Houseways: Doorways – Design and Culture

In an earlier essay, I discussed how rooms were arranged:

This essay is one of three related pieces about the interplay between behavior and space: how certain behaviors create a need for a certain kind of space (entryways), how a certain kind of space creates the need for certain behaviors (talking in the salle) and the intermix of house design and behavior (front doorways).

Talking about front doors is, to me, a chicken-and-egg issue. Did behaviors help form door shapes or did door shapes help form behaviors? Impossible to tell.

Whatever the cause, most Dhofari houses have two front doors of differing sizes. The main door, leading to the main hallway, usually faces is the street and is both larger and more decorated than the door which leads to the majlis, which is often at a 90 degree angle to the main door and the street.

In Salalah, main doors of houses that are set-back from the street are often Palladian-style with an arched transom window and thin vertical windows with opaque glass on either side. They are also often wider than average to allow large furniture to be moved in and out. This usually means either one wide door or double doors in which the right-side door is used daily while the left is locked in place and only opened when more space is needed. There is never a post between the two doors as this would defeat the purpose of having a large open space. Screen doors are seldom, if ever, used.

The majlis door is usually the standard size [apx. 115 cm wide, 210 cm high] and, while it might have a transom window, there are usually not windows on either side. It might be a double door, but I have never seen one that was as wide or wider than the main door.

In terms of the connection between structures and behaviors, having wider doors at the main entrance makes sense as this is used by the people who live in the house and women who are visiting. And a Dhofari woman does not often go visiting by herself, she will bring children, sisters, her mother and/ or aunts along and when they arrive, they are greeted by the children who live in the house so that perhaps ten people are standing in/ near the doorway or just inside in the foyer.

Whereas it is more usual for a man to visit a house by himself, and even if a group of men approach the majlis door together there are, as one Dhofari friend says, “protocols” of how men should enter a building. Anyone who visits Dhofar will get used to the logjam/ shuffle that occurs when several men walk up to a doorway. Younger men will step to the side or backwards to show respect; older men will move aside to avoid acting as if they want to go ahead, sometimes gently pulling on the shoulder of another man’s dishdash to allow him the honor of going first. Sometimes the negotiations will take 15 seconds until one man is persuaded to enter, then there might be further parleys until it is decided who will go second. Dhofari men go through doorways one at a time after careful demonstrations of respect and good-will.

The same sequence does not usually occur with women. If four women approach a doorway at the same time, there will not be a delay in entering. Perhaps a young woman might let an older woman go first but for example, children might race ahead or tug their mother’s abayah to pull her forward or a younger woman might enter, then turn around to help an older woman over the threshold.

When leaving, the same dichotomy exists. Women leave together by the main door, unconcerned about who goes through the door first and, in any case, the door is usually wide enough to allow two or more to walk through at the same time. The doorway cluster can be the group of women who came together or, if a single woman came to visit, then the hostess, children and perhaps other women in the house will be near the door to say “goodbye.”

From the majlis, unrelated men leave singly, trying to time “goodbyes” so that one is not approaching the door at the same moment as another man which would necessitate at least a symbolic “after you – oh no, you first – please, I insist – I couldn’t, please go ahead” sort of exchange.

Men who are related or friends can leave in groups as the order of precedence (or lack thereof) is established and will not require gestures of politeness.

To explain this phenomenon another way, there is a general cultural understanding in Dhofar that the person standing on the right hand side of a doorway should enter first. But whereas men will actively try to maneuver themselves towards the left and another man towards the right, women will not attempt to change their position or the position of another woman as they approach a door.

I don’t know all the reasons for the why of this behavior. I think it is partly due to women not wanting to draw attention to themselves in public and wanting to get to an inside space as quickly as possible. Women are also often carrying or leading children and a crying baby or sleeping toddler who needs to be settled is of more importance than who walks in the door first. Also, as women’s faces are usually covered while men’s aren’t, a man stepping aside to let another man go first is publicly showing his good behavior.

From watching men’s behaviors in cafe and on picnics and women’s behavior in the salle, the same dichotomy exists in terms of seating: men actively try to give other men the ‘best seat’ (most central, closest to AC, most comfortable) while women sit where there is space closest to women they know. If there are no seats open in the salle, younger women and/ or women who live in the house will stand up to make place, but if the guest waves them down, there is not a protracted back and forth. Some older women prefer to sit on cushions on the floor and if a woman has settled herself, no one will try to force her to another place.

I will be presenting about Dhofari Fishermen at the ‘Fish as Food’ conference organized by the ICAF, hosted by the Univ. of Liverpool

Fish as Food: Lifestyle and a Sustainable Future

International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, hosted at the University of Liverpool

ICAF Conference 2021

Sept 1-3, 2021


The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman

Dr. Marielle Risse

My presentation discusses two important questions about fishing economics in the Dhofar region of Oman: how much does it cost to catch fish and how does that expense create a social benefit for fishermen, regardless of the money earned from the catch?  I have been looking at the theme of generosity, including sharing food, for more than ten years and in this presentation I discuss how much a typical day and season of fishing costs a fisherman, as well as how giving away part of every catch creates a benefit that is more than monetary. Using interviews and personal experiences, I explain how the cash outlay for gas, nets, bait, etc. is transformed into social, in addition to economic, capital for Dhofari fishermen.



Houseways: Talking Privately in Crowded Rooms

In an earlier essay, I discussed how rooms were arranged:

This essay is one of three related pieces about the interplay between behavior and space: how certain behaviors create a need for a certain kind of space (entryways), how a certain kind of space creates the need for certain behaviors (talking in the salle) and the intermix of house design and behavior (front doorways).

A majlis and salle are usually large enough to seat at least 20 people and square/ rectangular with all the furniture pushed against the walls. Houses are built from concrete block and have tile floors, sometimes partially covered with an area rug, thus everyone in the room can see and hear each other – in a sizable, echoing space, how do people manage to have private conversations?

Two types of behavior, non-verbal and talking very quietly, [as discussed in: ], work for short communications such as imparting information, asking a question and giving a command. In this essay I would like to talk about another strategy: Dhofaris tuning out/ turning away/ politely ignoring visitors. This behavior means that people can have private conversations, after the requirements of hospitality and respect have been met, and that a person who is new to the group has time to adjust.

A female Dhofari friend (A) lived outside of Dhofar for several months where she met an Omani woman (X). When A’s brother (B) came to visit A, he met X’s husband (Y). So when X, Y and their children came to visit Dhofar, A invited them to dinner at her house with the understanding that B would host Y in the majlis with other of A’s male relatives and A would host X in the salle with other of A’s female relatives. I was invited as I had also met X previously.

When X and Y arrived, they were greeted by A and B who stood outside the door, then brought to the respective sitting rooms. When X walked into the salle, all the women (X’s mom, sisters, sisters-in-law, and nieces) greeted X and she was led to a sofa in the middle of the south wall, a few spaces down from A’s mom. A sat in the middle of the east wall and I was in the middle of the north wall. The first twenty minutes was the necessary polite, general conversation in which X asked about everyone’s health and everyone asked X about her health, her family’s health, her trip to Dhofar, where she was staying and did she like the hotel while A was offering drinks and snacks to X and her children. The first round done, the second round started in which more specific questions were asked about X’s health, the health of X’s children and female relatives, their trip to Dhofar and X started to ask about how A’s mother was doing and who were the other women in the room. A’s mother was included in all the questions and responses; X looked at her more frequently than anyone else and the other women, including me, listened to everything with polite attention.

Then we moved to the dining table (on the south side) to eat dinner, then back to the sofas. A few minutes later, with hands washing after dinner and X given a plate of sweets, there was a gradual change in that A’s mother and other female relatives turned their attention away from X by saying prayers using a misbaha (prayer beads), looking at their phone, talking to children or each other. A and X, more than 1 1/2 hours after X had arrived, were able to talk freely about people they knew/ experiences they had had in common.

There were the same number of people sitting in the same places as when X had arrived, but instead of one person talking at a time with X and A’s mother as the twin focal points, now A and X were a dyad. A’s female relatives and I sat quietly, sometimes listening, sometimes talking to each other. As the time to leave grew closer, the talk again became more general with people offering X suggestions about where to go site-seeing and what restaurants to eat at. X was invited back to the house, which she parried with how short their stay was and how they had relatives to visit.

In thinking about this visit beforehand, I had thought that it was too bad A and X would not get time alone (such as meeting at a coffee shop) to catch up. But what happened was that A’s family created that conversational freedom for them, without changing the space or their locations, by shifting their attention away. In a room with 10 women and five children, A and X were able to share reminiscences and catch up on mutual acquaintances.

To look at this issue from another angle, I was once visiting a Dhofari friend when an older female relative (M) stopped by. I had not met M before and was surprised that the younger women (N) with her was wearing elaborate make-up, a lot of jewelry and a highly decorated dress, shorter in front than in usual for normal visiting. My friend looked at me and said, “bride” in Arabic; women who are newly married usually dress up for visits in the weeks after the wedding. N had recently married M’s son and M was bringing N to meet M’s/ N’s husband’s relatives. N sat silently, looking bored, as we spoke; I felt kind of sorry for her as she must have had several of these types of visits with her new mother-in-law.

But about two years later I saw that situation from a different angle. A female Dhofari friend invited me to her wedding; I agreed but with some trepidation as I had not met any of her family before. I arrived at the house for the party and her mother took me into the salle. I could hear quiet comments of women “placing me” (telling each other who I was) as I walked around to greet each woman. But once I sat down, all the women ignored me. This might sound negative, but it was very freeing – I was in a tightly packed room with every seat taken. All the women were in pretty, loose dresses with lots of perfume, children ran in and out, maids came around offering tea, coffee, juice and water, as well as snacks – there was lots of see and do. Women who came in shook my hand and the women next to me encouraged me to eat and drink so I did not feel any hostility, just a sense that everyone had collectively decided to leave me alone. After about an hour, the woman next to me asked me a few simple questions, I think to test both my level of Arabic and my willingness to engage. When I answered readily, other women joined in with questions and we ended up having a lovely time – joking about husbands and driving cars and studying.

As I drove home, I thought about the silent bride (N) and wondered if perhaps what I marked as boredom was relief that the women in my friend’s house had given her the same sort of emotional/ psychological break of ignoring her so she could be with a lot of unfamiliar people without having to make conversation. These were women she would know and visit for the rest of her life and rather than perhaps making a misstep at the start of the relationship, she had the chance to look around, listen to the talk, and start to form ideas/ opinions about the women before being expected to join in.

The spaces within a house for visiting are few and large, thus Dhofaris have created a series of behaviors that make accommodations for others. In certain circumstances, everyone will tacitly ignore 1) people who want to talk about someone that is interest only to them and 2) people who they feel might not want to or be able to join in the conversation. Being able to see and hear others in the same room does not automatically mean it is necessary to engage with them, so privacy is possible even in a crowded salle.

Another example of creating privacy for others was discussed in . Women usually return to their mother’s house after they have their first child. One family I know lives in a house with a mother, several unmarried daughters and several married sons and their families. When a married daughter came back to stay for a few weeks with her new baby, she and husband met in the majlis. The husband was not a close relative so it would not be appropriate for him to spend a lot of time in the salle and it was not possible for him to come to her bedroom as this would mean entering the private area of the house. The men in the house willingly did not use the majlis at certain times so their sister’s husband could visit her and the baby alone.

Houseways: Entrance Ways – Form Follows Function

In an earlier essay, I discussed how rooms were arranged:

Houseways: Comparisons – Types of Rooms and Sightlines

This essay is one of three related pieces about the interplay between behavior and space: how certain behaviors create a need for a certain kind of space (entryways), how a certain kind of space creates the need for certain behaviors (talking in the salle) and the intermix of house design and behavior (front doorways).

Several members of my family work in the fields of design and planning, so I grew up listening to a lot of talk about architectural details and the effective organization between and within buildings. A favorite mantra was: form follows function, meaning the purpose of the space determines the size and shape of the space.

This is a good way to start to think of entrances to houses. When I first visited Dhofari houses I was surprised by the large space near the front door that leads to the main hall. The foyers were empty and, to me, unnecessary. Kids did not use the area to play in, no one sat there, there was no furniture except perhaps a rectangular side table pushed against the wall with a mirror above it or nearby – just a large empty space that had to be air-conditioned.

After more visits, I started to see the purpose and began to be very grateful for the entrance space as a helpful liminal space between being public (outside where everyone could see me) and private (in the salle in view of women and children).

To aggregate several dozen experiences, when I arrive at a house, I wear a dhobe (loose, Dhofari housedress) which is covered by a “head ababyah” (a large, black polyester square that is pulled over the head and drapes to cover my body down to the knees). It is often worn for short distances, such as from car to inside house or between neighbors’ houses; some older women wear it while shopping.

If the front door is open, I call out to show that I am there, step into the foyer, take off “head ababyah” and put it in my purse, check that my lossi (headscarf) is covering my hair, then walk into the salle. If the door is locked, I ring the bell and when it is answered, there is usually one woman with a group of children behind her who have come to see who it is. The woman will welcome me, but not ask me questions, and shoo the children away. She will stay back a few feet and not give any pressure such as saying “everyone’s waiting for you!” as I check that I am ready to go into the salle. When I start to move, she will walk to the opening of the salle with me and sit in her place. Once in the salle, all eyes will turn to me and there are sometimes questions and explanations as to who I am as I walk in a circle, greeting each woman and shaking her hand, then I find a place to sit and get ready to talk.

The large, empty foyer uses gives me the chance to move from outside presentation (shapeless black figure) to inside (still shapeless but brightly colored). I can check my hair and lipstick, smooth down my dhobe and get ready to be part of the conversation. Even if there is a wedding party with over 50 women in the house, the foyer is empty and women who are further down the hallway will not come to say “hello,” until I have moved away from the door area.

The area makes me think of texts from the 1800s and 1900s in which there are depictions of women going into a small dressing room to take off their wraps and change into dancing shoes such as Katherine Mansfield’s “Her First Ball.” It’s public, women in the hallway can see me and sometimes children stand nearby, but also private in that I am not expected to make small talk or answer questions.

When I leave the house, the space again is useful as, after I say my goodbyes, step out of the salle and into the foyer, I have a moment to get my “head ababyah” back on, check my phone and get out my car keys. Perhaps my friend will come stand with me, to walk to the portico with me to wave goodbye, but the talk is easy: “say hello to your mother for me” and “I hope you have a nice weekend” sort of phrases.

At the end of a wedding party, there might be several women standing near the door waiting for a car to drive them home, but there is plenty of space even with children running about. And there are no expectations of doing formal greetings; when I walk into the foyer, I don’t have to say ‘hello’ to each woman. We see each other and shift to give room for whoever is leaving to get to the door, but we don’t have to interact.

Thus, it’s a space that is used only for a few moments of time several times during the day but is necessary given common Dhofar behaviors. A large foyer is needed not because there are usually more than five small children living in one house, but the fact that children love to run to the door when someone knocks (or are sent to see who it is) and often stand near the door to look at a person arriving or leaving.

As children like to be together, they might all gather in the entrance way when school age children are leaving. Mini-vans/buses come into or next to the hosh as children don’t usually walk to and wait at a bus stop since it is often very hot. With a large foyer, there is space for the mom, the children who are going to school and young children to all wait inside where it is cool. Or the space can be used by a group of sisters waiting for a car to take them shopping or visiting relatives so they don’t have to stand outside the house in view of the neighborhood.

[There is a difference between houses in towns and in the countryside, as rural houses usually have a dekka, seating area in the front or side of the house which means you are on display as soon as you leave the car.]

(photo above: mirror in entry way; photo below: mirror in entry way to the left, ahead to the left is entry to salle, ahead to the right is doorway of short hall leading to majlis – both photos taken by informants and used with permission)

ta - hall

Houseways: Who Visits Which Rooms?

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

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

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

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

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

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

(photo of majlis by informant, used with permission)

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)

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.

Houseways: Comparisons – Types of Rooms and Sightlines

I think of Dhofari houses as the antithesis of expensive Victorian-era houses with all those little rooms with separate purposes: the morning room, the seamstress’ room, billiard room, the music room, the library etc. In Dhofari houses, there are usually only four types of rooms: sitting room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. The first three types are furnished with the same pattern of empty space in the middle: the majlis/ salle with stuffed chairs and sofas around the walls with coffee tables next to them and an open space in the middle; the bedroom with the bed and cupboards/ dressers against the walls and open space in the middle of the room and kitchens with counters set around the walls. Furthermore, all rooms are built square or rectangular; there are no nooks or closets. Books, dishes, clothes, beddings, etc. are stored in pieces of furniture that are placed next to a wall. Dining and kitchen tables are placed close to one wall or where two walls meet. To look at this from a child’s perspective, while playing hide-and-go-seek, kids can’t hide in closets or behind furniture. The only places to hide are behind doors or inside kitchen cabinets/ bedroom clothes cupboards.

The effect of this pattern in that when you walk into a room, you can see everyone and everything immediately. I believe the reason for this pattern is that when Gibalis sit together, they always try to keep everyone in the group in view. Men sitting on sofas placed next to the walls in a majlis are a mirror image of men sitting on a mat near a fire for a picnic. One way to keep a more rounded shape in a square or rectangular room is that instead of sectional sofas meeting at a 90 corner angles, either the corner section is angled, or an arm rest is placed at the corner (see examples below).

Further, hallways in Dhofar are much wider than the arm span. Thus, although houses aren’t built ‘open plan,’ from certain vantage points, you can see many different spaces. Standing in the main ground-floor hallway, one can usually see the front door, the entrance to the kitchen, the main stairs and into the salle. From the top of the stairs one can usually see down to the main ground-floor hallway, the open space (sometimes used as a salle) at the top of the stairs and the doors to most or all of the first-floor bedrooms.

A North American house might have a “great room” with a combined kitchen, dining area and sitting area, but normally this is not in sight of the front door. Whereas in a Dhofari house, an older female relative who sits in the salle will see every person who comes in or leaves unless they leave by the kitchen door.

Another way to think about types of rooms is to consider that many middle- and upper-class North American homes have rooms for work, relaxation and/ or exercise such as a home office, craft room, gym, yoga studio. etc. which might be the former bedroom of a child who has moved out. There is a standard trope of a child going to college and his/ her room ‘disappears’ as it has been entirely repurposed.

Whereas in Dhofar, while the people who stay in a room might change, the purpose seldom does. For example, three boys might share a bedroom on the ground floor. In time, an additional story is added and two boys move to an upstairs bedroom while the original room is redone for the oldest boy and his bride. After this couple have a few children, they move to a suite on the first floor and the room is refurbished for a grandparent who cannot manage to walk up stairs.

One consequence of these building and furnishing conventions is that for some Dhofaris, “privacy” refers to their personal thoughts and emotions as they are almost always in actual or potential sight of other people when in a house. Privacy might never be found in a bedroom as children might share a room (once close to puberty, in single gender groups) and young children stay with their parents.

Another consequence is the Dhofari ability to have secret conversations in front of other people. In American families, there can be family-only codes such as saying, “FHB” (family hold back) at a party, meaning there might not be enough food so family should eat less so the guests can have as much as they want. Or an older person raising their eyebrows, opening their eyes widely and staring at a person to show dissatisfaction with inappropriate behavior but it is more common for family members simply to make verbal requests/ demands in front of visitors.

In Dhofar, having a large salle with a perfect view of every person combined with the need to always show a calm and positive expression means it more usual for older relatives to direct younger people with quick eye movements (such as looking at the AC unit to tell someone to make the room cooler) or hand gestures. When I taught a class on culture and asked students to come up with examples of non-verbal communication, many explained the signals for “bring fresh tea” and “bring more food” that older siblings and parents used. Several times at weddings, I have sat next to a woman who was part of the hosting family and a sister would come over to, almost inaudibly, ask a question or give information. The two would discuss hosting emergencies (not enough food, the bride will arrive very late, etc.) with no visible sign of agitation so that the dozens of women who could see them have no idea that there is a problem.  

A note on bathrooms: Bathrooms are almost always ‘dead-end.’ I have seen only one example of a ‘pass-through’ bathroom with two entrances in a house built before 2000. They are usually rectangular and built with the narrow end on an outside wall or lightwell to allow for the window and extractor fan. They are usually set up with an open design (e.g. no interior walls such as a low partition to screen the toilet) with a pedestal sink or sink on a counter with empty space beneath and a shelving unit next to the wall. The sink is always closest to the door. The shower area usually does not have a curtain and is marked off with a slightly lowered floor with a drain. Some have tiled steps along one side. Bathtubs are rare; if there is one, it usually has a seat. The steps and seat are for the ritual washing before prayers during which face, hands and feet must be cleaned.

The door to a guest bathroom that is attached to or near the majlis and salle often opens to a space with one or more sinks, then another inner door leads to a small room with a toilet, shower and sink so that guests might wash their hands while the toilet/ shower room is in use. (see example below)

Bathrooms in the family/ private area of the house are built open-plan for one person to use at a time, unless it is a parent helping a small child (see example below). Some North American bathrooms are set up with the toilet half-hidden behind a low wall and shower curtains so that two people might use the room at the same time but I have not heard of that in Dhofar.

examples of majlis/ salle designed to create circular seating pattern in square room

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examples of bathrooms

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Houseways: Windows/ Design, Construction and Safety

Over the last twenty years or so, the predominate style for living and bedroom windows is 2 or 3 panel, lift-out, sliding windows placed about 1 meter from the floor with the window either single pane or divided. Usually the window itself is rectangular (for example height of 110 cm and width of 120 cm) with an inset plastered/ painted arched niche or an arched fanlight above (for example with height of 45 cm, see note about arches below).

In the last few years, there is a greater mix of styles. While some houses continue to have arched windows, square windows, large picture windows and/ or an entire wall (one or more stories high) of windows are more common. In particular, rental houses often have floor to ceiling windows with sliding glass or French doors. Bay and bow windows are rare.

Most windows are reflective – either because the glass itself has been treated while being made or a thin reflective film was put on. This is done to cut cooling costs as it means less direct sunlight enters a room; it also means windows are difficult or impossible to see through during a sunny day but that is less important as most windows are completely covered with drapes/ curtains [see:  Houseways – Windows/ Sightlines]

Kitchen windows are usually smaller (for example, 1m x 80cm) and set above the sink. Bathroom windows are smaller still (for example 65cm x 50cm). Both have opaque glass and sometimes there is a small fan incorporated into the window space or the arched fan light. Both rooms might have 2-panel, lift-out sliding windows or hopper [the top of the window inclines inward]; awning [the bottom of the window inclines outward] is less common. (see below for examples)

Sometimes windows are incorporated into the front door frame: either as transom/ fan lights above the doors and/ or as thin windows on either side of the door. These windows are opaque, perhaps made of translucent glass blocks or colored with real stained glass or a plastic, press-on designs that looks like stained glass. (see above for example)

Window frames are metal, usually 3 to 5m wide and, as can be expected when fitting arched windows in metal frames into cement block buildings, there are often thin gaps which let in wind, sand and rain. As windows are often completely covered with curtains/ drapes, wind and sand is not that much of a problem, although drifts of sand appear on the floor during sandstorms. For rainstorms, some Dhofaris take the preventative option and nail plastic sheeting over windows; some simply move furniture and rugs away from the window and mop up the water.

Ground floor windows are usually barred to prevent opportunistic pilfering rather than pre-planned intent to harm and to keep track of inhabitants. There might be a perception that windows are barred to monitor females but if a female is going to have an illicit meeting, a man coming to her house or her leaving her house would be stupidly dangerous. There would be no possible justification for her being out of the house and several Gibali men have told me that they have the right to kill any man who is in their house at night.

Also, the control is in force for boys as well as girls, albeit with different consequences. I have heard of many cases of boys being given a curfew and if they come late, they have to sleep in the majlis or a relative’s house unless a sister can get a door or window open for them to sneak in.

To me, barred windows can seem at odds with the fact that doors are usually open during the day, and sometimes only locked to keep small children from leaving. I read this as a perception switch from what I call welcoming house when inhabitants are awake and moving (majlis and front door are often open) to fortress house when the inhabitants are sleeping and, while perhaps the majlis door is open, the door from the majlis to rest of the house, all house doors and all bedroom doors are locked.

To look at this issue another way, I have not seen doors with ‘peep-holes’ in them. If someone knocks, you open the door. If some of the research guys stop by unexpectedly and knock, if I ask, “Who’s there?” they will refuse to answer and pound on the door. The first time this happened I was very scared, but I had the presence of mind to run to the window to look at the place for parking. I saw a few cars and recognized one, so I answered the door and got a lot of comments about my rudeness. When I tried to explain that I was afraid, I was told there was nothing to be afraid of. In the same way, if I get a call on my phone from an unknown number, the research guys encourage me to answer. There is nothing to fear from another person who is in front of your house or on the phone, i.e. communicating with you while you are awake. The necessity of trusting yourself, being polite to guests and the implied, ever-present available backup of living in a house with over 30 people, means that having an open door or opening a door to a stranger is considered safe. The danger is what might happen when you are sleeping; when you and your family are not able to see/ assess a possible threat, hence, locked doors and barred windows.

A note on arches:

more common: flat arch / French arch, nested, ogee, “oriental,” lancet, segmental, trefoil (Gothic), Tudor. Some have a flat lintel with a relieving arch [in brick houses this would be a pattern created by bricks angled on the vertical; in Dhofari houses, the arch pattern is created by plaster- or tile-work, unrelated to structural support]; occasionally used: onion, Venetian

less common: art nouveau (non-symmetrical), draped, horseshoe (Syrian), inflexed, keyhole, parabolic; in general, window and door arches do not curve inwards, nor are the sides narrower than the maximum span (width of arch), i.e. the arch usually connects to the sides seamlessly, without a large differential of size.

Examples of kitchen windows – photos by myself or informants, used with permission

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Examples of bathroom windows – photos by myself

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Example of ground-floor barred window – photo by Onaiza Shaikh

barred window

Houseways: How to “Read” a House for Information about the Occupants

If you are standing in front of a Dhofari house, how would you know if there were people inside and what they are doing? You can’t necessarily know about the wealth of the occupants, but you might be able to make some guesses based on lights, cars and shoes.  


Unless it is a mini-palace set on 4 or 5 lots, you cannot tell the wealth of the inhabitants by looking at the house as it might not have built by or for the people who currently live in it. Houses and land can move within families members as richer members help others. A man might build himself a new home and give his previous house to a relative. A woman might live with her husband and build a house for her mother and her younger siblings. A divorced or widowed women and her children might live in a house built for her by her husband or his family. One informant’s father built a new house next to his home, moved into the new house and handed over his previous home to his brother with all the furnishings intact.

Also, the house might have been built with (non-interest) loans, either from a bank or family members. Or a large house might have been built slowly over several years by siblings who paid for labor and supplies when they could.

A house that looks old or poorly kept-up might be owned/ lived in by people who are using their money in other ways, such as paying for college or treatment for a sick relative, or they might be waiting for a coming wedding or Eid to paint/ refurbish. There might be reasons for the lack maintenance such as the house belongs to a person who has died and the heirs are deciding what should be done with it. A very wealthy older man might refuse to move to a larger/ newer house as he lived his whole life in that home.

It is important to remember that once the house is built, it belongs to the owner forever. There are no yearly land or property taxes. In extreme circumstances, the water and electricity might be cut off but there is no way for a person to be alienated from their property and left homeless. If the government claims eminent domain, the person will be given land and a house or land and enough money to build a house.


All houses have outside lights near or above the two front doors. These are almost always turned on at night if people are in the house. They are sometimes left on all night or turned off when the household goes to sleep.

Indoor lights are usually turned off or down if there is no one in the room and although most windows are heavily curtained, one can sometimes see light leaking out through a corner to know if there are people sitting in the majlis or salle. Or the majlis or front door might be open with light spilling out to show that people are in.

Houses have a series of lights that look like small lanterns along the top or sides of the walls surrounding the house and along the roof-line. These lights are usually only on if there is a party. This is done as part of the understanding that lights = joy, to alert neighbors and to help guests find the house. If the roof lights are on, it’s a happy party: graduation, someone returning from a long trip overseas, someone who has recovered from an illness, etc. For weddings, there are often rented strands of colored lights which are draped in half circles from the roof. A few people also do this on Omani National Day, November 18.

Basically, the more lights you can see, the more people are in the house. If a house is completely dark, then you think about place and time. People usually go to sleep later in towns so if a house is dark at 10pm in town, chances are everyone is out of the home; if a house is dark at 10pm in an isolated place with structures for herd animals, chances are everyone is sleeping. One informant who lives in town has a sleep pattern that is five hours later than his brother who lives in the mountains.


There is not usually space inside the hosh (courtyard) for cars, so there is often a parking space in front of the wall surrounding the house. This can be ‘read’ by thinking about how the cars are parked, the time of day, and which day it is.

If there is covered parking, it is for the senior man in the house, seeing a car in that space means it is more likely that he is at home (of course, there is a chance that he was picked up by a friend). If there is a car parked slant-wise, blocking other cars in or in the road, it is probably a delivery, meaning someone is at home.  

Working and school hours are usually Sunday-Thursday from 7or 8am to 1 or 2pm, but if no cars are in front of the house during those times, it doesn’t mean the house is empty. People who don’t work, young children and older relatives will be sleeping or in the salle. If you want to know how many people are in the house, look at the number of cars around 2 or 3 pm as it’s usual for families to eat lunch together.

You can get a sense of the extended family by looking at the cars around 1 or 2 pm on Fridays as married children will usually have the main meal after Friday prayers with the husband’s parents. Lots of cars means that there is a pater and/ or mater familias living there. No cars can mean that there is probably a nuclear family in the house who have gone to have lunch with parents and/ or siblings.


When I asked one informant how you tell if someone is at home, the response was, “shoes!” Shoes do give you the most details about who is at home but you have to have good eyesight as it is not acceptable to walk up to the front door of a house unless you are invited or you are from Dhofar and following local rules for visiting.

As shoes are not worn in the house, everyone slips off their shoes next to the door. Counting shoes, noting which door the shoes are next to and which type of shoes there are tells you a lot of information. If you know the inhabitants well, you start to learn who each pair belongs to can know who is inside before you walk in.

Men usually wear thick-soled, black leather sandals. If the shoes are next to the majlis door, it means the man is probably visiting; men who live in the house will leave their sandals by the main door. You can tell children’s shoes by their size and, again, if they are next to the majlis they are visiting with an older male relative and if they are by the main door, they live in the house. Women’s sandals are usually colored and have thinner soles then men’s.

Thus, if you put together cars, lights, shoes and some additional information, you can make reasonable guesses about what is going on.

For example, many cars and many pairs of men’s sandals next to the majlis door means a lot of men are visiting. If one then looks at the main door and sees lots of women’s and kids’ sandals, this means there is some sort of family gathering. If there are lights on the roof-line, it’s a party. [If it’s good weather, a lot of people and there is a large court-yard, the men might be sitting outside on mats, so that women have the freedom to move throughout the whole house, including the majlis.]

But if there are a lot of men’s sandals by the majlis and only a few women’s shoes, it means there is probably a meeting. In which case you need to think through football (soccer) schedules, it might be a group of young men watching a game or older men sorting through a serious family issue. Lots of women’s and children’s shoes but no men’s shoes (and a few or no cars) means it’s a women’s gathering [see below].

If there are lots of shoes and cars, the timing and the sounds can also help tell you about the gathering. The normal times for parties are weekdays after 7 or 8, Fridays after noon prayers for families and Friday and Saturday evenings.

Neighbors might visit each other but Dhofaris usually do not hold large gatherings during the day Sunday-Thursday or Friday and Saturday mornings. If there are a lot of cars and shoes during those times, it might mean that someone has died and people have come to sit with the family for the three days of mourning.

Sound can also be a factor as there is often music playing for a wedding and, during a party if the front door is open, one cannot hear distinct voices but a general hum of chatter. However if the house is in mourning, there will be no sound except perhaps a recording of the Holy Qu’ran.


Note on Cars and Gender –  A meeting of ten male relatives who don’t live in the same house will probably mean ten parked cars; a meeting of ten female relatives will mean fewer cars as they will be dropped off by male relatives, usually father, husband, brother or son. Women drive alone but if there is a family gathering, they will often bring other women and children. For example, if one female informant visits her aunt, she will pick up her mother, an unmarried sister and a married sister so that they can chat in the car.

The fact that Dhofari men drop off female relatives for visits can be read as some Dhofari women are dependent on men and thus have no freedom/ autonomy/ agency. Some Dhofari women have this point of view, but my male and female informants (including women who don’t drive) do not. Several Dhofari women have told me that having a husband drive her meant having a chance to talk to him alone. One explained to me that when living in a house with over 30 people and constant visitors, time driving to and from relatives was her chance to catch up with him. She did not want to learn how to drive as this would give him his freedom to spend evenings with his friends; driving would not give her her freedom.

For men, bringing women to visit relatives is not seen as job, chore or imposition; I have never heard any of the men in my research group man complain about it. Keeping family ties is important and a woman has the right to visit her family. Once a woman is married, the responsibility does not devolve solely on the husband. It’s usual for a relative who drives to pick her up from her husband’s father’s house, bring her home for an evening and then return her. I know of one Dhofari woman who asked for a divorce partially because her husband refused to allow anyone else to drive her, not even her brothers could take her to visit her mother. Her family supported her as his insistence that only he could drive her was seen as unfair and unnecessarily severe.

Note on photos: It would be interesting to have photos of the front of a house at different times to show the number of vehicles that are parked at different times, but to me that would be too intrusive as Dhofaris would be able to identify the house and car owners. Also as taking photos of your own house when there is no reason (such as a party) is odd, informants took these photos at times when there were not many people around, hence, not many shoes.

Photos (by informants, used with permission)

shoes 1

Husband and wife at home – family-owned apartment building

shoes 2

late morning (everyone at work), family house

shoes 3

Family house, time unknown but note that all shoes are to the left side, none near the majlis door to the right, hence it would be likely that there are no guests. Sneakers are far to the left as they might have a bad smell. One of my neighbor’s has a front door with a small landing which is near the wall surrounding the house, so sandals are left near the door but the men put their football (soccer) shoes on top of the wall.


Anne Meneley, research on Yemen

(photo of Sarfait, close to the Dhofar border with Yemen, taken by M. A. Al Awaid)

I was so pleased that Anne Meneley came to the session on “Social Attitudes Toward Food and Eating” at the recent Just Food conference. It was her work on ‘food and morality’ that helped me start to think about the connections between food and ethical behavior in Dhofar. Although her research focus has moved beyond Yemen (see below) I would like to list four publications which have greatly helped me in understanding Southern Arabia.

Meneley, Anne. 2017. “The Zabidi House,” in Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill my Eye. Trevor Marchand, ed. London: Gingko Library. 195–203.

—. 2011. “Food and Morality in Yemen,” in Food: Ethnographic Encounters. Leo Coleman, ed. New York: Berg. 17-29.

—. 2007. “Fashions and Fundamentalisms in Fin-De-Siecle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks.” Cultural Anthropology 22.2: 214–243.

—. 1996.  Tournaments of Value: Sociability and Hierarchy in a Yemeni Town. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Re-released on the 10th and 20th anniversary of publication –

Selected publications from her website:

2020  Anthropology News, 29 June 2020 The Distance of a Hockey Stick, Pandemic Insights.

2020a Hope in the Ruins: Seeds, Plants, and Possibilities of Regeneration. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, online.

2020b The Olive and Imaginaries of the Mediterranean. History and Anthropology 31 (1):66-83.

2019 Walk This Way: Fitbit and Other Kinds of Walking in Palestine. Cultural Anthropology 34(1):130-154.

2018 Consumerism. Annual Review of Anthropology 47:117-32.

2017 The Zabidi House. Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill My Eye. Ed. Trevor H.J. Marchand, pp. 194-203. London: Gingko Library.

2016 Checking Your Waistline at the Checkpoint: Dieting as a Peace Initiative. Jerusalem Quarterly 68:90-103.

2014a The Accidental Pilgrims: Olive Pickers in Palestine. Religion and Society: Advances in Research 5: 186-199.

2014b Resistance is Fertile! The Re-invention of Food: Connection and Mediation, Cristina Grasseni and Heather Paxson, guest editors. Special Edition of Gastronomica Vol. 14(4):70-79.

2014c The Qualities of Palestinian Olive Oil in Fat: Culture and Materiality, Christopher E. Forth and Alison Leitch, eds. pp. 17-31. New York: Bloomsbury.

2014d Discourses of Distinction in Contemporary Palestinian Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Production. Food and Foodways 22 (1-2): 48-64.

2014e Comment on Andrew Bevan’s “Mediterranean Containerism.” Current Anthropology 55 (4):408-409.

2011 Blood, Sweat and Tears in a Bottle of Palestinian Olive Oil.  Food, Culture and Society 14 (2): 275-290.

2011 Food and Morality in Yemen.  In Food: Ethnographic Encounters.  Editor, Leo Coleman.  New York: Berg. Pp. 17-29.

2008 Time in a Bottle: The Uneasy Circulation of Palestinian Olive Oil.  Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). Fall 248:18-23.

2007 Fashion and Fundamentalisms in Fin de Siècle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks. Cultural Anthropology 22:214-243.

2003 Scared Sick or Silly?  Social Analysis 47(2):21-39.   Also reprinted in Illness and Irony.  M. Lambek and P. Antze, eds. 2004  New York: Berghahn.

1999 Goods and Goodness. Social Analysis 43(3):69-88.

1999 Introduction to “The Structuring of Subjectivities in Material Worlds.”  Social Analysis 43(3):1-5.

1998 Analogies and Resonances in the Process of Ethnographic Understanding.  Ethnos 63:202-226.