Preserving the past

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Updated 26 December 2013

Preserving the past

A journey through the privately owned Bait Al-Zubair museum in Muscat is one into the past as the artifacts reflect the legacy of the period in which they were used, and symbolize the superb craftsmanship of those times. They are also mute witnesses to the social and economic prosperity of the past. The museum provides a crucial link between the past and the posterity of Oman.
The richness and culture of Oman is aptly treasured in Bait Al-Zubair Museum. Housed in a building originally called Bait Al-Bagh (The House of Gardens) amid the meandering lanes of mystical Muscat and close to the old Bab Al Kabeer (The Large Gate), the museum has one of Oman’s finest and most comprehensive collections of heritage items. Opened in February 1998, originally Bait Al-Zubair (House of Al-Zubair) served as a meeting place for poets, scholars and culturally inclined persons. Today, the building combines traditional Omani architectural design and modern elements, a reflection of its former owner’s interest in culture.
As I enter the museum compound my gaze falls upon an old Omani Town House, which graphically depicts the architectural style of homes and the lifestyle of its people between the 1920s and 1970s. It has been recreated using traditional material and design. The museum enables the visitors to step back in time and experience how people lived. Inside the compound you can also see the falaj, once the lifeline of Oman. Furthermore, the Arab dhow in the compound is a reminder of Oman’s maritime past. It also features a souq, palm-frond summerhouse, locally called barasti and Omani miniature village.
Moving inside the main museum, the sight of a treasure trove of heritage items neatly displayed and bathed in a glow of light feasts my eyes. It is Oman of yore encapsulated. Mohammad Al-Zubair, the founding owner of the museum, once noted, “The aim of the collection is not only to promote the value of Omani heritage but it is to maintain, preserve and study it, so that the future generation will be able to sustain their Islamic and Arabic identity and tradition.” — Wise words from a man who, increasingly aware of historical heritage, has painstakingly collected artifacts in order to preserve them for posterity. Sarah White, who played a leading role in the creation and later development of Bait Al-Zubair and who was the arts adviser of the Bait Al-Zubair Foundation and museum director of Bait Al-Zubair Museum, died recently. Her loss is greatly felt. She was a great friend of mine and was well versed with Oman’s cultural heritage and I felt that a mention to her is a must when talking about Bait Al-Zubair Museum.
Bait Al-Zubair’s displays encompass traditional costumes, weaponry, jewelry, household utensils and body adornments. Young Omani guides, armed with a sound knowledge of museum exhibits and Omani history, take visitors around the museum to explain the exhibits.
The vast repertoire of weapons leaves visitors spellbound. It tells the tale that Oman had a chequered past of fighting outside forces and dealing with intra-tribal rivalries. Prominently displayed are the khanjars (curved daggers in ornamental scabbard) in distinctive styles representing different regions. The ornate silver work on the khanjars varies in design according to where they originate. There is a spectacular display of swords, used as weapons until the introduction of rifles in the 19th century. Among the array of weaponry collections, a pair of handsome cannons, placed at the end of the gallery inside the main museum building, stands out. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said presented the cannons to the museum at the inauguration.
The section that displays women’s jewelry and attire always attract a good crowd. In olden days, jewelry in Oman was predominantly of good quality silver. The exhibits here include a wide gamut of jewelry like the hirz (a sort of lucky charm box, which would traditionally contain a verse from the holy Qur’an or other script deemed to have protective powers to ward off bad spirits and keep the owner safe from harm and ill health), elaborate necklaces, head ornaments, anklets, bracelets (called bangeri or hajala), rings, etc.
Interesting displays in the costumes gallery are the orhaf (original platform shoes), amazingly high-heeled sandals that kept the feet dry and clear of dirt. Dishdasha (the Omani male dress), kumma (embroidered cap), msarr (head turban), bisht (the black cloak worn by men on formal occasions), etc. make for the male costumes displays.
The ladies costumes are elaborate, multi-layered and very colorful. Bait Al-Zubair Museum shows the regional differences that make Oman’s women distinct. Displays show variations of traditional female dress from Muscat, Batinah, Musandam, Sharqiyah and Dhofar.
Among the prized rare collections are the hand-written holy Qur’an scripts dating back to 1908, given to the Zubair family as a gift by a close friend; the title deed of the house, signed in 1914 when it was known as Bait Al Bagh; two soap stone vessels that date back to the third and first millennium BC; and swords dating back to 400 years, some of which were used by the Portuguese. The household display enclave features cookery items, furniture articles, incense burners (called majmars), coffee pots, pottery and artifacts that demonstrate Omani craftsmanship spanning centuries.
The museum is equipped with a moderate library offering scholars and researchers an opportunity to extend their knowledge of Oman and its cultural heritage.
The museum has produced three well-documented publications — the first launched in 2002 entitled “Oman, My Beautiful Country,” was the first in a series dedicated to highlighting Oman’s diverse landscape and promoting it as a tourist destination. It features the photographs and writings of Mohammad Al-Zubair, who is not only an avid collector but also an ace photographer. The second in this series is called “Landscapes of Dhofar.” Another book published recently, co-authored by Mohammad Al-Zubair and Professor Vincent McBrierty, reveals Oman’s development over the last six millennia and examines it’s past, present and future. This book is called “Oman, Ancient Civilization: Modern Nation, Towards a Knowledge and Service Economy.” Windows on Oman is the last published book by Mohammad Al-Zubair. The latest projects entitled Oman Architecture Journey took seven years to be completed.
According to Abdullah ibn Nasser Al-Busaidi, the communications and public relations manager of Bait Al-Zubair Museum, “The museum has facilities for private banquets and curator-led museum tours, staff parties, workshops and conferences, lectures, press conferences, meetings, product launches and commercial exhibitions. The halls for the purpose include the 200-people capacity Bait Al-Oud, 50-people capacity Bait Al-Dalaleel, the Barasti Hut and the Terrace.”
He adds, “Museum professionals have created colorful and lively PowerPoint presentations in Arabic and English that introduce a variety of topics relating to Oman’s history and cultural heritage. Each lasts 30-45 minutes and must be selected from the lecture menu and booked at least one week prior to an event.”
Bait Al-Oud (grand house), opened at the beginning of 2008 as part of the museum’s 10th anniversary celebrations. This three-story building contains a large temporary exhibition hall and reception area on the ground floor, while the first floor includes early European maps of the Arabian Peninsula and typical Muscati furniture. Lastly, the second floor includes early prints of the Arabian Peninsula and photographs of Muscat with an exhibit of historic cameras.
Bait Al-Nahdhah (House of the Renaissance) pays homage to the Renaissance (Al Nahdhah) period led by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. It is dedicated to the promotion of the arts and was opened in 2011. There are four floors on which an ever-growing art collection can be viewed. On the first floor there is also a multi-purpose hall with a stage and state-of-the-art audio visual equipment that can hold 250 people, as well as other venues in the same building that take from 20 to 250 people. Exhibited is the work of over 30 Omani artists that form part of the museum’s permanent collection.
It includes artwork by some of Oman’s leading and developing artists together with international artists. There is a vast range of themes and concepts. Artworks have been collected over a number of years and some Omani artists also produced special pieces. A series by Mohammad Al-Zubair called ‘Our Beautiful World’ is also displayed in a series of photographs. Bait Al-Zubair Foundation is proud that this art collection, together with its collection exhibited in the main building of The Zubair Corporation and throughout Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, forms the largest art collection of Omani artists in the Sultanate of Oman.

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Philippines’ tourist island Boracay shuts down for rehabilitation

Updated 26 April 2018

Philippines’ tourist island Boracay shuts down for rehabilitation

  • Boracay is just one of more than 7,300 islands in the Philippines, but it draws 2 million visitors annually
  • Some residents complain that officials have turned a blind eye and say those tasked with solving Boracay’s problems were complicit in creating them

BORACAY: With postcard-perfect views of the Philippines’ most treasured island behind them, laborers hammer away at the walls of the Boracay West Cove resort, demolishing them one chunk at a time.
The resort is being reduced to piles of rock and steel rods, the first in a wave of demolitions of illegal structures on the tourist island of Boracay on the orders of the Philippines’ no-nonsense president, Rodrigo Duterte.
Boracay is just one of more than 7,300 islands in the Philippines, but it draws 2 million visitors annually, just under a third of the country’s total tourist arrivals last year.
But with an estimated 1,800 businesses competing for space and clamoring for a share of the annual $1 billion that Boracay generates, mass tourism is pushing this tiny 10-square-kilometer island to the brink of collapse.
“What Duterte wants, Duterte gets,” said Phillip Penafor, a local government worker overseeing the demolition of the West Cove, which was built on protected forest land.
Duterte weighed in unexpectedly in February, raging that Boracay’s famous turquoise waters smelled “of sh*t,” and warning of an environmental disaster from unchecked growth and a failing sewage system that made it a “cesspool.”
On April 4, he ordered the closure of the island to outsiders for six months from Thursday to undergo a process of rehabilitation, for which a complete plan has yet to be drafted.
Tourists and non-residents will be denied entry and boats will be barred from going within 3 kilometers of the island. A few dozen police, including riot and SWAT teams, have been doing exercises on the beach to prepare for resistance that residents say is highly unlikely.


 The local government has started demolishing some of the 900 illegal structures on the island and preparing to widen a 7-kilometer spine road clogged with trucks, motorbikes and vans.
Their priority is expanding an overburdened sewage system, and dismantling a network of pipes created illegally by businesses and resorts to divert their waste into storm water drains, through which it all ends up in the sea.
The government expects the closure to cost the economy about 2 billion pesos ($38.1 million) and is preparing a “calamity fund” of a similar amount to help an estimated 30,000 people whose livelihoods are affected.
Despite that, Duterte’s abrupt push to fix Boracay is being broadly welcomed by residents and even businesses, although they would have liked more time to adjust.
“It’s good for our future. The problem is, we’re not really prepared for this,” said Ciceron Cawaling, the longtime mayor of the nearby town of Malay, which oversees Boracay.
“We were caught by surprise by his declaration. This all arose in a matter of seconds.”
Located off the northern tip of central Panay island, Boracay was once an idyllic destination for divers and backpackers lured by its tranquility and powdery white sands.
But the island has seen explosive growth in recent years, partly the result of surging numbers of tourists from Asia, particularly China and South Korea.
Local authorities have struggled to cope with that growth, lacking manpower and resources to enforce laws and carry out inspections to curb environmental violations.

Some residents complain that officials have turned a blind eye and say those tasked with solving Boracay’s problems were complicit in creating them. The local government denies that.
The entire White Beach on the island’s west coast is lined with resorts, restaurants and shops offering souvenirs, tattoos, massages and watersports, some three or four buildings deep.
Visitors go parasailing and ride speedboats, and gather in crowds for sunset selfies on the beach, where dozens of moored boats obstruct views of the water.
Even before Duterte’s intervention, the local government was taking some steps toward a makeover for Boracay. In November, it hired a well-known urban planner, Felino Palafox, whose firm has handled 1,200 projects in 28 countries.
Palafox is proposing the introduction, after the six-month rehabilitation, of regulations and modern infrastructure to manage tourism and make Boracay environmentally sustainable.
His plan includes having only electric vehicles, building a wide road with a tram and a 7-kilometer pedestrian footpath, and setting back buildings from the beach. Building heights would be restricted and businesses would be given incentives to install solar panels and plant trees.
The plan is being considered by the local and national government but no decision has been made yet.
Palafox said he was consulted about Boracay in the 1990s and again in 2006, but his advice was ignored. He’s confident that with Duterte in charge, this time will be different.
“It’s still salvageable if we have good supervision and monitoring and we knuckle down,” he said. “What we have now is very strong political will.”
But some residents complain they were given no chance to comply with laws that are only now being enforced.



Canadian Allan Lieberman has called Boracay home for three decades. Despite having legal papers and permits issued by local authorities, he’s demolishing his 10-year-old cliffside resort, in anticipation of being evicted for occupying a plot that was supposed to be protected forest land.
He thinks it was time for him to leave anyway.
“Boracay? I hate Boracay,” he said, as a team of workers behind him took down solar panels and wooden poles. “There’s nothing of the old Boracay left. Even if restored, its soul has gone.”
Resort owner Delnora Hano has lived in Boracay just as long, and remembers when there was no electricity and accommodation was bamboo huts.
She says the temporary loss of business and jobs is worth it and lauds Duterte for stepping in.
“It’s the right time to intervene, there are problems that can be fixed now,” she said. “It can be done, the island can survive.”


Philippines' top tourism island's failing sewage system

In a survey of Boracay’s sewerage facilities, the vast majority of residential and business properties were found to have no discharge permit and were presumed to be draining waste water directly into the sea.


End of the liners

The Philippines’ tourism department said that as many as 18 ocean liners, carrying more than 50,000 passengers and around half that number of crew members, were due to visit the island in 2018 before the closure announcement.