Animal prints sunk into wet wadi mud, then fired by the sun into a textured ceramic tile.
But the trails I followed in Oman were also less visible: faded imprints of history, geography and culture that have paced to and fro along the coast of North Africa to medieval Spain leaving the legacy of Al Andalus; the curving sails of dhows that caught trade winds seasonally north and south along the coast of East Africa, trailing the scent of cloves, and laden with dark cargoes, empire and slavery. As I expected, my first experience in the Arab world brought echoes and chimes from my previous travels, and raised the rounded heads of question marks.
The historical links between Zanzibar and Oman reverberate on in the Swahili language spoken widely in Muscat; cardamom-flavoured coffee served in the streets of both places in small white porcelain cups, with dates; the charm and courtesy offered to strangers; men in floor-length white dishdashas and women in black; the portioning out of the day by calls to prayer in mournful echoes between walls and mountains; the slow shuffle of sandals along darkened lanes.
Southern Spain echoed there too, in arches and architecture, in open throated singing, in the parchment dry ravines and jagged fins of mountain that must have seemed familiar to the first Umayyad settlers in Spain. And in the systems of falaj and aquecia, when the mysterious skills of surveying and a democracy of sharing, brought arteries, veins and capillaries of running water to the last date palm, the centre of the most remote village to redeem the dust.
falaj in Wadi Shab, Oman
I re-trod my previous thought-steps, taken when I was in Spain walking Mozarabic trails in 2007. I thought again of Al Andalus and the value placed on the word, on translation, on books and libraries as a way of sharing intellectual curiosity across cultures of the world. And I thought on the religious tolerance that existed, however briefly, in that same period.
It's well accepted that reading builds empathy. But so little Arab literature finds its way into English, it almost seems that we in the west are being wilfully ignorant. In the view of Farouk Mustafa, translator and professor at Chicago University, Arabic literature can transform impressions of people who might otherwise remain misunderstood. "Whether you think it's going to be a 'clash' or a 'dialogue' of civilisations," he says, "we have to know what the rest of the world is doing and thinking, and nothing expresses that better than literature."
When the longlist for the Best Translated Book award was announced this week, it included very few works from non-European languages, and only one from Arabic. Orhan Pamuk also complained this week about this marginalisation: "When I write about love, the critics in the US and Britain say that this Turkish writer writes very interesting things about Turkish love. Why can't love be general? I am always resentful and angry of this attempt to narrow me and my capacity to experience this humanity."
By being monolithic, are we reinforcing cultural barriers rather than allowing free-flowing fraternisation, an awareness of our common humanity? It seems now more urgent than ever to reinvigorate translation. Arabia Books and other projects stimulating developments in this area, are to be applauded, but so much more is needed.
Some of the books on my current reading list (both specific to Oman and more general to my understanding of the Arab world) are:
The Dark Side of Love, by Rafik Schami – a Syrian epic novel, already underway with this one – splendid!
Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science, by Jim al Khalili
The Tenth Parallel, by Eliza Griswold
From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple