Differences/ Hierarchies

I have no fear of bugs and love camping because of the time I spent in the Caribbean as a child. The geography of Salalah also reminds me of the Caribbean island I knew because Dhofar, uniquely on the Arabian Peninsula, has a summer monsoon season (called Khareef, the Arabic word for ‘autumn’) which brings in 3 months of rain/ drizzle. Salalah has farms with coconut, papayas, mangos, bananas and limes. Many houses have gardens with bougainvillea, hibiscus, and oleander like houses in the Caribbean.

But beyond the physical remnants of the island, there is a psychological and intellectual level. Steve Caton’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Film’s Anthropology (1999) struck a deep chord with me in terms of how the “theme of the outsider, of the individual who does not feel comfortable in his or her own society” from the film resonated in his own life and in the lives of many anthropologists (145).

When I read Abu-Lughod’s question from “Writing Against Culture,” “Does difference always smuggle in hierarchy?” (1991 146), my answer is ‘not if you don’t want it to.’ I disagree with the cliché that anything that makes a difference makes a division.

Abu Lughod states that it is part of “anthropological discourse to enforce separations that inevitably carry a sense of hierarchy” (1991 138). Further, “self is always a construction, never a natural or found entity… the process of creating a self through opposition to an other always entrails the violence of repressing or ignoring other forms of difference” (140). In a later article she argues that “a difference between self and other will always be hierarchical because the self is sensed as primary, self-formed, active and complex, if not positive. At the very least, the self is always the interpreter and the other the interpreted.” (2008 13). Or put another way, “Can we think of a difference without putting it against a norm?” (Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen 1999 29).

I think we can. I think people can code a norm as a norm for only ourselves and recognize that it is/ should not/ must not be the norm for anyone else, hence a norm without prescriptive power.

Given my background, I don’t believe that the hierarchy is an essential part of discussing cultures. I loved our island and cordially hated Columbia, the town I grew up in, but even as a child I couldn’t say that one ‘culture’ was better or worse than another – they were merely different. I have spent almost sixteen years living overseas in four different counties and have lived in seven different American states, I can’t rank any of those cultures into any kind of hierarchy.

When I hit a cultural aspect that’s difficult for me – the question is ‘why is this hard to deal with?’ The fact that you have to pay for garbage to be taken away in Vermont was annoying because I didn’t have extra cash. The fact that you don’t in North Dakota doesn’t make one state better or worse – it simply means to you have to think about all sort of factors such as cost of land, location of land-fill sites, tax burdens, ground water supplies, price of gas, cost of maintaining garbage trucks, etc. People may, or may not, always be partial to their own culture, but refusing to say, “My culture is best” is an intellectual choice. It’s impossible to say that a grilled cheese sandwich at noon is a better lunch than rice and mutton at 2pm.

Except for physical harm, most constructs that are deemed “better” simply need to be picked apart and analyzed for how that construct fits into larger issues. For example, Dhofari families with small children are often restaurants at 10pm. This is soemtimes  viewed by expats as bad child-rearing. But strict and early bedtimes in America, for example, are linked into to a host of other physical and mental cultural features.

Children have an early bedtime in America because there is a cultural understanding that children and adults live on separate time schedules and do different activities. In the States it is common for children to eat different things at different times than adults. Children often have their own room, so they can be put to sleep separately from adult sleeping spaces. Parents may often not have seen each other since the morning and might welcome an hour or two of peace and quiet to watch TV or talk.

In Dhofar, children and adults live in the same rhythm, for example, eating the same food at the same. In Salalah, adults who work and school-age children get up early, but for others it’s normal to rise at 9 or 10 am. Omanis eat lunch at home, so there is two to three hours space for parents to talk in the middle of the day. Everyone takes a nap after lunch so people are refreshed for staying up late. Thus, families with children are often seen eating in restaurants, shopping or picnicking at ten or eleven at night.