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Festivalgoers Flock to Omani Oasis Under Washington's Sun

More than 100 Omani musicians, dancers, cooks and craftspeople have brought the flavors and sounds of the Middle East to Washington D.C. They are their country's unofficial ambassadors to the American people, presenting Omani culture and traditions at the Smithsonian's 39th annual Folklife Festival.

Rahma Alsinani, 24, is one of 3 dozen Omani singers under a colorful tent on the grassy mall between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument, performing their traditional songs of desert, oasis and sea. Over an endless number of generations, she says, these songs have been kept alive, and become part of every Omani's life, from birth, coming of age and marriage to death.

"The Festival goers like our music," she says. "They listen, then, join us, singing and dancing. Even if they don't understand the language they like the melody."

Omani exhibit coordinator Hamood Al Weheibi says the exhibit presents "Oman, the land, sea and oasis -- all aspects of our cultural heritage and crafts such as silver, pottery, textile and rugs." Stopping by one woman who is demonstrating how to make rugs, he notes: "She is using is wool, because she has her own sheep and goats. So she'll take the wool from her sheep, spin the wool, then she'll use the wool to make the rug. So everything they're using are the materials that are in their own environment."

Shipbuilding is another big attraction at the exhibit, and along the shores of the Arabian Sea. Omani merchants sailed to China in the 8th century. It was an Omani who led the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama to India in 1498. Shipbuilder Ahmed Mubarak tells festival visitors the waters off the coast of Oman continue to provide his countrymen with a living.

"We show people how we use different materials and artistic methods in building different ships," he says. "Although most new ships now come from outside Oman, an effort is being made to revive our shipbuilding traditions.

Oman is the first Arab country ever to participate in this exciting annual summer event in Washington. "It's really a wonderful opportunity for people to meet Arabs, Omani particularly, and get a rounded picture of the Omani culture and Arab people," says Richard Kennedy of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He says festival goers have enjoyed discovering Oman's traditional industries and music… and more importantly, interacting with the craftspeople and performers. "I found that Omanis are so open to the audiences. The musical groups are getting people up on the stage, the crafts people talk directly to the public."

Mr. Kennedy says the Folklife Festival has always featured artisans from around the world who are working to keep their traditions alive. Recently, festival officials have focused on opening new markets for those traditions. "It has been a struggle for people to keep traditions alive in the face of globalization," he says. "So we try to find markets for the sale of their products. I think there is a lot of interest in the Omani crafts. We hope that this might encourage to further marketing of Omani products throughout the country."

Participating in the 39th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival has been a unique experience for many of the Omani craftspeople and artists. They say they've enjoyed sharing their food, music and crafts as much as their American visitors appreciated learning about them, at the Omani Oasis in the middle of the National Mall.