Houseways – Balancing Privacy and Hospitality within an Apartment

This is the first of several short essays about housing in Dhofar. After a few posts with photos illustrating types of homes, I will write about theories and cultural perceptions of safety and privacy within home-spaces. Before I begin I would like to thank my Dhofari friends and informants who are so patient in answering questions and so kind in allowing me to take and post these photos.

Normally, pictures are only taken while building a house or when someone has just moved in, in which case they are only shared between close friends. Rooms which have been prepared for a marriage (with wedding gifts on display) are sometimes circulated, without names, through social media. The only other time photos of interiors are taken is for a host or hostess to show that the house is ready for a party; photos of exteriors are usually only taken to be sent to delivery people so that they can recognize the house. So it is not normal to take “every-day” photos of a lived-in house. I am very grateful for their trust in me and their willingness to support my efforts to understand the cultures of Dhofar.  

These are photos from a newly-built, Dhofari-designed apartment that is at the side and back of a family house. The owner’s (X) family lives in a 3-story house which is accessible through a gate facing the main road. The apartment is on the south side, facing an unpaved alley, and is entered through a side gate which leads to a small paved area and steps up to the entry door. On the ground floor landing, there are two doors (with metal numbers attached so food delivery workers know which doorbell to ring) and then steps up to the upper floors. One of the ground floor apartments is my informant’s (Y, who is a member of X’s extended family) and the other is for a relative of X. On the first floor are two apartments: one used by X as a retreat and to entertain male guests without having to bother anyone in the main house; the other is for a relative of X. The top floor is one apartment rented by a relative of X, who is also related to Y.

I will discuss this sort of building in a later post, but briefly, this sort of structure is normal in the main city of Salalah. Until the last 5 or 10 years, houses were built as one entity, often one story, with additional stories added later to accommodate married sons and their families. Now, some homeowners find it easier to take (no-interest) loans from the bank or family/ friends, build a large (3-story) house with a few small, separate apartments which are entered through a second door. The flats are then rented out to help repay the loan and/ or given to older relatives, married sons or relatives in need (for example a young relative who is attending college in Salalah).

Larger homes have two front doors: one leading to the majlis, the men’s and male visitor’s sitting room. The other leads into the family/ private part of the house, with a long hallway which has a large opening for the salle (women’s, close family and female guests’ sitting room), e.g. the salle is a three-sided room with one side open to the hallway. But in an apartment with one entrance, the majlis is the open area is directly in front of the door and the salle is a room near the front of the apartment which can be closed off with its own door.

When you open Y’s door, directly ahead is the majlis area with a sectional sofa along the left wall and straight ahead with a coffee tale in front of it. At the end of the sofa to the right is an archway leading into a hallway off of which are the family/ private areas. To the right of the archway is a door leading to the salle and to the far right is a guest bathroom (with the door partially hidden by a curtain). Thus male guests are placed on the longer part of sofa (under the AC, facing the front door) so that if women are in the salle, they can get up and move to the kitchen and bedrooms without being seen. Or women can simply stay in the salle and close the door.

fa - majlis entry

[edge of majlis sofa and coffee table, hallway, door to salle and door to guest bathroom]

fa - hall

[edge of majlis sofa and the hallway; looking down the hallway, the kitchen door is to the left, then there is a hallway door so that the two bedrooms (each with their own bathroom, one bedroom door can be seen, the other is out of sight to the right) can be completely shut off from the front of the apartment. Thus a man can entertain male friends in the majlis area, with access to the guest bathroom and the kitchen, without disturbing other inhabitants. Women, children and other men can also access the kitchen without disturbing guests.]

fa - salle

[salle, notice how there are many square armrests with a set-in-square of glass – they are for cups of tea and small plates. When eating a meal, it’s normal to set the platter of rice and meat on a plastic mat on the floor, along with cans of juice or soda. But for relaxing, it’s normal to have the cups of tea and small plates with sweets up off the floor.]

fa - kitchen

[kitchen, note that since this apartment is on the ground floor, this kitchen has access to the bottom of the light well (door straight ahead) where the washing machine is placed; apartments on upper floors have only window access (above the sink)]

fa - kitchen2

[view from kitchen back towards hallway, note that walls are tiled up to the ceiling and the floor has a tile pattern that looks like a rug, the fridge (and stove) are slightly raised on platforms so that floor can be cleaned by sluicing water, which drains though an opening in the floor in front of the sink]