Travel: Forgotten Footsteps, Or No Size Fits All

January 22, 2023




Oman. 2014.

Sometimes I do odd things in strange places. As a chaser of line and light, I slowly walk into another mud village in Oman. Each time on entering, I whisper an Islamic greeting. At the entrance gate to the abandoned village of Misfat Al Abriyeen, which stands clutched beneath the chest of tall mountains, I say,”As-salamu alaymum” (Peace be upon you). The atmosphere here seems like a story read backwards, like time ticking earlier. My movement stirs the air of life memories, from the tones of tarnished ochre’s to receding blues. From the shadows rise the spirits of ages gone by, the fragrant wisps of smoke from incense burners entwined with the aromas of cooking, the laughter of children and woman’s chatter. A goat bleats through the maze of alleys.

According to Islamic tradition, each doorway radiates its blessing of peace and mercy. A famed messenger of Allah, Iman Abul Ala Hasan ibn Ahmad al-hamazani, decreed that each house should be entered with the right foot first. The light guides me into arched recesses, small courtyards, harem rooms for the woman and long spaces called ‘maylis’ – the meeting rooms for the business of men. How I wish that I could turn back the hands of time. I know so very little standing here in the dark light of history.

With my torch, I dapple light on the past. In most places, the smooth plaster still holds. Omani ‘sarooj’ plastering is a loam mixture of clay, sand, palm tree ash and straw. This mixture is then trampled, moulded in to flat shapes and fired. These flat plates are then finely crushed and mixed with water and applied to the walls as plaster. Most ceilings have long since fallen in, but in places one can see the palm logs and palm fronds used in their construction. Within the depths of the town, the thick walls radiate an eerie coolness. An uncanny veil of filtered light, soft, diffused, surrounds me. With my right foot, I enter what appears to be a mosque. A part of the minaret had fallen through the doomed Nubian styled dome. The Muezzins call, now hushed by the years gone by. Outside the village, he and his followers’ followers lie beneath stones on unmarked graves. In one side of the mosque I find an abandoned Quran in an arched recess, its design so simple, so beautiful. I exit the door backwards with my right foot first and think again of the prophetic traditions of passing through the spaces where people live: ‘Gentleness adorns every act, its absence will tarnish it’.

Then I slowly start to realise that walking through these rooms and passages of time that some otherworldly presence is with me, following my footsteps. I start to observe, with more keenness, the bits and pieces left here and forgotten by the people that have lived in these abandoned villages. I start to discover shoes, especially those of women, many covered by dust and mud, some embedded in forgotten layers of time. I study and photograph their forms and shapes, wrinkled and hidden from the bright harshness that wants to burst through the cracks from outside. Each shoe wants to share something, some forlorn aspect of the person who once lived in them. I feel the word ‘forgotten’ in every whisper of light that dapples down from the ceilings of plastered mud, almost as if the shoes want to return to the feet that once wore them and walked in them.

I try to transcend the physical features of the shoes; go beyond just recording the factual bits of plastic and leather curled up and covered with sand and dust by the crumbling of a mud village. In each picture I make, I find a little spiritual essence of person that lived in these shoes, in this place on Earth. With light and line and tone, I just want to blow a little life back into them, let them walk and talk just a little again. Here in the ruins of the old village of Misfat Al Abriyeen, I here the voices again. They are spoken softly all around, like they were in another time. I feel a sense of trepidation and melancholy as I watch my soft light stroke them photographically. It might sound somewhat strange, but in each portrait I try to make each shoe step into the doorway with the right foot first. Physically impossible, I know – but ethereally, momentarily, maybe a little.

Human objects and life’s articles that are discarded leave behind snippets of life itself. They are small forgotten footsteps of what we are, where we have been and where we are going. They will be there for you, if you ever want to go that way, someday.