“Call me Ishmael,” he says, shaking my hand, smiling. We’re in a bar in the Ramee Dream Resort in Seeb, a dusty, functional neighbourhood on the western edge of Muscat, Oman. The actual bar is in the heart of this big, low-roofed room, surrounded by half a dozen pool tables, all of which are busy with duelling locals. The floor is hard, dark and sticky in places. It’s the kind of place that would be improved if the smoking ban was lifted… The Ramee Dream – who dreams of this kind of place? Maybe the Omanis propping up the bar, but probably not the Filipinas on their laps.
It’s hard to tell who's working and who’s working, but the girls have filtered through the room, some standing around loudly flirting, some delivering drinks. Others sit at tables with two or three local guys, almost unanimously resplendent in national dress, beers in their thick hands. The majority of Omani men (there are no woman) haven’t come for a piece of strange though – no, most of them are here to play pool. For his part, Ishmael seems intent on doing both.
He’s one of those impossibly cocky, talented bastards who can simultaneously drink (he’s hammered), flirt with the working girls, and still find time to beat virtually anyone who’s idiotic enough to challenge him. He has long eschewed national dress in favour of a tight-fitting black t-shirt and a pair of skinny jeans. He has a wicked-looking face, with a wildly hooked nose, a beak so kinked it looks like a cheap Halloween prosthetic. Above that, thin, black eyebrows arch over his glowering eyes. There’s not a scrap of meat on him that doesn’t need to be – he’s wiry and crooked, a metal skeleton that’s been covered with hard putty. Ishmael would make an excellent movie villain.
He’s the kind of guy who’ll ask you a nonchalant question, looking you in the eye, while he pots the winning black. “Where are you from?” Pop! You lose. Here, on this table, in this squalid little bar, Ishmael is king. He’s got the charisma too – bombastic, but not quite confrontational. As he wins his 17th game in a row, he proclaims himself invincible, but he still comes around the table to shake his opponent’s hand. I don’t think he does it just to take the piss, either.
I’m in the Dream Ramee with another writer, James, who I’ll replace as editor of an Omani magazine for a few weeks. James has been coming to play pool in this dive on and off for the month he’s been in town. He’s on first name terms with a few people, including Ishmael, and there’s no way we’ll be able avoid playing. So we put ourselves on the list, volunteering to be savaged by this little Herod, and get some drinks.
It’s strangely comforting to be surrounded by so many drunk locals. The lasciviousness aside, there’s a nice vibe here – a boys club conviviality that feels genuine and warm. When a fat Turk with a fatter moustache hears I’m Scottish, he promptly buys a half-bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label from behind the bar. I make a face as though I’m impressed. Some of the Omanis genuinely are.
Over in the neighbouring UAE, the Emiratis drink too, but ordinarily in private or nervously at the end of the bar, aware that they’re breaking the law, only so certain they’ll get away with it. More commonly, like the Saudis, they wait until they’re abroad before completely dissolving into hedonism. At least the Omanis aren’t pretending: they like drinking, whoring and shooting pool, and they don’t give a half-baked Islamic fuck who knows it. Good for them – they’re honest.
It’s Tuesday night and this is the start of a long weekend for the locals – their normal weekend is Thursday-Friday, which takes some getting used to. Having Wednesday off too, but knowing that you’ll be back to work on Saturday? Well shit, that just blows my tiny little mind. Anyway, as a result of this holiday the Omanis are going for it, spending – and drinking – like sailors. Even if they go to mosque on Friday, the hangover, along with their Filipina-induced boners, will likely have faded by then. But illegal as all this may be, if nothing else, they look like they know have a good time. And Ishmael, in particular, is having a goddamned ball.
The Turk waddles up to take on the king and is duly swatted away. Next it’s James’s turn, so he dutifully steps up too, pots a few and is then beaten from a long way out. Ishmael consoles him in the same way a prize fighter might when handing his opponent’s teeth to him, arm around the shoulder, tone simultaneously conciliatory and condescending. Before too long, it’s my turn.
It’s been well over a year since I picked up a pool cue and even when I played semi-regularly, I was utterly crap. Before a ball is struck I am utterly resigned to defeat.
There’s a clap of thunder when Ishmael breaks, scuttling the balls around the table. To everyone’s surprise, none of them quite drop. Not that it matters – when I get to the table I miss badly. Ishmael shakes his head, walks up and pots but then, uncharacteristically, misses.
The table seems quite open now, and perhaps because I’ve already accepted defeat, I don’t feel too much pressure. The beer probably helps too. Yet, to my mild astonishment I pot three in a row. And then I see it: how to clear up. I make the first one, but though my mind is willing, some crucial part of my coordination is unable. Dizzied by the potential for victory, I promptly miscue, sending the white ball lamely to the middle of the table, simultaneously missing the pot by a good foot.
“Jimeeee,” says Ishmael, “What you doing Jimeeee?” He pots four on the bounce before getting a bad kick and missing. In return I hit and hope on a long one… It goes in.
“What a shot, Jimeeee! Nice one!”
Inevitably, I follow that up with a miss, but I think my ineptitude is wearing off on Ishmael, who does the same. Then I do it again and so does he. After a few more of these impotent exchanges he pots some more and gets down to the black, only to miss again. I pot my last two, but find myself with no shot on the black, so play safe. It’s impossible for Ishmael, but he tries something outrageous anyway.
When it doesn’t come off, I’ve got a shot at victory – a real chance to put this wee smartarse in his place. A dozen Omanis, James and the fat Turk look on, willing me to finish it. I settle down to the table, stand up again, check the angle, then settle down again. This for the match…
“Aw Jimeeee, why you kill yourself Jimeeee? I like your game but why you give me chance?” Disaster. As I almost missed the black completely, Ishmael now has the entire table to work as he chooses – there are at least three pockets available to him.
He fixes me with those black eyes, like a dolls eyes: “Jimeeee, why?”