Photos of houses in the Salalah area

I am very grateful to Ms. Onaiza Shaikh for these wonderful photos which show a range of design choices in the Salalah area of Dhofar. I would also like to mention that I asked for, and Ms. Shaikh kindly agreed to photograph, only houses that stood on main streets. As these are all private houses, I will not comment except by grouping them by styles and the selection is limited to houses whose owners know the structure will be always in the public eye, i. e. because of their location on heavily-trafficked roads, these houses are seen by hundreds of people every day. (Please note that colored swirls in the front of some of the houses are cars that were blurred out so the license plate does not appear.)

Examples of houses which incorporate older design elements such as load-bearing timbers and a wind tower

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Examples of houses with arched windows

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Examples of houses with Greco-Roman or Mediterranean style elements such as a pedimented portico and tiled roof-overhangs

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Examples of modern-style houses with facades incorporating several types of materials, dark colors, intricate designs and non-arched windows (e.g. narrow, extremely large, curved and/ or square)

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Example of rental house (the complete phone number of the rental company is written on the front, Ms. Shaikh has blurred out the last 4 digits)

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Houseways in Dhofar: Placement of Furniture and Sightlines

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

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.

Model

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).

Model

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.

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 below, 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.

Model

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I will be presenting ”Private Lives in Public Spaces: Perceptions of Space-Usage in Southern Oman” on Dec. 2 at the MESA annual meeting

‘Private Lives in Public Spaces: Perceptions of Space-Usage in Southern Oman’ – Dr. M. Risse

photos by: Onaiza Shaikh; plans by: Maria Cristina Hidalgo https://www.mariacristinah.com/

Middle East Studies Association annual meeting

https://mesana.org/annual-meeting/current-meeting

abstract

This presentation discusses issues related to the cultural perceptions of space and privacy on the Arabian Peninsula. The Merriam-Webster definition of privacy is: the quality or state of being apart from company or observation, and it’s the “apart from observation” aspect that I want to focus on because if someone is in public spaces, they aren’t alone (i.e. can’t be “apart from company”) but they can be unobserved.  Based on fifteen years of experience and research in southern Oman, I will focus on how men and women navigate the same or nearby public spaces at the same time. Using examples from shops, grocery stores, universities, restaurants, cafes, airports and hospitals I will discuss who moves where according to cultural rules about position and proximity. For example, an initiative at one bank to have a “women’s only” teller fizzled out (as did a scheme to give women customers pink bank cards), but customers and clerks continue to follow strict, unwritten rules about who stands where. Another example is universities. In some Gulf countries, there are separate campuses for men and women. Omani institutions of higher learning have only one campus yet there are both physical (having two sets of doors for classrooms) and mental (where students choose to sit) barriers to gender-mixing.

Houseways: ‘Homespaces’ Away from Home

plans by Maria Cristina Hidalgo, https://www.mariacristinah.com/

This essay focuses on areas which are perceived as a home. For both picnics and camping, all the general understandings of etiquette followed in houses apply although usually everyone takes on the role as host to some degree. For example, rather than the host pushing people to eat or drink, when any person opens the coolbox, they will act like a host (asking each person what they would like) before they take something to drink. Food that is opened is passed around before the person who opened the package takes any. The man who is cooking might ask a man who comes late to bring fresh bread or more supplies such as water although no one would ever ask a “guest” to bring anything to one’s house.

Further, the cook decides when to eat, but unlike inside a home, in which the hosting family must do all the work, all the people should share by clearing space on the mat, setting out a plastic cover, getting the hot sauce, cutting the limes, etc. And people should, of their own accord, help with the clean-up.

In general, picnicking in open space means creating a private salle. Dhofaris on picnics see themselves as inhabiting a homespace which is inviolate. The space is always clearly defined either by bodies (a group of women sitting in a tight circle) or mats; if there are women, the space must never be approached unless there is specific, immediate need. Men will approach other groups of men to ask for information or share food, but not a group of woman. Cars are always parked to block the groups from view.

Some families share one large mat; other families might make two seating areas, one near the car and one at more of a distance. The two spaces act as salle and majlis; as in a house, small children will act as messengers and carriers and have freedom of both mats and the space between them.  

 The exact amount of space depends on the landscape. The zone under temporary control of the family might be very large or, in crowded places like beaches on the night of the full moon, might only encompass a few meters more than the mat with the car at an angle chosen for privacy. In open areas like the desert or near-desert open spaces, people should camp out of sight of others.

Government- and hand-built straha (“hut”) are important in that they are roofed; shade is essential in Dhofar for most of the year. Both kinds of shelters are first come-first serve. Even if a man made the structure himself, if someone has parked in front of it and set up camp, the builder has no recourse and must wait until that person has left. Sometimes, men will leave bundles of wood, their blankets and some supplies in a shelter and go fishing; no one will take the space or steal the provisions.  

Once the car is parked in front; the shelter is treated like a person’s house whether it is occupied for a few hours or days. As with picnics, the car acts as the bab, the gate in the wall around the house. No one will come nearer than the car without calling out loudly and waiting to be greeted. Normally, even if the person is invited to come closer, they will stay on the far side of the car and explain what they want, to ask for something or give away food. Since there are no internal divisions in strahas, the space is like a salle and a man will usually not accept to sit down or come close unless he is a close friend.

Camping is slightly different as there are three layers while strahas and picnics have only the dichotomy of being outside (the far side of the cars, mats or circle of bodies) and inside (where the people are sitting).

The first layer is where the cars are parked, an area that functions like a hosh. Anyone can walk on the far side of the cars without acknowledging/ being acknowledged. On beaches, the area below the high tide mark is see as a free passageway. The passer-by might lift his hand or call out, but a man walking next to the water or beyond the cars is like a man walking on the far side of a house wall. A stranger who approaches a camping area and needs help will not come closer than the cars. For example, he will stand on the far side and call out his request for a tow or a tow-rope.

The second space, like a majlis, is the public area for friends and family, usually delineated by mats in the space bounded by the cars and whatever natural features are used such as the ocean, wadi walls, rocks and drop offs. Once a man has approached, called out and been invited “in,” he may join the group and sit on the mat. If he is older, younger men will offer him their chairs or pillows to lean on. The new-comer, as in a majlis, will be offered whatever there is to eat or drink.

The third space, corresponding to the bedroom, is the area used for sleeping. This can be all or part of the inside of the shelter or the area closest to the overhang and is delineated by either piled or set out sleeping mats, pillows, bags of clothing, etc. This zone should never be acknowledged or approached by anyone who is not spending the night; sleeping bags, blankets and personal gear are treated as invisible. A man might reach over and take his blanket to use as a pillow to lean against, but no one else should touch it unless the owner offers it although food, juice, soda, water and the accoutrements for tea are available to everyone.

Safety on picnics and while camping is first and foremost about wild animals: scorpions and snakes in sandy and rocky places, wolves and hyenas in unpopulated areas. The site has to be chosen with care and a fire needs to be lit after dark. Foodstuffs need to be put in cars or well-packed and placed near the fire/ sleeping people to keep them safe from foxes. Animal attacks are very rare but keeping a fire going is essential in areas away from towns.

Example of picnic site on a beach- note cooking fire is away from mat and cars are parked to provide privacy

Model

Examples of camping sites

 

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Bibliographies on topics connected to Dhofar, Oman

(photo by S. B.)

Bibliography of the Modern South Arabian languages, compiled by Janet Watson and Miranda Morris, updated October 2021

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/345983960_Bibliography_of_the_Modern_South_Arabian_languages_Compiled_by_Janet_Watson_and_Miranda_Morris

Bibliographies I have compiled

Houseways

Pre-historical and Historical Houseways in the Dhofar Region: Selected References

Foodways

Updated bibliography from my research on Foodways in Southern Oman

Selected Bibliography: Animals, Birds and Fish in Southern Oman

What I’ve Been Reading: Food, Cooking, Cuisine, Culture, Anthropology, & History

General

Bibliography of Works Consulted for Research on Dhofar, Oman

Annotated Bibliography of Texts Pertaining to the Dhofar Region of Oman

Short bibliography of books about Dhofar in Arabic

Teaching Literature

Selected Bibliography: Primary and Secondary Texts for Literature Teachers on the Arabian Peninsula

Houseways: House plans

(drawings by Maria Cristina Hidalgo, https://www.mariacristinah.com/ )

Below are three houseplans with comments to help illustrate living spaces in Dhofar.Model

House 1 – It is easy to note that this is an older house, probably built in the 1980s or 90s, as it has the salle as the main, not separate, room. The second (back) door is also built off the salle, not from the kitchen as is usual in more modern houses. The unmarked room would be for storage. Also note that the internal door to the majlis opens directly into the salle; now there is usually a short hallway, or at least the entrance is set at an angle so there are no direct sight lines.

Model

House 2- Note that now the salle is now a separate room and there are two doors between the  majlis and the rest of the interior of the house so that the house feels more segmented. Also there is an internal door in the hallway, to give the two back bedrooms more privacy.

IMG_2010

House 3 – built approximately 2010.

These three examples show how the trend in housing is towards creating more closed off/ divided spaces. In house 1, a person sitting in the salle would have visual access to anyone coming or leaving; in house 2 someone in the salle could see the front door but in house 3 only a person sitting opposite the salle entrance could know who was coming or leaving. Likewise in house 1, someone in the kitchen could hear what was being said in the salle; in house 2, it would be more difficult but one could hear the sounds of people in the hallway. In house 3, the kitchen is very cut off from the rest of the house. In both houses 1 and 2, the majlis is separated from the rest of the house by the bathroom area and two doors. 

 

Houseways: House Construction, part 2

(photos by Onaiza Shaikh)

This is the second of two posts which show the stages of house construction in Dhofar. I am very grateful to Onaiza Shaikh for taking such clear and helpful photos of several houses to show the basic steps.

[Steps 1 – 6 are explained here: Houseways: House construction, part 1 ]

1 – prepare the plot by smoothing the ground and outlining the shape in white chalk

2 – excavating the footprint

3 – building a series of cement block squares that are painted with water-proof paint, then a rebar metal frame in placed inside and the inside is filled with liquid cement, then the surrounding space is re-filled with dirt

4 – creating the sub-base (plinth) and foundation slab by packing earth over the filled-in cement squares, then building up a low cement exterior wall (the outline of the house) and low cement block walls (the interior load-bearing walls), each of these sections are filled in packed earth then covered with a layer of cement – rebar is set into this foundation and sticks up from the smoothed cement base – the result is a base about one meter off the ground with smooth cement walls and a surface which is marked by the tops of cement blocks (6″ or more high) which show the outline of the interior walls

5 – building walls of cement block reinforced with columns of steel and cement (created from liquid cement that is poured into wooden forms constructed around the rebar)

6 – the house begins to take shape

(in this posting)

7 – poles are set up to support wooden forms for the ceilings/ roof/ floors of upper stories

8 – the second story is constructed

9 – the roof is poured using a stretch pumper and the roof wall is built

10 – the major construction is now finished and the house can stay in this unfinished state for months

11 – exterior finishing is added: plaster/ paint, windows and doors

12 – the boundary wall is built

Steps 7 – 9

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Steps 10 – 12

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Construction equipment

A note on house photos: I hired Onaiza Shaikh to take photos of design elements (such as windows) and house construction. Given that those photos show only a small part of the house or an unfinished house, it is not possible to tell whose house it is or where it is. Ms. Shaikh or I removed all identifying markers such as signs stating the owner’s name and any people, including workers. Photos of a complete house are a different matter. On one hand, I do not want to post a photo of a house that someone might recognize without the owner’s permission. On the other hand, if I post photos for which I have permission, i.e. photos of friends’ and informants’ houses, then many people in Dhofar will know the houses, thus know who my informants are. I have not yet figured out the answer to this problem.

Houseways: House construction, part 1

(photos by Onaiza Shaikh)

This is the first of two posts which show the stages of house construction in Dhofar. I am very grateful to Onaiza Shaikh for taking such clear and helpful photos of several houses to show the basic steps:

1 – prepare the plot by smoothing the ground and outlining the shape in white chalk

2 – excavating the footprint

3 – building a series of cement block squares that are painted with water-proof paint, then a rebar metal frame in placed inside and the inside is filled with liquid cement, then the surrounding space is re-filled with dirt

4 – creating the sub-base (plinth) and foundation slab by packing earth over the filled-in cement squares, then building up a low cement exterior wall (the outline of the house) and low cement block walls (the interior load-bearing walls), each of these sections are filled in packed earth then covered with a layer of cement – rebar is set into this foundation and sticks up from the smoothed cement base – the result is a base about one meter off the ground with smooth cement walls and a surface which is marked by the tops of cement blocks (6″ or more high) which show the outline of the interior walls

5 – building walls of cement block reinforced with columns of steel and cement (created from liquid cement that is poured into wooden forms constructed around the rebar)

6 – the house begins to take shape

(in second posting)

7 – poles are set up to support wooden forms for the ceilings/ roof/ floors of upper stories

8 – the second story is constructed

9 – the roof is poured using a stretch pumper and the roof wall is built

10 – the major construction is now finished and the house can stay in this unfinished state for months

11 – exterior finishing is added: plaster/ paint, windows and doors

12 – the boundary wall is built

Images for steps 1 – 3

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Images for steps 4 – 6

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Houseways: Dhofari/ non-Dhofari house plans

[illustration plan by Maria Cristina Hidalgo, https://www.mariacristinah.com/ ]

Sometimes you can only understand what is “normal” for you when you see the same object used differently or in a different place. That sudden shock can help you understand the unwritten/ unacknowledged rules of your culture.

One housing example is light switches. Americans who move to the Arabian Peninsula are confronted with 6 or 9 identical switches in a room or in a hallway. The switches will be placed higher than expected, almost shoulder height, and will be for the ceiling lights, wall lights and fans. As most ceiling lights are florescent which take a few seconds to turn on and the fan has a separate circular switch for speed-adjustment (but is also turned on and off by a switch) you can spend over a minute pushing switches trying to figure out how to turn things on and off. It’s even more confusing for bathroom fixtures as the switches are outside next to the door and will be for the ceiling light, vanity light and extractor fan, as well as hallway lights.

Another example is looking at house plans; since I have started on this project, I have spent a lot of time looking at house plans and seeing examples from other cultures helps me articulate what are some of the expectations of designing Dhofari houses.

Example 1:

example - walk into kitchen

In this home, you walk into the dining room, something that would not happen in a Dhofari house. Also the kitchen in open-air, with no separating wall, much less a door. This would not work in a culture in which cooking smells are considered as negative. Notice how someone standing at the sink has complete visual access to the dining area, living room and porch; there is no possibility of gender segregation. And there are 21 seats (including the 2 floor cushions in the living room), if the dining room table was rotated 90 degrees and the 2 chairs in the living room were turned, the space could easily hold 25 or more people. The space allows for a large, mixed gender party.

Example 2:

example - maids room - ready

What struck me about about this plan is how little seating there is: only 14 seats in the main area and there doesn’t look like there is enough room for 4 people on the small sofa in the private TV space. If the couple who live here invite another couple for dinner, someone is going to spend the evening sitting on a dining room table chair. Also interesting is the maid’s bedroom and bathroom. Having a female maid live-in is common in Dhofar and the room is usually next to or near the kitchen in a one-story house

Example 3:

example - 4 sitting rooms

I loved trying to figure out this house – it’s the perfect expression of a culture that has a lot of concern over who sees what and how in/ out of the group a person is.

In the bottom left is the most ‘out-group’ space:  it’s a majlis (male sitting room) with NO connection to the interior of the house and no bathroom. To the right is the main male entrance, leading to majlis with a bathroom opposite. Further ahead to the left is a dining room that is set up with two doors so the lower door (near majlis) can be closed/ locked while the table is set up, then the door near the majlis is opened while the upper door (leading into the house) is closed for family privacy. When the men leave, the door near the majlis is closed and the door to the house is opened for clean up, so male visitors can never see or hear any of the house occupants.

To the right, above the majlis, is the family entrance which opens into an entryway with a bathroom opposite the salle (sitting room for female relatives and visitors). If needed, female guests could use the dining room if the lower door (to the majlis) is locked. Notice how, if a female visitor left the salle and turned left, then left again to enter the dining room, there are NO sight-lines for the family seating section or even the doors to the kitchen or bedroom. To get to the family seating area, a visitor would have to turn right and cross the atrium; there is no way someone could do this ‘by accident’ so visitors will never be able to see who else was in the house. 

Family members would pass through the entryway and turn right into the family space, with the family bathroom to the left. Except for the bathroom that is inside the bedroom, all three bathrooms (near majlis, near salle and near family space) are built in two sections with a sink area, then an inner door leading to a toilet and sink.

The kitchen is in the upper right-hand corner (with door to prevent cooking odors from reaching the house) and a door to the outside, for bringing in supplies and taking out trash without entering the family section. The bedroom in the upper left hand corner is, to me, too big for a maid’s room (which I would expect to be on the roof or near the children’s rooms). I would assume that this would be for either an older family member, so that they don’t have to climb the stairs, or the couple most responsible for the house.

There are a lot of details that remind me of Dhofari houses, such as the storeroom off the kitchen that can be locked and the side tables in the corners of all four seating areas (external majlis, main majlis, salle and family sitting space) so that people are always sitting in a circle-shape.

Another detail is the set-back of the bedroom and kitchen doors. If you look at the bedroom door, for example, you can see that it could be moved forward (to the left) so that the doorframe is flush with the end of the lower wall. But in its current position, one can’t see if the door is open or shut unless you are standing in front of it. Further, given that the TV in the family sitting room is on the lower wall (shared with the bathroom for the salle), the people in that area can’t see who is coming out of/ going into the kitchen.

Details I see as non-Dhofari are the separate dining room, the circular table near the family seating area and the door to second staircase (below the family area bathroom). That door surprises me as there is no way from that staircase into the house, one can only go up to the upper floor where I  would expect 5, 6 or 7 bedrooms. In the houses I have seen in Dhofar, where there is a second staircase accessed from outside the house, I have always seen an internal door on the ground-level.

Also the separation of the male visitor (majlis) and female visitor/ family doors is not usual. In Dhofar, the two doors are usually a few feet apart, set at a 90 degree angle. Also the outdoor seating area is unusual in Dhofar. Outside of towns there is usually not a high wall around the house so inhabitants might sit on chairs or the steps with an open view. In towns, there is usually not outside seating by a door.

A last note on sight-lines. To me, the kitchen table next to the outside door is awkward. Anyone bringing in supplies needs to walk past the table and turn. It would make more sense to have the table on the lower wall (i.e. sharing the wall with the chairs for the family sitting room). But if the table were moved, then the people sitting at it would be able to see the door to the bedroom. As it is now, the people sitting at the kitchen table have no sight-lines.