Thursday, October 11, 2012

Adventures in Fabric and Culture

There's one kind of store I can walk into anywhere in the world and be instantly at home. Whether peopled by blue-haired old quilters, somebody's Abuelita, ironically-grey-haired hipsters, or floral-swathed Balushi women--fabric shops all have that familiar musty smell that means I'm home. 
So much shiny
We recently went to Pakistani fabric shop, in search of traditional-style Balushi dresses for Eid, the holiday that's coming up at the end of October. Long story short, we didn't find them. However that didn't keep me from getting distracted by shiny things and buying this beautiful totally non-Omani piece of fabric. 
The next day we went into the Mattrah Souk, an old-school marketplace that's 50% tourist trap 50% place where actual Omanis buy stuff. 

The souk is a maze of tight alleyways, bustling with women in abayas, men in dishdashas and old British tourists trying to haggle over prices. The main area is lined with shops selling random and generic things like camel-shaped snap-close gold leaf boxes or football jerseys. Every so often the line of shops is interrupted by a corridor jutting out, where the shops on either side sit within kissing distance of one another and the rows of vendors seem to stretch on for miles. Each of these alleyways loosely specialize in one good or another, ie textiles, silver, gold, etc. 
This entire shop was devoted to selling fancy trim
I spent most of my time flitting from one stall to another in the textiles area, constantly being distracted by the next exciting shiny thing. I think between that and the sparkly green fabric from the day before which I was wearing as a shawl, (classic white person tries to wear something "cultural" which just further accentuates their whiteness) I gave off the impression of some kind of deranged bird-woman. 

There's this feeling that pervades the entire experience of the souk that, as a foreigner, you're constantly being ripped off, so I felt kind of bitter about buying anything because I knew the "special discount price just for you" was still way too high. I ended up settling on some ribbon trim for a skirt that I will totally actually make and not just leave in the corner and sigh at while I do less productive activities like write blog posts.

All the cramped stores reminded me so much of the little junk / antique shops in old Ellicott City or Hampden. Of course "antique" here has a very different meaning than it does in the States, by a margin of about a thousand years. It was funny though to see that even, maybe especially, here in the souk, a place touted as "super actual traditional Omani" there were so many things not from Oman. Turkish antiques, Pakistani fabrics, Indian silvers, Chinese Khanjars, sold much cheaper than the real ones.
These are the traditional Omani daggers, called Khanjars, worn at weddings or cultural events by men 
So you have these distinctly-Omani daggers, which are being made in China to be sold to Americans or Brits or any number of people for whom Muscat is a port of call on their 10 day cruise. I don't know if that's a bad thing or a good thing or a the-world-is-becoming-a-mono culture-homogenized-wasteland thing, but it's definitely an interesting thing. 

It's a theme that keeps being repeated over and over in everything that i see. Omani culture is so much more than everything we think of as "traditional." Sure, it's easier to simplify Omani culture down to a twelve-person family sitting on the floor eating biryani with their hands, and I'm not saying that's not a part of the culture, but to get the full picture you need to see all the people speaking Swahili and Tamil and Tagalog. You need to see all immigrants and the native-born Omanis who don't follow any of those stereotypes. Omani culture historically has been and continues to bear strong influences from India and all over Southeast Asia. There's strong ties to East Africa, and Western Europe, particularly the UK. These influences aren't separate from "true" Omani culture to which all the rest is merely an addition. Culture isn't a snapshot of what people think it should be, it's an ever-changing, intangible conglomerate of the people who make it. 

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