During over a decade of picnics with men from southern Oman, I have never been offered the eyes, brain, tongue or tail of any animal. The cliché of guests being offered the ‘unloved’ parts of an animal doesn’t hold here in the Dhofar region. And it’s not that large platter of rice and meat that will cause you problems. Men will encourage you to eat, but if you gather up a few grains of rice in your hand and lift it towards your mouth, the host’s attention will move on.
If you are given a fish, you can turn the head away from you and start to eat from tail up, scattering by chance a few shreds of lettuce over the eyes. Then you declare yourself full before you need to deal with the stomach area, much less digging into the skull for the fish cheeks.
What you should fear is ladies’ parties with lots of very generous, caring, strong-arming women.
Men usually have dinner with friends on the beach or in a scenic place in the mountain. It’s dark, eating is done quickly and men come and go freely; there is little policing of who eats what. Although the cook might toss special pieces of meat or fish towards you, if you don’t want to eat them, simply leave them alone.
But women parties are usually indoors, with lots of light and everyone sits in their places for several hours so you are constantly under observation.
I love wedding parties because the air is full of beautiful perfumes and everyone is in gorgeous, comfortable, multi-color thobes (the loose, traditional Dhofari dress). And the food is delicious, but you cannot escape it. Either waitresses or relatives of the groom will bring around trays of drinks and sweets and everyone, not just the hostess, but all the other guests, will encourage you to partake.
You have had four cups of super-leaded, espresso-strength, cardamom-spiced Omani qahwa (coffee)? The generous women would like you to have a fifth cup! “You didn’t drink anything! Do you not like the coffee? Do you want tea! BRING TEA, SHE WANTS TEA!” they call.
You protest but, alas, give up. The tsunami of kindness is coming for you. Take up the tea cup and drink. And as soon as you set down the cup, here come someone with juice, soda, instant coffee, chai ahmar (“red tea,” black tea with only sugar added), chai haleeb (“milk tea,” black tea with milk and sugar), or karak (loose tea with spices and milk).
Then come the sweets accompanied by women benevolently asking you to take another spoonful of halwa, the traditional Omani dessert. And like a swan-dive into a bowl of whipped cream, you submit to your fate: a small plate of carrot sweet, a bowl of crème caramel, a slice of cake, a bowl of ice cream, fruit salad, luqaymat/ loqeemat (sweet fried dough with a sugar syrup), basbousa, and wrapped chocolates.
And now, just as you give up any thought of ever moving again, dinner is served. A generous woman hands you a plate heaped high with a selection of appetizers (hummus, fattoush, baba ghanoush, etc., with pita bread) and qabooli (a dish with spices, rice and meat). Then, of course, dessert is served.
There have been weekends in which I have inhabited both worlds. One night was spent wearing loose cotton trousers and a tunic top with a plain blue headscarf and sitting on a plastic mat on a beach out of sight from any man-made lights. Dinner was fresh-caught fish cooked over a fire. The men in my research group and I ate with our hands, drank Dew, looked at the stars, listened to the sea and talked until 1am. The next night I wore a decorated velvet thobe with full make-up, my meager supply of gold jewelry and a lot of duty-free perfume, in a room full of air-conditioning, bright lights, and delightful women who wanted to stuff me until I burst.
Omani people are very open-hearted and open-handed and doing research on foodways is a lot of fun, but it is not for the meek or the small of stomach.
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