Bringing Theory Home in Oman

Risse, M. “Bringing Theory Home in Oman,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. July 10, 2011: B24.


I’ve read a lot of postcolonial theory, article upon article heaped with cultural awareness: politically correct, nonoppressive, empowering, deconstructing the center/periphery, subaltern studies, writing back to the empire, autoethnography—writing by people struggling to bear witness, give voice, reclaim power, and fight stereotypes. And I wonder: Who does their dishes?

Sitting on my porch, I am reading my way through a stack of articles by anthropologists and theorists about “orientalism,” power structures in the Middle East, the rapid change that oil money has brought to Gulf culture, tensions between men and women in the quickly modernizing world. Fifteen feet away, on the other side of my garden wall, about eight Pakistani men are building a house. Flatbed trucks deliver pallets of concrete blocks at 6 a.m. The workers arrive at 7 a.m. and spend half an hour talking loudly. One man puts the blocks, a few at a time, in a wheelbarrow and brings them to the section of wall that will be built that day; two men mix the cement, using shovels to combine the cement, sand, and water. One man relays buckets of cement to the two men who set the blocks and cement them, using a plumb line to check that the walls are straight. One man is a general helper, watering the completed wall sections with a garden hose. The boss stops by now and then to check progress.

The men have been working next to my house for several weeks. I recognize them, and they clearly know me, although we don’t communicate at all. To acknowledge them, I have been told repeatedly, would be an invitation. I have seen this myself, when I smiled at a guy on a bicycle, who then turned his bike around and followed me home. Once a truck driver almost hit my car as I was leaving a parking lot and he was coming in. My smile of relief as he managed to jerk his pickup away from my car at the last minute caused him to stop and back up. He maneuvered the truck so that his cab was parallel to my front seat—the truck’s back end was now sticking out into the road—and rolled down his window, extending his hand. I floored it and pulled away.

But I can’t escape the workers next door. I read about the global economy and oppression of the working class, then I glance up at them. They lean against the walls and stare at me, eyes flat and cold. When I tell Omani men I know that I don’t feel comfortable near the workers, the Omanis laugh and say, “They won’t hurt you!” I know that is probably true, but their dislike is palpable and disturbs me. I asked husbands of friends to stop by. “Wear sunglasses and stare back,” I instruct. They willingly enact the pantomime of protector. I feel ridiculous, like a faint-hearted Victorian miss.

I am reading about men like these workers, who leave their families to work in foreign countries for years at a time, living in filthy, cramped rooms in labor camps. I read about them, but I haven’t ever read something a man like that has written himself. Somewhere in the labor camps, is there a man who writes? I would like to read an article by a man who is woken up at 6 a.m., driven to a building site, and works in the hot sun all day, sometimes looking over at the Western woman next door, sitting on her porch, reading, drinking tea—a picture of privilege.

Does he feel anything in common with me? Would he recognize that I, also, am “working”? When he stares, does he want something? Can he read? Does he want to sit and read, too, or does he think I am insane, wasting my time reading when I could be doing something more useful?

I’ve never done physical labor in the sun, but I’ve worked since high school. Does that count? Do I get worker-solidarity points? The physical actuality of the Pakistanis’ stares trumps everything I empirically know about their oppressed condition. How do the people who write, lecture, and theorize in postcolonial studies navigate this sort of situation? Should I offer the workers coffee and cookies?

As I am reading, Luxchman, my gardener, is hauling fist-sized rocks to line a garden bed I asked him to dig. I can’t concentrate on what I am reading because I am stuck between the words I am reading and the life I am living. It is about 90 degrees. I am sitting in the shade; Luxchman is in the sun. We have known each other more than four years and get along well. He comes three days a week to water, sweep up dead leaves, and put new plants in the ground. I pay him about triple the going rate and give him as many bottles of water as he wants, along with packages of cookies and odds and ends from the house I don’t need, including towels and my old sofa.

I have a ready list of reasons why the garden beds need to be lined with rocks. White rocks will help deflect heat; cooler plants mean healthier plants, so Luxchman won’t have to water as much and won’t have to replant. He gets to eat and take home whatever is growing: bananas, figs, eggplants, mint, pomegranates, limes, and guavas. And he does have veto power, as when I wanted papayas in the backyard and he announced, “Not nice coming,” his equivalent of “fat chance.” His working for me means a better quality of life for him. He knows how to do the work correctly; if I pitched in, it might make more work for him. But should I have asked him in the first place? He is hauling rocks in the hot sun for my benefit, while I read about the evils of Western oppression.

Over years of trial, error, discussions, and arguments, I have made my peace with what I have my Omani students read. I constantly search for texts that are topical, authentic, nonpaternalistic, and interesting. For example, this semester my Introduction to Poetry class gets a Shakespeare sonnet, but also work by Suad al-Mubarak al-Sabah, Cavafy, Billy Collins, Donald Justice, Mohja Kahf, Dorothy Parker, and Spenser. In Introduction to Writing, students read “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” by Rudyard Kipling; “He Was a Good Lion,” from West With the Night, by Beryl Markham; an excerpt from Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë; part of “A Room of One’s Own,” by Virginia Woolf; an excerpt from Saqifat al-Safa, by Hamza Bogary, and “Teacher’s Classroom Strategies Should Recognize that Men and Women Use Language Differently,” by Deborah Tannen.

In other words, there are selections from different countries and different time periods, by men and by women, serious and not serious, high culture and low culture, canon and “other voices.” I have even managed to find two poems translated from a local nonwritten language into English and taught them to my amazed students. “Inclusive” is my mantra.

Well, it is my mantra while teaching. When I get home, I want my garden wall to be higher so I don’t have to get stared at while I read the latest London Review of Books or a downloaded article about “indigenous articulations.” The workers next door pound nails. Do the theorists I am reading make their own cheese sandwiches and haul their own rocks? How do people navigate theory and practice?