The desert town of Ibra is a fairly ordinary place of some 35,000 people, located 140 kms inland from Muscat, the capital of Oman. For six days of the week there is no apparent reason to stop there but on Wednesday, Ibra bursts out of its rough chrysalis to become one of the most colourful souqs in Arabia – transformed by hundreds of women swirling about like butterflies in a feeding frenzy.
Wednesday is women-only market day for Bedouin from the surrounding Sharqiya Sands. A dusty square, normally filled with camels, goats and desert bric-a-brac becomes a ‘Designer`s Guild of the Desert` selling soft furnishings for the home or tent, together with clothing, textiles, make-up and jewellery for brides-to-be.
Swathed in exotic dresses, women rummage through rolls of shimmering silks, gold and silver brocades and cotton textiles patterned with cabbalistic symbols. Lengths and prices are loudly disputed before a deal is struck and the material is cut using a large pair of scissors passed among the traders who are also women since men are strictly forbidden to even set a toe in the souq.
In another area sheltered from the hammering sun by striped parasols, other women sell home-grown produce – dates, goat`s milk, cheese and honey from Nizwa oasis, a further hour`s drive inland. Most of the women are dropped off by their husbands driving Toyota pick-ups. Others living in the sands may walk for hours to reach Ibra on a Wednesday.
A young Bedouin girl, her face hidden by a shiny black mask, told me she’d walked 15 km to the market, but curiously she had never seen the sea, only 100 km east of Ibra.
I was heading for the coast to check a new tourism complex and asked would she like to come? She could have a paddle in the Arabian Sea and be back in Ibra the same afternoon. No, she giggled: she had to get home to prepare her brother`s lunch.
Since as long as anyone can remember, men have not been allowed to trade in Ibra on a Wednesday. But come Thursday, it`s back to men again, making the Women`s Market seem like a colourful invention.
Notes for visitors: Ibra is the inland gateway to the Sharqiya Province of Oman, located on an excellent road to Nizwa and al-Ashkarah. The Wahiba Sand sea, originally named for the al-Wahiba tribe, is now known as the Sharqiya Sands. Photographing the Women`s Market in Ibra is strictly forbidden: how I got these images is my own secret.