Houseways: Windows/ Sightlines

[this essay is part of a series about the practicalities and pragmatics of one-, two- or three-story houses built within the last twenty years on one or two plots of land in the Dhofar region of Oman; extremely expensive houses often take up three or more plots and have very different architectural styles]

One of the hardest concepts for language students to grasp is to rethink common metaphors. It’s ok to call kids “monkeys/ cheeky monkeys” in North America and the UK, but not in Oman. “Moon faced” is negative in the US, but not in Oman. In the Middle East, the full moon is seen as a time of safety and peace because you can see everything without the heat of the sun, unlike the negative connotations of danger found in North America.

It’s the same way with architectural details. Someone from the UK might argue that windows should be used to look out of, thus a window should be made of clear glass, uncovered during the day, often uncovered at night and, in good weather, left open to let in fresh air. The front door will usually be closed all the time.

None of this obtains in Dhofar. Windows are either made of opaque glass (in bathrooms and the kitchen) or are completely covered with treatments which usually have several layers, such as a heavy or lined, light-blocking fabric with a tulle/ sheer overlay which is sometimes tied back or swept to one side [jabot] with a fringe and/ or beading. There are usually heavy frame elements with a valance or pelmet/ cornice with swags. Sometimes there are three layers, a plain, dark fabric which hangs straight, a sheer overlay and then decorated drapes pulled to one side. This makes it look like one might be able to see out/ in but in fact the window is totally covered. [see examples below]

Drapes seldom have a simple, open style such as tabs and if there is a visible rod, there is almost always a finial. Café curtains are rare – usually the whole window is covered at all times. Ground-floor windows and the window at the first landing of a stairwell are frequently barred. However, depending on the weather and the neighborhood (how close are the other houses and whether the neighbors are ‘known’ and/ or family) the front door might be left open during the day.

Given that windows have reflective treatments which make it difficult/ impossible to see in, sometimes the heaver drapes might be opened during the day, leaving only the sheer covering.  If there are no possible sight lines, i.e. there is a high surrounding wall, the house is far from other houses and the road, etc. the heavier covering might not be closed at nightfall but windows that allow you to see directly  into a house is rare.

Another way to explain the non-use of windows is that before the infrequent, severe rainstorms, Dhofaris often cover the house windows with blue or grey/ opaque tarps, which are sometimes left up for weeks or months after the storm. Some houses are built with no windows on the side that is close to the surrounding wall and facing another property.

As Dhofaris are always fully dressed in their houses (see below), sometimes an upper story window in a public part of the house (for example, a family salle at the top of the stairs) will only be covered with sheet fabric if there are no direct, close sightlines. One can sometimes get a glimpse of an indistinct shape moving, but there is nothing like the large, uncovered, picture windows in the living rooms of most American mid-western towns.

Light indoors is provided by overhead florescent tube-lights and/ or chandeliers; sometimes there are transoms/ fanlights over doors. If someone needs to see something, they go to the front door and look out. During over ten years of visiting, I have never seen an adult pull back a curtain to look outside. Small kids will sometimes do so, then tell an adult in the room what they see, but usually grown-ups don’t show their faces in a window.

To say that a person “looks out of windows” is the only negative comment I have heard from informants and friends about a neighbor. I have heard that expression three different times and always with a sense of exasperation. The issue is not simply the “looking” but the interest in other people’s lives and telling others what was seen: two very unattractive traits. The correct behavior is, of course, to try not to see and, if seen, never discuss any speech or actions done by neighbors. If one has good neighbors, say alhumdulilah and if not, a dismissive wave of the hand is enough.

In the three cases I know of, I was told about the person because of circumstances that warranted me knowing. For example, a Dhofari friend (X) asked me to be sure to wear Dhofari clothing when I visited her because she had a neighbor (Y) who “looks out of windows” and if Y saw a Western person enter X’s house, Y would tell people and insist on knowing who I was and why was I visiting. In the other two cases, when asking Dhofaris if they were free to visit, the friends told me that there was a problem within the family because of a neighbor who misconstrued something seen and told other people.

As the exception that proves the rule, rental houses usually have sitting rooms with sheer curtains as such houses usually have higher than normal surrounding walls and are located outside of congested areas. The understanding is that no one can see in and everyone in the house is related, so window coverings are not necessary. Rental houses sometimes also have bigger windows because there are often small jungle gyms/ playground equipment and/ or pools so adults can easily sit inside and watch the children. [see example below]

The information above is for houses in and close to towns; outside of towns, as there are either no neighbors or the neighboring houses belong to relatives, there is less concern about privacy. The surrounding walls are low (waist-high) and serve primarily to keep livestock away from the home. Houses often have a dekka, an outside seating area accessible from the front door. Sometimes it is covered and furnished, sometimes it is simply clean swept mats to sit on. If the house is built up and there is only a small landing in front of the main door, people will sit on front steps in cool weather. Thus, although windows are similarly covered with fabric, people have far more visual access to their surroundings.

Housing/ Clothing: The point about Dhofaris always being fully dressed at home is very important. As I have explained in my first book: Once outside the bedroom, there is a chance to see any of the other people in the house, the live-in maid and/ or a repair person. Therefore, at all times, a man must wear at least a wazar (sarong) and t-shirt, a woman must be in a dhobe (loose housedress) and losi (light cotton headscarf), kids are dressed in at least shirts and underwear/ diapers.

Housing design and living patterns create this necessity of always being modestly dressed. For example, a man leaving his bedroom might see a brother’s wife who lives across the hallway, the teenage daughter of another brother or an older female relative. As he leaves the house, he might pass the salle [female/ family sitting room] which is open to the main hallway and see/ be seen by his mother’s sisters or female neighbors who are visiting.

I will discuss window design and construction in a following essay.

examples of covered windows

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examples from rental house (larger windows, less covering)