The flight of Oman’s Kumzaris in a land where time stands still

The indicator we have arrived in the cloistered fishing village of Kumzar is the sighting of a rock known as ‘makhbooq’

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Around the same time as 1.5 million wildebeest migrate north to the Serengeti and thousands of cormorants stalk schools of migrating fish around the Arabian Gulf, another mass exodus takes place by boat.

By May, the summer migration of residents from an isolated bay in Oman’s mountainous Musandam Peninsula to the closest mainland township of Khasab is in full flight.

Four months later, I jump in a boat and take the only route into this ghost town.

The indicator we have arrived in the cloistered fishing village of Kumzar is the sighting of a rock known as ‘makhbooq’ – or ‘hole.’

We zip across the Strait of Hormuz on a speedboat, yet navigation remains as old as time itself. And so it goes in Kumzar: a land stuck between the past and present.

The village – where locals speak their own language – only got electricity after 1980, is overrun with goats, has no roads and its several thousand residents need to leave town to go grocery shopping. But there are thrice-weekly free helicopter trips to Khasab and a 4G internet network.

One aspect that hasn’t changed is the summer exodus.

A flock of Socotra cormorants feeding near the Khasab shore. (Amanda Fisher/Al Arabiya News)

Not much grows in Kumzar. Fish and dates were the sole components of the typical dinner plate for centuries.

But there’s not many dates in arid Kumzar either; most Kumzaris have shares in Khasab date plantations.

When the date season arrives with summer, the whole town save a few utility workers clears out to collect dates and stave off the summer heat and boredom.

Ali Al Kumzari, 36, is a father-of-four who left Kumzar almost 15 years ago in search of work.

He now lives with his family in Khasab and works for the country’s Public Authority for Craft Industries, but seven of his eight siblings still live in Kumzar with their parents.

“It’s not only Kumzar, all small villages away from Khasab do this. At the end of April or start of May they move because they have gardens with dates that need to be looked after. They pick the dates and fix up fishing boats – this has happened for many, many years, hundreds of years.”

Summer is a chance for the dispersed population of 5000 Kumzaris to be together– with many weddings celebrated over this period.

Despite the air of parochialism, Kumzar is accustomed to diversity.

The coastal settlement stretches back no more than 100 metres from the shore till the ground turns mountainous near an ancient well some believe was built by King Solomon. The well isn’t used any more as drinking water is shipped in and there is a small desalination plant but it’s a reminder of what put them on the map.

“In this area there is not too much water,” Ali explains.

“But the well in Kumzar is very famous, it is very deep. Traders passing near Kumzar had to stop to get water.”

This intermingling has had lasting effects; Kumzari is variously said to contain elements of Balochi, English, and even Portugese, though the roots are Persian and Arabic.

Noufal Al Kumzari, 32, spent his early years in Kumzar but left at five when his parents went in search of opportunities.

He says the history of Kumzar is not well known, mostly because Kumzari is an oral language. If the bilingual Kumzaris, who identify as Arabs, need to write to each other they do so in Arabic.

“We can see when the Portugese came they talked about Kumzar. I think in the 16th century they visited and saw the people of Kumzar.”

Arab scholar Yaqut Al Hamawi, who was writing in the 12th century, even wrote about Kumzar’s fishermen, he says.

A 1904 picture of Kumzar by the German explorer Hermann Burchardt. (Amanda Fisher/Al Arabiya News)

The winds of change

As we wander the quiet gravel streets, we come across more goats than people.

But basking in the seabreeze under the shade of a seafront shed is another Ali, Ali Abdullah Mohammed Suleiman Al Kumzari.

The grandfather-of-12, who – in the absence of a birth certificate – pegs his age at 60 or 65, is here for a few days to tend his goats.

Ali the Elder spent all his life in Kumzar till he got a job as a security guard in Abu Dhabi, alternating two weeks in the UAE’s capital with one week at home for 21 years.

“It’s hard to get money from fish, it’s very low-paying. I needed this job because I had a wife and eight kids.”

Now his children have grown up and most live in Khasab, where Ali spends half his time.

But it is Kumzar where he feels at home.

“I can’t live without Kumzar,” he says, though it’s changed a lot since his own childhood.

“There were no schools before, no hospitals, no electricity, a few houses only. It’s changed completely.”

Change is a big topic in Kumzar. Among the handful of people milling around are a dozen South Asian men. They are here to build a new road up the mountainside – a positive sign of development.

“There’s no more space to build so the government are building a road to the mountain because it’s not being used. They’re planning to build houses there,” Noufal explains.

Usable space is expected to double. This is a vote of confidence in population growth seemingly at odds with the urban drift.

But the men say while people are leaving Kumzar, the rising birth rate means the population should actually expand.

Back at sea we are enveloped by a cloud of black. Thousands of endangered Socotra cormorants migrating around the Arabian Gulf are on the trail of seasonal sardines – following their food like the Kumzaris on dry land.

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