I stand up and step away to give room for the couple to walk past. This is not a mere courtesy; we all want to keep a distance these days. A two and a half hour drive from Muscat, in the Sultanate of Oman, my family and I have come to Misfat Al Abriyeen, a village situated in the Jebal Shams (Sun Mountain) range. Many of the traditional mud houses here, topped by palm frond roofs, have been constructed on massive boulders. Spring water from higher up the mountain allowed the development of an extensive irrigation system (aflaj), which serves the agricultural terraces. While going down some very smooth steps, we pass the mother well. The smaller channels are blotchy with algae but the water runs clear. Light falling on its ripples reveals the different directions of flow as, helped by gravity, it makes its way down the valley. Visitors are requested to dress respectfully and can follow trails around the perimeter of the village, through the gorge, without disturbing the people whose home it is.
On a rise behind me, someone has chopped and left pomegranate branches, and a tiny bindweed spreads over the low rubble wall I am sitting on. Beads of dates-to-be stud twiggy bundles growing from the high heart of the tree, and shadows curve over me as well as over the ridges of soil that demarcate the terraces. Younger palms, just emerging from the earth, stretch out as widely as the taller ones. Space is precious and well utilised: young corn stalks with fine pink wisps line the base of some of the palms, and banana, papaya, fig, and lime trees are interspersed amongst the growth. The odd wasp and butterfly pass by and in the distance I can hear the sounds of cattle, a rooster, and a donkey. Barring a black rubber slipper and the distant thud of construction, little else intrudes on the wholesomeness of the moment. I jot down notes about what I observe, but I know that my awareness extends to beyond what is heard and seen, beyond the feel of the rock beneath me and the occasional breeze.
Like many people I know, I am not from a single place or culture. For many years I thought that identity was about being a perfect fit somewhere and have struggled to find where that is. In spite of my uncertainty about this, something I have always been sure of is a deep connection to the natural world. As an artist, this knowledge has been an intrinsic part of my creative expression and something I share with others. As of late, I have felt the need to examine this connection more closely and it is on my mind as I walk with my dog every day around my neighborhood. We pass clumps and clusters of foliage, and plants growing between each other. Branches reach out towards us over walls, strung with buds, pods, sprigs, blossoms, and fruit. A few days ago, as we rustled over dry leaves under a mango tree, I had a sudden feeling that something had just happened here. The tree had dropped these leaves some time ago, and we were walking over them today. And then, it came to me. I realised that there is a significant difference between looking at and being in nature, and being aware of the emotions one feels while looking at and being in nature.
Now, seated beneath a thatch of silhouetted fronds, I lean back and look up. I know that while these trees shelter me from the late morning sun, the sense of bounty I feel is not related purely to them or to the light that falls between them. If I were to consider myself separate from nature, how would I find a place for myself in the complex and challenging world we live in? I identify with aspects of different cultures but moving from country to country, time and time again, it was the natural environment that sustained me and grounded my sense of self. As a young child, I remember lying on the grass looking up at the sky and understanding I was part of a greater whole. Self-awareness gives us empathy and a clearer idea of the kind of life we want to live. So as I stand up to give way to the couple, to greet strangers with respect, the water streams along its ancient course. Calm and rested, I pick up my backpack and follow mine.
Published on 27 February 2021