Houseways: Talking Privately in Crowded Rooms

In an earlier essay, I discussed how rooms were arranged:

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).

A majlis and salle are usually large enough to seat at least 20 people and square/ rectangular with all the furniture pushed against the walls. Houses are built from concrete block and have tile floors, sometimes partially covered with an area rug, thus everyone in the room can see and hear each other – in a sizable, echoing space, how do people manage to have private conversations?

Two types of behavior, non-verbal and talking very quietly, [as discussed in: ], work for short communications such as imparting information, asking a question and giving a command. In this essay I would like to talk about another strategy: Dhofaris tuning out/ turning away/ politely ignoring visitors. This behavior means that people can have private conversations, after the requirements of hospitality and respect have been met, and that a person who is new to the group has time to adjust.

A female Dhofari friend (A) lived outside of Dhofar for several months where she met an Omani woman (X). When A’s brother (B) came to visit A, he met X’s husband (Y). So when X, Y and their children came to visit Dhofar, A invited them to dinner at her house with the understanding that B would host Y in the majlis with other of A’s male relatives and A would host X in the salle with other of A’s female relatives. I was invited as I had also met X previously.

When X and Y arrived, they were greeted by A and B who stood outside the door, then brought to the respective sitting rooms. When X walked into the salle, all the women (X’s mom, sisters, sisters-in-law, and nieces) greeted X and she was led to a sofa in the middle of the south wall, a few spaces down from A’s mom. A sat in the middle of the east wall and I was in the middle of the north wall. The first twenty minutes was the necessary polite, general conversation in which X asked about everyone’s health and everyone asked X about her health, her family’s health, her trip to Dhofar, where she was staying and did she like the hotel while A was offering drinks and snacks to X and her children. The first round done, the second round started in which more specific questions were asked about X’s health, the health of X’s children and female relatives, their trip to Dhofar and X started to ask about how A’s mother was doing and who were the other women in the room. A’s mother was included in all the questions and responses; X looked at her more frequently than anyone else and the other women, including me, listened to everything with polite attention.

Then we moved to the dining table (on the south side) to eat dinner, then back to the sofas. A few minutes later, with hands washing after dinner and X given a plate of sweets, there was a gradual change in that A’s mother and other female relatives turned their attention away from X by saying prayers using a misbaha (prayer beads), looking at their phone, talking to children or each other. A and X, more than 1 1/2 hours after X had arrived, were able to talk freely about people they knew/ experiences they had had in common.

There were the same number of people sitting in the same places as when X had arrived, but instead of one person talking at a time with X and A’s mother as the twin focal points, now A and X were a dyad. A’s female relatives and I sat quietly, sometimes listening, sometimes talking to each other. As the time to leave grew closer, the talk again became more general with people offering X suggestions about where to go site-seeing and what restaurants to eat at. X was invited back to the house, which she parried with how short their stay was and how they had relatives to visit.

In thinking about this visit beforehand, I had thought that it was too bad A and X would not get time alone (such as meeting at a coffee shop) to catch up. But what happened was that A’s family created that conversational freedom for them, without changing the space or their locations, by shifting their attention away. In a room with 10 women and five children, A and X were able to share reminiscences and catch up on mutual acquaintances.

To look at this issue from another angle, I was once visiting a Dhofari friend when an older female relative (M) stopped by. I had not met M before and was surprised that the younger women (N) with her was wearing elaborate make-up, a lot of jewelry and a highly decorated dress, shorter in front than in usual for normal visiting. My friend looked at me and said, “bride” in Arabic; women who are newly married usually dress up for visits in the weeks after the wedding. N had recently married M’s son and M was bringing N to meet M’s/ N’s husband’s relatives. N sat silently, looking bored, as we spoke; I felt kind of sorry for her as she must have had several of these types of visits with her new mother-in-law.

But about two years later I saw that situation from a different angle. A female Dhofari friend invited me to her wedding; I agreed but with some trepidation as I had not met any of her family before. I arrived at the house for the party and her mother took me into the salle. I could hear quiet comments of women “placing me” (telling each other who I was) as I walked around to greet each woman. But once I sat down, all the women ignored me. This might sound negative, but it was very freeing – I was in a tightly packed room with every seat taken. All the women were in pretty, loose dresses with lots of perfume, children ran in and out, maids came around offering tea, coffee, juice and water, as well as snacks – there was lots of see and do. Women who came in shook my hand and the women next to me encouraged me to eat and drink so I did not feel any hostility, just a sense that everyone had collectively decided to leave me alone. After about an hour, the woman next to me asked me a few simple questions, I think to test both my level of Arabic and my willingness to engage. When I answered readily, other women joined in with questions and we ended up having a lovely time – joking about husbands and driving cars and studying.

As I drove home, I thought about the silent bride (N) and wondered if perhaps what I marked as boredom was relief that the women in my friend’s house had given her the same sort of emotional/ psychological break of ignoring her so she could be with a lot of unfamiliar people without having to make conversation. These were women she would know and visit for the rest of her life and rather than perhaps making a misstep at the start of the relationship, she had the chance to look around, listen to the talk, and start to form ideas/ opinions about the women before being expected to join in.

The spaces within a house for visiting are few and large, thus Dhofaris have created a series of behaviors that make accommodations for others. In certain circumstances, everyone will tacitly ignore 1) people who want to talk about someone that is interest only to them and 2) people who they feel might not want to or be able to join in the conversation. Being able to see and hear others in the same room does not automatically mean it is necessary to engage with them, so privacy is possible even in a crowded salle.

Another example of creating privacy for others was discussed in . Women usually return to their mother’s house after they have their first child. One family I know lives in a house with a mother, several unmarried daughters and several married sons and their families. When a married daughter came back to stay for a few weeks with her new baby, she and husband met in the majlis. The husband was not a close relative so it would not be appropriate for him to spend a lot of time in the salle and it was not possible for him to come to her bedroom as this would mean entering the private area of the house. The men in the house willingly did not use the majlis at certain times so their sister’s husband could visit her and the baby alone.