If you are standing in front of a Dhofari house, how would you know if there were people inside and what they are doing? You can’t necessarily know about the wealth of the occupants, but you might be able to make some guesses based on lights, cars and shoes.
Unless it is a mini-palace set on 4 or 5 lots, you cannot tell the wealth of the inhabitants by looking at the house as it might not have built by or for the people who currently live in it. Houses and land can move within families members as richer members help others. A man might build himself a new home and give his previous house to a relative. A woman might live with her husband and build a house for her mother and her younger siblings. A divorced or widowed women and her children might live in a house built for her by her husband or his family. One informant’s father built a new house next to his home, moved into the new house and handed over his previous home to his brother with all the furnishings intact.
Also, the house might have been built with (non-interest) loans, either from a bank or family members. Or a large house might have been built slowly over several years by siblings who paid for labor and supplies when they could.
A house that looks old or poorly kept-up might be owned/ lived in by people who are using their money in other ways, such as paying for college or treatment for a sick relative, or they might be waiting for a coming wedding or Eid to paint/ refurbish. There might be reasons for the lack maintenance such as the house belongs to a person who has died and the heirs are deciding what should be done with it. A very wealthy older man might refuse to move to a larger/ newer house as he lived his whole life in that home.
It is important to remember that once the house is built, it belongs to the owner forever. There are no yearly land or property taxes. In extreme circumstances, the water and electricity might be cut off but there is no way for a person to be alienated from their property and left homeless. If the government claims eminent domain, the person will be given land and a house or land and enough money to build a house.
All houses have outside lights near or above the two front doors. These are almost always turned on at night if people are in the house. They are sometimes left on all night or turned off when the household goes to sleep.
Indoor lights are usually turned off or down if there is no one in the room and although most windows are heavily curtained, one can sometimes see light leaking out through a corner to know if there are people sitting in the majlis or salle. Or the majlis or front door might be open with light spilling out to show that people are in.
Houses have a series of lights that look like small lanterns along the top or sides of the walls surrounding the house and along the roof-line. These lights are usually only on if there is a party. This is done as part of the understanding that lights = joy, to alert neighbors and to help guests find the house. If the roof lights are on, it’s a happy party: graduation, someone returning from a long trip overseas, someone who has recovered from an illness, etc. For weddings, there are often rented strands of colored lights which are draped in half circles from the roof. A few people also do this on Omani National Day, November 18.
Basically, the more lights you can see, the more people are in the house. If a house is completely dark, then you think about place and time. People usually go to sleep later in towns so if a house is dark at 10pm in town, chances are everyone is out of the home; if a house is dark at 10pm in an isolated place with structures for herd animals, chances are everyone is sleeping. One informant who lives in town has a sleep pattern that is five hours later than his brother who lives in the mountains.
There is not usually space inside the hosh (courtyard) for cars, so there is often a parking space in front of the wall surrounding the house. This can be ‘read’ by thinking about how the cars are parked, the time of day, and which day it is.
If there is covered parking, it is for the senior man in the house, seeing a car in that space means it is more likely that he is at home (of course, there is a chance that he was picked up by a friend). If there is a car parked slant-wise, blocking other cars in or in the road, it is probably a delivery, meaning someone is at home.
Working and school hours are usually Sunday-Thursday from 7or 8am to 1 or 2pm, but if no cars are in front of the house during those times, it doesn’t mean the house is empty. People who don’t work, young children and older relatives will be sleeping or in the salle. If you want to know how many people are in the house, look at the number of cars around 2 or 3 pm as it’s usual for families to eat lunch together.
You can get a sense of the extended family by looking at the cars around 1 or 2 pm on Fridays as married children will usually have the main meal after Friday prayers with the husband’s parents. Lots of cars means that there is a pater and/ or mater familias living there. No cars can mean that there is probably a nuclear family in the house who have gone to have lunch with parents and/ or siblings.
When I asked one informant how you tell if someone is at home, the response was, “shoes!” Shoes do give you the most details about who is at home but you have to have good eyesight as it is not acceptable to walk up to the front door of a house unless you are invited or you are from Dhofar and following local rules for visiting.
As shoes are not worn in the house, everyone slips off their shoes next to the door. Counting shoes, noting which door the shoes are next to and which type of shoes there are tells you a lot of information. If you know the inhabitants well, you start to learn who each pair belongs to can know who is inside before you walk in.
Men usually wear thick-soled, black leather sandals. If the shoes are next to the majlis door, it means the man is probably visiting; men who live in the house will leave their sandals by the main door. You can tell children’s shoes by their size and, again, if they are next to the majlis they are visiting with an older male relative and if they are by the main door, they live in the house. Women’s sandals are usually colored and have thinner soles then men’s.
Thus, if you put together cars, lights, shoes and some additional information, you can make reasonable guesses about what is going on.
For example, many cars and many pairs of men’s sandals next to the majlis door means a lot of men are visiting. If one then looks at the main door and sees lots of women’s and kids’ sandals, this means there is some sort of family gathering. If there are lights on the roof-line, it’s a party. [If it’s good weather, a lot of people and there is a large court-yard, the men might be sitting outside on mats, so that women have the freedom to move throughout the whole house, including the majlis.]
But if there are a lot of men’s sandals by the majlis and only a few women’s shoes, it means there is probably a meeting. In which case you need to think through football (soccer) schedules, it might be a group of young men watching a game or older men sorting through a serious family issue. Lots of women’s and children’s shoes but no men’s shoes (and a few or no cars) means it’s a women’s gathering [see below].
If there are lots of shoes and cars, the timing and the sounds can also help tell you about the gathering. The normal times for parties are weekdays after 7 or 8, Fridays after noon prayers for families and Friday and Saturday evenings.
Neighbors might visit each other but Dhofaris usually do not hold large gatherings during the day Sunday-Thursday or Friday and Saturday mornings. If there are a lot of cars and shoes during those times, it might mean that someone has died and people have come to sit with the family for the three days of mourning.
Sound can also be a factor as there is often music playing for a wedding and, during a party if the front door is open, one cannot hear distinct voices but a general hum of chatter. However if the house is in mourning, there will be no sound except perhaps a recording of the Holy Qu’ran.
Note on Cars and Gender – A meeting of ten male relatives who don’t live in the same house will probably mean ten parked cars; a meeting of ten female relatives will mean fewer cars as they will be dropped off by male relatives, usually father, husband, brother or son. Women drive alone but if there is a family gathering, they will often bring other women and children. For example, if one female informant visits her aunt, she will pick up her mother, an unmarried sister and a married sister so that they can chat in the car.
The fact that Dhofari men drop off female relatives for visits can be read as some Dhofari women are dependent on men and thus have no freedom/ autonomy/ agency. Some Dhofari women have this point of view, but my male and female informants (including women who don’t drive) do not. Several Dhofari women have told me that having a husband drive her meant having a chance to talk to him alone. One explained to me that when living in a house with over 30 people and constant visitors, time driving to and from relatives was her chance to catch up with him. She did not want to learn how to drive as this would give him his freedom to spend evenings with his friends; driving would not give her her freedom.
For men, bringing women to visit relatives is not seen as job, chore or imposition; I have never heard any of the men in my research group man complain about it. Keeping family ties is important and a woman has the right to visit her family. Once a woman is married, the responsibility does not devolve solely on the husband. It’s usual for a relative who drives to pick her up from her husband’s father’s house, bring her home for an evening and then return her. I know of one Dhofari woman who asked for a divorce partially because her husband refused to allow anyone else to drive her, not even her brothers could take her to visit her mother. Her family supported her as his insistence that only he could drive her was seen as unfair and unnecessarily severe.
Note on photos: It would be interesting to have photos of the front of a house at different times to show the number of vehicles that are parked at different times, but to me that would be too intrusive as Dhofaris would be able to identify the house and car owners. Also as taking photos of your own house when there is no reason (such as a party) is odd, informants took these photos at times when there were not many people around, hence, not many shoes.
Photos (by informants, used with permission)
Husband and wife at home – family-owned apartment building
late morning (everyone at work), family house
Family house, time unknown but note that all shoes are to the left side, none near the majlis door to the right, hence it would be likely that there are no guests. Sneakers are far to the left as they might have a bad smell. One of my neighbor’s has a front door with a small landing which is near the wall surrounding the house, so sandals are left near the door but the men put their football (soccer) shoes on top of the wall.