Oman is the world’s easternmost Arabian country and one of the most ancient. The indigenous population is predominantly Arab except on the Batinah coast, where there is significant Baluchi, Iranian and African representation, and in Muscat and Matrah, where there are Khojas and other Indians, Baluchis and Pakistanis. Tribal groups are estimated to number over 200.
The official language is Arabic, but the minorities speak their own languages, which include Urdu, Baluchi, and several Indian dialects. A non-Arabic Semitic language Bathari is spoken in Dhofar. English is used widely and taught in schools as a second language. Swahili is also widely spoken in the country due to the historical relations between Oman and Zanzibar.
If you are someone who has an understanding and appreciation of history, arts, architecture and the intricacies of a civil soceity, Oman is the place for you. From the ancient city of Nizwa to the towns along the coast to the Capital to Salalalah, you can experience Oman’s sense of timelessness. The Sultanate enjoys an unspoiled culture and traditional lifestyle in almost every aspect. Even in its modernity, Oman is distinctly Arabic and offers many unique old-world wonders.
The Omani culture is steeped in the religion of Islam. Oman has developed its own type of Islam, known as Ibadhism. There are also Sunni and Shia Muslims in Oman. With this in mind the Islam month of fasting, Ramadan and other Islamic festivities are very important events in Omani culture. A very important part of Omani culture is hospitality. If invited into an Omani house, a visitor is likely to be greeted with a bowl of dates, another of halwa, kawa (coffee with cardamon), tea with cardamon and ginger, fruit, and small sweet pastries.
Clothes and Dressing
Oman is famous for its khanjar knives, which are curved daggers worn during holidays as part of ceremonial dress. Today traditional clothing is worn by most Omani men. They wear an ankle-length, collarless robe called a dishdasha that buttons at the neck with a tassel hanging down. Traditionally this tassel would be dipped in perfume to offset the infrequentness of baths. Today the tassel is merely a traditional part of the dishdasha. On certain occasions, accesories will also include a muzzar (a type of turban) and an assa (a cane or stick).
Women wear hijab and abaya. Some women cover their faces and hands, but most do not. The abaya is not traditional dress; it is current style. On holidays, such as Eid, the women wear traditional dress, which is often very brightly coloured and consists of a mid-calf length tunic over pants. In the desert, women of the Bedouin tribes wear a mask, called a burqa. It is used to protect delicate facial skin from burning sun and wind.
Many women in Oman paint their hands and feet with pastes of henna, particularly before special occasions such as Eid holidays or weddings. The paste is applied in patterns on the hands and feet, which, when dried, leaves a temporary orange/brown design that fades after around three weeks.
An enduring symbol of Oman is the traditional Dhow. These sailing ships have been around for several centuries, there is evidence of an Omani Dhow reaching China in the 8th Century. the dhows are still in operation primarily used for fishing, exporting and tourism. The main ports of Sohar, Sur, Salalah and Muscat all maintain a large fleet. Sur also has an exstensive dhow building industry.
Yemeni houses are built using local materials and always blend harmoniously with their natural setting. Reeds, mud and brick are used in the valleys and the plains, while stone-building is common in mountainous dwelling areas. Decorations on the house facades tend to vary from region to region.
The tower is the most popular type of architecture in the highlands; the tower is made of stone or brick and it usually reaches a height of 4-6 storeys to accommodate an extended family. The ground floor of a tower house is used for storage and housing domestic animals. The first floor rooms store household items and the second floor usually contains a reception room for guests. Bedrooms and the kitchen are located on the top two or three floors, with the kitchen usually being equipped with a well, which passes through the lower storeys and into the ground. The top floor contains a large room called the mafrai, where the owner of the house meets his friends in the afternoons, to talk and chew qat.
In the Tihamah region, the dwellings are low. Houses in the countryside are usually one-roomed huts built of reeds, with a sharply pointed roof. Town houses in this region are of one or two storeys and are built of brick, often with intricate decorations on the outer walls.
Traditional music marks all the stages in the life of an Omani, including birth, circumcision, marriage and death. In contrast to many Arab countries, all Omanis participate in music, include both men and women, and young and old. Omani traditional music has a strong emphasis on rhythm. Most traditional musical instruments are linked to certain funun. The structure of the instrument always meets the requirements of the specific fann, or the musical genre. These instruments were not made to be used in all funun.
Traditional instruments include:
The mizmar is a cylindrical double-reed wind instrument that requires a great deal of skill to play. The instrument is ancient, depicted on Greek vases. In Omani folk music, lewa is the primary use for the mizmar. This genre shows many signs of African origin, be it the typically African dance movement or the pentatonic scale. Swahili language is used not only for the text, but also in the names of parts of the lewa genre, such as lewa itself, the sabata, the bum and the sudani. Mizmar is also used in kunzak and sairawan.
The rababa is rarely used in modern Oman, but is of great historical importance. The Oman Centre for Traditional Music claims that “in general (the rababa) is considered ‘the mother of all the string instruments’ in the whole world”. The Omani rababa contains one string only and is called rababit ash-shair. The one-string type is used not only in Oman, but also in most other Arab countries such as the Arabian Gulf countries, Jordan and Lebanon. The name implies ‘the function of the instrument’, that is: helping the poet to recite his poetry. Therefore, one string is enough because a poet does not need a wide melodic ambitus like a singer for example. The poet usually uses only four or five tones that can easily be produced on one string on the neck of the rababa without changing position of the left hand.
The tanbura is the most important string instrument in Omani music. The precursor to the modern tanbura first appeared in Sumer in 2700 BC. The tanbura is unusual among string instruments in that it does not have a neck and its strings are free, and thus cannot be shortened to change the tone.
The oud is perhaps the most important Arab instruments and is used across the Middle East. The oud is used in vocal genres like as-sot and is also a part of the bara of Dhofar. The modern oud with its short neck has not changed from that seen in ancient manuscripts. The importance of the oud comes from the fact that it contains a large melodic range (ambitus) of two octaves because it contains five or six strings. As the strings are tuned in fourths, the player can, even without changing the movement of the left hand, from its ‘first’ or ‘primary position’, obtain two complete octaves. And, as the oud does not have any frets that determine its intervallic structure (like the guitar), it can produce tones that include all Arabic and non-Arabic intervals.
The zamr is a wooden instrument made from bamboo. Alternative names are aba al-maqrun and sometimes gifti. The zamr consists of two parallel pipes of equal length and size, fitted together. The sound is produced in both pipes by blowing into them simultaneously. Each pipe has one reed that is cut into the body of the pipe. In the Sultanate of Oman there are several types of the zamr namely with five, six or seven holes, although the five-hole type is the most frequently used. The player of the zamr is often accompanied by many rhythmic instruments usually from the rahmani class, such as the kasir, the ranna, the rahmani and the rahmani tawil. The zamr is also accompanied by singing as is seen in the zamr genre.
The qasaba is a pipe made from bamboo, wood or metal. It is characterised by its lack of mouthpiece for blowing, and is cylindrical in form and open at both ends. It has six holes in the front and one in the back. The sound is produced by blowing sideways into one of its two openings. The qasaba is similar to the nai to produce three-quarter tones.
The rahmani is considered the most important rhythmic instrument in Oman’s traditional music. It is found in most of the Sultanate’s regions and districts and is one of the most important instruments in Omani funun. Therefore, it can be considered a ‘symbol of Omani music’. The rahmani plays the role of the rhythmic base – i.e. it provides the main element of the rhythm. Thus, its sound should be deep and full compared with the other accompanying rhythmic instruments. The same type of instrument can be called kasir depending on its musical function. Whereas the rahmani forms the rhythmic fundament, the kasir is usually used for embellishment and ornamentation. Thus, the sound of the rahmani has to be deeper and heavier than that of the kasir. In Dhofar, the rahmani is sometimes called the mahga.
The ranna lends a third layer to the rhythmical texture of the rahmani and the kasir. The ranna has been described as being ‘in the middle, in size and sound, between the kasir and the rahmani’. However, on comparing some genres, it can be concluded that the term ranna is in fact also used for instruments whose diameter is even larger than that of the rahmani. In this case it produces a sound that is ar-rahmani. Thus it emphasizes the elements of the base rhythm through its strong resonance. The ranna is used, for example, in the zar and the aiyala genres. In the wahhabiya genre, on the other hand, it can be seen that a ranna is middle-sized between the rahmani and the kasir. In this case, the ranna tends to assume the musical function of a kasir.
The kasir is smaller in size than the rahmani and thus produces a high-pitched or strident sound when compared to the rahmani. The relationship between the rahmani and the kasir is very close and they are usually seen together because one complements the other. For example, if the rhythm is ternary, the rahmani takes the stronger part while the kasir takes the other weak parts. This complementary relationship between the rahmani and the kasir is present in most Omani funun e.g. in the razha, the midema, the hambura, the shubbaniya amongst others.
The mirwas is used in Dhofar and is the region’s smallest drum when compared with the mahgar drum and kasir. It is mainly used in the bara and the sharh genres. The mirwas player is an essential element in the groups that perform these genres, such as the bin Taufiq group in Salalah, and bin Shamsa group in Mirbat. The player holds the mirwas in one hand and plays on it with the other. The holding hand can participate in playing lightly with the index finger in order to fill and embellish the rhythm. This is similar to the technique of playing the mirwas in other Arabian Gulf states and in Yemen.
The musundu drum is characterized by the fact that a single skin is fitted to a long conical body. Furthermore, the individual instruments differ from each other according to their rhythmic function within a particular genre.
The duff is characterized by the fact that the bodies of the instruments that belong to it all have round wooden frames of different sizes. One if its sides is covered with skin. Here, the function of the instrument and its relation to the genre plays the most important role in manufacturing the instrument, concerning the size or the addition of any other features such as bells and copper cymbals.
The burgham is made from the horn of a big animal such as oryx, ibex or buffalo. The player blows into one hole that is adjacent to the closed and pointed edge, producing one tone which the player uses in a rhythmic manner according to the rhythm of the genre. Even if the player extends the tone of the burgham, its general rhythmic function always becomes very clear. The burgham is used in saber genres like the razha and the azi.