Misfah Old House, Oman: A rare opportunity to live like a local

There were several ways to  be awoken here in the village, back in the old days. Sometimes it was the birds that would do it, chirping away, swooping in to feed from the date palms before the farmers began their work. Other times it was the day's first call to prayer, the haunting refrain ringing from the local mosque.

For Abdul Rahman Al-abri, however, there was a third way to wake up, and it was the best. "It was the smell," he recalls now, wandering through the narrow, crumbling streets of his former home. "Baking bread, that my family was making. That was my favourite way to wake up."

You can't smell bread anymore in Misfat Al Abriyyan. The date palms remain, grown on the same land they've been grown for centuries; the birds still chirp in the mornings, and you can still hear the call to prayer, though these days it comes from a mosque in the new village across the valley. The smell of baking bread, however, is largely a thing of the past. 

"Only three families still live here," Abdul explains, leading me out of the warren of old streets and into the date plantation, where we can see the twinkling lights of the new village laid out before us at dusk. "We all moved to this new place," he says. "And there was nothing to do with our old houses. We just left them."

They just left them – for a while. For a few years. And then Abdul Rahman, who was working as a radiographer at a hospital in nearby Nizwa, had an idea. He could make use of these old buildings. He could tempt people back to the village of his birth, give it new life. And he could do it through tourism.

Not long after that, Misfah Old House was born. You have to trek through most of the village to get there. You have to pass signs asking tourists to dress conservatively, because people still live here. You have to follow someone who knows where they're going as you dart down alleyways ("This was the football stadium," Abdul says, pointing at a clearing), pick your way through the old mudbrick buildings, teeter on the lip of an irrigation canal, before eventually rounding a corner and finding the guesthouse.

Misfah Old House is designed to give travellers a taste of traditional Omani village life. There are mod-cons here, comforts such as air-conditioning and soft beds, but the basics are the same as they've always been. You spend your nights in small, traditionally decorated rooms. You eat dinner on the rooftop, where Abdul would once sleep on balmy nights, dining on food cooked by local villagers. Bathrooms are shared. The food is basic. But you won't get any closer to Omani life than this.

First lesson: how to drink coffee, the local way. Everyone drinks coffee in Oman, strong, bitter, spiced coffee that's used to greet visitors.  You sit cross-legged on the floor, take a few sweet local dates to eat, and then sip coffee from a small cup. You don't let the cup touch the floor. If you want more coffee, you hand the cup back to your host. If you've had your fill, you waggle the cup in the air before passing it back.

The Omani sense of hospitality is strong. If you don't waggle the cup, you'll be drinking coffee for hours. You won't sleep for days. 

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There's more than 1500 years of human history in this small area, Abdul says. Ancient settlers began creating the irrigation system that still works today, a series of canals connected to a far-off spring called a falaj, a system so good no one has seen any need to improve it. Water always flows through this arid land. Large stones are shifted around to direct the stream to different parts of the plantation.   

Walking through the village, you can feel every one of those 1500 years of history. The narrow alleyways are paved with rocks polished to a deep shine by thousands of feet; mud-brick buildings stand forlorn against the wind. Abdul can point out his old bedroom window. He can show you where his wife was born. He can point out where they used to cook whole goats in the ground to celebrate Eid, and where he was sent to collect dates.

"Any fruit you see on a tree here is owned by a farmer," he says. "But any dates that fall on the ground belong to anybody who can take them. So when it was windy when we were kids, we were very busy!" 

There's history here, but it's living history. You're talking to one of the people who created it. He's smiling and greeting others who still exist within it. Cultural immersion that's so authentic is rare. 

Misfat Al Abriyyan lies within the Al-Hajar Mountains, a ruggedly beautiful range that straddles Oman and the UAE. It's only a short drive from here to Wadi Ghul, known as the "Omani Grand Canyon", where Abdul leads hikes to an abandoned village. We're also close to Al Hamra, another centuries-old settlement with a ramshackle mudbrick old town.

I'll visit there tomorrow. For now, however, I'm heading back to Misfah Old House to sit on the rooftop and watch the sun set over the village, to hear the roosters crowing and the donkeys braying and listen to the call to prayer. Tomorrow, I'll wake to the same noises. And maybe, if I'm lucky, the smell of baking bread.

5 MORE UNUSUAL STAYS IN THE MIDDLE EAST 

1. CAMPING, ABU DHABI

There's no problem with overcrowding in the Liwa Desert, a few hours outside Abu Dhabi, where locals and expats go to spend the night when they tire of big-city life. Travellers can do this too, hiring a 4WD and striking out with a guide, driving deep into the desert to sleep under the stars. thedesertdiva.com

2. ANAKATO NUBIAN HOUSES, EGYPT

On the banks of the Nile River, overlooking the city of Aswan, these riotously coloured guesthouses were built to resemble traditional Nubian abodes. There are only three houses, each decorated inside with the same colour scheme as the exterior, and enjoying some of the best views around. anakato.com 

3. THE WALLED OFF HOTEL, PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES

The street artist Banksy created this ambitious project, a hotel in the shadow of the wall separating Israel from the Palestinian Territories. Each guest room has been designed by either Banksy or another modern artist, and each is unique. The hotel also has "floor-to-ceiling views of graffiti-strewn concrete". walledoffhotel.com 

4. WADI RUM DESERT CAMP, JORDAN

You'll recognise Wadi Rum the moment you set foot in it: this desert reserve posed as Mars for the film The Martian, and also featured in Rogue One, the 2016 Star Wars movie, and Lawrence of Arabia. The area is also home to several desert camps that range in luxury and price. onthegotours.com

5. HOTEL SIDI DRISS, TUNISIA

Star Wars fans would also recognise this property, which served as Luke Skywalker's family home in the original trilogy. The Hotel Sidi Driss, in the Tunisian village of Matmata, is a troglodyte dwelling, a series of caves dug into the sandstone. That and the Star Wars history make it very popular. booking.com 

Ben Groundwater was a guest of the Oman Ministry of Tourism.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

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tourismoman.com.au

FLY

Etihad flies to Abu Dhabi from Sydney and Melbourne twice daily, with connections to Muscat in Oman. See etihad.com. Transfers to Misfat Al Abriyyan are available through the guesthouse.

STAY

Misfah Old House offers comfortable rooms in a traditional house, breakfast and dinner, as well as the chance to explore the village. Rooms start from $122 per night. See booking.com

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