Shadows of Old Araby

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The chopsticks restaurant in salalah, the capital of the Omani province of Dhofar, is no longer open, its passable food and awful service (as one unsympathetic guidebook had it) now just a sweet-and-sour memory. Yet only a few doors away, the splashiest new eatery in the forgotten, once glorious town is Chinese Cascade, which serves Mandarin prawn toast, cauliflower Manchurian and vegetable wontons. It's The Authentic Chinese Restaurant, if you believe the sign, but when an unsuspecting visitor steps in, he finds that the waiters, the diners, the owners—everyone is Indian. Here there are so many Pakistani restaurants, shrugs the amiable proprietor, laughing at the thought that there might be Chinese faces in a Chinese restaurant. The locals go bonkers for that food. This is something different.What was once the center of the world now seems to lie on the remotest margins. It's hard to believe that this torpid, sand-colored town, with its bored Indian shopkeepers sitting outside foodstuff-and-luxuries stalls and camels grazing outside the (largely empty) Hilton Hotel, was once the Dhofar that Zheng He's ships (though not, it seems, the admiral himself) sought out, in 1432 on their seventh voyage. The Salalah Holiday Inn slumbers near the spot where old Chinese coins were once discovered. The classified section of the Oman Daily Observer reports that someone named Zou Shichui has lost a Chinese passport—and one wonders which part of limbo the unfortunate now inhabits. To retrace the Chinese travels in Arabia is to see how the world is not always growing more connected, as we like to think, but often less so: the ports the Chinese visited in the 15th century are obscure today, unglamorous and almost impossible to get to for even the most enterprising traveler. MORE STORIESArabian TwilightThe cities that were once the center of the world now hover at its remotest margins—but a few traces of their glory days linger on Trading PlacesChinese still flock to Kenya's coastal cities to seek their fortunesContrabandAsia's health fads give new incentives to poachersA Fleet Built to ImpressZheng He had hundreds of ships in his treasure fleet, but the largest were technological masterpiecesThe Age of DiscoveryNaval enterprises that changed the globeMap: Zheng He's VoyagesWhat the admiral's men said about the ports TIME visitedLook on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! was the message that a headless torso in the desert delivered to hopeful innocents in Shelley's poem Ozymandias, and a similarly humbling lesson faces down anyone who travels around the Middle East in search of the cities whose wealth and fame drew Chinese treasure ships 580 years ago. A Manhattanite looking at Dhofar might wonder whether his own city, a few centuries from now, will look like the film A.I.'s buried metropolis. Aden, the greatest port in the world outside of Manhattan half a century back, is now a scrappy wasteland. Jeddah, though thriving, welcomes few foreign visitors except those on pilgrimages to nearby Mecca. And Hormuz, the center of unparalleled wealth that drew the Chinese, is now an almost deserted island whose main trade apparently consists of smuggled American cigarettes from Oman.Once upon a distant time, the southern stretches of the Arabian peninsula were known as Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia, thanks to their strategic location overlooking the sea-lanes linking Asia to Europe; and thanks, too, to the frankincense trees nurtured by their summer rains. In those days it really might have seemed that money was growing on trees (or at least in them). Frankincense, coveted for religious ceremonies in Rome, Egypt and Jerusalem, was more valuable than gold. In the 1st century A.D., Pliny the Younger called the area the richest in the world; even in 1347, when the Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta visited, though finding Dhofar's markets the dirtiest in the world, he was stunned by its extremely fat sardines.When the Chinese sailors arrived in what is now southern Oman, proud perhaps to have traversed the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, they were greeted by master Arab navigators who had been traveling to Asia for centuries, and who monopolized the largest and most lucrative trade routes on the seas. Omani ships regularly made the trip to Guangzhou, with crews hundreds strong and cargoes of several hundred tons, completing the journey in 120 sailing days; the seven excursions of Admiral Zheng He would have seemed nothing next to the seven journeys of Sinbad the Sailor, whose heroics were inspired by real Middle Eastern captains.By the middle of the 20th century, however, what Milton called Araby the Blest was regarded by such traveling memoirists as James Morris (later known as Jan) and Peter Fleming as remoter than Tibet. After Oman's last Sultan retreated into his huge palace by the sea in 1958, he forbade Dhofaris from buying bicycles, radios and even sunglasses. The result was the rise of the Dhofar Liberation Front, whose guerrillas were sent for revolutionary training to—of all places—Beijing. (There is no Allah but Mao, as Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the British explorer who fought with the British against the rebels in Oman, dryly put it.) Trained in northern China, where the terrain was similar to their own, the fledgling revolutionaries were handed multiple copies of Mao's Little Red Book in Arabic, given tours of Ming palaces and tombs and told that Allah was the invention of British imperialists. Their uprising petered out a few years later.Today, Dhofar has woken up a little to the world. After the current Sultan overthrew his father in 1970, he brought new facilities to a country that, 30 years earlier, had no secondary schools, one hospital and just 10 km of surfaced road. Nowadays, at night, the coastline is dominated by the lights of a huge new port, built to receive large container ships. And they come, the port's register says, from Colombo, Jeddah and Bombay, on their way to Zanzibar, Mombasa, Cochin.Yet even as Muscat, the capital of Oman, glitters like a fairy-tale Las Vegas, new white buildings arising across the desert sands, the capital of Dhofar, Marco Polo's great and noble and fine city, looks like a neglected suburb of Cochin or Calicut. By one local's account, 70% of Salalah's traders—the fruit juicers, coconut sellers, hairdressers and peddlers of ladies necessities—come from India. The title of the weekly show at the local cinema, starring Twinkle Khanna and Govinda, is scrawled on a wall in chalk, like graffiti. When James Morris was in Muscat, he was told that all foreigners had to carry lanterns after dark because a Chinese seaman got himself into trouble one night. Today, if you look in the phone book that serves the entire country, you will find only three Chinese Lees (as opposed to, for example, 10 Iyers).Dhofar's particular blessing is the khareef, or southwesterly monsoon, which shrouds the whole area in a cool mist in the summer, while the rest of Arabia is sweating through 45C days. The sea roars eerily through the heavy fog, and the locals sit in the green corners of the hills, picnicking delightedly in the rain. Along the main road, 3-m-high frankincense trees jut up their skeletal branches. The residents in their long gowns are as sincere in speech as Zheng He's chronicler Ma Huan reported—so long as you except the taxi drivers. MORE STORIESArabian TwilightThe cities that were once the center of the world now hover at its remotest margins—but a few traces of their glory days linger on Trading PlacesChinese still flock to Kenya's coastal cities to seek their fortunesContrabandAsia's health fads give new incentives to poachersA Fleet Built to ImpressZheng He had hundreds of ships in his treasure fleet, but the largest were technological masterpiecesThe Age of DiscoveryNaval enterprises that changed the globeMap: Zheng He's VoyagesWhat the admiral's men said about the ports TIME visitedUp the coast, in the picturesque village of Mirbat, boats bob on the water in what was once a busy port, and in front of old houses with elegantly decorated doorways and arched windows all kinds of unused sailing vessels litter the beach; not far away, a clump of rocks recalls the place where unremembered Dhofaris (although some say it was the Queen of Sheba) sent Arabian horses and frankincense to Rome. Fishermen still prosper in the nearby village of Taqah, and in Sur, farther north, you can see Oman's legendary boatbuilders construct dhows by hand from imported teak, as when they were sailing millennia ago. Though no longer do they sail to China. This year, to celebrate the khareef, a large carnival is set up in the Dhofari emptiness, Mickey Mouse (in heavy makeup) overseeing children in revolving cups and men tossing hoops to win radios and Superstar hair dryers. In a spacious white tent that serves as a type of makeshift souk, three Chinese ladies stand guard over a display of purple wind chimes and towels with pictures of children asking: Do you love me? They are also selling saffron, and perfumes called Sahara and Mumtaz: the modern version, perhaps, of selling coals in Newcastle. In Yemen, too, many of the foreign faces on international flights come from the Middle Kingdom—one of them a jolly matron from Shanghai so in love with exploration that she once flew into Aden so she could savor a harrowing six-hour ride through the mountains to Sanaa, the capital. Zheng He's ships went to Aden on their fifth and sixth trips; at the time, it was so rich in gold, silver and pearls that these refined products, according to Ma Huan, certainly surpass anything in the world. With its natural deep harbor, folded into volcanic mountains, the town had attracted foreign rulers since centuries before Jesus's time. More than 1,000 years ago it was known as the entrance hall of China and the warehouse of the West. Today, Aden makes Dhofar look like Paris, its streets a poor man's Beirut of bombed-out houses and rubble. Goats gather outside broken shops, and sunken-cheeked women thrust their hands into cars at red lights. In 1986, Marxist Aden was caught in a 17-day civil war and, even after nominally uniting with North Yemen, the city was under siege for almost two months in 1994. All that remains now is shattered or under permanent reconstruction. Sanaa, to the north, is a jostling, vivid center of spiced exoticism: men with daggers bargain around unesco-protected tower houses whose windows, after nightfall, glow colorfully like stained glass. Aden, by contrast, has the feel of someone sitting in front of debris, waiting to see who will drift into town next. Insofar as the town has interest for the world today, it is largely because it was Queen Victoria's first imperial acquisition, and from 1839 until 1967 the British controlled it as a coal station for ships traveling from England to Bombay. A shrunken Big Ben still stands on a hill overlooking Steamer Point, and even in a broken-down hotel, a bellboy answers a summons with a military-style salute. In a bookstore you can buy a paperback in which someone, 40 years ago, wrote: Miss Sirihin Abdullah Murji, P.O. Box 1959, Mombasa. On the Prince of Wales Pier, a sign still offers: We hope you have enjoyed your stay. Please come again. At the cemetery beside St. Mary's Church, the headstones have messages in Russian, German, Greek and even Chinese, but the most poignant (Ave atque vale, Oh for a touch of that vanished hand) recall British stokers, flying officers and women called Gwendolene and Clementina. It seems almost too apt that the clock in the Cresent Hotel (a large black-and-white portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in her youth peers through the murk of the lobby) has stopped. Ports, especially those as free and easy as Aden, come alive after dark, and only at night can you spot some signs of the enterprise that has kept Aden going, after a fashion, for centuries. A little neon flickers to life and trucks bang their horns to the tune of La Cucaracha. The Ching Sing restaurant, established in 1963, serves up Chinese food as it has done through British rule, Marxist days and civil war. The house where French poet Arthur Rimbaud lived is now the Rainbow Tourist Restaurant and Cafeteria. The old Frontier Hotel, bombed out in 1986, became the MOvenpick. That was destroyed in the fighting of 1994 and now is open again as the Aden Hotel. There are even a few signs of a brighter future—a new Sheraton, a FedEx office, a Pizza Hut—but to enter the Sheraton you have to walk through a screening machine for security. Yet for all the changes, the cultures are still crisscrossing in unexpected ways. Walk around the harbor at Muscat at dusk, with cruise ships and dhows resplendent on the water, and you can see merchants, some of them entirely in Omani dress, chattering away about their distant home—in Mandarin. Chinese sailors still fill the ports at Araby. The Chinese exiles haven't heard of Zheng He, and the Incense Coast is no longer a citadel of wonder. But it's striking that the Texas Chicken restaurant nearby, the Kamilia, the Omar al-Khayyam and the Taj are all famous for one thing: their authentic Chinese food.