Scheherazade Keeps Playing
Think Ancient Persia: The most expansive empire in the ancient world. Today, it’s Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, UAE, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. Include parts of China, India, Egypt and Greece, as well. Remember the mesmerizing tales of our youth emanating from Persian origin: King Shahrazad and His Vizier’s Daughter; Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; Ala al-Din (Aladdin) and the Magic Lamp; The Seven Voyages of Sinbad?
A childhood Great Books anthology, first, induced my interest in this antiquated era and these enthralling tales. Bjorn Wiinblad’s, One Thousand and One Nights, commemorative porcelain designs, depicting the imaginative scenes from the stories of Scheherazade: Sinbad Meets the Whale; Sinbad Escapes from the Desert Island; Sinbad is Married; Aladdin and the Magic Lamp; Aladdin and the Magician’ Aladdin Rides to Meet the Sultan; The Price and the Princess… reinforced my absorption. Together, the fables and Wiinblad’s collection have fascinated me for decades.
As the legend goes, Scheherazade, the daughter of King Shahrazad’s vizier, agrees to marry the king, fully aware that he has executed 1000 previous virgins one night after marriage in order to insure their faithfulness. To save her own life, Scheherazade spins tales for hundreds of nights, never ending one story before starting the next, to be finished the following night. Finally, she wins the love of the king, preserves her life, surviving his initial murderous ritual. So, as I prepared for my journey into parts of Ancient Persia of old, you can understand why the opening bars of Rachmaninov’s Scheherazade were re-playing in my head. Let’s get going!
My Tale Begins
Traveling the Jebel Hafeet Mountain Road from Al Ain, four hours each day, “allée et retour,” two emissaries were dispatched by a common connection to greet me upon my Dubai arrival and, to guide me through the “City of Gold.” Together, we navigated Dubai’s fanciful environs, ever respectful of standards for dress, Sharia Laws, other legal constraints, human rights issues and religious restrictions. “The Centre of Now,” better known as the Dubai Mall, was a unique world of its own. The “Human Waterfalls”, divine and wondrous, was a most captivating attraction. Resplendent fiberglass human sculptures dove into cascading waters falling from the remarkable height of the mall, their arms out-stretched and their bodies descending into the falls- definitely an unimaginable exhibition of ingenuity and master craftsmanship.
A suspended menagerie of gigantic proportions, 10M liters, provided a habitation for more than 140 species of marine animals, including 300 sharks and rays and humongous crocodiles. This aquarium and underwater zoo offered the chance to train and “party” with otters; dine in a rainforest café, and to explore an underwater tunnel theatre, a glass bottom boat and a submersible simulator. Even more, the mall’s lighting show at the
Dubai Fountain was spectacular and, “Dubai Dino”, awesome and colossal. The Reel Cinema held 2,800 luxurious seats but, it was the Dubai Ice Rink that was the true crowd pleaser.
Three days into my adventure, I’d been heralded to nearly every architectural innovation- Ski Dubai in the Mall of the Emirates, the largest indoor ski park; Burj Al Arab, the often called, “7-star luxury hotel;” Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building at 2,717 feet high; and, Palm Jumeirah, one of three man-made islands- an archipelago resembling a palm tree.
Clearly, Dubai is an amazing place of firsts, impressed by modernism, size and luxury: The world’s largest shopping center, snow park and indoor waterfall; the tallest building; the most luxurious hotel… The current-day culture has been transformed from an old-world standard to one of extravagance, opulence and leading edge philosophies. While preparations for the largest exhibition ever, Expo 2020, continue to accelerate lavishness, Old Town Dubai incontestably has depreciated. The streets of the Al Fahidi neighborhood were sparse as compared with the malls and the well-traveled routes to glamour, newness and reconstruction. The Dubai Museum, which adeptly illustrated the Persian lifestyle of the Bedouin tribes, was virtually deserted. Only the souks- Grand Souk Deira, Gold Souk and the Dubai Old Souk were populated with residents and tourists bent upon purchasing coveted jewelry, spices, perfumes and textiles.
Reluctantly, my emissaries relinquished me to my own plans on the fourth day, with an open invitation for a family visit upon my return and subtle reminders of Do’s and Don’ts: No gum; no bare feet; do not litter; no eating on public transportation; no discussion of politics and religion… On this day, I ventured on for an early morning stroll along the pristine beach of the Persian Gulf, followed by an exquisite balance of the day in the Arabian Desert. The golden sand blew in the aftermath of the speeding 4x4 jeep, and my exhilaration mounted with every two-wheeled swirl. Ha-ha! Giggles, unsuppressed!
Upon arrival at the temporary dwelling of a Bedouin Tribe, I mounted a leisured camel; positioned myself in the saddle, with my legs ineffectively clamping the animal’s sides without a stirrup; and, allowed the camel to raise, hind legs, first. The bumpy ride along a small stretch of the vast Arabian Desert, on the back of the Bedouins’ best friend, is to be perpetually savored. A simple meal of a couscous stew, bread and fruit followed, with permission to wander the settlement at the end.
Buoyed by the day’s activities, I fetched my belongings from the hotel; rode to the harbor; boarded my vessel; and, set sail with a multitude of travelers from abroad.
The First Voyage: Dubai-Muscat
We sailed the emerald Gulf of Oman during consistently gorgeous weather, from Dubai to Muscat, Oman. I was unprepared for the cultural richness and enchanting landscapes that I beheld. Within the Sultanate, antiquity, tradition and natural splendor were supremely celebrated. In this land, bordered by UAE to the northeast; the Straits of Hormuz to the north; Yemen to the south; Saudi Arabia to the west; and, overlooking the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, I became well-informed of many aspects of the Omani way. There’s balance between nature and habitation, emphasized by the establishment of the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary- home to 250 antelopes bred from the World Herd (in captivity in Arizona) and, the preservation of the ancient Frankincense Trade Route; land use of 7%, with most natural treasures unscathed; restoration of historic sites- forts, watchtowers, castles- utilizing traditional materials, crafts and techniques; world-class hospitality; religious tolerance for alternative branches of Islam (outside of Ibadism) and expatriates’ religious beliefs.
Moreover, in 47 years of power, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said, founder of Oman’s “Modern Renaissance”, has transformed his country immensely. During my exploration, I found a sultanate, nicely blended with this aforementioned tradition and modernization, while maintaining its unique character and heritage. Today, men in dishdashas, mussars and khanjars and, women in dishdashas, sirwals, thawbs and, burqas attend premier educational institutions, make advances in the medical field and construct outstanding infrastructures and architectures.
As the day diminished, I was guided through the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, a gift to the Omani people from the Sultan after six years and seven months of construction. This distinguished mosque, built from 300,000 tons of Indian Sandstone, holds 20,000 people and, it is embellished with the largest chandelier ever created at eight meters in diameter, four meters in height and, eight tons in weight. It illuminates the second largest, single-piece carpet in the world, handwoven in 28 colors, consisting of 1,700,000,000 knots, 70x60 meters and 21 tons. Afterwards, I observed relics of prehistoric and ancient civilizations at the Omani National Museum, including arms, armor, currency, dress, and more. I, then, bartered in the souk with merchants of silver and textiles. And, finally, I made my way to the Palace of Sultan Qaboos bin al Said al Said, in which the aging Sultan spends most of his days and nights. I discovered this royal place to be, simultaneously, unconventional and majestic, with stupendous imperial gardens all-around.
This concludes my first voyage and below, I recount the second.
Second Voyage: Muscat to Cochin
The waters of the Arabian Sea, leading to the mainland, were dark and foreboding and, this was the first time I felt disappointed by my aquatic visions as I sailed along. On arrival, I saw in Cochin, India such contrasts, from delightfulness to disheartenment. Among these contradictions, I was enthused by the performances of the all-male Kathakali actors/dancers, dressed in full costumes of bright and colorful designs and materials, make-up and masks. Their performances were classical in nature but, they distinctively incorporated music, vocals, dance and, even, martial arts. In particular, the expressive body language- peculiarly, hand and facial gestures were unlike anything I’d watched before and, the performers’ artistic interpretations represented ideas and concepts steeped in mythology, folklore and religion. A co-located museum showcased elaborate Kathakali costumes and depicted typical hand movements and curious masks, providing an unusual opportunity to take in something new and different.
Unfortunately, on the other hand, the visits to St, Francis CSI Church and Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, were diminished by the routes taken through Cochin streets, where everyday existence revealed dilapidated structures, undernourished people and animals, dead rodents and foul scents. A planned highlight of the day, a view of the Chinese fishing nets, was marred by the extreme contamination of the beach upon which they were situated.
As I prepared to re-board the ship, the images of dismay gave way to the pleasantries offered by diverse people, selling their wares- table adornments, silver, gold, silks, cashmeres, etc.- in the port. And so, I realized that I had gained immeasurably from this second voyage and felt pleased with myself on having taken an objective view of all that I had observed.
The Third Voyage- Cochin to Penang
Sinbad-like, we sailed, day after day, finding our ship in the murky Indian Ocean, which was reminiscent of my perception of the Arabian Sea. At last, we embarked upon the “Pearl of the Orient,” also named, Penang. Here, I witnessed and learned of things strange to me, yet wonderful.
The Buddhist Temple, Kek Lok Si, found in Air Itam, was a wonder in itself. Said to be the premier Malaysian Buddhist Temple, it is a pilgrimage site for many observers. I was confounded by the seven-story Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas (Pagoda of Rama VI or “Ban Po Thar”), containing 10,000 Chinese, Thai and Burmese designed Buddha statues of bronze and alabaster, and one of the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin. In this Pagoda, there were far too much grandeur and magnificence to thoroughly relate to you, in one setting.
Penang has two sections- Penang Island and Seberang Perai. Historically, Penang Island was a recognized trade route, where its capital, Georgetown, was an established trading post. Today, the state has ascended to high technology dominance but, at the same time, retains its heritage through a mosaic of Asian architectural styles, stemming from Chinese, Thai and European designs to those of Moorish and Islamic influence.
Anxious to continue the itinerary abroad, we set sail for a fourth and final voyage that I will describe now.
The Fourth Voyage- Penang to Singapore
We arrived at an island that resembled “a garden of paradise” in many ways. For a moment, though, I questioned this judgement when I passed through the gates of Singapore Customs and noticed the thin slip of paper protruding from my passport, which stated, “Death to Drug Traffickers.” There were also prison terms for litterers, gum chewers and sellers. Recouping, I marveled at the “Eden” that I chanced upon.
Known as the “Lion City”, Singapore is a perfect blend of old tradition and modernity. From what I can attest to, gone is the seediness that described the Singapore of the past. There are diversity, affluence, tech savvy, global commerce and, it’s the world’s third largest financial center and foreign exchange market. The arresting skyline of gleaming and glittering buildings balances the old-world edifices of Chinatown. This “Eden” flourishes with shopping, nighttime entertainment and gaming activity and, its botanical attainment is incomparable, as seen in the cultivation of the Singapore Orchid Garden, the largest orchid garden in the world.
With my spirit for wanderlust, I found unalloyed contentment during this last leg of my journey. The quality of life, prosperity, tropical climate, delicious food options and zeal for “fun,” delivered a most enjoyable experience. However, a bit travel-weary, I began to long for the return to my home, yet, holding fast to the memories of all that I saw and experienced.
I’ve embraced a philosophy exposed by Sinbad, “A man must labor hard to scale the heights and to seek greatness must spend sleepless nights and to find pearls must plunge into the sea…” Back at home, I’m, again, inspired by my recollections, tales and whimsical collection and, I still yearn to see other countries and understand more about diverse cultures. What to do next, for Scheherazade just keeps playing?