The Infinite Variety of Global Capitalism: A Mall Tour of Muscat

It is either entirely natural, or in bad taste, that I spent a lot of my free time in malls, depending on how you look at it. Yes, these malls are chock full of American and “high street” stores, as the Brits say. But I spent my evenings and weekends trying to entertain myself without seeing terrible scenes involving cats, and the malls are the number one place where I could avoid the sight of dozens of poor creatures whom I could not help. There must be cats at the malls, but I bet they’re at the loading docks and garbage dumpsters in the back. At the malls all of that is hidden from sight, and that’s what I needed to cowardly assuage my conscience.

My favorite Muscat malls are Oman Avenues and the Grand Mall, which are adjacent to each other just off of Sultan Qaboos street. Frankly, the American and high street influence in these malls is not super deep. Yes, there’s a giant H&M in the Avenues, and there’s an Aeropostale in the Grand Mall. And both are anchored by a surprisingly large range of Anglo-American coffee joints (from the predictable Starbucks and Costa on down to Caribou, Gloria Jean, and Tim Horton for the Canadians) as well as the usual, extremely popular fast food places (McD’s, KFC—the crowd favorite, from what I hear—the ubiquitous Subway, Pizza Hut, and so on).

The scene from the Tim Hortons in Seeb City Centre Mall

But these malls have a lived-in feeling. Though I have been to Oman only in the winter time, I imagine, with dread, what the summer must be like, and the industrial-strength AC of the malls, and the space they provide to walk in, must be deeply welcome. Each of these malls has a massive department store either in addition to or as part of a giant grocery store, too—a Walmart Super Store on steroids. People do not shop online much here (part of it must be that the street numbering system in Oman is seriously dodgy and delivery would be rough), so the stores stock an incredibly wide selection of things. You can seriously find just about anything in these malls, at just about every price point as well. I was really tempted by a 1.5 R.O. sports bra, but you can also buy your daughter’s dowry at the gold shops. The incredible, seething, insatiable variety of these malls makes them almost immune to the homogenizing impulse of American capitalism.

Special abaya Tide!

This sense of infinite variation is really different from what happens at American malls (or, the outdoor shopping centers that have replaced the 80s-style enclosed mall, whose abandoned remains are now the setting for the squatters and drug dealers of Gone Girl). At an Omani mall you can go from the sari shop to the abaya shop to the date-and-honey store to the gold souk to the grocery store to H&M and Skechers. At a contemporary American shopping center you can go from Old Navy to the Gap to Banana Republic, all literally owned by the same company and offering almost indistinguishable versions of the same khaki pants.

The Three Muscats: Immigrant Poverty and Animal Welfare in Oman

I’m in Muscat, Oman, for a month. I’ve been here for a week and a half and it’s been an interesting experience.

First-world Muscat, at the harbor where cruise ships & the Sultan’s yacht dock.

My impression thus far is that there are two Muscats. One is an expensive, well air-conditioned city, full of malls and Starbucks, peopled by expats and Omanis alike spending the equivalent of 8 US dollars on a latte. The other is equally oriented out of the Arab world, but toward India, Bangladesh, Pakistan. In that Muscat you can get the most amazing dosa you’ve ever had, with all the accompaniments for .700 Omani Rial—about $1.80.

I suspect there’s a third Muscat as well, one accessible mostly to Omanis, where people eat actual Omani food. I suspect that’s the Muscat where regular Omani families live—ones who haven’t been educated abroad, who aren’t members of an international, moneyed elite. That’s an Oman I’m unlikely to access anytime soon, one that is guarded from the non-Omanis who outnumber nationals by almost 2 to 1 in the capital city and legally and economically protected by the government’s plan for the “Omanization” of the nation’s workforce.

I suppose you could say this about anywhere—that there’s a society of the well-off co-existing in the same space as a separate world belonging to  the poor. But something about Oman’s stratification feels different to me. A big part of it is that the poor here are immigrants. They have come here for economic opportunity: my vision of poverty is them doing better than they could in Bangladesh, I guess. This poverty is male: there are relatively few women. It is also entirely separated—by language, custom, dress—from other parts of society. And I see a total lack of any sense of entitlement, that they deserve more or better, as much as others have. There is a deferential attitude among the dark-skinned men who live on site, ten men to a dingy room, to clean my company’s building, and don’t seem to mind when other employees refer to them as “boy.” I feel myself raging at the international division of labor on their behalf, and then I feel ashamed of the naivete and privilege (racial, national) from which my feelings derive. One imagines that not having air conditioning and being called “boy” are the least of these men’s worries. You see these men, often in large groups, everywhere in Muscat–construction workers living in shanties constructed out of cast off building materials; a hundred men in identical brown or blue uniforms, sitting on a hill at the edge of the expressway, waiting for a bus to take them to their lodgings at the end of the day. And this is Muscat, not Dubai.

I haven’t mentioned yet the overwhelming animal rights catastrophe that is Oman. Certainly, it seems true that the less well-off, the less developed the society, the less it has the luxury to care about humane treatment of animals. Less well off, less developed: in this case these are extremely relative terms. I’ve seen packs of stray dogs on the streets of New Orleans, starving cats and dogs coexisting on restaurant patios in Bucharest, the fat stray dogs trotting along beside the hordes of tourists in Pompeii. But the situation in Oman, which developed later than Europe or America, is categorically different. There is no institutional concern, no matter how incomplete, for cats and dogs, whatsoever. There are no animal shelters. I come from a city with a vibrant no-kill shelter system, where city politicians are attempting to make the city kill-free. Oman hasn’t yet even reached the stage of humane euthanasia. Dogs and cats simply roam free, reproducing, until they are hit by a car, starve to death, are tortured or killed for sport, or otherwise die. I’m seeing upward of 10 or 15 different stray animals a day.

At a nice Arabic restaurant on my first visit to Oman, before I understood the gravity of the situation, my friends and I were dining outside when a cat wandered over and jumped on my lap. I assumed this was a cat who belonged to the restaurant—this was cool. But no. This cat has learned to act cute to people in the hope of a scrap of food. I cannot bring myself to go back to the famous Mutrah Souq because of all the starving cats I’ve seen there.

Out in the suburbs, there are dogs, roaming in packs. In the center of the city, at dawn and at night, there are cats. Last night I went to the new Panorama Mall in al Khuwair, a sector of the city that is experiencing much development. The mall is new, bright, sparkling with wealth. There’s laser tag, a food court, a Costa Coffee. There’s some kind of fancy hotel in the middle of it. There are high end European and Asian stores. Outside, as when you park at any of the malls,  a Bangladeshi man will attempt to convince you to let him wash your car for 1.500 rial while you shop.

Friendly stray kitten in Al Athaibah

I walked up the steps and saw a stray cat come out of the mall when I triggered the automatic doors. The cat skittered away, dodging some white people behind me who were still at the stage of muttering “oh, how cute.” I couldn’t imagine where that cat was going to go in the under-under-under city of Muscat, between the mad drivers on the expressway, the guy trying to get people to pay him pennies to wash their car, the shining expanse of the shopping mall. I felt queasy. And I ate supper anyway, with a pit of complicated shame and culpability in my stomach.

Sultan Qaboos, this American hopes that building an infrastructure to improve animal welfare will one day become part of your plan for modernizing Oman. In the meantime, I’ll support private organizations, such as Omani Paws and Al Qurum Veterinary Clinic, that help the stray animals of Muscat.

A Vegetarian in Muscat, part 1

Usually one tries to eat the food of the culture when visiting a foreign country. I want to eat pizza and pasta in Italy, croissants in France. I’m also a vegetarian, which complicates things. I’m in Muscat, Oman for a few weeks, and there’s another layer here: it’s actually hard to find “Omani” cuisine. It’s not what people here want when they go out to eat. It’s what they eat at home (if they’re Omani), when they go to their villages in the countryside.

So eating Omani food has not been a priority of mine. Looking at the restaurants here, there’s an amazing variety that one cannot find even in the US: Iranian, Yemeni, Iraqi cuisines are represented. Chicago just got its first Jolly Bee this year; there’s been one in Muscat for years.

If I was a carnivore I would be doing up this scene. But I’m not, and there’s often a language barrier, so I’ve looked in other directions, and I’ve found some great food in Muscat.

One of my favorites is a simple joint in Al-Khuwair called Turkish House. There isn’t really a menu. When you walk in, the host will take you over to a window that looks onto the kitchen. He’ll describe what they have on offer today—what kind of schwarma, what kind of meat on a platter. When I said I was a vegetarian he took me over to a card with pictures and said the only option was pide, which I’ve often seen translated as cheezy bread. I went for it, and what arrived went far beyond what I’ve had at other Turkish places in Muscat.

Pide at Turkish House

The pide was easily a foot and a half long, shaped like a boat, and just baked. It was filled with spinach, onions, red peppers, covered in a mild, white melting cheese. So, a sort of Turkish pizza. But it was also served with two lemon halves, and that’s where the dish really took off. Squeeze lemon juice on that combination of cheese, spinach, and dough, and the acidity adds a new note that deepens all the flavors.

They were also squeezing oranges, so I had an orange juice. I managed to finish the whole pide, which is the only reason I didn’t buy a box of cookies or olives to take home.

The easiest-to-find cuisines in Muscat are Turkish and Indian (if you take out KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s, that is). I stumbled upon two entirely vegetarian south Indian restaurants near the hotel I stayed at for my first few days. The first is Sarvanaa Bhavan, a huge international chain with several branches in the US—though none in places where I’ve ever lived, thus I had never heard of them. The menu is exceedingly vast, and while the version I found online had descriptions, the one offered in the restaurant did not, so I went with a thali—a selection of many dishes served in little silver bowls on a platter

Thali at Sarvanaa Bhavan

I’m not exactly an authority on Indian food, though I’ve had a dosa or two in my day, and certainly I’ve only ever had Indian food in restaurants that cater primarily to non-Indians. But even I could tell that the food here wasn’t amazing. The puffy fried bread was great, but the potatoes in the Aloo Gobi weren’t adequately spiced. There was a whole dish of curried baby corn, and that made me want to die—though that’s certainly my own personal hang up and not the fault of the restaurant. There was a pea curry, one of okra, a dish of plain yogurt, some kind of oddly unsweet watermelon colored thing, and a mango ice cream. It was pretty good, but I wasn’t blown away.

That would have to wait for a few days later, when I found a little hole in the wall restaurant behind the Tulip hotel in Al-Khuwair: Dilkush. I didn’t really get the set up here—there were menus under glass on the tabletops, but when I tried to order a dosa, the waiter implied they didn’t have any. I didn’t really know what any of the other dishes were, but there were vegetarian so I ordered a tomato and onion uttahapam, which they did have. It was unbelievable. The uttahpam, sambar, and those other two condiments were served on one of those food trays they use in grade schools, with different size compartments. It was out of this world: such depth of flavor. The uttahpam itself is a thick, crispy fried patty. Everyone of the condiments was spicy, but that kind of deep spiciness that builds gradually rather than sitting in the front of the mouthful. I had the uttahapam, a bottle of water, and a cup of sweet masala milk tea, and the total was 1.1 rial. Seriously. I left a half rial as a tip out of white American guilt and went back the next day (and, truth be told, at least once a week during my stay in Muscat).

Tomato Onion Uttahpam at Dilkush. Reading material: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty.

Another day, I went to BonnBonn café in the Panorama Mall. This was a pretty depressing place because the mall was pretty empty, and this café is located in a back corner across from a laser tag joint that appeared totally empty, despite the looped footage of westerners having fun that played on a screen outside its doors. The restaurant was pretty good, though I was the only patron to approach the place and the staff appeared to be going out of their minds with boredom. I had a lemon juice with mint so huge it was served in a carafe, and a grilled halloumi salad. The cheese was a nice touch, and the salad—almost entirely lettuce—was fresh, well-dressed, and sprinkled with pine nuts. The total was about 5 rial—totally reasonable price, but we were definitely in the developing-world section of Muscat.

Lemon Mint at Bonn Beans

More on that next time:  thoughts on Muscat’s international division of labor and its attendant social striations, which are immediately evident to a casual restaurant-goer.