Reflections on Ethnographic Research: Changes within Cultures

(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.

Foodways: Thinking about Uses of Plastic Bags and Bottles in Dhofar

In a previous essay [ Foodways: Cultural Issues Pertaining to Litter ] I talked about some issues pertaining to litter. I would like to expand on these reflections by discussing the use of plastic bags and plastic bottles.

Decreasing the use of plastics is a worthy goal and I believe that can effectively happen when the reasons for why and methods of how people use plastic products is investigated in terms of the cultural context. In my opinion, to find replacements that will be widely adopted, it needs to be clear which specific qualities are important. Thus, the substitutes for plastic bags and bottles need to meet cultural needs, as well as environmental needs.

Cultural Understandings of Plastic Usage: Plastic Bags

1 – anything given to another person should be in a bag, not put directly into someone’s hand

There is a cultural understanding that objects should be transferred in some sort of package, never passed by hand.

2 – adults seldom carry large bags and/ or anything on their shoulders

Only schoolchildren wear backpacks. It is not common for grown-up men to bear anything on their shoulders. Some female college students will carry a small rectangular bag on their shoulder, but only within the campus area. In a mall or public place, goods are carried by hand in bags.

3 – foodstuffs, including raw meat and fresh fish, are often distributed among relatives and friends

As I have discussed in my food research, many Dhofaris give extra or purpose-bought food for others. This is almost always handed over in plastics bags. For example, it is perceived as cleaner and easier to give fish and pieces of meat in plastic bags. If this was given in a dish or pot, it would need to be cleaned and returned. Also, giving food in a dish might result in spillage whereas plastic bags can be tied shut.

4 – accessibility of paper bags

Small paper bags, often printed with a store’s name or a decorative design, are common and can be used for transporting some items such as limes, books, dhobes and bukhoor. Thus there is a lot of re-use of printed paper bags with short handles which are bought for gift-giving and/or given away by stores. However, these bags usually only circulate among women as they often found in perfume/ make-up stores and men will not usually buy decorated gift bags.

4 – it is common to give food and unwanted supplies to expat laborers who travel by bike

In addition to Dhofaris giving food stuffs to family and neighbors, they often give left-over food to expat workers. As these laborers usually travel by bikes which do not have panniers, they need a bag which will easily fit over their handlebars.

For example, I sometimes buy packages of cookies for the man who cleans my car. I have to put them in a plastic bag so that he can transport the cookies home. The shopping bags for sale in the large grocery store are too large and unwieldy to be hooked over handle bars and bikes usually do not have a flat rack behind the seat.

5 –  issues of privacy/ safety/ smell

In some cultures, small, mesh/  jute/ string bags are used for everyday carrying. But open-weave bags would not always work in Dhofar as there are cultural understandings of keeping goods private, i.e. not allowing everyone to see what you are transporting. For example, in large supermarkets, there is always a pile of small plastic bags near the sanitary supplies so women can put what they are buying into a plastic bag, then set it in their shopping cart. As in many aspects of Dhofari life, people want to keep their private life private.

Another concern is that Dhofar has three months of drizzle during the khareef (monsoon) and frequent wind/sand storms in winter. Moving anything in an open-weave bag could result in the contents being splashed with mud or covered in sand.

Lastly, bad smells are perceived as very negative. Sometimes meat or fish bought at the souq is put in a plastic bag and tied the rear-bumper of the car to be taken home because no one wants the smell to permeate the car.

To me, thinking about decreasing the use of plastic bags means looking for solutions which fit within the culture. For example, one use of plastic bags among fishermen is to put pieces of sardines in a plastic bag with sand and place this within a fish box (metal fish trap which sits on the bottle of the ocean). One fisherman I know did this for years as the sand keeps the sardines at the bottom of the trap, allowing the scent of the fish to mix slowly with the water to attract larger fish. Last year, he decided to re-think this usage and now uses a sharp, large needle to pierce a group of sardines with fishing line into a circle (looking like a necklace of sardines) which is tied to the side of trap. This keeps the sardine in the trap and allows the water to carry the scent, without the plastic bag.

Small, plain brown paper bags with handles could be used in some circumstances instead of plastic bags and it might make sense to have them widely available. Another idea might be to have large stores sell or give away sturdy, long-use shopping bags which are smaller than the ones currently found. The smaller bag might also have a wide flap which could be placed over the opening (to keep what is inside clean) or simply left hanging inside the bag when not needed.

Cultural Understandings of Plastic Usage: Plastic Bottles

* hosts should give guest unopened bottles of drinks

Fresh fruit juice can be brought out for guests in (preferably clear glass) pitchers but usually water and all other beverages are served in individual bottles to be opened by the person who will drink. At restaurants, soda and water are brought to the table in closed bottles, opened and poured in front of customers; the only place you can get a pre-poured soda is at fast-food restaurants.

Many Dhofaris have a “bubbler” (a large, plastic jug of water upended into a stand; to get a glass of water, you push a small lever – some bubblers will heat or cool the water). Water jugs can be bought at stores but big families usually have a regular delivery service in which full ones are dropped off and used ones picked up. It is not common to have a bubbler in the majlis or salle; they are usually found in the kitchen.

* it’s not easy to find potable water to refill a thermos/ water bottle

In some cultures, many people carry water bottles with them, but in Dhofar it is not always easy to find potable water through water fountains. Most drinking water is carried in plastic bottles.

*a bottle of water is a kind of currency

I don’t use small bottles of water for drinking but I always have a 12-pack at home and my office to give away. At work I hand them out to the man who repairs the copy machine, the FedEx delivery guy, the worker who comes to fix the AC and the cleaner. At home I give them to the repairmen. As they don’t carry water bottles and it’s often over 85 degrees, a plastic bottle of water is a welcomed gift.

To me, thinking about how to lessen the use of plastic bottles means thinking about practical measures that would work within a Dhofari context. For example, an expat faulted me for giving away plastic bottles of water but the alternatives would be handing over a glass of water to be drunk immediately or giving a thermos full of water, which might cause the recipient to wonder how fresh the water was. I could get a bubbler in my office, hand the worker a thermos and let them fill it themselves, but then they would have to carry around the thermos. The best option is the most expensive: I would need a supply of thermoses with carrying straps and a bubbler. And not everyone has time and easy access to a sink and soap to clean the thermos. The safety issue is paramount – hot weather and high humidity can mean water becoming contaminated quickly.

Some milk is sold in cardboard containers; that is one method that might be tried for water and juice. Another idea might be for water and juice to be sold in small glass bottles which could be delivered to houses and restaurants in flat; then the empties could be picked up, washed by the company and reused.

Foodways: Cultural Issues Pertaining to Litter

(photos by S. B.)

I recently heard a lecture by Dr. Sean Smith about Pro-Nature/ Anti-Litter Environmental Discourses in Oman which led me to reflect on cultural understandings relating to litter in Dhofar.

Three issues come to the forefront for me: hierarchies of need, time and the re-use of materials. It’s also important to think about creating research that opens up discussions about blame and the role of people hired to pick up trash.

First, I want to give a short example of how “litter” can be conceived in different contexts. Last summer, I was walking around Boston with a cup of coffee. When I had drunk as much as I wanted and decided to toss the cup, I realized that I felt compelled to put my leftover coffee into the ground. Putting a liquid into a trash can felt like “littering” to me.

I hadn’t known before how much I had internalized this aspect of Dhofari culture. If one is inside a building, liquids stay in the bottle/ can/ cup and get tossed away, but if one is outside, then you empty the liquid into the earth (or in the ocean if you are in a boat) before putting the container in the trashcan. This means less weight in trash bags and less chance of spilled liquids, but to me there is also an intangible sense that you should put liquids back into the earth. Sometimes there is a more prosaic reason; while camping, you pour leftover liquids onto a fire to stop the wood from burning so you can use the wood later or to leave useable wood for someone else.

So I stood on the Boston sidewalk and looked around for an area without cement to pour my coffee. I finally found a small piece of ground next to a tree but it was very dry and hard-packed; as I poured, some coffee splashed back up and stained the hem of my skirt, the rest flowed off the dirt and onto the sidewalk. Hmmm. A research moment indeed – I was used to pouring liquid into forgiving sand.

Below are some cultural understandings of litter/ waste in Dhofar.

Hierarchies of Need

1 – making recyclable trash convenient to take is more important than maintaining clean areas by dumpsters

If someone saw me put a bag of aluminum soda cans next to a dumpster, they might think I was being lazy but several years ago a company started to pay for empty/ used cans so expat workers started to collect them. To help in this effort (and to save people from the indignity of having to get into a dumpster) Dhofaris often put empty cans next to, not inside of, dumpsters. So I collect my soda cans in my kitchen and, when I have a bag-full, I set it close to the dumpster.

At picnic sites, Dhofaris often separate cans from other trash, sometimes leaving them in a small pile by dumpsters or leaving trash in closed (knotted) plastic bags with the aluminum cans in heap nearby.

Some people, including myself, do the same with cardboard boxes. Boxes are flattened and set near dumpsters either for people to take and sell to the recycling company, or for people to take, tear into pieces and feed to goats.

2 – leaving food in a way that is palatable for animals is more important that picking up all food containers

In general, Dhofaris try very hard not to waste food. On picnics, leftovers might be carefully packaged and given to other people (even strangers) who are sitting nearby or expat workers, such as gas station attendants. If people are sitting far from others and/ or will be returning home late, extra food is usually set out for animals.

If there are clean-swept, flat rocks nearby, the food is placed there. If not, the food is placed on a piece of plastic or in a flimsy metal container. Even members of my research group, who pick up every piece of litter before leaving, will leave the food container so that wild animals (foxes, stray cats and dogs, seagulls by beaches, etc.) will have “clean” food. To set food on sandy ground is seen as not just unkind but wasteful as the food will not be eaten.

3 – taking food in a way that makes it easy to give to other people (usually strangers) is more important than not having a single-use container

It is normal in some cultures to bring glass containers to restaurants, so that leftovers can be taken home without using additional packaging. But Dhofaris do not often eat “old” food, leftover food from restaurants is either left on the table or set into foil or plastic containers and put into a plastic or paper bag which is then handed over to an expat laborer.


It took me awhile to understand that during a picnic or camping trip, litter has a time component. The men in my research group will toss bottles and cans behind them (away from the campfire) or towards periphery of the living area as we talk and eat. My attempts to stop this behavior was met with firm disapproval. “Let the people take their rest,” I was told.

At the end of the evening, when the men get up and start to put belongings into their cars, one or more of them (without discussion) will do clean-up duty, pouring liquids into the earth, putting all the trash into bags and setting aside aluminum cans. So now I do the same, flinging soda cans with abandon during dinner and assiduously picking up everything later.  

If a person came in the middle of dinner/ the camping trip and saw the mess at the outskirts of where we were sitting, they might do an internal condemnation such as I used to do. Yet, in over 17 years of picnics and camping, I have never seen any Dhofari leave litter at a picnic or camping site.


From what I have seen, only two items (aluminum cans and cardboard boxes) are collected to be sold back to a recycling company, but two other items are put to new uses: glass containers with metal screw-tops and plastic laundry soap/ cleaning fluid jugs.

Both small and large glass containers are cleaned and reused. Small glass jars bottles (with the previous label removed) are used for storing bukhoor, small pieces of wood perfumed with aromatic oils.

Large glass bottles, such as Vimto bottles, are used for honey from local hives. That size container is a standard measurement and giving honey is a smaller container would be seen as being cheap.

The large plastic jugs for laundry soap/ cleaning fluid/ automobile oil are used by fishermen to mark their fish traps. The containers are large and brightly colored (thus, can be seen from a distance), cheap, sea-worthy, long-lasting and buoyant. Several are tired to a rope attached to a fish trap which is resting on the seabed. The colors of the jugs and the way they are tired are distinctive for each fisherman so he can easily find his own traps.

[This brings up a topic I will discuss in a later essay: replacing plastics means reflecting on all the ways that item is used. For example, banning plastic laundry soap jugs would cause hardship for fishermen. One alternative might be incorporating an environmentally practical alternative in conjunction with meeting the needs of the community, such as requiring stores to carry only biodegradable laundry soap pods sold in cardboard boxes and making free, colored buoys available to all fishermen.]

Importance of Multi-faceted Research – Issue of  Blaming Tourists

The presentation quoted someone who made fun of the “blame the tourist” excuse for litter on Omani beaches/ scenic places but I have never seen a Dhofari who owned or was related to someone who owned herd animals (camels, cows, goats) leave litter after a picnic or camping. Nor have I ever seen a fisherman toss anything plastic into the ocean as “it will stay too long time.” The people who live here and are connected to animal husbandry or fishing are aware that litter will kill animals/ hurt the environment that they count on for their livelihood.

Importance of Multi-faceted Research – Issue of Cleaners

The presentation also quoted someone who suggested that the government should stop paying for workers to clean the beaches as a way to teach people to pick up after themselves.

My take on this point of view is that there is no one alive who thinks littering is a good idea. People don’t litter because they are unaware that it’s wrong, they do it because they are lazy. If such are people are confronted with a beach full of trash, they will simply find another beach and destroy that one.

And given the prevalent “don’t interfere with other people” mentality in Oman, having people police each other is not going to work. [The one scenario that might be effective is if one or more older men talked to a group of young men, but that would require the older men arriving at exactly the right time, the ages to be clear (young men would not shame older men) and for there to be no women as in Dhofar, a man will not approach a group with women he doesn’t know unless there is an emergency.]  

In Dhofar, the men who clean beaches are incorporated into systems of giving. As I mentioned above, the men in my research group will always separate out empty aluminum cans for the cleaners to sell to the recycling company; half-empty jugs of water and extra containers of drinks will also be left. Also, if staying in a shelter, Dhofaris often leave extra foodstuffs, such as vegetables and fruit, tied up to the rafters of shelters for anyone to take.

Thus there is a mutually symbiotic relationship. The picnickers/ campers can leave their trash in an organized manner (in the dumpster or in tied plastic bags) so that they don’t need to carry it home and they can leave any leftover goods knowing that they will be used. Cleaners are paid for their work and are often able to take away foodstuffs that might be eaten or sold.

sb - beach 2

I am happy to announce that my third book, Houseways in Southern Oman,  is now available for pre-order

I am happy to announce that my third book, Houseways in Southern Oman,  is now available for pre-order;jsessionid=5F50CF600F2E67884717DB4392396282.prodny_store02-atgap17?Ntk=P_key_Contributor_List&Ns=P_Sales_Rank&Ntx=mode+matchall

Headscarves and Respect – A Foreigner’s Opinion

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

Given the current upheaval about what women wear, I am re-publishing an essay I wrote 5 years ago: Living Expat – Dressing, Covering, Swimming, and Mutual Respect

I have read several essays about supporting women’s right to not wear headscarves/ modest clothing. I wish the argument was framed a little differently and centered on women’s right to CHOOSE what they want to wear.

I have lived in Oman on the Arabian Peninsula for 17 years and I have never been harassed, insulted, frightened, much less attacked, by any Omani for being American or a Christian. Likewise, I have never been made to feel different or foreign or wrong because I was wearing clothes which were normal in my culture. Because I choose to live and work here, I do make the small adjustment of wearing clothes that cover my knees and shoulders when teaching, but I wear the same brands I wear when I’m in the States: Jjill, Fresh Produce, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer and April Cornell.

When I visit Omani friends at home, I wear what they are wearing out of respect. It is a simple adaptation like taking off my shoes before I walk into a friend’s house and learning to eat with my hands, as in the States I would shooing my cats out of the living room if a friend who is allergic comes to visit or not eating ice cream sundaes in front of a friend who is dieting.

In Omani houses, I wear an abayah (the long loose black cloak that women wear on the Arabian Peninsula) with a black headscarf or a dhobe (the long, loose, patterned cotton dress local women wear) with a lossi (a matching, light cotton headscarf). At first it was a little difficult to maneuver surrounded by almost 4 yards of fabric, but I learned how to gather up some of the extra while walking up stairs and to arrange my lossi to stay neatly in place, something akin to learning to French-braid my hair in middle school.

During Ramadan, I also wore a headscarf during the day out of  respect for the culture and I was interested to see how it would feel psychologically to cover. In Oman, unlike some Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia,  abayahs and headscarves are not required by law for daily life. Most women wear them because of personal beliefs and/ or traditions. Most women wear abayahs but some are very loose and plain black, some are black have colored decorations, some are colored and some are worn like an open cloak showing the jeans or skirts worn underneath. Some women wear tightly wrapped, plain black scarves, others wear colored scarves or have the scarf resting on their shoulders. Some women (both expat and Omani) have suggested that non-Muslim women should wear headscarves as a show of solidarity. Other women (both expat and Omani) have emphatically told me that I should not wear an abayah as it is not in my heritage.

The first time walking into the mall with a colored headscarf was tough – I felt self-conscious and hypocritical. I am in the mall usually once a week, reading at my café or shopping, and to walk in with a headscarf made me feel like I was playing a game.

When the Omani men in my research group saw me wearing a headscarf for the first time, they would smile, nod, make a quick comment and then ignore the issue; no one ever pressed me to wear a black sheila (headscarf) or abayah. It probably took me six or seven times wearing the headscarf in public until I became comfortable with it; then the only issues were finding scarves which co-ordinated with my clothes and were the right fabric weight, not too heavy or stiff.

My big insight about wearing a headscarf is that it gives you something to do. Standing in the grocery store trying to decide which spaghetti sauce to buy, I reach up, tighten, adjust, and smooth it down. Fussing with the scarf became a habit, a micro-control fidget, like men straightening their tie or shooting their cuffs. It’s a little uncomfortable when it’s hot and humid outside, but very helpful when I’m in a room with the AC on full blast. It’s another 2 minutes of getting ready time as I pull out my tiered hanger with 15 scarves and try to figure out which one looks best with my outfit.

When Ramadan ended, I went back to uncovered hair during the day but I still wear scarves when I see my Omani female friends at home. The result was I put a piece of fabric on my head and it was sometimes a little hot but that’s about it. I did not feel more religious, or less religious, or any particular change. I am a Methodist by baptism and by my own choice when I was in my 20s. Neither my religious devotion or personal beliefs are diminished or altered by having a piece of fabric on my head. I didn’t feel closer to God – I didn’t feel farther away from God. And I don’t believe God enjoins me to judge other people by what they have on their head or their body.

Most Sunday and Tuesday nights I go swimming with 60 or so Arab, Muslim women wearing burqinis. I first learned to swim in a public pool with a Red Cross instructor and over my 50 years I have swum in the Wilde Lake village center pool in Columbia MD, the Old Red Gym at University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of North Dakota pool when it was negative 10 outside, Canadian lakes, the student center at MIT, the Atlantic Ocean at Ocean City, and the municipal pool in Tacoma, WA.

The women who swim at my pool now are just like the women I have swum with at all those other places, only they are wearing a bit more clothing. They are in swimming pants or leggings with short or long-sleeved tops as is consistent with the conservative culture, but no one has ever told me that I have to wear what they wear. I am a life-long feminist but I don’t believe my feminism allows me to dictate someone else’s feminism. The women at the pool and my Omani women friends (college-educated, multi-lingual, who work and have traveled/ lived abroad) don’t feel comfortable exposing their body to other women, much less men. Who am I to argue that with them?

When I go swimming, I get lots of smiles, waves, friendly glances and “hellos” from women I don’t know. In almost a year of twice weekly visits to the pool I have never received a harsh word, much less a lecture, on my bright blue Land’s End swimsuit. We all exercise mutual respect for different customs and religions while we exercise our bodies. And then we will go home happy. It’s not difficult.

Teaching Literature and Staying au courantThe Man from Nowhere and the Ancient Greeks

There is a profound joy in introducing students to classic texts. I am very grateful that I have spent so much of my working life among the splendors of ancient Greek plays, Romantic Era poets, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde.

And I am happy that as I teach I have gotten better at choosing classics which speak to my students, from 20th century writers such as Tawfiq al-Hakim to more modern writers such as Mohammed Al Murr and Badriyah al Bashar. And it’s fun help them get over the newness of Moushegh Ishkhan, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Ryszard Krynicki, T’ao Yuan Ming, Tomas Tranströmer and Wisława Szymborska.

When I start the poetry class, I know that there is at least one student will be blown away by the Cold Mountain poems, Basho, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye or Fowziyah Abu-Khalid. Someone will fall in love with  “Embroidered Memory” by Lorene Zarou-Zouzounis; someone else will champion “About Mount Uludag” by Nazim Hikmet.

It’s a delight to read familiar lines and see how students relate to familiar characters. Who is going to defend Ismene this semester? Who will argue on Creon’s behalf? Who is going to laugh when Patty in Quality Street talks about her hopefulness?  If we read Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, who will my students pick as the one who deserves Chris – Kitty, Margaret or Jenny?

At the same time, it is good for me to be in the position of not knowing, to remember how it feels to be confused by a text. I became a better teacher after I spent two summers studying Arabic in Muscat. Sitting in a classroom as a student, panicking when a teacher asked me a question I did not understand, studying for a test and waiting anxiously for my grade made me more understanding of my own students.

So I try to seek out new texts to read and, perhaps, use for teaching. I scan shelves in bookstores and ask friends for suggestions. Since I don’t know Spanish writers, I asked a friend who has expertise and, following her suggestions, found “Marta Alvarado, History Professor” by Marjorie Agosín and “New Clothes” by Julia Alvarez, as well as “Tula” and “Turtle Came to See Me” by Margarita Engle.

Over the past few years, I have realized that I few students are into K-pop (BTS! Blackpink! Twice! NCT!) and so I decided to dip a toe into that cultural tradition.

The easiest way to start was movies so I duly looked at “top 10 Korean movie” lists and rented The Man from Nowhere (2010). One review mentioned that it was similar to Léon: The Professional (1994) in that it involved a young girl who is taken in and protected by a hired assassin. I thought knowing the plot would help me but there were a lot of differences, making the movie both interesting and confusing. For example, the ending surprised me. At the end of Léon, the girl is re-enrolled at her boarding school and she finally plants the small tree that she has been carrying around with her, symbolizing that she is now rooted.

At the end of The Man from Nowhere, the anti-hero asks the police for one favor and he brings the young girl he has been trying to protect back to her old neighborhood, goes into a small convenience store and buys her some composition books, writing supplies and a back-pack. Then he asks her if she will be ok. She nods, they hug and then he turns to go back into the police car.

I stared at the screen in astonishment. “That’s the end?!?” I wondered. Her father left long ago, her mother died at the start of the film, the girl was kidnapped and brutally treated for weeks, and now, with a few stationary supplies, the girl is now alone and supposed to take care of herself?

Over the next few weeks, I watched a few more and was astounded by whole new levels of plotting. It often feels like I am watching several movies at one: Assassination (2015) has freedoms fighters betrayed by team members (shades of Guns of Navarone), funny but doomed killers (shades of Bitch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and twin sisters on opposite sides of an immense cultural, educational and temperamental divide (a grown-up, super spy equivalent of the Parent Trap).

I am often bewildered as I try out comedies, historical fiction and modern thrillers such as The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008), Masquerade (2012), The Villainess (2017) and War of the Arrows (2011).

It takes a lot of concentration to understand each movie, not because of the sub-titles but the  work of trying to create new templates and figure out new tropes. How can I visually tell the difference between good guys and bad guys? Is the behavior of this woman showing that she is good or bad? Does this style of house indicate that the owners are rich, poor, old-fashioned or trend-setters? Is the meal the characters being served haut cuisine or everyday fare? Is this behavior normal or odd?

Sometimes it is good to be lost.

Houseways in Dhofar: Placement of Furniture and Sightlines – التقاليد المتبعة في ترتيب المناز بظفار

التقاليد المتبعة في ترتيب المنازل بظفار: وضع الأثاث وعلاقته بمجال النظر


click here to see original post: Houseways in Dhofar: Placement of Furniture and Sightlines

I am very grateful to Arooba Al Mashikhi for her work in translating some of my essays about houses in Dhofar.

I am grateful to Maria Cristina Hidalgo [ ] for her helpful plans and to my informants who have allowed me to chart their homes.

ممتنة لماريا كريستينا هيدالجو لسماحها لي بالاطلاع على خططها المفيدة، -ولأولئك الذين سمحوا لي برسم منازلهم.



1) Perspective view of front hallway


The first point is that when one walks through the main door, there is often no furniture in sight. Sometimes there is a high, narrow table near the door to set things on that will be out of reach of children or one might be able to get a glimpse into the salle but, as the perspective below illustrates, most of the furnishings are out of sight.

1 – عرض منظوري – للردهة – الأمامية

النقطة الأولى هي أنه عندما يمر المرء عبر الباب الرئيسي،  – لا يجدُ في الغالب اثاثاً. -–توجد أحياناً طاولة مرتفعة وضيقة بالقرب من الباب لوضع  أشياءٍ وإبقاءها – بعيدًا عن متناول الأطفال أو قد يتمكن المرء من إلقاء نظرة خاطفة على الصالة ولكن ، كما يوضح المنظور أدناه ، فإن معظم قطع الأثاث تبقى بعيدة عن الأنظار -.


2) Ground floor plan with furniture

Below is a bird’s eye view of the same house, showing how, as is usual in Dhofari houses, all the furniture is placed against the wall except for the small, moveable tables in the salle and majlis which are put in front of guests (represented here with small squares).

2) مخطط الطابق الأرضي مع الأثاث

نجدُ أدناه منظراً من الأعلى لنفس المنزل ، يوضح كيف يتم وضع الأثاث كما هو معتاد في المنازل الظفارية ، حيث توضع جميع قطع الأثاث – بمحاذاة الحائط باستثناء الطاولات الصغيرة المتحركة في الصالة والمجلس والتي توضع أمام الضيوف (- ممثلةً هنا بمربعات صغيرة)



A few notes about the ground floor plan:

  • All the furniture is against the wall, most notable in the kitchen which has a small built-in table.
  • The salle is open to the main hallway but there is also a sliding door in the family salle and a door in kitchen, plus the outside door in the majlis. Thus, there could be four different types of visitors to the house at the same time who would not see each other because each were using a different door: male guests in the majlis, female guests in the salle, relatives in the family salle and a cleaner, repair person or someone bringing supplies such as drinking water or a gas canister into the kitchen.
  • The arch over the hallway at the far end separates the more public area (guest and family salles) from the family-only areas of the kitchen and one of the family suites.
  • The bedroom and maid’s room doors are set at 180 degrees from someone walking in from the front door; there is no way to see in “by chance.” Further, the beds are placed in such as way that they can only be seen if a person walks into the room.
  • There is constant air movement; the house has split ACs (meaning the motor is on the roof) and the kitchen and every bathroom has an exhaust fan which are usually on all the time.
  • There are five family suites on the upper floor, meaning the staircase is both the least used in terms of time (no one sits on the stairs) and most used in that every member of the house will use the stairs several times a day, except for the person living in the downstairs bedroom. For example, a women who does not cook might not enter the kitchen every day and a man might not have a reason to enter the salle for a week at a time.

بعض الملاحظات – عن مخطط الطابق الأرضي:

توضع جميع قطع  الأثاث  – بمحاذاة الحائط ،  وتوضع أبرز قطع الاثاث في المطبخ الذي يحتوي على طاولة صغيرة مدمجة – في الجدار.

– الصالة مفتوحة على – الردهة الرئيسية ولكن يوجد أيضًا باب منزَلِق في الصالة العائلية وباب في المطبخ بالإضافة إلى الباب الخارجي في المجلس. وبالتالي ، يمكن أن يكون هناك أربعة أنواع مختلفة من زوار المنزل في نفس الوقت  لا يرى بعضهم  البعض الآخر لأن كلاً منهم كان يستخدم بابًا مختلفًا: الضيوف الذكور في المجلس ، و الضيوف الاناث في الصالة والأقارب في صالة العائلة، وعامل تنظيف او تصليح أوشخصا لجلب – الاحتياجات مثل مياة الشرب واسطوانة الغاز – إلى المطبخ. 

– يفصل القوس – الذي يعلو نهاية الردهة؛ المنطقة العامة (صالة الضيوف والعائلة) عن المناطق المخصصة للعائلة فقط مثل المطبخ وأحد الأجنحة العائلية

– – تُركّبُ أبواب غرف النوم وغرفة العاملة المنزلية – بزاوية 180 درجة – عن – من يدخل من الباب الأمامي حتى لا يتم رؤية مابداخلها “بالصدفة”. علاوة على ذلك ، – توضعُ الأسرة بطريقة لا يمكن رؤيتها إلا – مِمَّن يدخلُ إلى الغرفة.

– هناك حركة هواء – مستمرة لأن المنزل – مزودٌ بمكيفات مركزية (بمعنى أن مروحة المكيف على سطح المنزل)  وفي المطبخ وكل حمام  مروحةُ شفط تعمل عادة طوال الوقت.

– توجد خمسة أجنحة عائلية في – الدور العلوي ، مما يعني أن الدرج هو الأقل استخدامًا من حيث الوقت (فلا أحد يجلس على الدرج) والأكثر استخدامًا ف-  في ذات الوقت لأن كل فرد في المنزل سيستخدم السلالم عدة مرات في اليوم ، باستثناء الشخص الذي يعيش في غرفة النوم – بالدور السفلي. على سبيل المثال ، قد لا تدخل المرأة التي لا تطبخ إلى المطبخ كل يوم وقد لا يكون لدى الرجل سبباً لدخول الصالة – لأسبوع -.


3) Example of family suite



A door to the hallway which leads to a suite with a bathroom and two rooms is a very common floor plan in Dhofar; sometimes there is an additional store room. When a couple is newly married, one room is a bedroom and the other a sitting room. If they have several children, the suite will be set up as above, with one room for the parents and one for the children. When the children are older, they might be moved into a different suite which has one room with same gender relatives of the same age (siblings, cousins, etc.) and the second room as a study/ plan room. Only in very large houses would one person have a suite to themselves.

3) –  نموذجٌ لجناح عائلي

يعد تخطيط باب – الردهة – المؤدي إلى جناح – مكوَّنٍ من حمام وغرفتين تخطيطاً شائعاً جدًا في ظفار ؛  وقد تكون هناكَ أحياناً -غرفة تخزين إضافية. عندما يتزوج شخصان حديثًا ، تكون إحدى الغرف غرفة نوم والأخرى غرفة جلوس. – وإن كان – للزوجين عدة أطفال ، فسيتم إعداد الجناح على النحو التالي ، – غرفة واحدة للوالدين وغرفة للأطفال. عندما يكبر الأطفال ، قد – ينقلوا إلى جناح مختلف – – فيه غرفة – يشاطرونها أقاربهم من نفس الجنس – والعمر (الأشقاء وأبناء العم ، وما إلى ذلك) – وغرفة – ثانية تُستخدمُ  كغرفة دراسة أو تحضير. ولن تجدَ شخصاً يسكنُ جناحاً بأكمله إلا  – في المنازل – الضخمة.

Houseways: Who Visits Which Rooms? – التقاليد المتبعة في ترتيب المنازل: أي حجرة يحق للشخص الجلوس فيها؟

I am very grateful to Arooba Al Mashikhi for her work in translating some of my essays about houses in Dhofar.

click here to see original post:  July 10, 2021

Upper-class, English, Victorian-era homes had a set of rooms for children which would include a day nursery, night nursery, schoolroom, bathroom and the nanny’s room. In present-day America, a middle-class child might play on the kitchen floor while a parent is cooking, do homework on the dining room table, watch TV in a basement rec room, sit by the fire in a den or study, i.e. sit in different rooms for different purposes during one day.

كانت منازل الطبقة العليا الإنجليزية في العصر الفيكتوري تحتوي على مجموعة من الغرف للأطفال والتي تشمل حضانة نهارية وحضانة ليلية ، وغرفة مدرسية ، وحمام وغرفة للمربية. أما الان في أمريكا ، قد يلعب طفل من الطبقة المتوسطة على أرضية المطبخ أثناء قيام أحد الوالدين بالطهي  أو أداء واجباته المنزلية على طاولة غرفة الطعام  أو مشاهدة التلفزيون في غرفة الاسترخاء في الطابق السفلي ، أو الجلوس أو الدراسة بجانب الموقد في غرفة الطعام أي الجلوس في غرف مختلفة لأغراض مختلفة خلال يوم واحد.

Whereas young Dhofari children spend most of their in-door time in their parent’s bedroom and the salle. When they are close to puberty they will move to their own bedroom or a room with several children who are the same gender and around the same age. Children are only in the majlis in the presence of adults and for a reason, for example an uncle is visiting or they are working with a tutor.

في حين أن الأطفال في ظفار يقضون معظم وقتهم في المنزل في غرفة نوم والديهم وفي الصالة. عندما يقتربون من سن البلوغ ، ينتقلون إلى غرفة نومهم الخاصة أو غرفة بها العديد من الأطفال من نفس الجنس وفي نفس العمر تقريبًا. يتواجد الأطفال في المجلس فقط بحضور الكبار ولسبب ما ، على سبيل المثال ، عندما يقوم العم أو الخال بزيارة أو عند دراستهم مع معلمهم.

Dhofari children spend a lot of their free time out of the house once they can walk: in the hosh if younger than 3 or 4, then in front/ near house, then within the neighborhood in mixed gender/ mixed age groups until close to puberty. They also know the salle or majlis of many houses (grandparents, uncles/ aunts and older siblings) but will usually not play/ hang out in a cousin’s bedroom, although they might sleep there if it is an overnight visit. Children sleeping over at relatives’ houses is common, even among families which live close to each other. For example, when one female Dhofari friend was sick, she sent her child to stay for two weeks with her parents who live nearby.

يقضي الأطفال في ظفار الكثير من أوقات فراغهم خارج المنزل بمجرد أن يتمكنوا من المشي: في الحوش إذا كان أصغر من 3 أو 4 سنوات ، ثم أمام أو بالقرب المنزل ، ثم داخل الحي في مجموعات مختلطة الجنس والأعمار حتى قرب سن البلوغ . إنهم يعرفون أيضًا الصالة أو المجلس للعديد من المنازل (الأجداد والأعمام / العمات والأشقاء الأكبر سنًا) ولكنهم عادة لا يلعبون أو يتسكعون في غرفة نوم ابن عمهم ، على الرغم من أنهم قد ينامون هناك لليوم التالي إذا كانت زيارة ليلية. إن نوم الأطفال في منازل الأقارب أمر شائع ، حتى بين العائلات التي تعيش بالقرب من بعضها البعض. على سبيل المثال ، عندما كانت صديقة ظفارية مريضة ، أرسلت طفلها للإقامة لمدة أسبوعين مع والديها اللذين يعيشان في مكان قريب.

As children grow older, they experience the same house differently as the use of rooms is linked to both gender and age. For example, a Gibali girl visiting her paternal uncle’s house: as a baby she might be taken into the majlis by her father who is holding her; as a five-year old, she might spend the visit playing outside with male and female cousins; as a 14 year old, she might sit in the salle with her mom and older sisters. If she marries a cousin from this family, she will be expected to go into the majlis when there are visitors to bring tea and, perhaps, sit and visit.

مع تقدم الأطفال في العمر ، يعيشون في نفس المنزل بشكل مختلف حيث يرتبط استخدام الغرف بكل من الجنس والعمر. فعلى سبيل المثال ، عند زيارة فتاة جبالية منزل عمها: كطفلة قد يمسك والدها يدها ويحملها إلى المجلس ؛ وعندما تبلغ من العمر خمس سنوات ، قد تقضي الزيارة تلعب في الخارج مع أبناء عمومتها من الذكور والإناث ؛ وعندما تبلغ من العمر 14 عامًا ، قد تجلس في الصالة مع والدتها وأخواتها الأكبر سنًا. وإذا تزوجت من ابن عم من هذه العائلة ، فمن المتوقع أن تذهب إلى المجلس عندما يكون هناك زوار لإحضار الشاي ، وربما للجلوس والزيارة.

Further, men experience houses differently according to what his relationship is with the house owners. A boy will spend time in the salle of relatives’ houses when young and the majlis when older but there are many variables. For example, a 25-year-old Gibali man with three sisters (A, B and C) would have different visiting patterns depending on who owns/ controls the house that the sister lives in. He visits sister A in her salle because A and her husband own their own home and visits sister B in her salle because B married a cousin, thus the other women in the salle are his relatives. But he visits sister C in the majlis because C lives in her husband’s father’s home who are not relatives, so the salle is for C’s mother- and sisters-in-law.

فضلا عن ذلك، يستشعر الرجل المنازل بشكل مختلف وفقًا لعلاقته مع أصحاب المنزل، حيث يقضي الصبي وقتًا في الصالة بمنزل الأقارب عندما يكون صغيراً وفي المجلس عندما يكبر ولكن هناك متغيرات كثيرة. فعلى سبيل المثال ، سيكون لرجل جبالي يبلغ من العمر 25 عامًا ولديه ثلاث أخوات (أ ، ب ، ج) أنماط زيارة مختلفة اعتمادًا على من يملك / يتحكم في المنزل الذي تعيش فيه الأخت. فيزور الأخت (أ) في صالتها لأنها هي وزوجها يمتلكون منزلهما الخاص بهما ويزور الأخت “ب” في صالتها لأن “ب” تزوجت من ابن عمها ، فباقي النساء في الصالة هم من أقاربه. ولكنه يزور الأخت (ج) في المجلس لأن (ج) تعيش في منزل والد زوجها وهم ليسوا أقارب ، لذلك فإن الصالة مخصصة لوالدة زوجها وأخواته.

In a similar way, a married man who visits his wife when she is at her parent’s house might sit in the salle (if he is closely related to her family) or the majlis (if he is not). As most Dhofari women stay with their mother or an older sister for 40 days after the birth of their first child, a husband’s behavior is on display. All the female relatives of the new mother will know how often he visits, how long he stays and what he brings with him. This information is passed on to the general community, for example when a general question such as “how is the new mom doing?” is answered with, “fine, alhamdulillah, and her husband came every day to visit in the majlis,” his reputation (and the reputation of his family) is increased. This is a man who respects his wife and takes his responsibilities seriously. When the sister of one friend had her first baby, the family tried not to use the majlis at certain times so the husband could visit his wife and baby in privacy.

وبطريقة مماثلة ، يمكن للرجل المتزوج الذي يزور زوجته عندما تكون في منزل والديها أن يجلس في الصالة (إذا كان على صلة وثيقة بأسرتها) أو في المجلس (إذا لم يكن كذلك). ونظرًا لأن معظم النساء الظفاريات يبقين مع أمهن أو أختهن الكبرى لمدة 40 يومًا بعد ولادة طفلهن الأول ، فإن سلوك الزوج يكون على مرأى من الجميع. فستعرف جميع قريبات الأم الجديدة عدد المرات التي يزورها ، ومدة إقامته وما الذي يجلبه معه عند الزيارة. وتنقل هذه المعلومات إلى المجتمع العام ، فعلى سبيل المثال عند طرح سؤال عام مثل “كيف حال الأم الجديدة؟” تكون الإجابة: “بخير ، الحمد لله ، وزوجها يأتي كل يوم لزيارتها في المجلس” ، فتزداد شهرته (وسمعة عائلته). فهذا رجل يحترم زوجته ويأخذ مسؤولياته على محمل الجد. وعندما رزقت أخت أحد الأصدقاء بمولودها الأول ، حاولت الأسرة عدم استخدام المجلس في أوقات معينة حتى يتمكن الزوج من زيارة زوجته وطفله في خصوصية.

(photo of majlis by informant, used with permission)

 (صورة للمجلس التقطها أحد مقدمي المعلومات، وعرضت بعد الموافقة)

New essay: “Shin is for Saracen” on the Arabic alphabet website

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour –

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

“Shin is for Saracen” –


Shîn is distinguished from Sîn by a triangle of dots over the teeth (as with Tha or Z͎ha). To my ear it makes sense that the Sh sound would be represented like an S with something added. Shîn sounds heavier, thicker, as if it utilized more of the voice-making apparatus. Arabic adds the three dots to Sin (as we add the letter H next to the letter S). 

In manuscripts of sufficient age you will also see the clearer sibilant Sîn carrying the same three-dot load, but underneath, i.e., ڛ, (no doubt to make the difference between Sîn and Shîn unmistakable). In contemporary Turkish (in Roman letters), the SH sound is represented by ş, an S with a cedilla, as in şaşmak, to be surprised, or şişlemek, to pierce to stab, or şiş, a skewer, as in şişkebap


The great Greek poet Constantine Cavafy lived in Alexandria. He knew enough Arabic to entitle one of his early poems (1890s), «Σαμ ελ Νεσíμ» (Sam el Nesîm), the name of an Egyptian spring festival. Or almost the name, since the festival is properly speaking Shamm al-nasîm, with a Shîn. You cannot blame him, as there is no SH sound in Greek.

Shamma in Arabic means to sniff or breathe in. Shamm al-Nasim means “inhaling the air,” “enjoying the air,” to greet the coming of spring. It can be traced back, before Arabic, to a word with a similar sound, in ancient Egyptian, a proper noun Shemu, the season between May and September. Shamm al-Nasîm is observed by both Christians and Muslims according to the Coptic calendar, the day after Coptic Easter. Edward Lane, writing in 1834, translates shamm al-nasim “smelling of the Z͎ephyr”: “the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats, generally northwards to take the air… The greater number dine in the country or on the river” (Lane, 483). It is, Lane adds, a festival observed with persistence: “This year (1834) they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to ‘smell’ it.” 

Cavafy didn’t keep “Sam el Nesîm” in his complete works, perhaps because the premise is too simple. (It’s a poem which says this is a time of celebration, but down deep we know we’ll return to our usual grim lives soon enough. Or, more personally, “it’s their celebration, not mine.”) There are many ways to describe the grain of daily life in a culture other than ours; you can’t help but suspect that even in the most neutral descriptions there is something suspicious or demeaning. If Cavafy knew the etymology, as is likely enough, it would have been possible to make more use of the fact that the contemporary festivals traced back pre-Islamic sources. Poets (شعراء, shu‘râ’) love that.



You Have Nothing to Fear from Sheep’s Eyes but Beware the Carrot Sweet: Researching Foodways in Southern Oman

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.