Ernie goes to the Nizwa Goat Market (Nov 2017)

The Goat Market

The city of Nizwa is the beating heart of the Ad Dakhiliyah governorate, the historic centre of interior Oman, and a must-see destination for tourists in the region. The former capital has witnessed the tides of time from its location at the crossroads of the kingdom, and revivals of power, religion, the arts, education, and trade have emanated from its mosques and souqs throughout the centuries. Nowadays, tourists fill the city’s inns and hotels, using Nizwa as a base to make day trips out to nearby Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar. The city itself is home to several worthy attractions, like the imposing Nizwa Fort, and on our last full day in Oman, Ashley and I set out to experience one of its more lively events: the goat market!

Every Friday morning, starting at around 7:00 AM, the province’s premier goat sellers and buyers gather in a small outdoor plaza beside the Nizwa Souq to haggle and bargain over livestock. The parking lot, which was nearly empty when we drove by the souq in the days prior to the market, was full by the time we arrived at around 8:30 AM, and finding a spot to park was an ordeal. We waited for a few potential spots in one aisle for about 15 minutes before giving up and following a couple trucks over to the far side of the lot, where the pavement turned into gravel and mud. As the convoy settled into the makeshift parking spaces, we gladly followed suit.

When we got to the goat market, we expected a little bit of chaos – animals wandering the pit, sellers and buyers yelling and gesturing, market observers (like us) stumbling around and generally being a nuisance – but it was actually quite organised. The main section of the market was a dirt path circuit that ran around a raised central platform. Here, the goat sellers led their animals in a slow circle around the stage, showing off their wares to the buyers and gawkers sitting and standing on the platform, as well as the jostling crowd standing on the other side of the path.

So the thing I think every tourist learns as soon as they spend a bit of time at the goat market is that the goats are not really the main attraction. Traveling through Oman can be quite an isolating experience – the natural sights and wonders are fairly remote and empty, and the amount of tourists in the country, let at alone at any one location, is not very high. With the exception of our first day in Muscat, I think we saw more people that morning at the goat market than during the rest of our time in Oman up to that point. I don’t think I realised how refreshing it can be to be around people again, to experience their emotions and desires, to be in a place where lives intersected and connected and bounced off each other – all under the sonic backdrop of bleating goats and lowing cattle.

For a portrait photographer, the market is a dream – though one where the danger of stepping into goat faeces is abnormally high. Visually speaking, I was drawn to a number of elements – the variety in expressions and emotions in the faces of the crowd, the body language, the interactions between buyers and sellers, the clothing styles, the cultural cues and markers that defy interpretation to the outsider’s eye – all of it was wonderful and beautiful.

Not surprisingly, the goat market is big tourist draw, and any illusion of being the lone, intrepid observer is shattered almost immediately by the plethora of neon workout clothing and heavy duty cameras hanging around sunburnt necks. Mine included. So the question is this: all of us walking around and poking our faces and cameras in the middle of honest appraisals and transactions, extracting images and memories without participating in the market’s economy or even understanding the livelihoods of the Omani crowds gathered that Friday morning – are we just being a nuisance? I don’t really know, to be honest – I would imagine yes, but there were plenty of locals that seemed to be there to just watch as well. Or maybe I’m overthinking things – markets and places of commerce all over the world draw the same crowds. As long as the sellers are selling and the buyers are buying, maybe the rest of us just need to tread carefully.

In any case, and despite my overactive thought life, I had a really fun time at the goat market, and I’d still highly recommend it. These may be my favourite photos from the entire trip.

Epilogue

After about an hour or so at the goat market, we wandered around some of the other sections of the Nizwa Souq, a recently renovated marketplace selling everything from fruits and vegetables, meat, handicrafts, souvenirs, and furniture. We aren’t very big on souvenirs, but Oman is famous for its dates so we bought a few date products – a package of dates and a jar of date syrup – to bring home with us to Hong Kong. After completing our short shopping trip, we headed back to our vehicle on the gravel lot to begin the long drive through the mountains back to Muscat.

It would be a drive we would never forget.

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