A school dropout turned antique collector, Jamal Muhammad Ali has honed his skills for treasuring artefacts, says Muntasir Al Farsy, as he narrates his experience following a leisurely visit to antique shop in Muttrah
A cheerful welcome from the charming Jamal Muhammad Ali sets the tone for my meeting with the 35-year old antique collector in Muttrah Souq. Antiques and old photographs nestle in his shrine, waiting for interested customers, mostly tourists.
His passion, as he points out, is precious stones, artefacts, old photographs and wooden handicrafts. “When I was a boy, my interests were unlike other kids who were indulging in games; mine was collecting valuable trinkets. I started this hobby of collecting at an early age of 11 and my father did his best to take me around as an apprentice,” he adds.
Aladdin, as he was nicknamed by his neighbourhood, dropped out of the school at the age of 16, but has no regrets of not attaining the coveted graduation certificate. “My father always wished that I have my own place rather than work for someone,” he muses.
The early pioneer, Jamal’s father, Muhammad Ali, who is now happily retired, did start as a merchant selling readymade clothes at Corniche, but he later switched to antiques and artefacts. The business, which was initiated with two other partners, went well in the beginning. But soon, Dil Murad Balushi, one of the partners, stopped halfway due to an incurable illness, while the other, Abdulla Lawati, died suddenly; their children had no interest to continue the trade and the business was singlehandedly managed by Ali.
Jamal did, however, manage to collect and buy Coral (marjan) and China from the Bedouins in Sur who knew its value. He obtained old photographs from old homes torn down to make way for modern structures. Many an item came from Europe, including rare pictures of old Oman. Equipped with Pidgin English and parents’ prayers, this young Sindbad (the name he deeply wished to name his own first shop) started his formal adventure overseas by himself.
And where would someone with the acquired name Sindbad choose to travel but China, the ancient land of civilisation. He fetched a generous amount of about RO19,000 for a 1.7kg of coral, which he had purchased for RO700 locally. Enough amount to have made Hindbad* quit his trade once and for all – but not Jamal. The priceless China did also fetch a good bargain for a first time trader of only 16 years of age. A dream come true of starting his own business and naming it ‘Aladdin’ – a perfect one for the valuable treasure.
Among the items for sale are the symbolic oil lamps, but, instead of a genie, it is an Indian salesman who is ever attending and ready to assist any celebrity or customer who visit the shop; it has earned distinction for attracting international celebs. Some of the VIPs who have visited the shop include Prince Harry purchasing a golden sword, former U.S. Secretary for Foreign Affairs, J. Kerry going for silver and gold daggers and Amir Hamed Khalifa Al Thani of Qatar buying silver daggers and swords. Tour guides are wont to bring tourists here and so too diplomatic heads who escort VIPs, heads of states and Omani dignitaries.
The merchandise obtained from Europe – U.K., France and Holland – came from auctions and some go back to the Bronze and Iron Age. Baghdad equalled China for the ancient archaeological findings, as Iran is well known for its wealth of jewellery. That meant, 400 old Islamic coins cost Jamal a good RO800 – not a bad deal for an expert collecting rare relics. Most of the clients at his shop go for silver ornaments or weaponry. From the telephones of early times to the far back period of weaponry, his shop includes Arab doors, chest of drawers, adornments and other enchanting artefacts.
Jamal is anxious to have his eleven-year-old son Anas follow his footsteps, and, therefore, has opened a small shop named after him. Aladdin comes first, followed by Heritage Centre; his main ambition is to start a museum for the natives of Wilayat Muttrah. Speaking of museum, many an item on display at S.A.F.,Bait Zubair and National Museums were his possessions. Out of goodwill, Abuu Anas presented His Majesty the Sultan with the-hard-to-get gold sword of his late cousin, engraved Khalifa bin Haroub – Sultan Zinjibar. This was good enough a gesture to have awarded him with the Certificate from the Foreign and Internal Affairs.
His final, and most important words, are: “I wish the young generation would consider this trade is just as honourable as working in an office. I am not against seeking higher knowledge in college, yet encouragement must be given as we are facing an extinction of net makers (for fishing), cap-knitters, dagger smiths, pearl divers, folk dancers and the like.”
Read all about Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar here.