Cultural Refraction: Using Travel Writing, Anthropology and Fiction to Understand the Culture of Southern Arabia – 2009

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

Risse, M. “Cultural Refraction: Using Travel Writing, Anthropology and Fiction to Understand the Culture of Southern Arabia,” Interdisciplinary Humanities 26:1 (2009): 63-78.

If you want to understand a place or culture that is new to you – which will help you: travel writing, anthropology or fiction? Which genre would give you what kind of information? Do you want to know information the way people within the culture view it (emic) or an explanation of the place and culture in ways that are clear to you, but perhaps not the way the locals would see it (etic), i.e. do you want information to join the group or to understand?

In this essay I will broadly sketch the history, generic expectations, similarities and differences of travel writing, anthropology and fiction, then discuss how an outsider might use texts from the three genres to understand some of the cultural issues in Southern Arabia, where I teach.

All three genres encompass a vast scope. Travel writing traces its roots to the historical works of Herodotus, Diodorus, Cicero’s Journey to Cilicia in 51 B.C.E., and Fa Hsien, a Chinese Buddhist monk who wrote in the early 400s C.E. Travel writing is a place where many fields overlap, including autobiography, fiction, historical records, geography, political science, sociology, and anthropology. From early writers, including the European pilgrim Etheria c. 385 C.E. and the Muslim contemporary of Marco Polo, Abdallah ibn Battuta, to present day authors, travelers have written interesting and important books about areas new to them.

Anthropology, an even broader field, includes the history of every kind of human in every kind of social situation from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens. Anthropology stands, according to James Peacock, at the intersection of “exploring, excavating, history, folklore, literature, journalism, spying, psychoanalysis, social work, missionary work, administration and childhood/ friendship/ parenting” (59).

Then there is fiction in which writers, as James Joyce wrote, “go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” Fiction contains every human experience and emotion.

All three genres have a specific purpose, although that purpose has changed over time. Travel writing has shifted from a primary function of informing to entertaining. Early travel books were vehicles for collecting and codifying material, either presenting fresh discoveries to the book=s intended readers, or adding to and/or updating their knowledge. When the world became more known, travel books could no longer tell about new geographic wonders and thus have started, in the last few decades, to concentrate on the author’s reaction to what is seen on the journey.

To review briefly the history of anthropology, one can turn to Nanda and Warms’s standard Cultural Anthropology which starts with Jean Babtiste Lamarck, Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer who worked with the theory of evolution. Sir Edmund Taylor, a Victorian and “the founder of social anthropology,” regarded culture “as a thing, a static object. Culture was a collection of customs, embodied in physical objects brought home and exhibited in museums” (Peacock 3, 75).

This was supplanted by Karl Marx’s influential ideas, “turn-of-the-century sociology” with Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss and “American historical particularism” with Franz Boas and A.L. Kroeber. These theories were followed functionalism (Bronislaw Malimowski), “Culture and Personality” (Ruth Benedict and the widely read Margaret Mead), and an emphasis on ecology.

In the 1900s, the important theories have been structuralism (Claude Levi-Strass), cognitive anthropology, sociobiology, gender anthropology (Michelle Zimbalist), symbolic and interpretive anthropology (Clifford Geertz and Mary Douglas) and postmodernism (Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida) (74, 412-418).

In practical terms, anthropologists have moved from being colonial administrators or advisors to a wide range of jobs in organizations including law firms, “the Peace Corps; the Bureau of Indian Affairs; [and] the United Nations Educations, Scientific, Cultural Organization”  (Peacock 104). They are employed “in the private sector, and in a variety of nonresearch capacities (such as… evaluator or policy analyst… consumer marketing, hightech industry, and refugee policy)” (Podolefsky and Brown 1).

The history of fiction, experiencing changes just as vast as travel writing and anthropology, is easier to see as the general scope as the Western canon is part of general education in American high schools and colleges. One marches in a clear line from Homer to Greek literature, then Roman, Dante, Chaucer, Montaigne, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton, Molière, Johnson, Goethe, Victorian and Romantic poets, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, the French Symbolist poets, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Chekhov, Proust, Mann, Joyce, Woolf, Kafka, Faulkner, Brecht, then literature branches out in many directions including Mahfouz, Solzehnitsyn, Lessing, Silko, and graphic novels.

In addition to long histories, travel writing, anthropology and fiction are also genres which can “contain multitudes.” For example Ford Maddox Ford’s classic travel book Provence (1935) includes recipes, restaurant placards, excerpts from the chronicles of Guillaume de Puy-Laurens, Aucassin and Nicolette, and poems by Joseph d’Arbaud, Walther von der Vogelweide, Longfellow, Ezra Pound, and Allen Tate. He even travels through time to recount the history of Provence with

Greeks, Etruscans, Ligurians, Gauls, Afro-Semitic Carthaginians, Volces, Romans, Afro-Vandal Carthaginians, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Celt-Iberians, Saracens, Franks, Lorrainers, Burgundians, all struggling into the country, all struggling against each other. (165)

On a similar note, in Person to Person: Fieldwork, Dialogue and the Hermeneutic Method, Barry Michrina and Cherylanne Richards attest that anthropologists should use “newspaper, magazine and journal articles, an organization’s brochure, descriptive brochures and educational brochures, notes from training sessions (for volunteer organizations), music, films, photographs, oaths, rules and book excerpts” (93-94). In fiction, examples of stories which include other stories and artifacts include The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, the Griffin & Sabine series by Nick Bantock and several books by Douglas Copeland.

But although travel writing, anthropology and fiction are all recognized genres, concerned with the human experience and encompassing a range of texts which can be viewed historically and synchronically there are several differences to articulate. The first is that, as Mark Cocker wrote in Loneliness and Time: The Story of British Travel Writing, “Unlike drama, poetry or the novel, it [travel writing] is almost never if ever studied in a formal context” (5). Travel writing has no “policing” organization. The vox populi rules. If Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything across Italy, India and Indonesia (2007) sells thousands of copies, then it is a “good” travel book. There are a few prizes for travel writing (for example, the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize and various Lonely Planet/ Travelers Tales “Best of” compilations) but achievement is largely based on the reputation of the author; Bill Bryson could, at this point, write a best-seller about a trip to a toxic land-fill.

However, both anthology and fiction have gate-keepers. Unlike travel writing, there are professors of anthropology and fiction who write hundreds, if not thousands, of secondary texts which evaluate the worthiness of primary texts. The primary texts are now and have been for hundreds of years scrutinized and systematically compared to other primary texts in formal settings including classrooms, conferences and competitions.

Travel writing joins with anthropology, however, “against” fiction in that these two genres are assumed to present the “truth.” With regard to anthropology, “truth” does not necessarily mean “reproducible” given the understanding that each participant observer/ researcher will approach a culture in a slightly difference manner, asking different questions, but “truthful” in the person is recording accurately what s/he sees with “thick description.” For example, Carlos Castaneda’s research was believed until anthropologists looked more closely and attempted to correlate his writings.

Travel writing had some issues with the “truthful” aspect at the beginning of the genre with such books as The Marvellous Adventures of Sir John Maundevile, c. 1371. This purported journal of an English knight’s journey to the Holy Land, Africa and the Orient was in fact an unknown French author’s compilation of various travel books. But this thicket of deception is relatively small, with fevered protests of accuracy.

Problems arise, in travel writing and anthropology, from unintentional errors. In “Sex, Lies and European Hegemony” Bailey-Goldschmidt and Kalfatovic point out that some travel books contain distortions because an author’s simple ignorance led to over generalization. For travelers to India before 1761:

[o]ne common hazard of veracity in documentation was geographic uncertainty; there was often no distinction between northern and southern India. Social characteristics noted in one village were identified as a universal custom in the India sub-continent. (145)

The famous Victorian explorers Speke and Burton each returned to England from Africa, each certain that he had “seen” the correct source of the Nile and each had a plausible reason to believe he was right. James Bruce who traveled in Abyssinia, now Ethiopia, between 1768 and 1773 was accused by no less esteemed persons than Dr. Johnson and Horace Walpole for his description of the Abyssinians’ eating meat cut from a still living cow. Later travelers confirmed this tradition. Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine in Last Chance to See (1990) write of the pilot who crash-landed on the small island of Komodo and first encountered Komodo dragons. “He stayed alive for three months, and then he was rescued. But when he went home, everyone thought he was mad and nobody believed a word of it” (12).

Jacinta Matos in “Old Journeys Revisited: Aspects of Postwar English Travel Writing” writes:

We no longer hold a positivistic view of a non-fictional text as a neutral, objective reproduction of a prelinguistic reality or meaning capable of affording us a value-free knowledge. We no longer write, read, or travel with the unselfconsciousness of our predecessors, for our sense of crisis and endings is, indeed, an integral part of our world view and of our experience of travel. (216)

Travel guide books are expected to be, and should be, as accurate as possible. No one wants their Baedeker’s to get creative as to where the hotel is or how late the museums are open, but a travel books are usually given some leeway because they are not simply about a place–that is the role of encyclopedias–but about a person in a place.

Debra Denker, beginning Sisters on the Bridge of Fire: Journeys in the Crucible of High Asia (1993), writes:

The best journalism is a passionate quest for the truth. Because I aspire to excellence, I continually ask the all too often forgotten fifth “W” that nagging little question, “Why?”… Perhaps I am more a social documentary writer and photographer than a journalist… I no longer expect things to add up.” (13)

Denker’s split between “truth” and “excellence” is helpful. In general, travel writing and anthropology aspire to both; literature’s goal is “excellence.” An excellent fiction piece does not need to be based on actual events; an excellent piece in American Anthropologist must be.

Yet “accuracy” is hard to judge in the details. It is clear that a person cannot make up a country, but what if they make up an additional 15 minutes of wait time in the customs queue? Or double the beauty of the beautiful blue sea, or the person with whom they walked by the beautiful blue sea? “It is important to first make clear that travel literature is fiction, not in the sense of being false, but in the way that it is both fashioned and determined by an author” (Bailey-Goldschmidt and Kalfatovic 145). In the same way an anthropologist may write up a custom, ritual or conversation that was witnessed and “determined” by the observer’s interpretation.

Now that we have classified the realm of fiction, taking heed of the many writers who took “real” stories and used them as a basis for their writing, such as Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome” and Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House, let us examine another similarity between anthropology and travel writing, the issue of “getting stuck in,” a British term meaning to become totally involved in an activity. Travelers are supposed to have “real,” usually defined as “unpleasant,” experiences, which must not only be endured, but endured stoically.

Dervla Murphy, the iconic Irish traveler who insists on arduous, low-tech (usually walking or bicycle) long-distance treks, exemplifies this trend in Eight Feet in the Andes (1983), the feet belong to herself, the daughter and their baggage-mule. They are traveling on the economy, and unhappily at that, as in this description of the people living near one of her campsites:

The locals are pathetic. There are seven scattered hovels…[which] seem not human creations but part of the earth, like badger’s setts or foxes’ dens… The average IQ of these Indians is tragically sub-normal; clearly anyone with a spark of intelligence has long since migrated. (106)

This same bifurcation of  travel as dispensing and creating prejudices is found in anthropology. In theory, “the most striking quality of anthropology” is that “this is a discipline for understanding humankind in its many facets – holistically” (Peacock 10). In Person to Person: Fieldwork, Dialogue and the Hermeneutic Method, Barry Michrina and Cherylanne Richards, have a section entitled “Painting Yourself into the Picture,” in which they argue that “disclosure of the researcher’s process of understanding is part of the theory of hermeneutic research” (115). But, Georges and Jones state that one of the difficulties of anthropology is “the inability of fieldworkers to be totally impersonal and objective while observing and interacting with those they have chosen to study” (111). For example, Jean Briggs writes that before her leaving to live for over a year with “the most remote group of Eskimos she could find” that “I rather hoped I might discover myself essentially Eskimo at heart” (qtd. in Georges and Jones 74, 75). What she discovered instead was the impossibility of becoming an Eskimo:

If I could have gained acceptance then by abandoning my own ways and transforming myself, emotionally, intellectually and physically into an Utku, I would have done so. But I still had objectivity enough to know… that the idea of ‘going native’ was ludicrous, and that such a metamorphosis was impossible. (qtd. in Georges and Jones 81)

What then is the difference between travel writing and anthropology? Both genres are based on non-fiction, first-person texts about a narrator who travels to a culture new to him or her. This unfamiliar landscape could be within the hometown or half the world away. Both genres easily incorporate scholarly apparatus, Derrida’s “parergon,” such as indices, maps, charts, lists, photographs, appendices, and bibliographies. Both include autobiographical elements although that is not the primary focus.

When the focus of the books moves away from the narrator and towards a concentration on place, one moves into the realm of anthropology. The difference can be clearly seen by comparing Clifford Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” with Tim Cahill’s “Sanghyang in Bali” from his collection Pecked to Death by Ducks (1994). The first few pages of Geertz’s essay focuses on his and his wife’s arrival in a small Balinese village and their final acceptance into the culture. The rest of the essay deals exclusively with the cultural structure of cockfights, ending with a small section which employs the pronouns “he,” “one,” and “we.” The last paragraph returns to the first person, but only once. After establishing himself as an accepted observer in the village, Geertz as a character disappears from the essay.

For example, at the beginning of the essay, Geertz and his wife are watching an illegal cockfight. When police arrive to break up the match, the villagers scatter:

On the established anthropological principle, When in Rome, my wife and I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that the thing to do was run too. We ran down the main village street, northwards, away from where we were living, for we were on that side of the ring. (226)

The tone changes later in the essay:

What the cockfight says it says in a vocabulary of sentiment–the thrill of risk, the despair of loss, the pleasure of triumph. Yet what it says is not merely that risk is exciting, loss depressing, or triumph gratifying, banal tautologies of affect, but that it is of these emotions, thus exampled, that society is built and individuals put together. (251)

Geertz removes himself as the first-person narrator so that the cockfights themselves “say.” Of course, what the cockfights “say” arises from Geertz’s ideas and interpretations but he is careful to remove the “I” from the writing, giving the reader the feeling that the cockfights have one, unmediated meaning.

Tim Cahill’s essay deals with a related Balinese cultural phenomenon, religious trances, but he never leaves the foreground. At the end or beginning of every description of the ceremonies, Cahill appears:

I do not know whether the girls at Bona [who took part in a religious ceremony] were in an authentic trance state or not. Western psychologists who have studied trance have been testing Balinese dancers for five decades now. The best judgment they can make seems to be this: Some of the dancers are in a genuine state of trance, and some or not. (204)

Cahill gives his opinion, then the opinion of other outsiders; he does not attempt to speak for the culture itself. One doesn’t read about Balinese girls dancing, but Cahill watching Balinese girls dancing.

Thus, fiction accedes that is it subjective, but in the imaginary world fashioned by the author, the “reality of life” is created. Anthropologists claim specific training, the obligatory fieldwork, in describing factually how members of a society negotiates through everyday life, and what “tools” are in the society’s “toolkit,” to use Philip Salzman’s metaphor, to cope with new situations. Anthropology’s insistence on the researcher fading into the background means a more accurate, unsullied portrait of the culture. Travel writing also claims “truthfulness” but with an addition, as the traveler is a character with likes, dislikes and prejudices on view, the reader has the ability to triangulate between the place, the traveler and the reader’s opinion.

I will now turn to some specific examples of the three genres, focusing on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula to show the strengths and weaknesses of the genres in explaining the beliefs, traditions, social activities and customs of a particular group of people. I have lived in a small town in Oman for over three years. When people ask what this country in the south-eastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula “is like,” I can point them to several texts: Hatim Al Taie and Joan Pickersgill’s Omani Folk Tales (2008) and Grace Todino-Gonguet’s Halimah and the Snake and other Omani Folk Tales (2008) are collections of fictional stories. Anne Pyburn’s “Worthless Women” (2003), Unni Wikan’s Behind the Veil in Arabia: Women in Oman (1982) and Christine Eickelman’s Women and Community in Oman (1984) are examples of anthropologists at work in Oman and Yemen. Traveling writing about this part of the world include James and Mabel Bent’s Southern Arabia (1900), Bertram Thomas’ Arabia Felix: Across the Empty Quarter of Arabia (1932) and Wilfred Thesiger’s classic Arabian Sands (1959).

Omani Folk Tales clearly shows the way fiction can both explain and obscure a foreign culture.  “Dancing with Fire,” about a famous dancer who is hounded by her sisters to dance in a inter-village competition three days after she has given birth, is an accurate reflection of certain Omani/ Yemeni values; “She felt she had a moral obligation to save the tribe’s name from humiliation” (53). Personal pain is less important than supporting your tribe, even in artistic events such as dances.

“The Kidnapped Ali Bin Huzair” is about a boy who was taken by the Portuguese (who attempted to colonize parts of northern Oman in the 1600s). He learns how to sail ships and is eventually rewarded with his own boat, which he sails back to his village and gets his former neighbors to kill his shipmates. In “Ali Bin Sharim Al Battahiri and the Tree,” Ali’s village is attacked when he is away; his “wiser” cousin M’shailah councils diplomacy and goes to the attacking village to take back the camels, accept compensation and make peace (58). When Ali arrives in the village counseling war, M’shailah has him “tied with ropes against a tree (59). After Ali’s tribesmen free him, he leads them in a great battle in which he kills 100 men, recovers the camels and becomes the leader. Both stories express the Omani belief in bravery and dedication to one’s village and tribe. This principle of personal courage is also expressed in “Selmah, The Brave Shepherdess.” When the girl finds a leopard that has killed seven of her goats, she attacks it. In a fierce fight, the animal and Selmah kill each other and lie “dead in each other’s arms” (70).

However, sometimes fiction can prove confusing. “Zahrah” is a story in which a village suffering from a drought prays to God. God agrees if Zahrah, the most beautiful girl in the village, “would have to join him in the sky” (66). She agrees and it rains, saving the village. Reading this as a “true” account of a belief system (God requires sacrificial victims), would lead to false misconceptions about Islam.

An example from Grace Todino-Gonguet’s Halimah and the Snake and other Omani Folk Tales (2008) also shows how a text with a clear meaning for one group of people, can lose the connotation when read through a different cultural lens. In “The Talking Tree,” Najla is a superstitious woman, who also enters her kitchen with her right foot and blames an owl for the death of her twin baby sons. Pregnant again, she makes a promise to the large date palm tree that if she has a daughter who lives she will marry the girl to the tree which stands by the village well. Sixteen years, the girl, Aisha, is standing by the well with friends when the tree whispers, “the girl standing on the right should tell her mother to fulfill her promise.” After the tree speaks three times, Najla gives in, prepares Aisha as a bride and leaves her one evening at the tree with the necessary gifts of gold and cloth. In the morning, the girl is gone and does not reappear for years.

One morning there is a knock on the door and Aisha is back with a husband and young son. The explanation is that the husband heard Najla make her promise to the ‘tree’, waited until Aisha came of age, brought her from the tree to his village and married her. Aisha scolds her mother for believing in stories about sprits and superstitions and everyone is happy together. And Najla made sure her grandson “always wore one little amulet for good luck” (15).

From an Omani perspective, the point is clear: all trust should be in Allah, not charms, spells or which foot you step into the kitchen with. People who make foolish promises will be punished. The first time I read it, I thought “but Najla didn’t learn anything, she still believes in charms.” An Omani friend pointed out, “yes, of course, old women always believe.” But then wouldn’t the point of the story to learn something? To change bad behavior? “No,” my friend explained, “it’s wrong, but people do it.” I kept searching for the black or white – but for Omanis, something could be black and white at the same time. Wrong, but people do it; you make a mistake, get punished, but then you do it again – as Omanis say “this is the life.”

“The Angles Whisper”, from Omani Folk Tales, seems a familiar story in the Western canon but takes an unfamiliar twist. One day in a mosque, a man overhears angels whispering that child who would be born soon “would do great harm” (78). The man is worried as, exactly at that time, his wife gives birth to a baby boy. The couple leaves the child outside the town, where the baby is found and raised by shepherds. When the child is grown, he returns to the village and, by chance, gets a job working for the same farmer.

One day “something came over the young man” and he kills the farmer with an ax in the fields (79). No one knows who committed the crime, and eventually the widow marries the boy. Then one day “as the boy was removing his shirt” the woman sees a distinctive birthmark on his shoulder, recognizes her son and kills herself (79).

From a Western perspective, this story leads to many questions. How could a woman marry a man and not notice for several days or weeks that he has a particular birthmark? Does the woman tell the boy (or anyone) who he is before she kills herself? In Western literature classes, Oedipus leads to questions about destiny, hubris, and sin; but is there a moral here?

Thus the fictional stories reflect accurate opinions within the culture, but don’t assist you in understanding the context of those opinions and actions. For example, “Dancing with Fire” and “Selmah, The Brave Shepherdess” seem cruel from a Western ‘self-centered’ perspective in which taking care of one’s own needs is important. In a tribal culture, sacrificing oneself for the benefit of other people is necessary and accepted. The moral is similar to the end of Beowulf, if the individuals of a clan think of themselves, the group will be destroyed.

Anthropology texts are easier to decode because they include both the cultural activity and the explanation, for example, Anne Pyburn’s “Worthless Women” in Personal Encounters: A Reader in Cultural Anthropology. Pyburn arrives in Yemen:

to evaluate a U.S.-funded education program intended to improve the productivity of women’s gardens. I spoke no Arabic and had scholarly background or experience in Islamic cultures. I knew nothing about gardening…. I had no interest in gender studies. (9)

After stressing how unprepared she was, Pyburn discusses her arrival in Yemen in which she was whisked into the ex-pat lifestyle: driven in a new LandCruiser, put up in the best hotel in town, without any contact with Yemenis. On her first day of work, however, she meets a local woman, Raja, who invites her to a party at her house. Pyburn goes and discovers despite the “absolute patriarchy,” there is a collective power in the gatherings of women. She describes the gaudy costumes and exhilarating dancing the women enjoyed, free from male gaze and critique (12). This causes Pyburn to reflect on her own “oppressive culture;” she writes my “whole existence was controlled by strict conceptions of what I should look like… The anorexic look of Western fashion models suddenly seemed sickly, pathetic and repressed” (12).

The next day, Pyburn moves out of the nice hotel where “all U.S. government people stayed” and tried to be “as close to Yemen as I could get” (10, 12). She reflects on the fact that:

Although outside Muslim countries women are ostensibly free to wear what they please and go where they wish, the truth is that if women do not conform to particular norms of dress, weight, behavior, and location, they risk being harassed and even harmed. We don’t see the boundaries on women in our own culture because we have grown up with them… wearing more revealing clothing lays Western women open to criticism about their body types by a male-dominated culture, whereas Yemeni women’s shapes are not available for discussion. (13-14)

The essay is a classic piece of anthropology in which a person goes into a foreign culture (Yemeni women’s party), carefully delineates the event (time, place, what was worn, eaten and the actions undertaken), includes a brief discussion of the participant observer’s reactions (Pyburn compares herself to the pillows as “another inert silent presence in the room”) and then the cultural and intercultural implications (11).

The reader receives a very clear picture of one kind of cultural event, which leads to more questions. Do the women ever dance this way for men? Is this kind of party practiced in all levels of society and in all places in Yemen? How often to the parties occur? Who is asked to attend (relatives only? friends only? relatives and friends?) At what age can women start to join dancing parties, are they only for marriageable and married women? Do older women attend? Pyburn explains the event clearly but, as it is a short essay, how this kind of party fits into the larger culture is unclear, as in seeing only one corner of the Mona Lisa and realizing you are missing something important.

Even in longer texts such as Unni Wikan’s Behind the Veil in Arabia: Women in Oman (1982) and Christine Eickelman’s Women and Community in Oman (1984), there is the same issue. Both Wikan and Eickelman spent their time with a small group of Omani woman so there is a “thick description,” Geertz’s term, of daily life, habits, activities and socializing, but the works, like the women’s world, is centered on the house. The women in Wikan’s book visit their neighbors and in Eickelman’s book visit the village well, but the books feel enclosed. The women don’t travel so there is no description of landscape, of history, of anyone or anything outside the small circle of their lives. The Omani women described, are for the most part, happy and self-fulfilled, comfortable in their sphere of influence, but there is a sense of seeing in exhaustive detail, one small part of a large pattern.

For the broad view, one needs travel writing. Two early books about Oman are James and Mabel Bent’s Southern Arabia (1900) and Bertram Thomas’ Arabia Felix: Across the Empty Quarter of Arabia (1932). The Bents, after a difficult journey through the Hadramut, enjoy the coast and mountains near present-day Salalah very much. Thomas, who was working in Muscat, came to explore the Qara Mountains and also appreciated the beauty of the Dhofar region. He, following the trend at that point in time, measured skulls (either paying volunteers or using prisoners who couldn’t stop him) to try to determine where the inhabitants of the region came from. He brings samples of sand back for chemical analysis, writes in musical notation the songs he hears, collects specimens of beetles, butterflies and any animal or bird he can shoot. He includes several ‘tall-tales’ told by the campfire, latitude and longitude readings, altimeter readings, temperature readings, medicinal cures – there is a wide variety of information in his book on every subject relating to Oman, expect the people he is traveling with.

A few of the men he has hired to escort him are mentioned by name, and he makes note of several interesting sayings, activities and habits (i.e. rituals surrounding prayer times), but his focus is entirely documenting as much as possible as acutely as possible to pass on to various (British) collectors of wisdom, who wrote the long appendices at the end of the book setting all the shells, skulls and instrument readings into ‘correct order.’

Wilfred Thesiger’s classic Arabian Sands about his travels in Oman and Yemen in the late 1940s is a longer work, covering more time and geographical space than the Bents or Thomas, but also missing important information. Most noticeably, the travel book has no women in it except a young woman he sees at a well whose shirt strategically falls open. The book has almost no description of settled life, of villages or day-to-day routines. Thesiger had no interest in the Bedu per se upon arrival. His interest was the desert, in going where no European had gone before and where there were no traces of modern life; “the Empty Quarter became for me the Promised Land” (40).

Thesiger had none of the typical anthropological apparatus. He collected and paid men to act as guides and travel companions not native informants. He wrote in his journal for personal benefit and did undertake any kind of systematic analysis of the culture. But, in being so clear about his personality and prejudices, his book becomes an almost perfect emic description of a certain group of Arabs: Bedu men who had the ability or interest in undertaking long journeys for money in the late 1940s. In Arabian Sands one finds Thesiger’s opinions,  “Arabs are a race which produces its best only under conditions of extreme hardship and deteriorates progressively as living conditions become easier” (97) which one can judge through the relentless self-evaluation he displays:

I thought how desperately hard were the lives of the Bedu in this weary land, and how gallant and how enduring their spirit. Now listening to their talk and watching the little acts of courtesy which they instinctively preformed, I knew by comparison how sadly I must fail, how selfish I must prove. (135)

Unlike fiction, in which the main characters must be interpreted and evaluated by criteria that may not be obvious to the reader (was “Selmah” really a brave shepherdess for attacking the leopard on her own, or foolhardy?), in travel writing one has a clear view of the narrator. When Thesiger writes “my mind was taut with the strain of living too long among Arabs” one can better understand and believe such passages as:

I offered it [a bowl of water from a well] to old Tamtaim, but he told me to drink, saying that he would wait until the others came, adding that as they were his traveling companions it would be unseemly for him to drink till they arrived. I had already learnt that Bedu will never take advantage over a companion by feeding while he is absent, but this restraint seemed to me exaggerated. The others did not arrive until five hours later, by which time I was thoroughly exasperated and very thirsty. (266, 65)

Thesiger manages, better than any of the other examples I have used, to explain an event both in terms of what it means within the culture, Omanis will not eat while traveling if one of the group is absent, and how that usually unarticulated Omani cultural imperative translates into another culture: from a Western perspective, it’s annoying to wait for someone.

This leads us to the issue of audience and purpose. Fiction’s purpose is to show by examples what are possible human experiences and emotions with the given culture. Usually written by people and for people within the soceity, the texts do not always convey their meaning clearly to outsiders. You need experience in the culture or a cultural interpreter to make sense of a story like “The Talking Tree.”

Anthropological texts do the translating for you. The books will include, by definition, both aspects of the culture and explanations of the why-how-when-where-who and what. The finely grained detail is chosen to show that, while the experiences portrayed might not be reproducible, they were “authentic” events witnessed by the anthropologist and then, later, mulled over, classified, compared, and interpreted. The primary audience is other anthropologists, to add one more example of human patterns of culture, and secondarily, people in the culture or from other cultures.

The primary audience for travel writing is for people outside the culture who want to know what the place is “like” – so the generic expectations include a wide range of topics such as weather, history, food, clothes, animals, plants, langauge, religion and enough information about the traveler so the reader can judge his or her prejudices. The expection of “truth” is lower than in anthropological texts but higher than in fiction. The reader understands that travel writing is one person’s interpretation of a culture briefly visited and thus expects entertainment and personal interpretations mixed in with accurate information such as location of towns, local flora and fauna, culinary specilaities and shopping opportunites.

One cannot understand a foreign culture solely through fiction, anthropology or travel writing, each is “a source of psychological and philosophical insight” although fiction is almost completely subjective, anthropological texts are “filtered through the experience and worldview of the interpreter, but focused sharply and precisely on the world of the native” and the information in a piece of travel writing is always unapologetically mediated by the writer (Peacock 100, 90).

Omani Folk Tales, Halimah and the Snake, “Worthless Women,” Behind the Veil in Arabia, Women and Community in Oman, Southern Arabia, Arabia Felix and Arabian Sands are all texts that represent authentic aspects of the culture of Southern Arabia. In over three years of living here, I have seen expressions of the social realities described in all of these texts, from the social pressure of the family, the need to subjugate personal interest for the sake of the tribe, the importance of personal bravely, the freedom and fun of women’s parties to the rigorous equality practiced by Bedu traveling together. It is impossible to describe all aspects of a group’s culture in one text, even in masterpieces such as Canterbury Tales. The best one can hope for is to read individual texts, aware of the advantages and limitations of the genre and the author, then try to meld the information into a cohesive whole, as light refracted through a crystal breaks into spots of different colored lights, which, if reformed, would create a pure, white radiance.

See also (bibliography below)

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

Foodways: Cultural Issues Pertaining to Litter

‘Little c’ Culture: Flooded Roads and Cheese Triangles

Foodways and Teaching Culture

Reflections on Ethnographic Research: Changes within Cultures


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