“When you reach an empty part of the desert, if the wind blows from the North, then West, South, and East—if the wind comes from every direction, this means, ‘You are not welcome here’, and you need to leave immediately.”
Such is the helpful advice of Mohammed on the microphone, his last-minute lecture—‘Intro to Genies’—right as our minibus takes the exit for Muscat Airport.
This is what I know about guides—they always save the best for last. A day ago, Mohammed fed us a steady diet of population and literacy figures, a calendar of historical dates, and the blow-by-blow account of the Sultan of Oman’s rise to power.
But only now, after our bags have been sent ahead and stowed on the plane, after we’ve turned our focus to our next destination—only then does Mohammed break out his genie stories. And these are not your cheesy summer camp variety of tall tales—no, Mohammed’s rambling is a spine-chilling non-sequitur that makes today’s sunny morning feel slightly haunted and overbearing.
I’m not entirely sure my fellow travelers are catching the full import of Mohammed’s words.
“Do you believe in djinns?” he breathes into his tour guide mic, then answers the question for us, “I believe in djinns. It happens sometimes that I go to some wadi and you hear people, but you do not see them. These are the djinns—my grandfather and father told me about these things, so I knew not to be afraid.”
He shows us the abandoned house by the roadside, empty now 20 years, and yet somehow, it is always clean, the garden always kept, and the lights come on by themselves at night, and those who try and enter to spend the night, find themselves the next morning awake in the garden.
“It is the djinns that do this,” he explains, then adds that while Oman is a place with “very strong magic” he does not want us to be afraid of his country.
I am not afraid of Oman—on the contrary, I am positively enchanted by this 21st century version of the Arabian Nights, new and improved with oil refineries, good roads, and one benevolent ruler. Though our visit was too brief—only 36 hours—I feel as if I’ve drunk deeply from Oman with all six senses: I’ve inhaled sweet frankincense, devoured honey dates, warmed my neck in the sun, listened to the goatskin drums, seen the planets shine in the lavender sky of evening, and now grow apprehensive about the unseen world of djinns lying in wait to chuck me sleeping into the garden, or chase me from my desert campsite.
But Mohammed has the sixth sense of a good guide, and he can tell that he’s spooking a few of his guests, so he changes the subject. No longer is he offering such helpful tips like, “When you go to sleep, leave your night fire burning, because the djinns will eat up the dying embers,”—No. Now he’s venturing into Islamic cosmology, painting a picture of the elaborate celestial spheres beyond the airport parking lot.
“The Qur’an tells us there are seven skies, and to reach God’s space, you have to cross all seven skies,” Mohammed points out.
I count on my fingers. In the last week I have flown from Washington to London, from London to Oman—two skies—and today we fly to Kathmandu—that makes three.
“We are still in the first sky, here,” Mohammed ruins my theory, pointing down at the asphalt beneath our bus, now parked in the airport parking lot, a black sky covered in cars.
In Arabic, the modern word for skies (samaawat) is the same word for heavens in the Qur’an. A very long time ago, ancient astronomers gazed upwards in the night sky and noticed a few bright lights that wandered through the heavens. These lights they named planetai—wanderers.
Back then, they only knew seven such “planets”—the sun and the moon, then Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (for which our seven days are named)—and just as the Earth goes round the sun and the moon goes round the Earth, we are going around the Eastern hemisphere, one stop at a time.
Like the planets, we are wanderers—travelers—flying from place to place in our attempt to know and understand each one a little better before moving onward.
Mohammed shakes our hands, says goodbye, tells us how much he hopes we return to Oman, inshallah—Oman, the first sky out of seven.
“But how big is this world!” he says last of all, both giddy and reverential, “The world is amazing!”
His farewell exclamation is too perfect for us—the world is big and amazing, which is precisely why we have embarked on this 125th Anniversary Expedition, hopping from one sky to the next, lifting off and touching down from exotic clime to exotic clime, from Muscat to Kathmandu and beyond.
I only have one question left for Mohammed and I wait until the others have entered the airport before asking him, “What is the seventh heaven called?”
“Arsh Al Rahman,” he answers, “That is the place where God lives.”
Thirty minutes later we are back on the runway, boarding our private jet, the sun baking the pavement. The wind blows in from the Gulf—from the North, and I wait for it, remembering Mohammed’s warning. But the wind does not shift in a counter-clockwise direction.
There is no djinn here—we are always welcome in this spot of the desert, hamdullah.
Thus we leave Oman behind, all of us wanderers, skipping off . . . to the seven skies.