Muttrah, Oman ….Time marches on. Perhaps it is a sin to converse about a site which has undergone significant change since my visit, but in a world where economies have been jeopardized by COVID I was happy to learn of good things around a previously enjoyed destination (yes, I keep tabs on places I’ve journeyed to). The capitol and major ‘city’ in Oman is Muscat, but that is something of a misnomer. Muscat is really a province, consisting of numerous small villages. An ancient seaport, Muttrah has always been one of the largest districts within this conglomeration and is home to several of Muscat’s most traditional venues. Muttrah Fish Market is near the top of that list.
Muttrah Harbor has been the heart of a thriving fishing industry forever, long serving as an economic engine for Oman. The oil industry eventually knocked this from the number one position, but until quite recently the livelihood had been persisting just as in days of old. We visited Muttrah and stopped by the fish market during my second trip to Oman in 2009; and as impressive as the new facility appears, I consider myself fortunate for being able to savor a centuries old lifestyle and witness long-standing practices.
Hard physical labor was among those practices, and I took very few photos because it felt obscene to be a tourist intruding upon the hustle and bustle. Indeed, activity was one of the most invigorating aspects of the fish market. This was a bona fide taste of Arabic culture, which always seems lacking in neighboring Dubai. In Dubai the native customs seem submerged by modernity and it is rare to see ladies wearing hijabs or abayas. In Oman the locals throng everywhere in eye-catching garb, typically featuring embroidery which flashes a diverse range of colors. Every male seems to be sporting a vibrant cap (kummah), and walking about Muttrah is immersion in a pedestrian collage.
The effect was magnified in Muttrah Fish Market. The radiant garb seemed exotic, but this was merely work clothes for market laborers. During my excursion it was no problem to stroll the back areas where fish were being cleaned and I sincerely hope that has not become off limits since the recent upgrade. We did not make any purchases: having neither the time, kitchen utensils nor cooking skills (I call my self-prepared dishes ‘mean cuisine’). This possibly helped dodge an anomaly of the market which reinforced a non-touristy feeling – although English is widely spoken throughout Oman, whenever we attempted to converse with a fishmonger the reply would be a smile and shaking head. That was a shame because I was surprised by the breadth of the bounty and had many questions. Little had this former ‘Mainer’ expected to see lobsters, but there were also crabs and prawns supplementing the fish offerings – including varieties I was unfamiliar with and curious to ask about.
In my opinion, the crusty structure formerly housing the fish market enhanced the old world charm, but perhaps there is no net loss. The bigger, wave-shaped home for the emporium was unveiled in September, 2017 and rumor holds the atmosphere remains intact. Local traffic remains brisk and a fair portion of these are representatives of local restaurants, seeking fresh, tasty selections to prepare later in the day. That said, the premiere time to stop by remains early morning.
Additions to the venue include a small restaurant and a collection of fruit and vegetable stands. Should your Muscat accommodations include kitchen space, it should now be a one-stop shopping opportunity to brandish your culinary expertise. There is also a coffee shop, and I invite you to enjoy a cup somewhere along your Omani itinerary. Here the coffee is typically ground with cardamom or cloves, for a pleasingly distinct flavor. When cardamom is in the blend, rose water may even be added for a final splash of splendid. Today sugar is common, but the traditional sweetener for coffee is dates and these should be readily available when you order your caffeine in Oman.
Although I harbor the feeling it was a blessing to have sampled Muttrah Fish Market when it was a ramshackle collection of stalls, there is hope the vibe of yesteryear endures at the new installation. I mentioned having snapped a scant few pictures, but I was lucky to be accompanied by my buddy Mark during the visit. Mark is a gifted photographer and he was obviously captivated by the antiquity as well, opting to capture the scene in black and white (and yes, the b&w accompanying this piece are his images).
The world is a marvel, old or new. Our tenure on the planet is short and makes it difficult to recognize that everything must change sooner or later. Whenever I begin longing for ‘the way things were’, it eventually compels me to realize the futility. Sometimes, however, things change to preserve a past essence and that might well be the case here. One of the funniest moments during our excursion was seeing a sign proclaiming that “selling fish from your vehicle” was forbidden. As much as I believe the cost of renting a stall in the old market was not prohibitive, there are always those struggling to make ends meet. No doubt the rentals have escalated with the redo, and I suspect enforcement of denying the unfortunate has become stricter as well. A key advantage of sites like Suja is learning about the world without marketing hype: when you venture to the Muttrah Fish Market, please share your impressions. I will be fascinated to learn if the rich heritage has endured and whether you can still a drive a bargain with someone selling from their car!