As a ferocious, record-breaking blizzard pummeled our windows, ushering in yet another month of Moscow’s winter, we began a sudden, frantic search for a sunny refuge, someplace to both defrost on the beach and absorb a little culture over the course of four days.
It had to be within a few hours’ flying time and free of the Islamic State or al-Qaida. That is getting harder for Russian and European travelers. Places that used to provide short getaways — Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Kenya — are plagued by either war or random extremist violence. And going to a relatively stable region like the Caribbean involves too much flying time for a quick trip.
Ultimately we settled on a not-so-obvious choice: the slightly off-the-beaten-track Musandam Peninsula in the Sultanate of Oman. There has been a surge in tourism in recent years, in part because of its attractive, quiet shores and warm, dolphin-rich seas. Our springboard into the region would not be the beach, exactly: Our first stop after flying into the United Arab Emirates was the Emirate of Sharjah, an emerging center for contemporary art. Since we both had reported from the Arab world for years, the trip was partly tinged with nostalgia.
Sharjah positions itself as the offbeat brother to the slick commercial art market next door in far richer Dubai. A third option is developing farther down the road in Abu Dhabi, where a cornucopia of long-delayed museum projects is finally coming to fruition. A branch of the Louvre should open within the coming year, to be followed by a national museum and then Guggenheim Abu Dhabi by 2020.
Sultan al-Qassemi, 38, from a branch of the local ruling family, volunteered to be our guide for our visit. Sultan, who shot to Twitter stardom during the Arab uprisings for his manic coverage, runs his own foundation, the Barjeel Art Foundation, as well as a photography studio and a commercial art gallery in Dubai. He met us at Shababeek, a tasty Lebanese restaurant in al-Qasba, a cultural and business center downtown. He proved to be an energetic, enthusiastic and erudite guide, rather like his tweets.
“It is a tale of this incredible shift in the cultural dynamics of the region,” Sultan told us over a lunch of Lebanese meze. “Before, you had to go to traditional capitals of the Arab world to experience culture and art.”
That shift is even more pronounced since the Islamic State began leveling some of the region’s priceless antiquities. “The destruction of the culture pains all Middle Easterners, but it adds emphasis to our work, to share the culture that we have, to show the world that yes, there is destruction, but there is also creativity,” Sultan said.
The Gulf region has come a long way from the days when public art consisted mainly of giant sculptures of traditional Arab coffee pots. (There are still plenty of those on major traffic circles.) Sharjah’s ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qasimi, planted the seed that transformed his emirate into a creative hub when he founded the Sharjah Biennial of contemporary art in 1993. (Sultan’s branch of the family transliterates its name slightly differently.)
The number of museums, galleries and cultural institutions has since blossomed with the emirate itself establishing more than a dozen, including a museum of Islamic civilization and a small heritage museum. The next biennial opens in March. Key places to see contemporary art include the Sharjah Art Foundation, the Sharjah Art Museum and the Maraya Art Centre.
Visitors were sparse but enthusiastic on the day we toured. On the top floor of the airy Maraya center we ran into Manuel Rabaté, who will be the first director of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. “There is always something to do in Sharjah,” said Rabaté, out for a Saturday busman’s holiday with his wife and two small daughters. “You have to stop here; this is a great place! I love it.”
One floor down, Sultan’s Barjeel Art Foundation was presenting “Home Ground,” an exposition of contemporary Middle Eastern art on the theme of displacement. Some of it was about the Palestinian diaspora. Egyptian-born Australian artist Raafat Ishak’s work “Responses to an Immigration Request From One Hundred and Ninety-Four Governments” intersected poignantly with the refugee crisis. Ishak applied to immigrate to every country on earth at the time of the project, and the responses, or lack thereof, inspired the work.
Sharjah’s crown jewel of contemporary art is the Sharjah Art Foundation, the brainchild of Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, its president and the ruler’s daughter. It occupies the heart of old Sharjah, a small knot of early 19th-century buildings made of bricks hewed from coral, including a modest fort and a tiny mosque. In empty spaces the foundation constructed plain, square white buildings. The overall effect is negotiating a sunny labyrinth that opens periodically into expansive, cool spaces filled with art.
From the foundation you can walk through what is left of the old Sharjah, including scattered cafes and a restored covered bazaar selling souvenirs. We stopped for an espresso at a cafe overlooking the harbor with its dhows, the Gulf’s traditional seafaring vessels.
The end of the walk brought us to a series of artists’ studios and the Sharjah Art Museum. Its permanent collection is built around painting and sculpture by Gulf artists, some of it leaning toward the nostalgic.
Many art spaces in Sharjah are designed in the Islamic architectural style that the emirate favors for official buildings. One delightful anomaly is the Flying Saucer, a funky, would-be spaceship opened in 1978 as a French patisserie. It has the air of an old Los Angeles fast-food restaurant. Its exhibitions feature both local and foreign artists.
As a young generation of Western-educated art professionals breaks unprecedented ground, they are gingerly balancing an Islamic society’s conservative values with freewheeling art. It is taboo to criticize political leaders or religion, or to show nudity, although we found discreet examples.
Sharjah also bans alcohol according to Islamic tradition, which prompts many visitors to visit the bars of neighboring Dubai or Ajman before returning to Sharjah’s less expensive beach hotels to sleep.
After spending the better part of a day exploring the museums, we headed toward Oman and the Musandam Peninsula, but not without one final reminder of the emirate’s Islamic ways. Our destination, the Six Senses Zighy Bay Resort, a two-hour drive from Sharjah, lies just over the border in Oman. The hotel arranges a border pass for guests lacking an Omani visa.
Just as we pulled into the Sharjah border post in downtown Dibba, the driver said casually, “They search your luggage for liquor and take away any they find.” Three Champagne splits in one suitcase were duly confiscated even though we were leaving the country. “This time we will let you go, but next time we will open a case against you,” growled the border guard.
There are various versions of the story about how the Musandam Peninsula, which juts into the Straits of Hormuz like a rhino horn, ended up in Oman’s hands. Some say the British colonial rulers divided up the territory of the Emirates in the 1960s according to tribal loyalties, or in the case of Musandam, because Oman agreed to give the British access to this strategic location on the Strait of Hormuz.
Musandam consists mostly of rocky, saw-toothed, blackish-yellow crags that tumble abruptly down into white sandy beaches. There are few hotels — either way upscale or downscale with limited water access. We chose the Six Senses resort for its splendid isolation on its own cove, although the price caused some hesitation.
The final stretch of gravel road to the beach goes from the drab to the dramatic, with a steep ascent filled with hairpin turns up one side of a dun-colored mountain. At the crest a breathtaking sea vista opened at our feet.
The hotel’s 82 stone villas are nestled in a beachfront oasis of more than 1,000 palm trees on the cove’s left end. To the right stands the old fishing village of Zighy, rebuilt by the hotel and the government to match the resort. Zighy means hot in the local dialect; during the low season from June to September, the temperature can hit 130 degrees.
At the hotel, we hopped on the bikes available at each villa and pedaled past the spa, the saltwater pool and the organic garden. A large freshwater pool, two restaurants and a bar constitute the heart of the resort. We found our villa extremely comfortable. It had beamed ceilings, plaster walls and large flagstone floors.
It had two drawbacks, however. No screens meant we could not sleep with the windows open because of random mosquitoes, and it flooded badly in a rare rainstorm. But for our first night, it was clear. We opted for a romantic barbecue outdoors in our own little walled compound, lit by scattered candles.
The resort offers distractions for the whole family, ranging from face painting to water sports to a grueling bike ride up the mountain. So first thing the next day, we went on a dhow snorkeling cruise.
We launched from the local marina, which lies through the village of Zighy, population 300. (Hotel guests are discouraged from wandering through it, especially in bathing suits. Signs on the tracks leading to it read: “Please respect Zighy’s local traditions by covering up appropriately beyond this point.”)
After boarding, as we glided out of the cove across jade-colored waters, the captain, Humaid Abdulla al-Shehi, 29, explained that the area was no longer the string of impoverished fishing villages as it had been when the hotel was built nine years ago. He was one of the first men hired from the initially hostile village. “It is a simple life, eating and sleeping and feeding their goats,” said Shehi. “They have lived like this for hundreds of years. They don’t know anything about fighting or what is going on in the rest of the world.”
The day started sunny and bright, so we snorkeled around admiring the fish. On the way home the sky darkened and began pelting the sea with hailstones. It rains about nine days a year around Musandam, and we had the poor luck to be there for about a third of them.
Oman has been comparatively quiet, but not entirely immune to the wave of political Islam sweeping the region. The government keeps strict — critics say harsh — control over mosque sermons and other religious practices.
Greg Kocsis, then the resort manager, acknowledged that some guests asked how safe the resort is against attacks. The hotel has its own security, he said, including a substantial checkpoint monitoring who drives over the mountain, the lone access.
We slept soundly after a day on the water. Early the next morning, walking along the deserted paths to the pool felt like being in an isolated Arab village. Goats bleated in the distance, while swallows and myna birds darted out of the palm trees. With its raked sand pathways it was rather better groomed than an ordinary village, however.
It was not dolphin season, but we were determined to see them. We decided to visit the dolphin-dense fjords of Khasab, the peninsula’s port, three hours and two border crossings away by car. It is a bit of a long trek for a day’s outing, since Oman bars nonresidents from crossing the peninsula through the mountains.
We set out at 6 a.m. The coastal road is dramatic, winding along the curves of the mountains. Khasab boasts a small, handsome 17th-century fort, built by the Portuguese to control the nearby Strait of Hormuz, where the Persian Gulf meets the Indian Ocean.
We opted for a full-day dolphin cruise. Propped up on oriental cushions and carpets at the bow of the boat, we had a sweeping view of the harbor and realized that the most exotic sight around might not be the dolphins.
Dozens of small, powerful motorboats were skimming across the harbor, driven by tanned, wind-beaten men who our captain explained were Iranian smugglers. It is a two-hour trip across the strait, one of the world’s major oil transit points. The men legally load between 150 and 200 motorboats daily with all manner of goods in Oman — cigarettes, small electronics and even an occasional car — then sneak across to Iran at night to avoid paying customs duty there.
While our dhow motored out into the strait, we were treated to fresh fruit and cardamom coffee. As the boat gathered speed, the dolphins emerged, frolicking playfully all around the dhow. At one point we had a pair on each side — and their bubbling effervescence proved infectious. The captain steered into a khor (narrow fjord), where the dolphins vanished and we made several stops to swim and admire the stark cliffs.
On the way back we anchored in a quiet inlet. The captain turned off the engine, allowing for a delicious snooze in the splendid serenity. We had found the warmth and utter peace we sought.
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Eva Sohlman reported from the Middle East for Reuters, The Economist and the International Herald Tribune. Neil MacFarquhar is the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times and a former Cairo bureau chief.