Houseways – Cultural Perspectives and Movement within an Apartment: The Practicalities of Having Guests

Illustration by Maria Cristina, website: https://www.mariacristinah.com/

 

In this essay I would like to focus on Dhofari cultural expectations of space and movement, using the example of Dhofari men from my research group visiting me in my apartment. I want to highlight what physical movements are possible within a typical Dhofari-designed apartment in terms of both spacing and cultural beliefs. What actions would they expect to take and what actions would they expect of me? What are my personal and cultural expectations of where I should stand and sit? [The examples are from pre-covid times.]

My apartment is on the first floor of a 4-apartment building, with one apartment below and 2 others (ground floor and first floor) which are entered through another door.

To enter, you walk up one flight of stairs (with a turn and landing 1/2 up) to reach my landing, from which the stairs continue up to the roof. [illustration is below]

Standing just inside the front door, the kitchen door is 5 feet to the right. Ahead and a little to the left is the main hallway. About half-way down the hallway to the left is the opening for the salle [women’s and family’s sitting room], but it’s set back so you can’t see into it. Down to the right is the door to one bedroom. At the end of the hallway, opposite the front door, is a bathroom. There is a bedroom to the left and to the right of the bathroom, with both doors set back.

Thus, when a guest steps inside, the only spaces visible are the hallway and the guest bathroom which is 8 feet to the left. You can’t see the kitchen (as it is obscured by the open front door) or the majlis [the men’s/ guest’s sitting room]. The door to the majlis is parallel to the front door but set back. To enter, you need to turn left, walk a few steps and, in front of the door to the guest bathroom, turn left.

How I would want to behave with guests is to open the front door with my left hand, verbally welcome guests and make “come in” gestures with my right hand and point them to the majlis. The guests would enter in the order that they have walked up the stairs, pass in front of me, move to my right, then I close the door with my left hand.

This doesn’t work for my apartment for several reasons. First, the men in my research group, like most Dhofari men, will never walk straight through a doorway if they are part of a group. There will be many slight movements (such as stepping backwards/ to one side or pushing another man gently forward) to allow another man the honor of being first through the door.

So men won’t enter in the order that they walk up the stairs, there will be a little logjam on the landing, with men perhaps walking up or down one or two steps to avoid being first. This is accompanied by friendly banter as I stand near the open door.

I can’t hold on to the door, as this would mean that the men would have to pass too closely. For their comfort and mine, we usually stay at least three feet apart unless we are eating from the same platter. So I have to let go of the door and step back down the hallway, where my sightlines become very limited with walls on either side of me. As I call out greetings and try to signal ‘go to the right,’ they eventually settle on who is walking in first and then a second small problem arises.

I am signaling ‘go right’ but when they turn, they see an open guest bathroom door, something that never happens in their own houses as bathroom doors are always kept shut. [see below] Also, the door to the majlis is not visible until they have taken a few steps, so there is a moment’s hesitation as it appears I am telling them to walk into the guest bathroom.

Once they are all in the majlis there is another series of micro-hesitations, as I, as host, should already be in the majlis and telling them where to sit, making sure everyone has a cushion to lean on and there is a little table with a tray of drinks and snacks near them.

But I am, instead, hovering near the door because I have to wait until the last person has entered the apartment to shut the door. Then I have to wait to enter the majlis because there are 5 men milling around the middle of the majlis trying to give each other the best place to sit.

Once they have all sat down, I greet them, then try to disappear into the kitchen to bring tea and coffee, while they all yell that they don’t want anything to drink. This is hard for both them and me. The water, soda and snacks are already set out but as I am not sure about when they will arrive, I don’t mane the tea and coffee until they are in the apartment. As an American, I am not worried about leaving guests alone for a moment to get something from the kitchen, but their expectation is that the host has set up all the food and drinks before their arrival so the host will immediately sit down and will (should) not stand up again until everyone leaves.

A few times I tried a different way. I opened the door, stepped to the right (beckoning them to follow me), walked backwards into the majlis and sat in the furthest corner, then I could direct people where to sit and toss cushions around. But when I tried to stand up to bring tea, they stormed at me. It’s overwhelming as men who are always patient and low-key will suddenly and voraciously protest my attempting to leave the room: “SIT DOWN,” they yell, “WE DON’T WANT ANYTHING.” To them, they are showing that they are good (non-demanding) guests by saying that they don’t want me to make more of an effort to bring them hot drinks.

I know, and they know, that the visit will probably be two or more hours so I steel myself and leave the room to make tea. When I am in the hallway, I turn the key to lock the front door. When the door is not locked, if someone opens the house door (downstairs), my front door opens, so I make sure it is locked at all times. In most Dhofari houses, especially those outside of the city of Salalah, front doors are usually not locked during the day.

When they are ready to leave, they will stand up. From Dhofari perspectives, a good host will attempt to stop guests from leaving to show that they are welcome to stay as long as they want. Therefore, I should be protesting and telling the men from my research group to stay, but they and I both know that once they stand up, they will leave. I deal with the contradiction of both expressing politeness and acknowledging reality by saying the expected words, while dashing out of the majlis so I can unlock the front door, then step back down the hallway to be out of the way for their exit. So there is a silly moment of me saying, “stay, stay” at the same time I am opening the door.

If I don’t move quickly, they will leave the majlis, walk into the hallway then hesitate by the front door, creating a brief logjam. There are a few seconds while the person closest to the door realizes it is locked and figures out how to unlock it. Meanwhile, I am stuck in the majlis, keeping space between myself and the last man. This means that by the time I get to the front door, some of the men are already out of sight beyond the turn in the stairs.

This is fine for them as, among friends, there are no protocols for leaving. But the few times this happened, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of incompleteness. I hadn’t realized how important it was to me to say ‘goodbye.’ Once I followed them down the steps and got yelled at, “GO BACK!” (again, them expressing politeness by telling me it is not necessary to follow them to their cars.) So now I make sure I leave the majlis first so I can say ‘goodbye.’

Because there are fewer cultural constraints on women being in physical proximity to women, the space limitations in my apartment don’t matter when Dhofari women visit. I can stand with my left hand on the front door, signal where to go and be in the majlis when they are choosing their seat. There are no protests if I get up to get tea and we can all crowd by the door when they leave.

Note: Bathroom doors are a good example of cultural perceptions impacting space. In Oman, bathroom doors are almost always closed when not in use as bathrooms are perceived as unclean at all times. In the States, bathroom doors are often left open when not in use. Sometimes it’s to allow more light into the hallway or the bathroom is nicely decorated or it might have the cat’s litterbox or to show that it is not occupied, etc.

apartment plan

Illustration by Maria Cristina, website: https://www.mariacristinah.com/