Musandam is inhabited by three main tribes; the Dahoori, Kumzari and, by far the largest of the three, the Shehi (often anglicized to “Shihuh”). The Shehi formerly had a rather mysterious and fearsome reputation, said to speak a language unintelligible to anyone but themselves and living a reclusive life up in the mountains, ekeing a frugal and difficult existence out of one of Arabia’s most inhospitable environments. Notably different from the Bedu and townspeople of the plains, many of the Shehi formerly lived in mountain caves or natural rock shelters, which were converted into simple little dwellings with the addition of a couple of stone walls and wooden doors. They also carried a small axe on a long handle (known as a jirz), rather than the khanjar found elsewhere in Oman, which could serve both as a weapon and a climbing stick. The Shehi remain the dominant clan in modern Khasab – you’ll see the name Al Shehi on shop signs all around town, especially in the Old Souk – although many have now moved out to exploit the greater economic opportunities in neighbouring Ras al Khaimah (RAK), and RAK-registered cars are a common sight around town.
The origins of the Shehi remain unclear. One theory is that they were the original inhabitants of Oman who were gradually driven north into the mountains by waves of Yemeni and Nizari Arabs arriving from the south. Another, more colourful, tradition claims that they are descended from the survivors of shipwrecks marooned on Musandam’s rocks over thousands of years – anecdotes record the occasional birth of Shehi children with fair hair and blue eyes. Their language, too, had a similarly cosmopolitan flavour, although, unlike Kumzari, it remains a dialect of Arabic, rather than an original language. As Ronald Codrai, writing of a visit to the peninsula in the 1950s in his entertaining Travels to Oman: 1948–1955, put it: “That they spoke a different dialect was soon obvious, but it was Arabic, although sometimes spoken more gutturally through closed teeth and, once or twice, I thought I detected a Somerset accent.”
The Shehi (along with other Musandam tribes) formerly migrated on a seasonal basis, spending the winters farming in the mountains or fishing in the khors before heading down to Khasab to harvest dates during the summer. Not surprisingly, given Oman’s rising prosperity, the Shehi and other tribes of Musandam, the younger generations particularly, are steadily abandoning the hard traditional life of their ancestors, meaning that many of Musandam’s villages are being steadily depopulated as their inhabitants depart in search of a more comfortable existence in Khasab or elsewhere, leaving nothing behind but locked houses and wandering goats.