“I know where to find them,” Ahmad insists, as we travel by small boat south of the city of Muscat, along the coast of Oman. He’s talking about pearls, for which his family has dived for five generations, although these days good sites are hard to come by.
Radio masts dot the rocky shore for as far as I can see; there are few places where a radio is not heard. All day in the souk, with its walls made of bags of frankincense. All day in the shop that sells nothing but cheese and jam sandwiches, which lies near the anglophile sultan’s palace (a shop that is actually called “Cheese and Jam”, quaintly redolent of Women’s Institute stalls and parish committees).
On the boat, the twentysomething guys prefer Hi 95.9FM, a hugely popular Omani station that plays doggedly upbeat club hits between news reports of deadly avalanches in Afghanistan. When I ask them to switch it off – I’m viciously seasick – they shake their heads in amazement. “But it’s beautiful music, Antonia! Tsk! Tsk!”
Ahmad tells me that his grandfather had a knack for finding the biggest pearls. When he was given his grandfather’s wooden sea chest after his death, he says, he found inside it a silver opium pipe, a thick “lucky” rope for catching sharks, and an oyster shell as long as his forearm.
The radio firmly back on once more, I’m sick as a dog throughout Burak Yeter’s relentless dance hit “Tuesday” (“Got your girl in the cut, and she ain’t choosy . . .”). Mid-morning we lose the signal, and cut the engine. The sudden silence has a dramatic intensity; the Arabian Sea all about is entirely empty and immaculate, pale blue glimmering away towards Persia. Ahmad fiddles unsuccessfully with the radio, and eventually gives up and starts to sing for himself – but not something you would hear on Hi.
Still, he is as enraptured by his own voice as he was by the radio ten minutes ago, when the Mississippi vocalist Maty Noyes was insisting, “I know I messed it up with every other guy . . .”
Instead, Ahmad sings “Alhel Wa De”, a medieval love song: “This beautiful young lady has just woken up/she’s making the dough for the bread/as the cock starts to crow in the dawn . . .”
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine