Houseways: Dhofari/ non-Dhofari house plans

[illustration plan by Maria Cristina Hidalgo, ]

Sometimes you can only understand what is “normal” for you when you see the same object used differently or in a different place. That sudden shock can help you understand the unwritten/ unacknowledged rules of your culture.

One housing example is light switches. Americans who move to the Arabian Peninsula are confronted with 6 or 9 identical switches in a room or in a hallway. The switches will be placed higher than expected, almost shoulder height, and will be for the ceiling lights, wall lights and fans. As most ceiling lights are florescent which take a few seconds to turn on and the fan has a separate circular switch for speed-adjustment (but is also turned on and off by a switch) you can spend over a minute pushing switches trying to figure out how to turn things on and off. It’s even more confusing for bathroom fixtures as the switches are outside next to the door and will be for the ceiling light, vanity light and extractor fan, as well as hallway lights.

Another example is looking at house plans; since I have started on this project, I have spent a lot of time looking at house plans and seeing examples from other cultures helps me articulate what are some of the expectations of designing Dhofari houses.

Example 1:

example - walk into kitchen

In this home, you walk into the dining room, something that would not happen in a Dhofari house. Also the kitchen in open-air, with no separating wall, much less a door. This would not work in a culture in which cooking smells are considered as negative. Notice how someone standing at the sink has complete visual access to the dining area, living room and porch; there is no possibility of gender segregation. And there are 21 seats (including the 2 floor cushions in the living room), if the dining room table was rotated 90 degrees and the 2 chairs in the living room were turned, the space could easily hold 25 or more people. The space allows for a large, mixed gender party.

Example 2:

example - maids room - ready

What struck me about about this plan is how little seating there is: only 14 seats in the main area and there doesn’t look like there is enough room for 4 people on the small sofa in the private TV space. If the couple who live here invite another couple for dinner, someone is going to spend the evening sitting on a dining room table chair. Also interesting is the maid’s bedroom and bathroom. Having a female maid live-in is common in Dhofar and the room is usually next to or near the kitchen in a one-story house

Example 3:

example - 4 sitting rooms

I loved trying to figure out this house – it’s the perfect expression of a culture that has a lot of concern over who sees what and how in/ out of the group a person is.

In the bottom left is the most ‘out-group’ space:  it’s a majlis (male sitting room) with NO connection to the interior of the house and no bathroom. To the right is the main male entrance, leading to majlis with a bathroom opposite. Further ahead to the left is a dining room that is set up with two doors so the lower door (near majlis) can be closed/ locked while the table is set up, then the door near the majlis is opened while the upper door (leading into the house) is closed for family privacy. When the men leave, the door near the majlis is closed and the door to the house is opened for clean up, so male visitors can never see or hear any of the house occupants.

To the right, above the majlis, is the family entrance which opens into an entryway with a bathroom opposite the salle (sitting room for female relatives and visitors). If needed, female guests could use the dining room if the lower door (to the majlis) is locked. Notice how, if a female visitor left the salle and turned left, then left again to enter the dining room, there are NO sight-lines for the family seating section or even the doors to the kitchen or bedroom. To get to the family seating area, a visitor would have to turn right and cross the atrium; there is no way someone could do this ‘by accident’ so visitors will never be able to see who else was in the house. 

Family members would pass through the entryway and turn right into the family space, with the family bathroom to the left. Except for the bathroom that is inside the bedroom, all three bathrooms (near majlis, near salle and near family space) are built in two sections with a sink area, then an inner door leading to a toilet and sink.

The kitchen is in the upper right-hand corner (with door to prevent cooking odors from reaching the house) and a door to the outside, for bringing in supplies and taking out trash without entering the family section. The bedroom in the upper left hand corner is, to me, too big for a maid’s room (which I would expect to be on the roof or near the children’s rooms). I would assume that this would be for either an older family member, so that they don’t have to climb the stairs, or the couple most responsible for the house.

There are a lot of details that remind me of Dhofari houses, such as the storeroom off the kitchen that can be locked and the side tables in the corners of all four seating areas (external majlis, main majlis, salle and family sitting space) so that people are always sitting in a circle-shape.

Another detail is the set-back of the bedroom and kitchen doors. If you look at the bedroom door, for example, you can see that it could be moved forward (to the left) so that the doorframe is flush with the end of the lower wall. But in its current position, one can’t see if the door is open or shut unless you are standing in front of it. Further, given that the TV in the family sitting room is on the lower wall (shared with the bathroom for the salle), the people in that area can’t see who is coming out of/ going into the kitchen.

Details I see as non-Dhofari are the separate dining room, the circular table near the family seating area and the door to second staircase (below the family area bathroom). That door surprises me as there is no way from that staircase into the house, one can only go up to the upper floor where I  would expect 5, 6 or 7 bedrooms. In the houses I have seen in Dhofar, where there is a second staircase accessed from outside the house, I have always seen an internal door on the ground-level.

Also the separation of the male visitor (majlis) and female visitor/ family doors is not usual. In Dhofar, the two doors are usually a few feet apart, set at a 90 degree angle. Also the outdoor seating area is unusual in Dhofar. Outside of towns there is usually not a high wall around the house so inhabitants might sit on chairs or the steps with an open view. In towns, there is usually not outside seating by a door.

A last note on sight-lines. To me, the kitchen table next to the outside door is awkward. Anyone bringing in supplies needs to walk past the table and turn. It would make more sense to have the table on the lower wall (i.e. sharing the wall with the chairs for the family sitting room). But if the table were moved, then the people sitting at it would be able to see the door to the bedroom. As it is now, the people sitting at the kitchen table have no sight-lines.