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lundi 13 juin 2016


I had rented a car, in fact it is the best way to get acquainted with Salalah and Dhofar. Driving along the coast, just outside the city of Salalah, the scenery, the trees as well as the architecture change, slowly, going back a century or two. 

Coconut trees in dense batches, banana plants adding to the greenery and papaya trees and add to the tropical mélange, the sugar cane reeds! This in the middle of the desert, where the impassable Rub il Khali (the empty quarter) is just a short hop away. The vernacular buildings, houses and mosques, exhibit their crumbling nature, had a dreamy character to it, the shadows of the Omani figures darting in and out, scurrying into the mosque in this holy month of Ramadan. I stopped at one of the many stalls along the road selling the produce from the farms: coconuts, banana, papaya and sugar cane. A very healthy looking young man comes over.

I asked him, are these coconuts from here?
Yes indeed, so are the other products.
Where are you from, I asked him.
India, Sir
Oh! You are from Nagaland?
He smiles and he gets my irony, India is a multicultural collection and identifying with the whole you tend to erase the uniqueness of the culture you belong to.
No, I am from Kerala.
Please, I begged him, the next time someone asks you where you are from, please answer, Kerala and not India.
I explained, here in Oman or other Gulf States, India is without context, it hides the detail about you. Kerala and Omani coast has had contact for centuries, not Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh or Bangladesh
If you say you are from Kerala, I know immediately that I have something in common with you, that special something I do not share with any other citizen of the geographical entity called India.
I told him I was from Cuba, he knew about Che and also we discussed the recent elections in Kerala where Communists were freely elected to office.
In Oman, it is better to look for a Kerala (the same applies to other Gulf states) if you have a query or need directions. It seems that the workers from other parts of India or Pakistan or Bangladesh are less educated, almost always without any proficiency in English. It also depends upon the job they are doing, but most of the workers are labourers and construction workers, those who work in Hotels and other establishments do speak some English. It was interesting to observe strict segregations among the Asians, Filipinos joyously ignorant about the customs of India and vice versa. If I stop someone in the streets of Salalah to ask where the Souq is, the answer almost always is, No English, please find a UK (United Kerala)!
One things I have learned from the Other Indians (“red”) is that we must show respect for the “other”. I was genuinely interested to listen to what Ginesh, who is a Hindu from Trichur, had to tell me.
He is a farm worker, with one other person he attends to this farm of an Omani, works 9 months and gets 3 months off in Kerala, he has to pay his airfare which is about 150 OMR. ! OMR is close to 2.75 US dollars. He is paid 550 OMR of which under the sponsorship system which is common in the Gulf states, he pays 250 to his sponsor. He is very happy, he is provided with rudimentary accommodation, the food is cultivated including chicken he keeps in a coop, for eggs and meat. An Indian Budget airline, AI express flies once a week to Cochin from Salalah, he along with hundreds of others from Cochin and thereabouts, take advantage of this short flight
Centuries or even a millennia or two ago, sailors from these shores did go to the Kerala coast and trade. Amitav Ghosh, the Indo-American writer has chronicled the story of Abraham Ben Yiju, a Tunisian jewish trader who went to India from Aden in Yemen in the year 1298 CE. So the connection is an ancient one, and the cross cultural fertilization is evident in the faces of many a people in Cochin.
He showed me a picture of a 18 month old infant, clad in the traditional Kerala costume, his son. I can understand the pangs of loneliness for him and the little boy, as I have experienced both, because of my nomadic lifestyle.
In Kerala, I can make 800 INR (about 5 OMR) per day, but I am responsible for food, accommodation and transport and at the end of the month I am left with nothing. Here I am able to save every single Baiza they pay me.

We continued our conversation.
Do you wish to see our farm?
What a lovely invitation for an anthropologist!
Rows of planted bananas, he showed the bananas from Kerala, and those of Oman (did it arrive centuries earlier from Kerala as well?), coconut trees standing guard, along with papaya trees as well as bunches of sugar cane. Neat irrigational ditches spread out, I can see that this is a productive farm, he has no idea of the economic aspects of the farm.
A very basic room with two fans, steaming hot inside, a blaring TV showing some melodrama in Malayalam (he proudly said they get six channels in Malayalam, a rudimentary kitchen where they prepared their meals, a well to draw water(slightly salty he said). While at the kitchen, I saw an older man brewing tea, Kerala style. He is my father, the younger man said, he has been here for 13 years, and proudly pointed out to a dilapidated vernacular omani building, he sleeps there , with one other person, Ginesh informed me
They seemed genuinely happy.

His father offered me the sweet tea of Kerala, offered a plastic chair. I thought fondly of the Teawallah of Balaji tea stall in Ernakulam, Vijayan and Mohini, the travelling tea wallah!
We talked some and took photos of each other.

Thinking about the story of Kabuliwala by Rabindranath Tagore, I said, Ginesh, I want you to do me a favour?
What, sir?
I will give you one OMR which is about 165 INR enough to buy a new outfit for your son when you go to Kerala for holidays in two weeks time
He grinned and said, thank you.
Tell him that it is a gift from his Cuban Uncle!
When you come back to Salalah, the next time, please come by sir, I will be here.
I certainly shall, I said, as he directed me to reverse the car from the compound.
I felt it was a nice encounter, a little bit of Kerala in Salalah.
To celebrate this encounter, I decided to have dinner at Silver Diamond restaurant, a Kerala eatery. It would have fitted well into Fort Cochin. I ordered Malabar Fish Curry and Paratta, both of which tasted good.
The flavor of Kerala keeps on giving me some affections and friendships.

Topped the evening with a  nice cup of brewed tea, Kerala Style!

As if by coincidence, the Khadi shirt I was wearing was bought at a store in Ernakulam recently, a gift of my young friend, Paul, about to leave for Colombia University in New York to continue his studies in Pubic Policy.