The two grooms, resplendent in golden robes and shaking the hands of anyone who comes near, look a bit dazed by the scale of their own wedding shindig. The near-identical young brothers have both been married for a matter of hours, but their brides are nowhere to be seen. Instead, the newlywed husbands are looking out at a gathering of hundreds of men singing at each other and hundreds more tucking into a buffet. I’m handed another cup of sweet tea by a server and the singing continues.
Salalah is often thought of as Oman’s second city. Tucked up close to the Yemen border on the country’s south coast, it’s a place of windswept beaches, pale buildings and drive-by kebab stalls. A quirk of nature gives it a lengthy monsoon season each summer, turning its vegetation defiantly green. The city plays home to around a quarter-of-a-million people, and the frankincense trees that are cultivated nearby make an evening trip to its perfume souk a heady, often clamorous experience. The locals are matter-of-fact, proud of where they come from and – I soon learn – generous with their advice.
In Salalah, the more people you turn to for tips on what to do, the better your chances of unearthing something special. The first resident I ask recommends a mall (“It has a cinema, a Subway, everything”). The second person I approach directs me towards an open-air coconut market, where thousands upon thousands of locally grown coconuts sit in rows on street stalls. I point to my chosen nut and watch as its top gets hacked off.
Then I really hit the jackpot. My guide, Salim, ponders the question and replies nonchalantly: “Well, we’ve been to the souk. Maybe we could go to a wedding party?”
One of his tribe is getting married tonight, he tells me, and it’s customary for wedding parties in Salalah to be open to anyone, with one gathering for men and another for women. So, after reassuring me that ‘no, I don’t need an invite,’ and ‘no, people won’t baulk at a westerner joining the throng,’ the plan’s fixed.
At 8pm that evening we pull up outside a mosque in the west of the city to see two huge, open-sided marquees and an evening that’s already in full swing. The marquees are richly decorated, with gilded canopies ballooning over a busy collection of diners, all dressed in pristine dishdasha and either kuma (a hand-embroidered cap) or massar (an embroidered wool turban). Every table is full. People are spilling outside onto the street. I’m handed a plate and directed to the buffet queue. It’s huge: there are five different types of rice, multiple trays of camel meat, various salads and tables loaded with cans of Pepsi and 7 Up. As is customary, eating is done with the hands.
More guests are arriving every minute. People are laughing, back-slapping, cheek-kissing. Someone points out the grooms to me. Servers are replenishing buffet trays, carrying chairs, passing round dishes of halwa (sweet dessert) and distributing little steaming cups of tea and coffee. “So,” I ask, “the brides are having their own party?” “Yes”, says Salim. “With dancing.”
I’m staring everywhere at once, trying to take it all in, when the singing starts. On an open patch of land outside, a group of around 50 men are chanting in unison. When they finish, a separate group starts up. Then a third group appears from nowhere, marching in off the road with sticks held rifle style against their shoulders. They join in the singing. Among it all, one young man is leaping around doing a sword dance. Soon a vast circle forms, with tea-drinking spectators watching the various sets of singers bellow at each other.
“They’re from different tribes,” an older man tells me. “The songs are a way of showing respect.” Alongside each song, a self-appointed member of each group is walking around the crowd, stressing the lyrics to ensure they’re heard and understood. It goes on for hours – singing and eating, marching and drinking – an intoxicating tribal ritual being played out under the night sky. It is deafening, baffling and thrilling. And if the grooms look dazed by it all, I’ll bet my last rialI do, too.
Al Fawaz Tours offers city tours of Salalah alfawaztours.com.The author stayed at the new Millennium Resort Salalah millenniumhotels.com/en/salalah/millennium-resort-salalah