I went to Oman for the first time in 2008. I had burnt down my flat a few days earlier, in an ill-advised attempt at decorating my sitting room for my birthday party with some scented candles. Frankly, I needed a change of scene, and I had never been to the Middle East before. I knew nothing about Oman, except that it was hot in December, and that going to a pleasantly warm country was vastly preferable to shivering in the ashes of a burnt-out sitting room. So I boarded a flight, dressed in the usual Englishman-abroad gear; brogues, linen suit, Panama hat.
Getting off the plane several pleasantly fuzzy hours later – thank you, complimentary champagne in business class – I realised that it was hot. Properly hot. The sort of heat, in fact, that causes clothing to stick to you like candle wax to soft, delicate fingers. I started perspiring vigorously, like a guilty man in the dock. Gasping for water as I hurled myself into the blissfully air-conditioned interior of the airport, I realised the next day that something had to be done.
Thankfully, the hotel that we were staying at was sufficiently forward-thinking and feudal to give every occupant of each room their own personal butler, who rejoiced in a fake name, presumably to make the Americans feel more at home. My butler was called Clarence. His wide smile and painted-on bonhomie could not conceal a certain air of contempt, I felt, at my entirely inappropriate dress.
‘Where, my fine fellow’, quoth I, ‘can I attire myself in a more seemly fashion as befits the continent?’
‘Where can I get new clothes?’
He smiled, revealing gold teeth, like a pirate in a Disney film. ‘You want to dress like Omani man?’
When in Rome. Or Oman. ‘Yes, I do.’
‘Tomorrow, we go to souk.’
And that seemed to be the end of the matter.
The next day, we ventured out into the tropical heat, me with my shirt half-undone (out of necessity rather than a failed attempt to look sexy) and my guide, resplendent in flowing robes, acting as a more than excellent Tenzing Norgay. Upon entering the souk, a riot of colour, noise and rich scents, I was marched towards what looked like a broom cupboard with linen proceeding, Sorcerer’s Apprentice-like, out of it in its own free will. A man of covetous aspect and beaded eye sat there, regarding me coquettishly. I liked him immediately.
My guide and this man had a conversation, with much gesticulation, thumb-pointing and sighing. Then the covetous one said to me, in rich and gracious tones, ‘So you dress like Omani man?’
In the space of a moment, my dull trousers and shirt were stripped from me and I was attired in gorgeous robes, a skullcap and a turban. I looked magnificent, the reincarnation of TE Lawrence, with just a soupcon of desert chic GQ man about me. I strutted out of that souk, feeling like a million dollars. Omani dollars, naturally.
Unfortunately that afternoon I had an interview with one of the country’s political bigwigs lined up, the Minister of Tourism or some such affair. Nobody had bothered telling me that my get-up was considered a hugely offensive and insulting thing to don, but I soon found out the hard way when I met this charming man. He went pale, if that’s the mot juste, and left the room extremely quickly, without even shaking my hand. I stood in the interview room in the hotel, wondering exactly what was going to happen. After a few moments, the immaculately groomed PA came back in. She wasn’t smiling.
‘You have to leave Oman. Now.’
‘Normally, for a Westerner dressing like that, you would be prosecuted. But you are media, and so we will ask you to leave the country instead. This minute.’
I wondered for a second if it was all an elaborate joke, but she wasn’t smiling. I sighed. Worse things had happened at sea.
‘Well can I go up to my room, get my things and get changed?’
‘No. You leave now. We have your passport and wallet and a car is taking you to the airport.’
The next hour or so passed by in a blur. I was still wearing my robes, albeit now with more embarrassment and shame than pride. I was escorted out of the hotel, put in some sort of official-looking vehicle, and driven extremely fast to the airport, where I acquired more than my fair share of filthy looks. A moustachioed man on a desk spoke something extremely fast that sounded hostile, stamped a word that I didn’t understand on my passport, and more or less threw me through the metal detectors and security checks. No joyful business class for me on the way back, either; I was to suffer the slings and harrows of outrageous fortune, or economy, as it’s known by veteran sufferers. The journey was paradoxically lengthy and passed in seconds. I was ignored by the stewardesses, jeered at by a small child and unable to get any sleep. I looked haggard, and not a little unsavoury.
Arriving back at Heathrow, clutching my passport and wallet, I felt at least that I was in safe hands. The English were my people, they’d understand that it was all a terrible misunderstanding, and I would soon be on my way back home, to the relics of my flat, where I could see whether a cold shower could buck my ideas up. I handed over my passport, adopting the sort of unfortunate ‘It’s all a joke gone wrong’ grin I’d last had on my face when a good-natured game of strip poker had all gone awry and I’d ended up running naked through Oxford. The girl on the desk looked at me, first with incomprehension and then, when she glanced at my passport, with something approaching horror.
The next thing I knew was that two large gentlemen in cheap but potent suits were muscling me away to what is euphemistically called an ‘interview room’. It smelt faintly of urine. I was somewhat alarmed by this. The first – we’ll call him Big – pressed his face close to mine.
‘Says here that you’ve been deported from Oman.’
‘What did you do?’ enquired Bigger, with the air of a man accustomed to dallying with deportees daily.
‘I dressed like this. Apparently that’s pretty much a national crime.’
Their turn to look surprised. ‘Oh?’
They muttered together, presumably in Swahili, and then disappeared. When they returned ten minutes or so later, they weren’t exactly polite, but they seemed more good-natured. Bigger had a grin on his face.
‘All right, we’ve checked with the Omani embassy, and your story checks out. You’re free to go.’
I was surprised that there wasn’t to be a bit of good-humoured thuggery on the way out, perhaps slightly disappointed, but it was back to more social humiliation. The long, slow journey on the Heathrow tube saw many curious glances, people inching away from me as if I smelt appalling (which to be fair I probably did) and some of the more adventurous coves laughing at me in a mocking way. Which seemed somewhat superfluous; I was perfectly aware how absurd and ridiculous I looked, which rather killed the joke dead. But I wasn’t really in a fit state of mind to explain the nuances of this.
After one of the more hellish hours or so I’ve ever experienced, I eventually arrived into the burnt-out relic of my flat. It was cold, and the charred remnants of the table were now slightly wet from where it must have rained the previous night. But I was home, and that was the main thing. It was just a pity that most of my clothing had been incinerated in the inferno, meaning that I was reduced to parading around the flat in an ash-encrusted dressing gown until one of my kinder friends appeared with a small selection of trousers. My clothes eventually reappeared on the next flight, though my hat had disappeared. Maybe it was impounded.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I haven’t been back to Oman since. I did, however, have similar disasters in Dubai, but that’s another story…