(photo by Salwa Hubais)
Two writers about Dhofar were so firmly entrenched in the view that Dhofar should not be modern that their books had photos of empty streets; as if there were no Omanis in city settings. The only photos of Dhofaris had them positioned in rural landscapes.
I call this mindset “zoo mode,” and its adherents say things along the lines of:
Oh how horrible that the Dhofaris are losing their traditions! Every time I come here there are changes. Everything is to modern here now – they don’t have their culture anymore.
I have lost patience for this point of view that, in some manifestations, seems to want to turn Dhofar into a zoo-like entity where visitors can see people engaging in former lifeways. I try to be quiet (or change the subject) but sometimes I will remark:
But you yourself do not live in your grandmother’s house, with her furniture and decorations. You don’t eat what she ate in the way she ate it. You don’t wear her clothes or listen to the music she loved, so it might be unrealistic to expect other people to stay static.
Their reply is usually along the lines of: but they are losing themselves.
To me, this line of reasoning posits that the modern culture is inferior to and/or less appealing than that of previous iterations. And I wonder, how do non-Dhofaris find a vantage point from which to judge another culture?
I think Dhfoaris are transforming, adapting and making choices; all cultures change over time. What Dhofaris are “losing” is the desire to live in a way that visitors find interesting. That doesn’t mean they should return to the lifeways of 40 or more years ago. Dhofairs are not participants in a Colonial Williamsburg-type experiment in which they should work as historical reenactors to explain and demonstrate aspects of daily life in the past.
Yes, some lifeways are disappearing but so is diphtheria and washing clothes by pounding them on rocks. And the people who decide what parts of the culture should be carried forward are… the people in that culture.
As a literature professor, I take heart in rereading Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” written in the 1770s. In this poem the narrator laments the desertion of a village because of a variety of modern evils; this reminds me that in every century there are people who think all the good times, good manners, good objects and good traditions are gone forever. And yet humans continue to create new and positive ways to live.
Here is a simple example of cultural change from working with the research guys. Before Covid, picnic dinners usually meant someone cooking dinner over a fire. I enjoyed years of delicious stews and curries; fish was cooked over the flames or wrapped in foil in placed in the ashes. Picnics stopped during the time of lockdowns and curfews with people sticking close to family units. As the threat of disease retreated, the group started to meet again, but with changes.
The man who did most of the cooking has had changes in his responsibilities, so he no longer has the free time needed to cook dinners. We have adapted by the men bringing prepared food from home and me bringing food from a “safe” (well-known/ trusted) restaurant.
One night one of the men brought… individual pizzas. The first time in 17 years that I have seen a pizza at one of our meetings and the first time that we each had our own meal. I suppose I could have cut my hair and wailed at this terrible incursion of the modern but I said thank you and ate my pizza.
Yes, I would rather have fresh-caught fish cooked over the coals but I am aware of what a dish dinner entails: the time and effort to make a certain kind of fire, wait until there were the right kind of coals, preparing the fish, cooking it, preparing and cooking the rice, etc.
Actions have costs – a picnic dinner means someone cooking (a man standing over a beach fire or a woman standing over a stove at home) and all people make choices about which costs are worth the effort. Five years ago, pizza was not one of the choices for a group dinner. Now it is.
To me, this change is only a loss if I construe “fish cooked over a fire” as the only correct/ authentic type of beach dinner, a judgment I am unwilling to make.