Foodways: Researching Fishing Practices in Dhofar and Selected Bibliographies

(photo by Hussein BaOmar)

Impetus            

In my first book I wrote a little about Dhofari fishermen in terms of how they viewed their independence and interdependence. For my second book, I wrote about procuring and gifting fish. I then changed my research focus to houses.

However, in early 2021 I happened to hear a discussion between several researchers who believe that Dhofaris are not as connected to the natural world as they have been in previous generations. One affirmed that Dhofari men no longer work with their hands. Another researcher has told me that that fishing is now outsourced to expat laborers.

This was interesting to hear as it is a good lesson in how different researchers can view the same area in different ways. Those researchers are talking to different types of people and looking at different issues than I am. The men who are part of my research group have all done and continue to do different types of manual labor, including daily fishing.

There is a lot of casual expat fishing in Dhofar: non-Omanis fishing from shore and/ or in hired boats to do sport fishing or catch a few fish for dinner. There are also expat laborers who are connected to the fishing industry by working to clean boats, repair nets, put together fish traps, help fishermen load and unload boats etc.

My perspective is that I have been talking with Dhofari fishermen who work in the coastal towns of Salalah [the main city in the Dhofar region], Taqa (28 km east of Salalah), Mirabt (70 km E), Sudah (135 km E), Hadbeen/ Hadbin (167km E) and Hasik (187 km E) for over 15 years. I have been with Dhofari men in boats throwing nets, throwing boxes, fishing for tuna and fishing with live bait during over a dozen fishing trips in boats, as well as more than 20 fishing-from-shore outings. I have also done several boat excursions. I have watched Dhofari fishermen leaving and returning to shore dozens of times and listened to men discuss fishing trips during most of the over 350 picnic dinners I have attended. I have only once seen an expat laborer take part in a fishing trip on a boat.

Thus, after hearing that discussion between researchers, I thought about how I could best set out what I have seen to add to the on-going conversations about Dhofari cultures. One idea was to document the different kinds of labor the men in my research group are involved in such as herding camels, another was to try to code how many hours per day were spent outside in different locations. But given the persistence of the pandemic, I realized I needed to work on something that would could be done mainly by distance. I also wanted to work on something about which there was no or little current data.

I finally decided on a simple question: how much does fishing cost? I could do interviews on windy beaches for safety and during my food research I found no other similar research on the Arabian Peninsula although there has been work done on the types of fish along the Omani coast (e.g. Al-Jufaili, Hermosa, Al-Shuaily and Al Mujaini 2010; Choudri, Baawain and Mustaque 2016, Harrison 1980; McKoy, Bagley, Gauthier and Devine 2009) and how fish are sold (e.g. Al-Marshudi and Kotagama 2006; Al Rashdi and Mclean 2014; William and Fidelity Lancaster 1995; Omezzine 1998, Omezzine, Zaibet and Al-Oufi 1996; Siddeek, Fouda and Hermosa 1999).

Research Trajectory

Most research on fishing concentrates on which kinds of fish were caught and how they are sold. I wanted to look at fishing from another angle: how do Dhofari fishermen prepare to catch fish? I am very grateful for the many hours informants spent with me going over the costs and answering questions over the past year. I am also grateful to Helen Macbeth and the International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition for organizing the very interesting “Fish as Food: Lifestyle and a Sustainable Future” conference hosted at the University of Liverpool in September, 2021 [ http://www.icaf2021.uk/ ].

When I started my research on fishing costs I had thought to frame with discussion by talking about the non-monetary costs and benefits to fishing but the data led me in another direction. First, given the cultural disinclination to brag or report good deeds, it was not easy to get fishermen to talk about how they often gave fish away. Secondly, to my surprise, fishermen did not perceive any drawbacks to fishing. I had supposed that being away from home for long periods of time might be seen as creating difficulties for family members but fishermen affirmed that they would either buy supplies for the house before they left or that other family members would help to bring anything that was needed.

Most of my time was spent trying to figure out the cost of all the component parts of a fishing trip, but the most interesting conversations were about how the day’s catch is divided. In one interview I threw out a series of math-problem hypotheticals such as: If four men caught 100 kilo of fish how many kilo would each person take home and how much would be sold?

My informant started to work through long decision trees while I simply wanted a clear number. After a few minutes of frustration, I realized that I was approaching the subject from the wrong direction as I have a non-tribal, non-community-based outlook. There is no answer to: If four men caught 100 kilo of fish how many kilo would each person take home? It’s a meaningless question because in Dhofar each of the men would take into account a whole series of factors before deciding how to divide the fish such as how many people lived in each of the men’s houses.

Trying to articulate how decisions are made about sharing the fish and the profit led to many interesting discussions and connected back to my previous work about gift-giving in Dhofar (in the list of references below).

Three cultural understandings were explained over the course of several conversations on windy beaches. First, fishermen told me that in other parts of Oman the owner of the boat takes a double share of the profit. For example if 4 men went fishing and the profit was 200 OR, the money would be split 5 ways, with the boat-owner taking 80 OR (2 shares of 40 OR each). In Dhofar, the 4 men would first pay all the costs for the fishing trip, then divide the profit by 4, with the boat owner taking the same share as the other men.

However if the boat or engine needed repair, that money would be also taken out of the profit before splitting the money. For example if 4 men had a profit of 200 OR after paying for the expenses of gas, food, bait. etc. but the engine had just been repaired at a cost of 100 OR, the boat-owner would be given 100 OR. The remaining 100 OR would be divided equally between the 4 men. [Money for boat and engine repairs is sometimes fronted by the man who buys the catch, then repaid from future profits without any interest charged.]

Secondly, the fish must always be divided in the same manner, even if the fish are used for different purposes. For example, one fisherman (X) explained that he often went fishing with a man (Y) who had only a few people living in his house while X had over 25 people in two houses for whom he supplied fish. Before selling the catch, X would set aside at least 3 large fish for his family and put the same amount aside for Y. Y would protest that he didn’t need that much fish. X insisted that Y take an equal share, even if Y’s fish would be given away and not used by Y’s family.

Lastly, given my previous work on gift-giving, I had thought that perhaps a fisherman would ask for extra fish if, for example, he planned to go camping with friends so he would need more fish. Or he might decline to take fish if all of his family was out of the house so there was no need to bring fish for dinner. Or if one fisherman was known to be in need, the others would swear that all the proceeds would go to him or a man could ask for more than his share as a loan. And I wondered how fishermen dealt with a man who frequently asked for extra fish or money.

The answers to these queries was that a group of men may fish together for a season, several seasons or for years [men change groups because of someone buying or selling a boat, having more or less time to fish, etc.] but once in a group everyone attempts to keep a fair and level distribution of fish and profits at all times. No one should ever ask for more than his share or attempt to decline his share.

If a man is in need, he can ask his friends after the distribution. The cultural understandings I had previously worked out were for personal situations. Fishing was “work,” I was told and within “work” there must careful attention that everyone is given an equal share. This is done in part because Dhofaris usually try to cover their problems.

One example I was given that if A, B, C, and D go fishing and A proposes to give that they give the day’s profit to B because B will get married soon, perhaps C is planning to take a family member to Muscat for a health emergency and actually has more need of the money. Rather than trying to decide who has what need, the fish and money are split evenly but not a predetermined levels such as each man will take 5 kilos.

At some point I would like to engage with the articles listed below in terms of how others’ research corresponds to the Dhofari context, particularly with the Lancasters’ excellent, detailed discussion of fishing in Ja’alân and Al Rashdi and Mclean’s article about women and fishing in Al Wusta.

Resources

  • selected bibliography – fish and fishing in Oman
  • related research on M. Risse’s website
  • related publications and presentations by M. Risse
    • books
    • other publications
    • presentations
    • research in partnership with other members of the Dhofar University community

Selected Bibliography – Fish and Fishing in Oman

Al-Jufaili, Saud, Greg Hermosa, Sulaiman S. Al-Shuaily and Amal Al Mujaini. 2010. “Oman Fish Biodiversity.” Journal of King Abdulaziz University 21.1: 3-51.

Al-Marshudi, Ahmed Salim and Hemesiri Kotagama. 2006. “Socio-Economic Structure and Performance of Traditional Fishermen in the Sultanate of Oman.” Marine Resource Economics 21: 221-30.

Al Rashdi, K. and E. Mclean. 2014. “Contribution of Small-Scale Fisheries to the Livelihoods of Omani Women: A Case Study of the Al Wusta Governorate.” Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries: Navigating Change – Asian Fisheries Science Special Issue 27S: 135-149.

Chittick, Neville. 1980. “Sewn Boats in the Indian Ocean, and a Survival in Somalia.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 9.4: 297-310.

Choudri, B., Mahad Baawain, and Mustaque Ahmed. 2016. “An Overview of Coastal and Marine Resources and their Management in Sultanate of Oman.” Journal of Environmental Management and Tourism 7.1: 21-32.

Clements, Frank.  1977. “The Islands of Kuria Muria: A Civil Aid Project in the Sultanate of Oman Administered from Salalah, Regional Capital of Dhofar.” Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies) 4.1: 37-39.

Field, Richard. 2013. Reef Fishes of Oman. Gharghur, Malta: Richard and Mary Field.

Gardner, Andrew. 2013. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Oman and the UAE. Frankfurt: Edition Chimaira.

Haines, Stafford. 1939. “Memoir to Accompany a Chart of the South Coast of Arabia from the Entrance of the Red Sea to Misenat, in 50, 43, 25 E. Part I.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 9: 125-56.

—. 1845. “Memoir of the South and East Coasts of Arabia: Part II.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 15: 104-60.

Harrison, David. 1980. The Journal of Oman Studies: Special Report 2: The Oman Flora and Fauna Survey 1975. Muscat: Diwan of H. M. for Protocol.

Janzen, Jorg. 1986. Nomads in the Sultanate of Oman: Tradition and Development in Dhofar. London: Westview Press.

The Journal of Oman Studies: Special Report 2: The Oman Flora and Fauna Survey 1975. Muscat: Diwan of H. M. for Protocol.

Kenderdine, Sarah and Tom Vosmer. 1994. “Maritime Graffiti in Oman.” Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology 18: 33-45.

Lancaster, William and Fidelity Lancaster. 1995. “Nomadic Fishermen of Ja’alân, Oman.” Nomadic Peoples 36/37: 227-44.

McKoy, John, Neil Bagley, Stéphane Gauthier, and Jennifer Devine. 2009. Fish Resources Assessment Survey of the Arabian Sea Coast of Oman – Technical Report 1. Auckland: Bruce Shallard and Associates and the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

Mendonca, Vanda, Barry Jupp, Musallam Al Jabri, Thuraya Al Sariri and Mohamed Al Muzaini. 2003. National Report on the State of the Marine Environment. Muscat: Ministry of Regional Municipalities, Environment & Water Resources, Marine Pollution and Coastal Zone Management Section.

Morris, Miranda. 1987. “Dhofar – What Made it Different’,” in Oman: Economic, Social and Strategic Development. B.R. Pridham, ed. London: Croom Helm. 51-78.

“National Aquaculture Sector Overview-Oman.”  2019.  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations-Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. http://www.fao.org/fishery/countrysector/naso_oman/en

Omezzine, Abdallah. 1998. “On-shore Fresh Fish Markets in Oman.” Journal of International Food and Agribusiness Marketing 10.1: 53-69.

Omezzine, Abdallah, Lokman Zaibet and Hamad Al-Oufi. 1996. “The Marketing System of Fresh Fish Products on the Masirah Island in the Sultanate of Oman.” Marine Resources Economics 11: 203-10.

Randall, John. 1996. Coastal Fishes of Oman. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press.

Saunders, J. P. 1846. “A Short Memoir of the Proceedings of the Honorable Company’s Surveying Brig ‘Palinurus,’ during Her Late Examination of the Coast between Ras Morbat and Ras Seger, and between Ras Fartak and the Ruins of Mesinah.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 16: 169-86.

Serjeant, Robert. 1995. “Customary Law Among the Fishermen of al-Shihr,”in Farmers and Fishermen in Arabia: Studies in Customary Law and Practice. G. Rex Smith, ed. Aldershot: Variorum. 193-203.

—. 1968. “Fisher-Folk and Fish-Traps in al-Baḥrain.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 31.3: 486–514.

Siddeek, M., M. Fouda and G. Hermosa. 1999. “Demersal Fisheries of the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf.” Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 49.1: 87-97.

“Sustainable Management of the Fisheries Sector in Oman: A Vision for Shared Prosperity, World Bank Advisory Assignment.” 2015. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group and Muscat: Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth.

Tabook, Salim Bakhit. 1997. Tribal Practices and Folklore of Dhofar, Sultanate of Oman. Unpublished PhD thesis, Faculty of Arts, Exeter University.

Vosmer, Tom. 1997. “Indigenous Fishing Craft of Oman.” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 26.3: 217-35.

—. 1993. “The Omani Dhow Recording Project: Sultanate of Oman.” Indian Ocean Review 6.2: 18-21.

Wilkinson, J. C. 2013. Water & Tribal Settlement in South-East Arabia (Studies on Ibadism and Oman). New York: Georg Olms Verlag.

related research on M. Risse’s website: https://mariellerisse.com/

related publications and presentations by M. Risse

books

Foodways in Southern Oman. Routledge, 2021

This book examines the objects, practices and beliefs relating to producing, obtaining, cooking, eating and disposing of food in the Dhofar region of southern Oman. The chapters consider food preparation, who makes what kind of food, and how and when meals are eaten. Dr. Risse connects what is consumed to themes such as land usage, gender, age, purity, privacy and generosity. She also discusses how foodways are related to issues of morality, safety, religion, and tourism. The volume is a result of fourteen years of collecting data and insights in Dhofar, covering topics such as catching fish, herding camels, growing fruits, designing kitchens, cooking meals and setting leftovers out for animals.

Community and Autonomy in Southern Oman. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019

This book explores how, in cultures which prize conformity, there is latitude for people who choose not to conform either for a short time and how the chances to assert independence change over time. The main focus is on how the traits of self-control and self-respect are manifested in the everyday actions of several groups of tribes whose first language is Gibali (Jebbali/ Jebali, also referred to as Shari/ Shahri), a non-written, Modern South Arabian language. Although no work can express the totality of a culture, this text describes how Gibalis are constantly shifting between preserving autonomy and signaling membership in family, tribal and national communities.

other publications

“Questions About Food and Ethics,” in Emanations: When a Planet was a Planet. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2021. 403-408.

“What’s in Your Bag?” Anthropology News. American Anthropological Association. Oct. 30, 2019. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2019/07/23/whats-in-your-bag-2019-edition/

“Generosity, Gift-giving and Gift-avoiding in Southern Oman,” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 45 (Oxford: Archeopress) 2015: 289-296.

presentations

“The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman.” Fish as Food: Lifestyle and a Sustainable Future, annual conference of the International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, hosted at the University of Liverpool. Sept. 1, 2021.

“Ethical Eating in Southern Oman.” Just Food, virtual conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society; Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society; Canadian Association for Food Studies and the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, hosted by the Culinary Institute of America and New York University. June 12, 2021.

“Foodways in Southern Oman.” for the session “Uncovering Truths, Building Responsibility in A Pandemic: Insights from Emerging Monographs at the Nexus of Culture, Food, and Agriculture.” American Anthropological Association, on-line conference. Nov. 9, 2020.

“Foodways in Southern Oman” (June 23) and “Overview of Community and Autonomy in Southern Oman” (June 16) for the Language and/or Nature in Southern Arabia Workshop, sponsored by Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Leeds. 2020.

“Foodways and Society in Southern Oman.” British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Leeds. June 26, 2019.

“Accounts from the Journeys of the Brig ‘Palinurus’ Along the Dhofar Coast in the mid-1800s.” Maritime Exploration and Memory Conference, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England. Sept. 15, 2018.

“‘Words Mean Nothing’: Fluency in Language and Fluency in Culture in Anthropology Fieldwork in Southern Oman.” British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Wales. July 15, 2016.

“‘A Man Was Always Catching Fish’: Fairy Tale Elements in the Ali al-Mahri/ Johnstone/ Rubin Gibali Texts from Southern Oman.” American Comparative Literature Association Conference, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. March 18, 2016.

“Generosity, Gift-giving and Gift-avoiding in Southern Oman.” British Foundation for the Study of Arabia’s Seminar for Arabian Studies, The British Museum, London. July 27, 2014.

research in partnership with other members of the Dhofar University community

“Culinary Examples,” photographs by Salma Hubais as part of the Foodways in Southern Oman project, 2019-2020.

“Fishing Boats,” photographs by Onaiza Shaikh as part of the Fishing Practices in Dhofar project, August-December 2021.

Houseways in Southern Dhofar: Selected References

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Ball, Lawrence, Douglas MacMillan, Joseph Tzanopoulos, Andrew Spalton, Hadi Al Hikmani and Mark Moritz. 2020. “Contemporary Pastoralism in the Dhofar Mountains of Oman.” Human Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-020-00153-5

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—. 2013. “Place Attachment and Sense of Belonging in Oasis Villages in the Capital Area of Muscat, Oman.” Trialog: A Journal for Planning and Building in the Global Context 3. 16-20.

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Communication in Dhofar: Getting Information and (not) Giving Compliments

The patience and tolerance to live harmoniously in an unfamiliar culture; the fortitude to be content with less than comfortable circumstances for prolonged periods; an understanding of and sympathy with a foreign history and religion; a willingness to learn a new language; the flexibility, imagination and humility necessary to climb into the head of people who live by a very different set of assumptions; none of these are found automatically in our modern developed Euro-Atlantic culture.  (Gardiner, In the Service of the Sultan, 174)

I have lived overseas in four countries and spent significant amounts of time in a fifth – it is easy to change what you wear, what you eat, when you eat, what side of the road to drive on, what days are the weekend, where the light switches are located, and what time stores are open. It’s difficult to learn a foreign language, but it is far more difficult to learn and understand new communication strategies.

I am still trying to understand and articulate how the Dhofaris who I do research with use language. Some people compare understanding a foreign culture as peeling back the layers of an onion, but to me that implies that there is finite level. To me, understanding culture is like mountains beyond mountains. You get to one level only to find there are infinitely more layers to discover.

How do I learn how to read communication exchanges? I was once talking to another American about my research and how difficult it is to get access and insight into Dhofari cultures. He said, “So you must ask a lot of questions.” I said, “No, I don’t ask any questions.” The look on his face was the look of a person struggling to reframe their whole conceptual framework of what “research” means. “Research” means asking questions, right? Socratic dialog, give and take, write a plan and make enquiries, figure out what you want to know and go look for the answers. You “pursue” research; you “hunt” for answers; you “capture” data; you “acquire” answers; there are so many metaphors of the “chase” for information.

But those metaphors don’t work here. For example, when Dhofaris greet each other, “how are you” is repeated over and over. Between good friends, the first 3 or 4 passes are expected to have a positive answer. After that, and after a little time, the actual answer can finally be revealed.

No one would think of saying, “Hey, you just said four times that you are ok and now you tell me that you didn’t get the job you wanted.”  “Everything is fine,” was the appropriate thing to say before, but now it’s appropriate to reveal what is really going on. You have to wait for the information; you can’t force it.

Another communication difference is compliments. When I had moved into a new villa with a large living room I had decorated with paintings, Arabian rugs, colored glass lanterns, pillows in abundance. When men from my research group stopped by, I asked, “What do you think of the living room?” The three men stood rooted, observed everything carefully, made expressions of surprise and approval, they waved their hands elegantly; they vowed that in their lives they have never seen such decorating; they swore they did not know that such marvelous decorating was possible on this earth; they wondered out loud how was it possible to take a plain room and turn it into a palace, a castle, a dream; they declared that I must come immediately to their own houses and commence redecorating their own homes.

Compliments are often seen as something for children. A grown person should not need positive verbal reinforcements on how they look or what they have done, so my research partners were teaching me that when I disingenuously asked for compliments, I was going to get enough compliments to choke on. Either ask and accept the fake whipped cream compliments with proper abashment or (better) don’t ask. In that case I had spent three days rearranging the living room and was not really interested in the truth; the cotton candy compliments were perfect.

Compliments between adults are often used to point out a mistake. Being told I look like a bride or “nice” means I am inappropriately dressed or look exhausted. Good food is eaten without comment; over-spiced, under-cooked, burnt or over-salted food is lavishly admired. When a man receives praise on his behavior, dishdash, car, fishing ability or singing voice, there is usually a problem.

I worked for several years at MIT which has managed to connect almost all the buildings on campus to each other through underground tunnels or above-ground walkways. When you map out a path between two buildings which are distant from each other, you need to remember which floor the connection is on. For example going through a line of four buildings, you might walk between the first two building on the 3rd floor, go up the 4th floor to walk to the next building and then up to the 6th floor to get to the last building.

This is the perfect metaphor of intercultural communication – if I stayed on my own floor with my own style, I would hit cement walls. Messages sent will never be received and I won’t be able make headway. With halting steps and many mistakes, I have to try to walk up to their level of communication.

(a favorite example of cultural misunderstanding: the saying in English is ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade’, in which ‘lemons’ is a metaphor for something difficult. Someone who works for Talabat misunderstood this and, to a North American, this sign means: if you don’t have enough problems in your life, we will bring you some.)

lemons

Conference presentation: Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms

Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms, Dr. Marielle Risse

English Scholars Beyond Borders International Conference, Dec. 4, 2021

Outline of ‘Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms’

1 – Introduction

2 – Choosing texts

3 – Teaching strategies

4 – Short lessons

5 – Assignments

6 – Examples: “July” by John Clare and Philoketes by Sophocles

Introduction

The title of this conference is crossing borders and that is a good metaphor for discussing literature and language teaching because it’s easy for a language teacher to cross the border between disciplines and become a literature teacher. Language teachers read books, poems and dramas and understand the concepts of genre, narrator, metaphor, connotations, etc.

But for a literature teacher to cross the border in the opposite direction and become language teacher is much more difficult. I can tell you from first-hand experience that a literature teacher in a language classroom is a miserable and lost creature.

I studied German and French at university so I am well acquainted with the grammar of those two languages, but in English – explaining the difference between when to use the present simple and present continuous? Rules for doubling consonants when making a present participle? Forming nouns off of verbs by adding ‘y’? Conditional clauses? When I have to teach a grammar class and explain ‘count’ vs. ‘non-count’ nouns or the present perfect or when to use ‘for instance’ instead of ‘for example’ – painful!

But I need to do some language teaching in all my literature class. When I walked into my first Middle Eastern literature classroom at the American University of Sharjah more than 20 years ago, I had students from 15 countries with varying levels of English. I had to blend some language information into my discussion of texts so I made a series of changes in my teaching.

In this presentation I want to explain how I teach literature differently with English major students than with literature majors, concentrating on four main areas: choosing texts, teaching strategies, short lessons and assignments.

Choosing texts

I have several publications on how to choose appropriate texts for literature classes and my main point is that it is vital to pick a text that students can connect to in some way as they are already fighting language and sometimes cultural difficulties and differences.

Dickens has written many classics, but his diction is difficult and the recurrent theme of a child cast out from the family, in novels such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, create hurdles for understanding and appreciation.  

Whereas, my students have really enjoyed Beowulf’s and Sir Gawain’s lessons about protecting one’s leader and staying loyal to one’s family.

For Shakespeare, I choose the accessible plays such as Much Ado about Nothing, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry V with selections from King Lear and Macbeth. Not Julius Caesar or Merchant of Venice.

As 99% of my students are female, for other dramas, I often pick ones with interesting heroines caught between conflicting duties such as:

  • Alcestis, Euripides
  • Deanira, Sophocles
  • Antigone, Sophocles
  • The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
  • Lady Windemere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde
  • Arms and the Man, Shaw
  • Quality Street, J.M. Barrie
  • Our Town, Thornton Wilder
  • Princess Sunshine, Tawfiq Al Hakim

In terms of fiction, I use Jane Austen, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier to spark class discussion.

Teaching strategies – using scaffolding to create a strong foundation

reading aloud – every class, every student reads to improve pronunciation and enunciation

  • poem – one line
  • fiction – one sentence
  • drama – one character’s words

comparing narrative structures

For example, I give students the first page of an autobiography from an Omani writer and from an English writer and ask them to work in groups to figure out what is similar and what is different. English writers usually have exact dates, list full names of family members, give specific place names etc., while local writers give more general impressions. This leads to a discussion of how cultures tell stories and give opinions differently

comparisons with Arabic

  • using the evocative O = ya
  • starting sentences with verb, often used in Arabic but in English = command or question

Short lessons

word attack/ word meanings

  • homonyms – prey / pray – bear / bare
  • teach prefix/ suffix/ root – Latin and Greek – like: auto-bio-graphy

explicit grammar

e’en – ‘Tis – apostrophe for missing letter

explicit teaching of archaic speech

  • thou, thee, thy, thine
  • ye, yon, yonder, yore
  • -th ending for verbs like thinketh

explicit metaphor teaching

  • color metaphors – I’m blue, he’s yellow, I’m green
  • animals – monkey, positive and negative
  • objects – the moon (positive in Arab cultures, negative in North America/ Europe)

Assignments

recitation

helps with pronunciation, enunciation and emotion

acting

helps students use the language in a natural way

with so many essays on the internet, make assignments which check for understanding and are personal

  • compare character to someone you know
  • have a conversation with a character
  • explain the drama or novel with a friend, your mom, your husband and write a short paper explaining what you agree and disagree on – my mom thought…

supporting opinions with proof/ evidence to help get ready for IELTS and standardized English exams

‘Some people’ or ‘everyone’ vs. I think Alcestis made the right choice because I think…

Two examples

1 -teaching grammar, vocabulary and literary terminology through poetry

“July” by John Clare

Loud is the Summer’s busy song,

The smallest breeze can find a tongue,

While insects of each tiny size

Grow teasing with their melodies,

Till noon burns with its blistering breath

Around, and day lies still as death

The cricket on its bank is dumb;

The very flies forget to hum;

And, save the wagon rocking round,

The landscape sleeps without a sound.

The breeze is stopped, the lazy bough

Hath not a leaf that danceth now;

  • topic students can relate to – hot weather, sleeping in the middle of the day
  • metaphors and simile – Summer’s busy song, day lies still as death
  • alliterations – sleeps without a sound
  • expand vocabulary – breeze, tiny, melodies
  • double meanings – bank and dumb 
  • grammar – hath, danceth

2 – picking an interesting text so that students want to read and discuss

Philoketes by Sophocles        

This drama is based on one of the stories from the siege of Troy. On the way to Troy, the soldier Philoketes is hurt and his wound does not heal, so he is left on a desert island by Odysseus. After ten years of fighting against Troy, Odysseus is told that the Greeks will never win Troy without Philoketes and his magic bow so Odysseus goes back to the island,

Odysseus tries to play a trick, he stays hidden and tells a young soldier, Neoptolemus, to find Philoketes, become friends with him, and then convince Philoketes to allow Neoptolemus to hold the bow – then Neoptolemus will run to the boat with the bow and they will sail away, leaving Philoketes stranded.

The play works well because:

1) a lot of suspense – Will Odysseus’ trick work? it seems to, but at the last minute, Neoptolemus tells Philoketes the truth

2) themes of forgiveness and trust – Should Philoketes forgive Odysseus for leaving him on the island for 10 years? Should he trust that Odysseus will bring him back to his country?

3) connection to Omani society – The dilemma is solved when Hercules appears and tells Philoketes to get on the boat, that he will be safe. This highlights the importance of mediators, a very important part of Omani cultures; when two people are at an impasse, they should look for someone older/ wiser to both give advice and guarantee correct behavior.

(photo by S. B.)

Related publications

Risse, M. “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts,” in Advancing English Language Education. Wafa Zoghbor and Thomaï Alexiou, eds.. Dubai: Zayed University Press, 2020. 221-223.

Risse, M. “Ok Kilito, I Won’t Speak Your Language: Reflections after Reading Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language,” in Octo-Emanations. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2020: 233-236.

Risse, M. “Teaching Literature on the Arabian Peninsula,” Anthropology News website, October 7 2019. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2019/10/07/teaching-literature-on-the-arabian-peninsula/

 Risse, M. and Miriam Al Sabbah. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Novel: Austen for ESL Students,” Proceedings of the 16th Oman International ELT Conference. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2017: 28-35.

Risse, M. “Writing Prompts to Facilitate Creativity and Interesting Texts,” Proceedings of the 15th Oman International ELT Conferences. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2016: 46-52.

Risse, M. “Selecting the Right Literary Texts for Middle Eastern Students: Challenges and Reactions,” in Focusing on EFL Reading: Theory and Practice. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2014: 165-188.

Risse, M.  “Frosty Cliffs, Frosty Aunt and Sandy Beaches: Teaching Aurora Leigh in Oman,” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 43.4, 2013: 123-145.

Risse, M. “Who Are You Calling ‘Coddled’?: ‘Cloistered Virtue’ and Choosing Literary Texts in a Middle Eastern University,” Pedagogy 13.3, 2013: 415-427.

Risse, M. “Do You know a Creon?: Making Literature Relevant in an Omani University,” in Literature Teaching in EFL/ESL: New Perspectives. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2012: 302-314.

Risse, M.  “Using Local Voices in Literature Classrooms,” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives 9.1, 2012. http://lthe.zu.ac.ae/index.php/lthehome/article/view/71

Risse, M.  “John Clare Looks Good in a Dishdash: Linking John Clare to Middle Eastern Poetry,” John Clare Society Journal 30, 2011: 53-63.

Risse, M. “An Open Letter to Alice Walker,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Feb. 20, 2009: B11. http://chronicle.texterity.com/chronicle/20090220b/?pg=11#pg11

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.

I am happy to announce that I will be presenting “Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms”

l will be presenting “Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms” at the English Scholars Beyond Borders – Dhofar University International Conference. Dec. 4-5, 2021.

My presentation will argue that in non-Anglospheric institutions such as Dhofar University, literature teachers will always need to be language and culture teachers. Given that many students on the Arabian Peninsula will use English when traveling or teaching primary or secondary students, texts must be chosen for their linguistic and cultural, as well as literary, qualities. I will use examples from teaching literature, cultural studies and education on the Arabian Peninsula for over 15 years to discuss how to create syllabi which reflect both the literary canon and students’ needs, with an emphasis on teaching multi-level classes and explicating cultural narration differences, as well as sneaking in language lessons. For example, folding language teaching into literature classes means both silent editing (such as not calling attention to spoken mistakes but repeating the student’s words with the correct pronunciation and/ or grammar) and short, explicit lessons. Lastly, it is vital to foreground cultural differences in plot, characters, settings and themes, in addition to narrative structures as an analysis of a literary text in English is expected to have the author’s opinion clearly stated with proof in the form of quotes and specific details, a format that Arabian Gulf students sometimes have not learned.

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

I am pleased to announce the publication of my essay “Questions about Food and Ethics”

“Questions About Food and Ethics,” in Emanations: When a Planet was a Planet. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2021. 403-408.

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

selection from “Questions about Food and Ethics”

Is there a benefit to stating kind intentions? Should you explain that you planned to do something thoughtful (but couldn’t actually do it) or simply keep quiet? I would like to use this question as a starting point to think about how what’s “good” and “right” in terms of eating and disposing of food as perceptions can change dramatically between cultures.

What interests me about this topic is the question of whose ethics are you talking about? A behavior which makes perfect sense in one culture, looks odd in another. There is no way to resolve the issues with one ‘best’ answer, but I think it’s helpful to see examples of how ethical systems differ.

First, if I bring cookies to a picnic, I don’t want to open the package because if no one wants them the cookies will get soggy from the humidity and the cookies will be ‘wasted.’ This is not acceptable in Oman. I should open the box, pass the cookies around and then set them out for birds if no one eats them.

I don’t want to feed the birds, especially not my prized Fortnum and Mason cookies but in Dhofar it is shameful to bring something to a picnic/ group meeting and then try to leave with it. If you have brought any kind of prepared food or foodstuff, it should not return to your car and be brought back to your home. If I have brought cookies, either the box needs to be opened or I should give the unopened box to one of the men to give to his children.

A second example is that unwanted food is never spread on sand or dirt as that is seen as unkind to the animals. If there are no rocks, the food is left on pieces of plastic. A few times when I have tried to pick up the plastic that leftover food was placed on, not wanting to leave litter, I was told to leave it. The Gibali men in my research group pick up all the trash from campsites, but it is judged worse to put leftover food on sand than it is to leave it on plastic bags.

Leaving plastic on the ground is not just litter; when eaten by camels and cows, it can cause illness and death. But even a man who owns camels will leave food on a piece of plastic so foxes and birds can have ‘clean’ food, valuing the idea of making sure that the food is eaten, more than the idea of keeping the area clean and preventing a possible future harm.

New essay: “Za” on the Arabic Alphabet website

“Za is for Saffron” by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/za/

http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet

Za is for Saffron

Za and Ra come from different ancestors, though you wouldn’t guess it from their appearance. Today only the dot distinguishes them. This was not always the case.

Among the letters which don’t connect on the left (Za is our fourth), there are other family connections you wouldn’t ordinarily see. It is a tangled genealogy. Today Ra and Za look like twins, except for the dot over Za, but in Nabataean, the R sound had a different twin. R was represented by a letter pretty much identical to the one which represented the sound of D. (Both looked like an inverted capital Roman L.) The Z sound was at that time a simple vertical stroke. None of the three had a dot. Gradually the shapes of Dal and Ra grew apart, who knows why, Dal with the sharper angle, while Ra grew smoother and began to sit lower on the line. Meanwhile Ra and Za converged. Sometime around the fourth century, Za and Ra became the look-alikes, too close for practical use. There was a separation, and Za got the dot. Then both shapes, Za and Ra, developed, thanks to the reed pen, the identical curved bodies we see today.

There is probably some scientific principle to explain the evolution of letters from one form to another, why one rotates 90 degrees, lengthens, thickens or bends. Perhaps the changes are arbitrary, or perhaps there is a process of natural selection, in which the most useful ones, the most legible, the easiest to distinguish, or the most beautiful, survive. The reed pen exerted its shaping power. As Islam spread, and there were frequent occasions to treat letters with respect, in calligraphy, inscriptions, seals and written prayers, the most beautiful (or malleable) were the survivors.

Zayn in Arabic means beauty. For years I thought that in Arabic Zayn was the name of the letter. (It isn’t.) Way back, as far back as the evidence goes, the Phoenician ancestor of Za, something like a capital H on its side, had a name (Zayin, in Phoenician “weapon,” evidently a sword). The current shape has lost the name, but it looks more like a sword.

continued at:  http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/za/

New essay: “Ra” on The Arabic Alphabet website

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour 

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazav

Ra is for Rigel (first section)

http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/ra/

Ra is proverbial for smallness (as iota is proverbial for the slight and diminutive in Greek): a simple swoop from the baseline downward. No connection on the left. It just descends, comes to a point and stops. Drawn with a reed pen it thickens half-way down and narrows again as the angle of the reed shifts. Add a dot overhead and you have the letter pronounced Z. (Add three dots and you have the sound added by Persian speakers in the 15th century, Zha.)

In their early forms the Ra and Dâl shapes look, to my eye at least, identical. Evidently early users felt the same way. Writers of Syriac distinguished them by a dot: Ra had a dot added above, Dâl had one added below. In later forms Ra (now dotless) came to descend below the base line and distinguish itself from Dâl by position. (Dâl was higher.) Dâl is often thicker at the top. Most Ra s seem aerodynamic, immersed in a right-left current which blows the thinner edges leftward. The lower point can curl up. In thulûth script Ra can extend until it almost connects on the left, because the lower point may curl up and seem to connect, as if to make the point tickle the underside of the letter which follows. In handwriting today Dal and Ra can still look very much the same.

The sound is a trilled R; when it is doubled (unlike doubled R in English, as in “current” or “barracks”), you hear the prolongation. This is the case of the two (or four) R sounds which occur in the basmala (Bism Allâh al-raḥmân al-raḥîm), where the Ra is doubled because “L-R” is pronounced as RR. (Long story. It requires knowing more about Lam.) Ra is one of those letters whose sound takes on a lot of disguises. In Sorani Kurdish it takes two identities: the familiar trilled R is written with a little V shape close underneath. The naked, stand-alone R shape is pronounced something like a glottal stop.