Muscat, Oman – January 2016
Sultan Qaboos was staring right at me in full regalia, armed with a sable and a dagger. I counted 20-odd medallions on his wide and ribboned chest. He was looking sharp and merciful.
Next to him was another photograph of the Sultan, wearing army fatigues and looking 40 years younger. All shops in Oman hang pictures of their beloved leader on their walls, but this coffee-shop was more dedicated than most. All across its tea-stained walls, Sultan Qaboos was stepping in and out of private jets, shaking hands with world-leaders, inspecting parading soldiers and waving at his minions.
I was near the capital’s busy and touristy market, the Mutrah Souq, waiting for a round of instant coffee as it were. Made generously with milk and sugar, the way they take it, and the way I love it. From their halwar kameez dress, I figured the staff was Pakistani, but the customers wore mostly Omani dishdashas. I was definitely the blond one out…
It was my first time in the Middle East, and I was sponging up information from the endless little different details that make up the definitions of culture. Curious like a child and trying to pass for an adult.
I have always loved a good culture shock and now I was about to have myself a good old whop. A dude in his 40’s came over to my rickety steel top table: “What country are you from, habibi?” He asked me, smiling only until I answered; “Denmark”.
Now, it used to be universally kosher to be Danish. We are potentially a pleasant people, you know, harmless at the most: Neutral during the war, Hans Christian Andersen, football, vikings, beer & porn. People everywhere used to know the drill, and life was sweet for a Dane abroad, until our politics warped…
In my lifetime, Denmark’s reputation has gone from noble humanist to petty fascist. Just what a privileged globetrotter needs…
The dude went back to confer with his mates. He had a good sandal swagger on when he returned to my table and spoke loudly, side-glancing knowingly at his mates: “That man who drew those pictures of Mohammad – peace be upon him – is that idiot still around?”
Unfortunately I knew straight away who he meant. A decade ago, this Danish Newspaper Editor chose to publish some satirical drawings of the Prophet Mohamed, with one depicting him as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban. Not only a daft joke, but, as it were, a deadly one that spurred violence and fear-mongering. Sad thing is, he probably knew it would be.
“Yeah, uhm, he is still around, I guess.” Dude looked me straight in the eyes, sneered: “I want to kill him!” I picked nervously at a crumpled napkin on the table. He looked menacing now. Where was that coffee? “Yeah well, uhm, I guess he isn’t the smartest guy, but uhm you know…”
Dude started muttering curses, building into a slow rage. Probably a daily occurrence judging by the lazy looks from his friends a few tables down the narrow room, chatting and seizing up the situation. Here-we-go-again sort of thing; “just out of the mosque and already causing a stir, wouldn’t you know it”.
I went for a neutralizing interjection: “I’m just from the same country as that cartoon man. That doesn’t mean he is my problem, I don’t even like the guy. What do you want me to do?” His reply fell instantly: “Kill him!!!”.
So instant was his sudden outburst that I was baffled. Was he joking? I couldn’t help laughing. Loudly. Dumb. Then I heard myself confidently say: “I won’t do it man, that’s your trouble. They’d put me in jail!” Go on the old charm. I tried a wink together with my big and ambivalent European smile.
A long and awkward moment later, Allah be praised, the dude exploded laughing and slapped his knees. Behind him I impatiently spied 6 ready cups of sweet mocha on the counter. Sweet, sweet mocha, my saving grace again.
“Good one! Jail! HA! HAHAHA!” He was all happy then. I got up and whipped out a wad of baisa to pay my quick way out of dodge, but as the waiter bagged my un-lidded cups, Dude went on more softly: “Your country also just people”, and then his eyes again turned intense: “Some are good, some are bad. This man reeeeaaally bad!”
I breathed in, nodding slowly, with long eyes towards the coffees: “Yeah, shit man, that was a real fuck-up that one”. Sometimes I could curse my cursing…
Bless his soul, the guy pretended he couldn’t hear the f-word, at least. He understood where I was coming from: I just wanted my coffee, didn’t want no trouble, and I couldn’t help where I was from. We shook hands. Some other guys nodded at me silently from their chairs like: “Yeah. Don’t worry man. No trouble here.”
By then, Dude had decidedly given up on me and turned back to his more coherent friends, and then finally it happened, I got the coffee, the man got the cash and the purchase was over.
I left the shop, turned a corner onto a sleepy street, and then suddenly remembered a news-interview I saw once, 10 years ago when TV was full of angry Middle Easterners, burning the Danish flag and protesting wildly in the streets (what luxury!) against the Danish cartoons and, I’m sure, against their own governments under their breaths.
This interview was with a Danish flag-producer. And this happy middle-aged owner of a small flag-factory somewhere in Jutland, was very genuinely happy for himself and his little family when he said: “In all of my flag-making years, I have never had such a boom in business before. I have had to employ 2 new workers to meet the demand from the Middle East, things are really great!”
I guess nothing is so bad, that it isn’t good for something.
The coffee sure hit the spot…