Akbar's Shop

I parked my car in front of a sign slung across a shop filled with men that read “Live Chickens”.  I secured my top button, lowered my sleeves, rolled my long strawberry hair into a bun and tucked five years worth of saved prints, paintings, poems, fabric swatches and photographs under my arm before heading across the street. 

“Glass Crystale Mirror” It says above the door and inside giant pieces of dusty glass lean against walls that surround a carpeted tabletop.   The table is piled with frame pieces, tape, old receipts, general filth, glass and a black and white photograph of someone’s mustachioed uncle, softly blurred around the edges. 

While I discuss with Akbar which pictures would be best with a simple frame and which need a mat, a teenage boy enters the shop with a plastic cup of tea.  He pops a hole in a can of milk and pours half of it into the steamy cup before discarding the tea bag and handing it to Akbar.  I’ve come back a few times now, around the same time, and there is always a tea bringer bringing tea to Akbar and sometimes his friends that guard the entrance in their plastic lawn chairs.      

In my excitement to have these treasures framed – papyrus from Cairo, two handkerchiefs from Max’s Scottish grandmother (probably carried over the pond with her) marbled paper from a friend in Jerusalem’s surprisingly large paper arts community, and Max’s commission signed by the President of the United States – I left the painting I’d come to pick up from the day before.  When I turn around to confront the hurried footsteps behind me Akbar is scuffling across the road – painting in hand. 

“You give me 40 rials next time” he says.

An absurdly low amount for everything I’ve just dumped on his table.  I turn my mouth down at the corners and shake my head to indicate agreement – a serious agreement.  One in which he has offered me only slightly more than his normal price and I have only haggled a little bit. 

The picture he hands me is one my dear friend and college roommate painted as some sort of a value study in one of her watercolor classes.  It’s the face of David, painted in bold blues, greens and pinks.  Across his face in cheap pen she has written 

“Sorry for being Oscar this morning ” 

She left this next to my bed one afternoon when, evidently, we had had a rough morning. 

We used to stay up nights in our college apartment – across from each other in our narrow twin beds – and plan completely reasonable unreasonable trips to New York where we’d stay at the YMCA, spend everyday for a week or two in the MOMA, eat hot dogs from carts and walk everywhere.  We estimated that airfare and change would get us through one or two bohemian weeks in New York.   We established (she established, I seconded) the three essentials for a successful morning:  toothbrush, bra, eyedrops.  We made tapes for my now husband who was living in Brazil, we wore cut off construction orange sweatpants, and we listened to dozens, hundreds of new songs in our years together.  She worked in a candle factory  run out of the basement of two free spirited South Africans.  Our room smelled of lemon verbena, brown sugar, sandalwood and we learned how to remove exploded wax from carpet with an iron.   

I went back last week to pick up 30 more framed photographs from Akbar and with a flick of his chin Akbar sent four of his coffee mates out to my car carrying the load.  They fussed and fiddled about the best way to secure the glass frames in my car for the ride home.  They were silent and serious and, at the brief expense of my sex and bad stereotypes, I couldn’t keep myself from making a small joke.

“Make sure you secure them tightly”  I said, snapping the seatbelt they had just fastened around three 18x24 prints.

“I might be a bad driver.”

This procured the desired laugh from all four men and they returned to Akbar’s shop a little less dour.

Why did I say that?  I thought on the way home.  I don’t actually believe women are bad drivers.  I think I just wanted to find someplace that our seemingly different worlds could meet even if just for a moment.   Some place of common ground between the Pakistani coffee drinkers of Akbar’s frame shop and the American children’s librarian with diplomatic plates.  But in a weird way Akbar’s posse knows more about me than many of my colleagues from the almost 50 stories and places and people Akbar has framed for me this past month.  Each time I brought something new we talked about my family back home, his family here, my visit to the Dome of the Rock, how long he’s been in business, my dog, his neighborhood.  In his little frame shop next to the “live chicken” sign filled with men.  Where my stories and my places and my people meet Akbar’s.



Turtles in a Half Shell

Junn Island, Damaniyat Islands Oman
On a moonlit night we followed our Omani guide to the beach at Ras Al Jinz, shoes crunching softly on the gravel and then softer as the ground beneath turned to sand.   His white dishdasha swooshed, like holy tent flaps in the wind, and he illuminated the path for those behind with a small flashlight.  This is a route he has taken dozens, hundreds of times over the past few years since the Sultanate of Oman reclaimed the area as a nature preserve to stop tourists from disrupting crucial nesting periods of the endangered Green Turtle with garbage, noise, light pollution and the ubiquitious white range rovers that cruise the peninsula.     

Our Driving Route
Ras Al Jinz and its neighboring Ras Al Hadd are some of the most important sea turtle nesting beaches in the world.  The magnificent coral along 2000 kilometers of Omani coastline, including these two spots, provide important feeding grounds and Oman’s relative geography is integral to the migratory route these critters undertake each year.  Although 5 species of sea turtles can be found in Oman (Green, Loggerhead, Olive Ridley, Hawsbilll, Leatherback) Green are most common and what we saw that night.

A mother turtle, at least 70 pounds, heaved out of the ocean and slowly, very slowly, dug herself into a nesting hole with her flippers.  The beach is pocked with holes like this ranging from 3 to almost 5 feet in diameter.  Egg laying complete, we watched a few turtles make their way back into the ocean, disappearing into the waves and the night.  On a 4 AM run back to the beach we saw two baby turtles scamper, that’s really the only word, into the surf for the first time.  Mothers lay up to 100 eggs each of three nesting trips a year before leaving the turtles to hatch and make their way to the sea. 

Or not. 

Some estimate that in natural conditions only 2 or 3 hatchlings in every 10,000 survive to maturity.  Seagulls and desert foxes await the new turtles on the beach and once they enter the sea a new band of predators stand guard. 

To get to Ras Al Jinz, we drove south along the coast from Muscat, past crags of limestone that nosedive into turquoise oceans below.  Sand pale and fine where it isn’t made up entirely of ground shells.  On an earlier day of our Winter Break we swam in the Bimmah sinkhole a few miles inland from these beaches – water saltier than the ocean and clear blue/green until the caverns below disappear into the earth.  The depths of the sinkhole caves are unmeasured and largely unexplored at this point.  Back on the beach we set out a picnic under a limestone crag at low tide and hunted for shells, sea urchins, octopus and hermit crabs.  

Bimmah Sinkhole
On our way back from the turtle reserve we stopped at the only remaining traditional dhow shipbuilding yard in Oman and saw a few massive sea vessels being built.

 The Saturday before our winter break ended we set out for one last adventure at sea and spent the morning snorkeling around the Damaniyat islands, 45 minutes north of Muscat.  I’d heard stories of whale sharks lurking in the coral but didn’t see one this time around.  My locally produced snorkel guide assures me that whale sharks surrounding Oman aren’t dangerous to sensible humans….  But on an early trip out, floating above hundreds of fish popping in and out of coral, Max and I saw a turtle not 2 meters away from us.  Having been “trained” in the ways of turtle observing at the reserve a week before we were cautious, but being excitable humans we were also curious and followed him.  We kept out distance behind and never touched him (big no no) but the thrill was incredible.  We saw quite a few more turtles in the reef and then beached ourselves on the sand to take it all in.