South Asian speaking about his country abroad has to remember what happened to Najam Sethi” Suhel remarked.  “Particularly when the Ambassador is in the front row!”

    Everyone laughed.  No one misunderstood the joke, not even the large number of Pakistanis in the audience.  But later, at dinner, the Indian Ambassador leaned across and equally gently pulled our leg.

    “I don’t take what you say half as seriously as you do” he teased.  In fact, he knew twice as much as we did and yet he had listened to us with rapt attention.  I suppose that’s the sine qua non of a diplomat.

    Later, when it was time to depart and I started to bid Mr. Zaidi good bye, I allowed some of my bubbling emotions to show.  I was happy and it felt hypocritical to hide it.

    “I am glad you had a good time” he replied.  He was far more in control than I was.  “But I wonder what you are going to write about Muscat?”

    Well, Mr. Zaidi, if you ever get to read this piece I hope it rings a few bells for you.  When I told you I had a lovely time I was telling the truth.  Now everyone knows. 


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