Back from Ubar or What to Read if You Insist on Staying Home (2004)

[O]ur passions are never accidental. We do not by chance…decide to specialize in epaulets   (Evan Connell, A Long Desire)


Friends of mine have a little house on a two-acre island in a small lake in quiet Ontario. I woke up one morning there and realized that from that point on, I would be going back – back in the boat to shore, back in my friend’s van across the border to the bus station, back on a bus to the train station, back in a train to the city where I lived, back on the metro to the station near my house, back in a taxi to my house. It amused me, that from that point I was merely retracing steps. As I was about to walk down to the dock, I realized I was on the very outer limit of the web.

In Women’s Ways of Knowing, the authors posit that women feel more comfortable being in the middle of connections (webs) while men prefer the edge. Perhaps one of the reasons I like traveling and reading about traveling, is that I get to go all the way out to edge and peer over. I rather enjoy edges, that moment you realize the limitations. I like ‘you can’t get there from here’ and all those Italian strikes that keep you stranded for days. I love the moment when the subway car goes underground and the annoying guy yelling into his cell phone suddenly pulls it away from his ear with disgust and shoves it into his bag. You get to the farthest point and there you are, stuck; you now have to wait, turn around, finagle, throw a hissy fit.

If I was going to be perfectly honest about it – I’d say close your computer and go buy Road to Oxiana, West with the Night, Three Men in a Boat, Caesar’s Vast Ghost and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I am so seldom able to make people do what they ought to, even when, perhaps especially when, I know what is best. Those are all real travel books, this is a semi-travel essay. But although I’m not promising enjoyment (go read Mark Salzman), you will get a little edification, like it or don’t.

The question is not now, not ever, “why travel?” The solar system travels, Earth travels, you travel. The question is why travel outside of those tiny, minuscule patches of territory you know. “Ahem,” says a voice in the back, “I have lived in Boston all my life, hardly minuscule.”

But do you know where the Tufts college students party, the best Bollywood theater, the real Italian place in Little Italy, where to get your eyebrows threaded, where the cops drink? Do you know Jamaica Plain and Watertown? A person could live in Back Bay their whole life and never know Quincy. Face it, you don’t really know your home town. You probably don’t even know your neighbors and, if you haven’t been paying attention, you might not even know yourself.

Yet, traveling is not the way to find yourself in any grand scheme: you go along with yourself and your main insights are ‘I hate grey carpeting’ and ‘McDonald’s has better pancakes than Burger King.’ People are always squawking “Paul Theroux” at me, well read his books – what are his insights? He hates it here. It is dirty and the people aren’t nice. And he also hates it over here. It’s dirty. And, quelle surprise, he hates this other place as well. In addition, he hates it over there, too depressing. And, by coincidence, he is unhappy here as well. The people who are impressed with this are mistaking indigestion for insight.

You will get those (very infrequent) moments of revelation, almost all of which will be exasperatingly saccharine. Like me waking up my first morning in Italy and seeing, through a thick fog, a stone wall which enclosed a grove of olive trees (olive trees!) with sheep grazing underneath.

I went to Corfu, Rhodes, Cyprus, and Provence because I was going to write my dissertation on Gerald Durrell and Lawrence Durrell. Then, I spent the night in a sort of bed and breakfast place in Pathos and realized that after six months, I knew pretty much nothing about the Durrells and I would have to expand my focus to all travel writers. If you can’t fail little – fail big.

Most scholarly books on travel writing take some small selection and examine it closely, such as Janice Bailey-Goldschmidt’s and Martin Kalfatovic’s article, “Sex, Lies and European Hegemony: Travel Literature and Ideology,” which sounds like it covers everything a person would need to know. But is it only about European descriptions of travel in India until 1761.

When I was doing my dissertation on travel writing, I read all over the place: Pausanias’ Description of Greece, 2nd century B.C.; Egeria’s Travels, a European abbess’ account of her travels to the Holy Land c. 385 A.D.; Gustave Flaubert, Isabella Bird, James Fenton, Anthony Smith.

I ran through ’Abdallah ibn Battuta’s Travels in Asia and Africa: 1325-1354; Bernal Diaz’s The Conquest of New Spain, a Spanish soldiers’ account of his part in the defeat of the Aztec empire under Hernán Cortés in 1521; Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, and Other Travel Sketches and Back Roads to Far Towns, a Japanese Buddhist monk’s walking tours from the mid to late 1680s.

I adore the English canonicals: Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa, 1897; Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, 1922; Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, 1969; Eric Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, 1958.

I read the ones you have to: John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, 1962; Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, 1977; Jonathan Raban, Mary Morris, Redmond O’Hanlon, Bill Bryson, and Pico Iyer. And the ones I wanted to: Mark Twain, Mark Salzman, Eric Hansen, Tim Cahill, Calvin Trillin, and Robin Magowan.

It’s a measure of my temperament that I deliberately avoided Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s History of the Expedition under the Command of Lewis and Clark, 1814 and Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, 1841. But I devoured J. R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journal, 1932; Vikram Seth’s From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet, 1987; and Anthony Smith’s Blind White Fish in Persia, 1953. What heaven to find No News From Throat Lake by Lawrence Donegan, 2001, Getting Stoned with Savages by J. Maarten Troost, 2006 and Driving Over Lemons by Chris Stewart, 1999.

And then there are the immortals: Gerald Durrell and Lawrence Durrell, Wilfred Thesiger, Dervla Murphy (would someone please knight her? She would probably turn it down but, honestly, the gesture ought to be made); and dear, cranky Amelia Edwards, A Thousand Miles up the Nile, 1877.

I got my Ph.D. and moved to the Middle East to teach. While there, one of the places I wanted to visit was Ubar, a stop on an ancient Arabian trading route whose “refinding” is recounted in breathless, “Entertainment Tonight!” prose in Nicholas Clapp’s The Road to Ubar, 1998. I had thought at one point I was close enough to get to it, but it turned out to be much farther away (slavish attention to maps is the hobgoblin of little minds), but I promised myself that I would figure out how to get to Ubar before I moved back to the States.

This involved finding someone to watch the cat, deciphering out airline schedules, securing hotel reservations, faxing the tour company, getting the right visa: pedestrian, unromantic toils. I woke up on the momentous day and hit the first disappointment, I did not have a “real” tour guide; he was a perfectly pleasant guy, but he wasn’t local and had no good stories. Second disappointment – we weren’t going in a Land Rover. As far as I’m concerned, for land travel it is Land Rover or Land Cruiser pick-up or just stay home.

We drove for hours up through the mountains (I think Eden must have looked like this) and then along through the flat, desiccated landscape until the desert started.

The museum at Ubar was closed, so my guide decided to “show me” the Empty Quarter, the Rub al-Khali, an area of 250,000 squares miles of sand dunes. It is the size of France, Belgium and Holland with sand dunes as high as 925 feet. We continued on the road for a few miles, passed a small collection of derelict buildings, then onto drifting sand where the road disappeared. For about 50 yards. Then the car (did I mention it was NOT a Land Rover?) got stuck. It took us about twenty minutes to get unstuck, then the driver turned right around and we were back on the road, headed back to the hotel.

Perhaps aware that the day was not quite the happy culmination of a year’s hope and expectation, after an hour or so, he pulled off the road, navigating between rock outcroppings until he stopped in front of a small group of stubby, scraggily trees with peeling bark.

“Frankincense!” he exclaimed proudly.

Now this indeed was something. Unexpected and marvelous – to actually see the trees close up, especially since the lore is that they are rigorously guarded. Perhaps the driver took every single tourist to this stand of trees. But it was hidden from the road, without other tire tracks, desolate. A quest fulfilled and an extra, unexpected adventure: it was time to go home. Then I was home and what is there to do at home, except plan the next travel?

(photo M. A. Al Awaid)


I will be presenting at the Maritime Exploration and Memory Conference, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England – Sept. 2018

Accounts from the Journeys of the Brig “Palinurus” Along the Dhofar Coast in the mid-1800s

Dr. Marielle Risse

Although there is a fair amount of written descriptions about the northern part of Oman, there were few travelers who wrote about the southern region of Dhofar until the 1970s. The first sustained exploration by Westerners was done by two teams on the Brig “Palinurus.” Captain Haines and his crew from the Indian Navy surveyed and explored the Dhofar coast in 1834, 1835 and 1836. Commander J. P. Saunders, with the same ship and some of the same crew, continued this surveying work in 1844-1846. Both Haines and Saunders published accounts of their voyages,

The primary focus of these journeys was to figure out how the lands investigated might be of use to the British government and merchant class, as when Haines tried to buy the island of Socotra from Sultan Omar to use as a depot for steam-boat traffic between India and England. But there is a fascinating wealth of cultural and historical information from the articles written by members of the “Palinurus.” For example, the brig’s assistant-surgeon, Henry Carter, wrote up a brief archeological survey of “The Ruins of El Balad” (1846), in which he includes a succession of rulers/ governors of the Dhofari coast. Cruttenden’s short article (1838) details his journey from “Morebat” [Mirbat] to Dyreez [Dhariz],” approximately 71 kilometers along the coast.

My paper will discuss the articles published in relation to the “Palinurus” voyages along the Dhofar coast to compare the details of what was recorded in the mid 1800s to the present day. I will also briefly mention later travelers who came to the region by boat including Theodore & Mabel Bent and Bertram Thomas.


(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

Differences/ Hierarchies

I have no fear of bugs and love camping because of the time I spent in the Caribbean as a child. The geography of Salalah also reminds me of the Caribbean island I knew because Dhofar, uniquely on the Arabian Peninsula, has a summer monsoon season (called Khareef, the Arabic word for ‘autumn’) which brings in 3 months of rain/ drizzle. Salalah has farms with coconut, papayas, mangos, bananas and limes. Many houses have gardens with bougainvillea, hibiscus, and oleander like houses in the Caribbean.

But beyond the physical remnants of the island, there is a psychological and intellectual level. Steve Caton’s Lawrence of Arabia: A Film’s Anthropology (1999) struck a deep chord with me in terms of how the “theme of the outsider, of the individual who does not feel comfortable in his or her own society” from the film resonated in his own life and in the lives of many anthropologists (145).

When I read Abu-Lughod’s question from “Writing Against Culture,” “Does difference always smuggle in hierarchy?” (1991 146), my answer is ‘not if you don’t want it to.’ I disagree with the cliché that anything that makes a difference makes a division.

Abu Lughod states that it is part of “anthropological discourse to enforce separations that inevitably carry a sense of hierarchy” (1991 138). Further, “self is always a construction, never a natural or found entity… the process of creating a self through opposition to an other always entrails the violence of repressing or ignoring other forms of difference” (140). In a later article she argues that “a difference between self and other will always be hierarchical because the self is sensed as primary, self-formed, active and complex, if not positive. At the very least, the self is always the interpreter and the other the interpreted.” (2008 13). Or put another way, “Can we think of a difference without putting it against a norm?” (Mascia-Lees, Sharpe, and Cohen 1999 29).

I think we can. I think people can code a norm as a norm for only ourselves and recognize that it is/ should not/ must not be the norm for anyone else, hence a norm without prescriptive power.

Given my background, I don’t believe that the hierarchy is an essential part of discussing cultures. I loved our island and cordially hated Columbia, the town I grew up in, but even as a child I couldn’t say that one ‘culture’ was better or worse than another – they were merely different. I have spent almost sixteen years living overseas in four different counties and have lived in seven different American states, I can’t rank any of those cultures into any kind of hierarchy.

When I hit a cultural aspect that’s difficult for me – the question is ‘why is this hard to deal with?’ The fact that you have to pay for garbage to be taken away in Vermont was annoying because I didn’t have extra cash. The fact that you don’t in North Dakota doesn’t make one state better or worse – it simply means to you have to think about all sort of factors such as cost of land, location of land-fill sites, tax burdens, ground water supplies, price of gas, cost of maintaining garbage trucks, etc. People may, or may not, always be partial to their own culture, but refusing to say, “My culture is best” is an intellectual choice. It’s impossible to say that a grilled cheese sandwich at noon is a better lunch than rice and mutton at 2pm.

Except for physical harm, most constructs that are deemed “better” simply need to be picked apart and analyzed for how that construct fits into larger issues. For example, Dhofari families with small children are often restaurants at 10pm. This is soemtimes  viewed by expats as bad child-rearing. But strict and early bedtimes in America, for example, are linked into to a host of other physical and mental cultural features.

Children have an early bedtime in America because there is a cultural understanding that children and adults live on separate time schedules and do different activities. In the States it is common for children to eat different things at different times than adults. Children often have their own room, so they can be put to sleep separately from adult sleeping spaces. Parents may often not have seen each other since the morning and might welcome an hour or two of peace and quiet to watch TV or talk.

In Dhofar, children and adults live in the same rhythm, for example, eating the same food at the same. In Salalah, adults who work and school-age children get up early, but for others it’s normal to rise at 9 or 10 am. Omanis eat lunch at home, so there is two to three hours space for parents to talk in the middle of the day. Everyone takes a nap after lunch so people are refreshed for staying up late. Thus, families with children are often seen eating in restaurants, shopping or picnicking at ten or eleven at night.


Aunt Alice

My Aunt Alice passed away a few weeks ago. She was my mother’s older sister and lived in Wisconsin her whole life. She married a farmer, Bob, and raised six children on a farm. When I was in middle school I spent part of two summers living with her family and my grandparents, who lived a few miles away. She had the calm kindness of a woman who made her life looking after her family and her neighbors.

My aunt was the kind of woman who would pitch in to help and bring a casserole to those in need, which might not sound like much until you are the person in need and then Aunt Alice would be exactly who you would want to see. I never saw her deliberately mean to any person. She gardened, she read, she cherished her family and friends.

When my students say “America” they think of New York City. When I think of America, I think of driving a rental car from Madison or Minneapolis to northern Wisconsin to visit my aunt, my grandparents and the “Wisconsin cousins.” The road would start in the tangle of city streets and gradually the buildings would thin out and there would only be sky and gentle rolling hills, cows in pasture and rows of corn in summer and snow-covered fields with tree lines in winter. Small towns full of people growing the food that everyone eats, taking care of the cows which produce the milk that everyone drinks. Areas referred to by coastal people as “the flyover zone.” One trip was, by chance, on July 5th and flags fluttered from the infrequent farm houses and shops. That’s “my” America.

Part of the reason I can live here is because my life in Salalah reminds me of the life I saw in northern Wisconsin and Grand Forks, ND:  men and women who are quietly competent, who don’t need to make a big deal of what they know. In photos, her children and grand-children always stand with a little space between them, as if to show “we’re here together but not encroaching.” “We are glad to be together” the photos seem to say, but no need to make a fuss about it.

I visited Wisconsin infrequently after I graduated from UW-Madison and then I have lived overseas for 14 years. But I always sent Aunt Alice postcards – happy to think of her reading my notes in her kitchen and, later, in the assisted living home where she lived. She always wrote long Christmas cards, full of family news and what she was reading.

Aunt Alice lived a quiet life without fame or glory. She is one of the few people I know who are assured to be in heaven. If she isn’t there, then it’s not the sort of heaven for me. I can just picture here in line to talk to St. Peter with a “Well now, hello, isn’t this nice?” and chatting away with gentle small-talk with everyone else in line. And I can see her walking through the Pearly Gates and immediately inquiring if there is anything to be done, checking out celestial gardens, perhaps circling quietly around to find a favorite author, peeping though clouds to check on her family. She was an anchor for me and I am sorry she is gone.


I am honored to be appointed as a member of the Editorial Board for International Authors

International Authors is a non-profit organization seeking to empower artists, writers and educators. A consortium of writers, artists, architects, filmmakers and critics, International Authors publishes work of outstanding literary merit. Dedicated to the advancement of an international culture in literature, primarily in English, the group seeks new members with an enthusiasm for creating unique artistic expressions.

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

My Job

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)


It’s possible for someone to be your mentor without every meeting them. Over ten years ago, when I started to do anthropology research, I found articles and books by Lila Abu Lughod and realized that she set the standard I wanted to emulate. Now a professor at Columbia University, she did research among the Awlad’ Ali tribe in Egypt for years, writing numerous articles and books which make the women come alive as complex, thinking, reasoning beings.

When I first read her work, I had a profound sense of relief – HERE was someone, finally, writing about Arab, Muslim, tribal women who were not passive, oppressed cardboard figures but real women who experienced emotions, trying to create a good life for themselves and their families. The women in her work are like the women I know here.

Her Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (1993/ 2008) is brilliant: section after section of real people talking about real life. One part that stands out for me is her writing about an older married man talking with his first wife, and later private conversations with each one about the changes in their lives when he married again. Abu Lughod lets the couple speak; she shows the short- and long-term effects and costs of multiple marriages on all the people involved and how the effects change over time. It is a nuanced, heart-breaking discussion of polygamy, how different people think different things are important at different times and she shows the cost to the husband. This section, and all her work, stand in contrast to so much lazy, sloppy, overheated and stereotypical writing about Muslim and Arab people who have never spent significant time in the area.

So I was stunned when I went to a conference and another woman on my panel made a dismissive remark about her – how could an Arab, Muslim woman disparage Abu Lughod, who has dedicated her life to understanding and helping others understand the lives of Arab, Muslim women? I talked to the woman for a while, trying to get to the root of her anger. She explained that she felt Abu Lughod was being used by traditionalists to show that Arab, Muslim women are happy and they have all their freedoms (i.e. there is no need for change and/ or reform in terms of women’s lives and choices).

I countered, as I can’t address how traditionalists/ conservationist are using Abu Lughod’s work, that she has spent her life articulating the lives of Arab, Muslim women. But therein lay another problem. The young academic felt that Abu Lughod had positioned her work towards non-Muslims, non-Arabs rather than working for increasing women’s freedoms in the Arab world.

I couldn’t think of a way to argue back because the statement which came to mind [“It’s not the responsibility of all women to fight the fight you are most interested in”] sounded too curt, so we agreed to disagree.

At the same conference, another Muslim, Arab woman took issue with a statement I made that it’s not my duty to make my students “modern.” I was speaking about trying to find texts that fit within the conservative worldview of the area where I teach; the woman suggested that I put modern novels (about social change) on my syllabus even if I don’t discuss them in class. I responded that it wasn’t my job to teach works with aspects (alcohol, adultery, etc.) that were not acceptable in the local culture. She countered that it was my job to open my students to new/ modern/ open ways to thinking. I laughed and said that as an American Christian, some students and some of their parents are already nervous that I might try to push a political or social agenda in my teaching and “It’s not my responsibility to change my students.” That conversation also ended in a strained silence.

As I wrote in an earlier essay, the image that comes to mind is the velvet rope blocking off the entrance to a room in a museum. The tour guide slips under the rope and shows off the treasures of the room, explaining their history and importance while the tourists stay outside, looking in. Against the colleagues who believe that Westerners should ‘liberate’ the students, I believe my job is to show that there are different ways to live and different ways to believe. The presentation should be honest but neither cheerleading (we do it better!) nor insulting. The tourist/ student should learn about different cultures but not feel pressured to adopt the manners and customs depicted, in the same way that I see Omani culture but am not able to enter fully as I am not Muslim or Arab. If the tourist/ student wants to change, that is a personal choice, not the responsibility of the tour guide.

When I worked at MIT, I went to a lecture by Noam Chomsky. During the question period, another person in the audience asked what could he (we) do about the persecution of the Falun Gong in China. Chomsky said, “Nothing.”  He continued by explaining that we weren’t there. A person can only work honestly and effectively in the place where they are.

The two Arab women I met at the conference had ideas and strategies that were effective from them where they are, but they would not work for me where I am, or for Abu-Lughod where she is. She specifically addresses these issues in a recent article [“The Cross-publics of Ethnography: The Case of ‘the Muslimwoman’,” American Ethnologist Nov. 2016].

Time and time again in her writing Abu Lughod argues that:

others live as we perceive ourselves living – not as automatons programmed according to ‘cultural rules’ or acting out social roles, but as people going through life wondering what they should do, making mistakes, being opinionated, vacillating, trying to make themselves look good, enduring tragic personal losses, enjoying others, and finding moments of laughter (Writing Women’s Worlds 27)

My students and the people I write about in my research are people who live valid lives and make valid choices – it is not my job to change them. It is my job to listen carefully and speak honestly. In teaching, I should find interesting, relevant texts and give assignments that allow students to express their own opinions and improve their language skills. In my research, I should observe as accurately as possible, ask questions and write only after reflection and double-checking. That’s my job.