In an earlier essay, I discussed how rooms were arranged:
Houseways: Comparisons – Types of Rooms and Sightlines
This essay is one of three related pieces about the interplay between behavior and space: how certain behaviors create a need for a certain kind of space (entryways), how a certain kind of space creates the need for certain behaviors (talking in the salle) and the intermix of house design and behavior (front doorways).
Several members of my family work in the fields of design and planning, so I grew up listening to a lot of talk about architectural details and the effective organization between and within buildings. A favorite mantra was: form follows function, meaning the purpose of the space determines the size and shape of the space.
This is a good way to start to think of entrances to houses. When I first visited Dhofari houses I was surprised by the large space near the front door that leads to the main hall. The foyers were empty and, to me, unnecessary. Kids did not use the area to play in, no one sat there, there was no furniture except perhaps a rectangular side table pushed against the wall with a mirror above it or nearby – just a large empty space that had to be air-conditioned.
After more visits, I started to see the purpose and began to be very grateful for the entrance space as a helpful liminal space between being public (outside where everyone could see me) and private (in the salle in view of women and children).
To aggregate several dozen experiences, when I arrive at a house, I wear a dhobe (loose, Dhofari housedress) which is covered by a “head ababyah” (a large, black polyester square that is pulled over the head and drapes to cover my body down to the knees). It is often worn for short distances, such as from car to inside house or between neighbors’ houses; some older women wear it while shopping.
If the front door is open, I call out to show that I am there, step into the foyer, take off “head ababyah” and put it in my purse, check that my lossi (headscarf) is covering my hair, then walk into the salle. If the door is locked, I ring the bell and when it is answered, there is usually one woman with a group of children behind her who have come to see who it is. The woman will welcome me, but not ask me questions, and shoo the children away. She will stay back a few feet and not give any pressure such as saying “everyone’s waiting for you!” as I check that I am ready to go into the salle. When I start to move, she will walk to the opening of the salle with me and sit in her place. Once in the salle, all eyes will turn to me and there are sometimes questions and explanations as to who I am as I walk in a circle, greeting each woman and shaking her hand, then I find a place to sit and get ready to talk.
The large, empty foyer uses gives me the chance to move from outside presentation (shapeless black figure) to inside (still shapeless but brightly colored). I can check my hair and lipstick, smooth down my dhobe and get ready to be part of the conversation. Even if there is a wedding party with over 50 women in the house, the foyer is empty and women who are further down the hallway will not come to say “hello,” until I have moved away from the door area.
The area makes me think of texts from the 1800s and 1900s in which there are depictions of women going into a small dressing room to take off their wraps and change into dancing shoes such as Katherine Mansfield’s “Her First Ball.” It’s public, women in the hallway can see me and sometimes children stand nearby, but also private in that I am not expected to make small talk or answer questions.
When I leave the house, the space again is useful as, after I say my goodbyes, step out of the salle and into the foyer, I have a moment to get my “head ababyah” back on, check my phone and get out my car keys. Perhaps my friend will come stand with me, to walk to the portico with me to wave goodbye, but the talk is easy: “say hello to your mother for me” and “I hope you have a nice weekend” sort of phrases.
At the end of a wedding party, there might be several women standing near the door waiting for a car to drive them home, but there is plenty of space even with children running about. And there are no expectations of doing formal greetings; when I walk into the foyer, I don’t have to say ‘hello’ to each woman. We see each other and shift to give room for whoever is leaving to get to the door, but we don’t have to interact.
Thus, it’s a space that is used only for a few moments of time several times during the day but is necessary given common Dhofar behaviors. A large foyer is needed not because there are usually more than five small children living in one house, but the fact that children love to run to the door when someone knocks (or are sent to see who it is) and often stand near the door to look at a person arriving or leaving.
As children like to be together, they might all gather in the entrance way when school age children are leaving. Mini-vans/buses come into or next to the hosh as children don’t usually walk to and wait at a bus stop since it is often very hot. With a large foyer, there is space for the mom, the children who are going to school and young children to all wait inside where it is cool. Or the space can be used by a group of sisters waiting for a car to take them shopping or visiting relatives so they don’t have to stand outside the house in view of the neighborhood.
[There is a difference between houses in towns and in the countryside, as rural houses usually have a dekka, seating area in the front or side of the house which means you are on display as soon as you leave the car.]
(photo above: mirror in entry way; photo below: mirror in entry way to the left, ahead to the left is entry to salle, ahead to the right is doorway of short hall leading to majlis – both photos taken by informants and used with permission)
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