Monday, 11 November 2013

A modern medieval paradise of empty beaches and different degrees of freedom - Oman

Here in Oman, the laws of economics have been refuted convincingly. We observed it ourselves. Walking in the searing heat along a wide boulevard, we flagged down a taxi. We had no idea where we were or how to describe where we were going. The driver was patient and kindly. He slowed at every junction and landmark that we thought we recognised. Eventually, after about fifteen minutes of driving around in circles, we realised where we were and asked to be dropped off.
How much is that please? I asked.
No, I cannot charge you, he replied, it is my pleasure to help you, you are a guest in my country.
I could not persuade him otherwise.

According to all the laws of economics this should not have happened. Adam Smith said that it is not to the kindness of the baker or candlestick maker that we should look for our candlesticks and bread, but to their looking after their self interest.
What are we to make of a taxi driver who displays more kindness than self interest?
Perhaps culture is more important than economists have noticed.

And here the culture must have been at least partly formed by emptiness, the emptiness of everywhere. Vast stretches of beach, beautiful and deserted, stretch for miles and fringe the city of Muscat with a brocade of yellow sand and blue green sparkling sea. Beyond Muscat, empty square miles of flat scrub and desert with an occasional eruption of bright green palm trees and isolated villages. Behind this, a lunar landscape of slate coloured mountain, sharp and jagged, implacable and barely penetrable.
Of course, there are people, men in immaculate white and women in solid black, Indian migrants in clothes of many colours and westerners in their uniforms, but there is empty space between them all, even in the most populated of places. The space between them is respect, a different kind of mutual respect than we see in London because here it feels more gracious, polite and friendly.
Perhaps space itself is a form of prosperity. And prosperity provides the wherewithal of kindness, though not the motivation.

Elena and I have been spending our time on a deserted beach in Muscat. It's not completely empty. There are fishermen who wave at us and ask us how we are. There are occasionally young lads who swim in the mostly empty sea as we do, or cartwheel and cavort on the beach. And there are cars and trucks that drive along the beach, to our surprise, but most of them belong to the fishermen who use them to tow their boats up the beach.

Staring at the men pulling in their nets I could not but help thinking of Jesus approaching the disciples as they too pulled in their nets. Come with me, he said, and I shall make you fishers of men.
Perhaps, perhaps, the message of gentle Jesus, meek and mild, not he that came with a sword, but he that turned the other cheek, only really got through here in Muscat, where today the muezzin call all to prayer five times a day.
The citizens of Oman live with what we might think of as restrictions - drink and dress, for example, but they also live with a sort of freedom that we in the west have lost to the reduction of everything to impulse and instant gratification.
 How much can I respect you if I must have what I want now?

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