Houseways: Including/ Excluding Expats in Discussions about Housing

All authors know that as you write in detail about a topic, you sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. In my first draft of  Houseways, I wrote:

And as only GCC citizens can buy land in Dhofar, non-GCCexpats live in Dhofari-designed houses or various types of apartment buildings designed for expats, without affecting the choices for house designs. In the one small, expat compound I lived in for a few years, I had Italian, French, Indian, Iraqi, American and English neighbors. In the two Omani neighborhoods I have lived in for a total of 12 years, I am the only non-Omani in whole area.

As I looked over my draft later, I realized I was not being clear; of course there are many non-Omanis in my neighborhood. I rewrote the section to read:

In the two Omani neighborhoods I have lived in for a total of 12 years, I am the only non-Omani who rents an apartment or house in whole area.

Other expats move through the neighborhood for various reasons. Some expats work as cleaners, either living in or coming a few times a week. Some expat men work as house builders; others come through regularly to go through the dumpsters for anything salvageable or recyclable. Knowing this, Omanis usually put anything that might be of value next to (not in) dumpsters so that it is easy to take. In the afternoons, men who work for small grocery stores bike around ringing a small bell, signaling that they have snacks to sell come.

Another issue is that sending in a manuscript and getting back the published book back is sometimes like sending a beloved pet for grooming. The animal that returns is your pet but looks completely different.

My abstract for the book is:

Houseways in Southern Oman explains how modern, middle-class houses are sited, designed, built, decorated and lived in with an emphasis on how room-usage is determined by age, gender, time of day and the presence of guests. Combing ethnography and architectural studies, the author draws on over sixteen years of living in the Dhofar region to analyze the cultural perceptions regarding houses and how residential areas fit within the urban areas of the southern Dhofar region.

From the average height of the walls surrounding houses to the color schemes of kitchen to the use of curtains, the book examines the material features of houses using formal interviews, visits to many Dhofari houses and the author’s ten years of living in Dhofari-designed houses in Dhofari neighborhoods. The book also discusses cultural expectations such as how and when rooms are used, who is in control of decorating choices, which spaces a guest might see and how to understand if a house is ready for visitors or if its inhabitants are celebrating or mourning. Dhofari houses are also compared to houses in other Arabian Peninsula countries and positioned within the theoretical frameworks of the “Islamic city” and the “Islamic house.”

the official abstract is:

This book explores how houses are created, maintained and conceptualized in southern Oman. Based on long-term research in the Dhofar region, it draws on anthropology, sociology, urban studies and architectural history. The chapters consider physical and functional aspects, including regulations governing land use, factors in siting houses, architectural styles and norms for interior and exterior decorating. The volume also reflects on cultural expectations regarding how and when rooms are used and issues such as safety, privacy, social connectedness and ease of movement. Houses and residential areas are situated within the fabric of towns, comparison is made with housing in other countries in the Arabian peninsula, and consideration is given to notions of the ‘Islamic city’ and the ‘Islamic house’. The book is valuable reading for scholars interested in the Middle East and the built environment.

The line: “This book explores how houses are created, maintained and conceptualized in southern Oman” is somewhat problematic for me as “houses” here is too general a term. My work is on modern, middle-class houses designed by and built for Dhofaris. There are other types of housing which I don’t have expertise in and don’t engage with.

To illustrate my point, I would like to explain one housing example I know of. For many years I visited a large nursery on the eastern side of Salalah. There was a high wall around the area, with a monumental gate as an entrance, as if eventually a large house would be built there, but in the meantime the land was used to grow plants/ turn a profit.

There were large trees planted on the perimeter, inside the high wall, and the middle area was netted over and planted with small shrubs and flowering plants. To the right was a small path which meandered past the planted areas into a section with trees which had small bags of soil tied to limbs so that the trees would put forth roots; the section would then be cut off and a new tree could be planted. To the right of this area was a small, paved courtyard, surrounded on three sides by a variety of one-story rooms made from cement blocks where the men who worked in the nursery lived.

In front of one of the rooms was a large trough sink and a basic open-air kitchen with a woven palm frond cover. A few of the rooms had open holes for windows, a few had window panes and doors. There was electricity and running water. The air was rich with tropical fragrances and birds were chattering everywhere. When I first saw it, my reaction was “I want to live there!”

I imagined how lovely it must be to sit outside at night and watch bats flit among the trees, the sound of palm fronds rustling and the air thick with jasmine. Or maybe not. Maybe there were endless swarms of mosquitos and the sound of insects was maddening. Did the men who worked there love their small courtyard? Did they wish they were in a big compound which was closer to stores with lots of other men to talk to? I don’t know; we didn’t have a language in common besides all of us knowing the names of the plants and the basics of “sun,” “too much sun,” and “no sun.”

It is with this (and many other) examples in mind that I have tried to clear that my focus on Dhofari houses means houses that are Dhofari-designed, -built, -owned and -lived in.

As a final note, I wish I had photographs of house builders as to not include them seems in a way to erase them and their work. But I haven’t figured out a way do this ethically. The person who takes most of the photographs I need is young, female and does not speak the languages common among house-builders. I do not feel comfortable asking her to engage in conversations requiring her to ask for permission to take photos and explain how those photos would be used. At some point I hope to find a way to have pictures taken with informed consent.