The boom of the cannon echoed off the surrounding mountains and reverberated through the narrow streets between stone houses. The golden light of sunset silhouetted villagers shouting to one another from their rooftops: "Praise be to God!" From somewhere came the soft beat of a drum, then the long note of a single horn. Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, was over, and the fanfare announced the beginning of the 'Id al-Fitr in Misfa, a remote hamlet of some 800 souls perched against steep cliffs halfway up Oman's Jabal al-Shams, the Mountain of the Sun.
Since 1970, Oman's young ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id has been trying to bring this small country on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula into the modern world. By the summer of 1975 I had been working in Muscat, the capital city, for less than a year, but the development I had seen—schools, hospitals, cinemas—was already bringing dramatic change to the traditional culture and life of the country. Already, a visitor wishing to see the old customs of the ancient land had to leave the coastal towns and travel into the isolated interior where traditions were more deeply rooted (Aramco World , July-August, 1974).
As I was one of those visitors, a friend and I decided to journey to Misfa that year. There, we had heard, once a year on the joyous occasion of the 'Id feast, townsmen still performed a lively and colorful sword dance.
We left Muscat by Land Rover, one of the few vehicles that could traverse the unpaved tracks and the lunar landscape we encountered barely an hour later. The valley floor was strewn with thorn bushes and jagged walls of bare rock pushed up on both sides in shades of yellow and rusty red. And when we reached al-Hamra, a mud-brick village nestled in a lush green oasis of date palms at the base of the Jabal al-Shams, even the Land Rover wouldn't do. Misfa is accessible only by foot—a three-hour trek, and all uphill. The narrow trail began to climb from a dry wadi at the far edge of the village.
Soon after we had started to hike up the steep ravine, a young man caught up with us, explaining that he too was traveling to Misfa for the 'Id, and that he would walk with us and show the way. Like so many Omanis in the interior, he was immediately friendly and seemed pleased that we were going to visit his village. Within a minute of our meeting, it was settled that we would be guests in his house. Hospitality to strangers, we learned, is not just an Arab legend.
Our new host, Ahmad, told us how important the coming three days of celebration were for the people of Misfa, not only because they marked the end of Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting, but because it is one of the few times when young men can come home from jobs in the coastal area to be reunited with their families. He told us the end of Ramadan would be signaled by cannon fire as soon as the new moon was sighted. We listened as we climbed on, too short of breath to do any talking ourselves.
By the time we reached the highest point on the trail, my friend and I were exhausted. I paused to gasp, staring out over the distant ranges, which were absolutely bare of vegetation and seemed to smolder in the glare of the sun. I wondered how people could survive here, let alone fast, in such heat. Ahmad, tireless and indomitable, suggested we rest while he performed his afternoon prayers in a kind of natural amphitheater just off the path.
Soon we pushed on, but now we moved down a ravine into a valley where bits of green forced their way out of rock crevices. Then, almost without warning, we came upon a series of ascending terraces thick with orchards of pomegranates, figs, limes and dates. Ahmad gestured toward a group of stone buildings clustered at the top of the lush terraces and shouted proudly, "There's Misfa!"
As we began to climb again, the village disappeared from view. Soon we had to use the edge of a narrow, fast-running canal, or falj, as a path through a dense grove of trees. The falj came down from the village through the thick vegetation, zigzagging along the edge of the gardens, clinging to the hillside and giving us a breathtaking view of the valley below as we continued upward.
The falj system is the key to life in the interior. It usually consists of a series of covered ditches which channel the water from its source to the gardens, and which is used not only for irrigation, but for cooking and washing in the villages as well. The falj of Misfa had been built to cope with steep hillsides and even cliffs. This one cut around thick boulders and bridged ravines in a marvel of folk engineering.
At first Misfa, too, appeared to be carved into the face of the vertical mountain wall, almost suspended in midair, but as it came into view again and we climbed closer, I realized the mountain was actually behind the village. The houses, unlike those in most interior villages, were built of stone, as were the narrow streets and paths. Large, rectangular rocks formed the foundations of the houses, most of which were perched on and among enormous boulders, close to each other, but on so many different levels that they looked remarkably like the mountain cliffs that nearly surrounded them.
It was a joyous occasion when we reached Ahmad's house, a large dwelling built on several levels. His whole family embraced and kissed him in turn. Then his father led us up to the second level, open to the air, which seemed to be the main center of activity for the household. Piles of lemons and dates—yellow, red and brown—were spread out to dry on the roof. Ahmad's father told us that there were many fit old men like himself in the village because dates were plentiful and they ate them daily.
To this his son jokingly replied, "But they would prefer meat every day if they could have it!" His father laughed and admitted that he was no doubt right. Then, pointing to a large cow tethered outside, he told us the animal would be butchered and distributed among the villagers on the occasion of the 'Id the next morning. Because there is not yet electricity to preserve perishable food in Misfa, cattle are preserved on the hoof and eaten freshly killed and rapidly cooked.
When sunset came, everyone in the entire village seemed to be on their rooftops, which, although they were on various levels, were nearly touching. We could hear families chatting among themselves. Women were huddled around pots of boiling rice, preparing the evening meal. Boys and men were pulling out mats to sit on.
Then came the thundering explosion of gunpowder which signaled of the end of Ramadan and the commencement of the festivities of the 'Id. Almost as one, people on rooftops all around us began to shout with joy and to offer praise to Allah. We heard the beat of drums and joined our neighbors as they poured from their homes to follow a procession of musicians through the village.
On the far side of the settlement we assembled in a large open-air enclosure surrounded by large boulders. Women and children, dressed in vibrant colors, sat on stones in a circle around the natural arena in which the men stood. The sword dance we had come to see was about to begin.
The men formed into two lines, each facing the other. They were in traditional warrior's dress, and hanging at each man's waist was the characteristic Omani carved silver dagger, the khanjar (Aramco World , January-February, 1967). The men in each line hung together like two opposing forces, sidestepping and chanting. A rhythmic monotone came from the hide-covered drums and wooden flutes. Soon, the beat of the music increased in tempo and a group of women gave the customary shrill cry which encourages the dancers.
One man from each side stepped forward and took up a long ancient sword and small wooden shield. They began to dance, spinning round and round each other, tossing their swords into the air and catching them by the handle as they plummeted downward. They seemed equally skillful, brandishing their sharp weapons as though playing with harmless sticks. I tried to remain calm enough to take a few photographs, but when they began the mock fight in earnest I found I couldn't keep from wincing. When one man lunged forward the other would crouch suddenly and seemingly avoid his opponent's blade by a hair. The object of this swordplay was to nick your opponent's thumb. But it was all in fun, and except for an ego or two no one was injured.
Ahmad explained that this demonstration of combat is a ceremonial reenactment of a style of tribal warfare with roots far in the past, a kind of folkloric performance of tales from remote history, performed just once a year on the 'Id. I understand that the dance is also still practiced in other parts of Oman, but nowhere, I'm convinced, with the style and grace I witnessed at Misfa.
The next morning Ahmad woke us before sunrise and led us back to the arena where we had witnessed the sword dance. There, everybody in the village had gathered, all dressed in their best attire, and the men formed a large circle and moved around it in turn shaking each other's hands and saying " 'Id sa' id"—"Good holiday."
When the first light broke over the mountains, we walked single file toward an outdoor mosque on the outskirts of town. The procession was like a multicolored chain of vibrant red turbans above soft shades of tan and yellow robes and silver jewelry that glistened in the early sun. This handsome parade advanced slowly along a narrow path that wound around huge boulders and up stone alleyways. At the head of the line men were beating drums and singing a religious song which was repeated down the line. I sensed such a strong feeling of togetherness in this community festivity that I found myself singing. The gaiety and goodwill in the air was infectious.
The mood changed to a quieter one when we reached the simple outdoor mosque. The women and girls gathered nearby and the young men and the boys stood around the precincts. In the praying area of the mosque stood the older men and the prayer leader, all facing in the direction of Mecca.
The leader began by reciting passages from the Koran. Then the others joined in prayer. There was no roof or dome over this simple mosque. We were surrounded and humbled by the rugged mass of Oman's mountains. I was touched by the warmth and simplicity of the people I had found in remote Misfa, their lives as joyous as their fresh green terraces carved from the parched, boulder-strewn slopes of the Mountain of the Sun.
Stephen Thomas, now working with an audiovisual production company in Boston, was formerly a photographer for the Department of Antiquities in Oman.