In the Middle Eastern country of Oman, in the ancient northern town of Nizwa, history comes to life every Friday as an ancient, fascinating form of banking takes place.
It doesn’t involve ATMs or bank accounts, but rather livestock.
Since the Queen of Sheba, not much has changed at the Nizwa cattle market, except perhaps the mode of transportation used to get the livestock to market. Standing in the shadow of the Nizwa Fort, hundreds of cattle traders and buyers surround a circular area. Goats, then cows, are paraded around, and a loud, lively bidding process begins.
Photo: Nizwa Fort (Kristina Cafarella)
The fatter cows and goats are sold for meat and the studly ones for breeding, but most of the livestock is sold for investment.
“I will buy this goat today and then sell it for more next week,” a man called Mahmoud said of his most recent purchase, describing a physical version of what modern day traders call flipping.
Mahmoud’s purchase, an adult long-haired goat with one horn that was chewing on his pant leg, set him back $400 — but he was hoping to get $600 for it within the month.
“Then I will buy more,” he said.
Photo: A young goat (Kristina Cafarella)
Baby goats with their umbilical cords still attached are snapped up for around 100 rials (at an exchange rate of $3 per rial, that’s expensive). Cows, because they cost more to maintain, are at least six times more.
And high-quality animals can cost more than a car.
Last week a goat sold for the rial equivalent of $6,000, my guide Qais said. “It was a breeder. But most are sold for a few hundred rials, fattened up, and sold again within a few weeks for more money.”
Photo: Goats for sale (Kristina Cafarella)
The scene, not unlike at a trading floor in New York City, is chaotic. Buyers and sellers arrive at 5 a.m. and start unloading goats (cows stay on the trucks until ready). The crowd will gather at the circular plaza outside of the Nizwa, and around 6 or 7 a.m. the auction begins. Bedouin women in full veils and masks are there to help their husbands, but they are not allowed to bid or actually pay — all financial transactions must be done by the men. Some deals are done outside the bidding circle, but most happen like this: An auctioneer will drag a few unwilling animals around the plaza; interested buyers will come forward and grope the animals, checking their genitals, eyes, ears, and fat; a price will be named; the auctioneer walks off trying to find a higher price and if none is found, he will find the highest bidder and exchange the goat or cow for cash.
Photo: Animals at the Nizwa market (Kristina Cafarella)
It doesn’t get truly chaotic until the cows are paraded around. The cows have horns and goring is always a possibility. I saw several people get trampled.
“Only wealthy people can afford cows,” Qais told me, “They eat so much and are very expensive to maintain.”
The entire market is cleared out by 10, and the crowd disperses, all with their valuables — only to return the next week to resume trading.
Grab some popcorn, a bottle of booze and fire up your Roku and check out the entire “A Broad Abroad” series. It’s fun. I swear.