Four years ago, Belgian writer Maria Dekeersmaeker had a novel in mind for which the setting was Salalah, the Governorate of Dhofar. She realised that it would not be possible to understand the place without living there.
Every time she explored an aspect of the place, an all together new and intriguing feature would emerge. The events of daily life, the flora, the fauna, the history and the architecture of the region made Maria a little more curious each day and that’s why much before the novel, she came out with The DNA of Salalah, Dhofar. A Tourist Guide.
“The titles of the guide's chapters are themes that conjure up images in my mind. For instance, through the chapter Bird’s Eye View, I let the birds tell the story of what they see when they are flying high in the sky. It stems from the thought that if I could fly high above the four geological landscapes that Dhofar offers I would see the same.
Then, if you talk about agriculture in the governorate, camels can’t be ignored. I observed how local people take care of their camels and how the camels love the surroundings they walk through. Thus, one of the chapters is called The Soul of the Camel,” said Maria. Calling frankincense the backbone of Salalah, Maria considers it the heart of the perfume brand Amouage.
“In the guide I called the chapter Tears of Joy. For instance, I found the inscriptions that commemorate the foundation of Sumhuram, the pre-Islamic port city in the east of Salalah on the frankincense trail very interesting. The inscriptions let me reflect on writing techniques and written texts that played a central role in pre-Islamic South Arabian culture. They also inspired me to write my column in The Archeological Magazine published in Belgium.”
Her guide takes the reader through interesting stories from the past, the present and about the future. She says that the guide has not been written just for travellers, but also for those who like the challenge of learning more about the region and students.
The book's cover is not what the name Salalah conjures up in mind. It is not about the region's landscape but depicts its way of life with a picture of an embroidered sirwal. It is one of Maria's favourite photographs, which she thinks truly describes what the book holds within.
“The photo depicts tradition, but also has a contemporary feel, which is what I wanted the guide to be. I not only write about traditions, but also about the contemporary life in Salalah.
“The guide tries to be as basic yet informative as possible, just like DNA, which is the blueprint of all life forms. Every chapter opens with reflections on some important concepts of Islam followed by a Surah of the Holy Quran. Mr Khalan Nabhan al Kharusi, assistant to the Grand Mufti, chose the Surahs,” she said.
Although the experience of compiling this guide was an unparalleled one for Maria, it was a challenging affair as well. “It took me two years to bring all the information together. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, but finally all the pieces fit together. Patience was the code word. But it also gave me the opportunity to reflect on the things I want to say.”
The guide is also available as an e-book. Maria's first novel was The Earth Has Fever. She has written for many magazines and journals across Europe and has won an International Journalism Award in Italy. Also to her credit are three other travel books and one on Eastern European art.