The Goats of Nizwa

by Amy Leah Potter

A traveler heads to Nizwa, Oman, to observe a local goat auction.

Prior to the sun peeking over the horizon, my friends and I set off on an early morning adventure from our comfortable vacation hotel in Muscat. Despite my encouragement, their reactions were mixed – some murmured reluctantly while others groaned at the thought of leaving the cozy confines of our lodgings. Soon, navigating through the Omani capital’s empty streets lined with Islamic-style buildings complete with flat roofs and rounded arch doors, we made our way out of the city and into the vast desert.

The two-hour drive between Muscat and the historic town of Nizwa is not one that would typically make any “top ten” lists of picturesque drives. The landscape was primarily barren and brown, with only occasional interruptions of greenish shrubs and beige speed cameras. Fortunately, the bulk of the drive was cloaked in darkness, but as we arrived at the destination, the sun had fully crested the horizon. Pulling into the empty parking lot at the Central Market in Nizwa, my friends turned to me with inquisitive glances, the unspoken question of “Why did you drag us out of bed for this?” hanging in the air.

The livestock market was an extension of the Nizwa Souq, and both were located just outside the towering walls of the ancient Nizwa Fort. Resembling more of a castle, this fort had a turret, battlement walls, and cannons flanking the doors – it was only missing a moat. A donkey cart loaded with recently harvested dates rolled by as we stepped out of the car, adding to the historic atmosphere. I could sense skepticism, but I put on an air of unfounded confidence and led everyone to an area with a few goats. I mentally justified the early morning corralling of my friends, hoping this would be an experience they would never forget.

As we arrived at a vague dirt area, there was no clear indication of where the auction was to take place, but given the presence of goats, it seemed like a good place to start. The field with a few pens and hitching posts, plus what appeared to be an empty, wall-less, metal-roofed gazebo, slowly began to fill.  Locals, mostly men traditionally dressed in long white dishdashas with little white hats covered in intricate embroidery, started to arrive and get their live wares ready for the auction. The men unloaded goats from packed trailers, while a few traditionally dressed Bedouin women moved from pen to pen to fluff and brush their animals. As the minutes ticked on, more “bleats” from the anxious merchandise filled the air.

The market was open for tourists, but it was far from a major world attraction. While nothing was said, the irked glances from the locals made it clear that tourists were generally not found in this grooming and preparation area. Wanting to create the least amount of offense possible, we sat quietly off to the side to watch the readying for the weekly sale. The minutes ticked away and, growing restless, my friends eventually wandered off to explore the remainder of the Souq, leaving me with strict instructions:

“Do not purchase a goat.”

“What? Of course not! I’m not going to buy a random animal in another country,” I haughtily replied, annoyed at the presumption.

“Then why was there a turtle in our hotel room in Hong Kong?”

Fair point. I rolled my eyes in response and waved goodbye before settling back in to wait for the “unique experience.”

Within 15 minutes, there was a sudden shift in the mood in the preparation area. People stopped and looked towards the gazebo that, until now, had been completely vacant. It was as if a bell had rung, signifying the start of the auction. Within a few minutes, hundreds of people materialized and formed a large circle around a gravel catwalk under the gazebo. I tagged along, initially sticking to the outskirts and eventually getting jostled up for a front-row seat. 

Lining the gravel walkway was a sea of white-clothed men, broken up by the occasional darker dishdasha or Omani woman in her black abaya. Everyone was standing, apart from a few older gentlemen who were afforded the privilege of a bench. Most men were wearing the typical Omani embroidered hat, but a few had fashioned long scarves into haphazard turbans. The cacophony of Arabic was overwhelming. There was yelling and loud whistles as men paraded their goats around on a rope, reminiscent of the Westminster Dog show. As one goat pranced past me, head up with an impressive strut, an interested party whistled to get the attention of the handler. The goat was trotted over for a closer inspection, and the teeth, ears, eyes, and genitals received a comprehensive once-over. If the inspection was a success, Omani rials would have exchanged hands, but apparently, a fault was found, and the prancing continued to attract a new potential customer. Baby goats, or kids, were carried in the hands of the herders to avoid being trampled. I had no idea what the criteria for selecting a kid was, but if it was based solely on cute little “blah” noises, I would have had a dozen.

Five goats with brown coats next appeared on the runway. This tickled the interest of the group of Omanis that I had inadvertently joined. Apart from their color, they appeared identical to the previous goats. The initially excited whispers of my neighbors upon seeing these goats deteriorated into yelling and fervent attempts to grab the attention of the herder. I was soon surrounded by loud Arabic shouting and flailing arms, not to mention three goats undergoing a thorough, if not invasive, examination. 

Huna, huna!” was the only Arabic shout that I could recognize in the racket of noises all around — “Here, here,” followed by a series of sharp whistles and wild hand gestures designed to grab attention. Feeling a bit ensnared, I scrambled onto a nearby ledge to climb above the havoc. As my head swiveled to take in the chaos, I felt a tugging sensation. I assumed I must be blocking someone’s view and glanced down to apologize. But there was no man there, just a goat munching on my long blue skirt.

The livestock market wrapped up as fast as it had started. In less than ten minutes, the entire area had emptied. I went from standing in a crowd of frantic shoppers, clamoring for a prized goat at a bargain price, to an empty field with an abandoned faux gazebo. Within an hour of the frenzied start, it was as if no one had been there at all.

My friends walked up shortly after with arms full of Souq treasures and pitying looks on their faces. Their consolatory demeanor quickly morphed into a friendly jeering: “I guess there was no real auction today. Probably for the best – we wouldn’t have room for your new pet in the hotel.” 

“Well, actually…” I started to respond and then realized that I didn’t have the words to describe what had happened, even with a damaged skirt as evidence. Plus, given the state of the desolate field now, no one would have believed me. Instead, I shrugged and replied, “Yeah, too bad.”

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