Musing

Hurricane Mekunu

Still trying to get my house dried out. Deepest thanks to the electricity, water and phone companies – all three stayed on during the storm which made everything easier. The government did a great job of warning people (to the point of forcing people to evacuate from low-lying areas), arranging free housing, food and water. Many civil aid trucks are out and about; roads are getting cleared. Darbat is RUNNING!

Travel Writing on the Ropes or The Importance of Not Being Earnest (2010)

(Important hint: If you cherished Eat, Pray, Love – this essay is not for you)

Let me first toss in your general direction the red shirt. What red shirt? Christopher’s! The immortal Christopher Sykes from the immortal Road to Oxiana by the immortal Robert Bryon. Paul Fussell was sore- (and wrong-) headed about a few things, but spot on in regards to this classic travel book about Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan in 1933, published 1937. Bryon and Sykes travel for months and return with a red shirt, a blue bowl from Isfahan and, after three years of writing, a book. A shirt, a bowl and a book, that’s all they have to show for it.

Travel writing has always been about discussing a commodity. The change in the last 25 or so years, is that some travel writers now believe that the commodity in questions is their emotions, precious emotions, deep emotions, heartfelt emotions…

John Kirch and his girlfriend Iris, whose last name is not given, are Americans bound on a trip around the world.

Starting out by visiting Mack [a friend] in Hong Kong and ending up in Europe, Iris and I could be Marco Polos in reverse. Plying the trade routes, we wouldn’t so much loot the world–or seek looting’s pale modern equivalent: the bargain. We hoped to let the world loot us. (Music in Every Room 18)

The world doesn’t. Kirch wants to appear learned; while visiting a Hindu temple in Calcutta, he is offended that their guide “listed a panoply of deities, as if we didn’t know Vishnu from Adam.” But his next remark is, “I couldn’t help but label what I saw as chaos, and sympathize for the first time with olden missionaries’ cringing horror at ‘paganism’” (151). Then it all goes pear-shaped:

We had sworn never to be caught in the various American libraries run as showplaces by the Embassies and the U.S.I.S., a/k/a the Department of Disinformation. But the need for more reading matter wore down our resolve… While Sikhs in New Delhi waited obediently for immigration information, stunned to be turned into butcher store numbers to be paged, a high-caste librarian took his time exhuming, at my command, a decade’s worth of Sports Illustrated. (236-37)

That isn’t travel writing – that’s a hissy fit. Good traveling writing has a triangulation factor. The reader is at one corner, the place is a second and the writer is the third, so one is always shifting the focus from what is the place like, to what the traveler is like, to ‘what would I do in that circumstance?’. But the worst of modern writing puts the author front and center, hogging the stage, taking all the best lines, arranging the lights to highlight their best features.

Please note I am emphatically not joining the boring crowd chirping about how ‘travel/ travel writing is over’. Not for me is Paul Fussell’s claim that after World War Two “all that remained [of travel] was jet tourism among the ruins” (226) and travel writing is “hardly possible anymore” (37). Poor Fussell fumes that he cannot cruse the South Pacific on passenger ships; he must give up images of himself “lolling at the rail unshaven in a dirty white linen suit as the crummy little ship” calls at an exotic port (41). Martha Gellhorn questions:

Remember the old days when we had porters not hi-jackers; remember when hotels were built and finished before you got there; remember when key unions weren’t on strike at your point of departure or arrival; remember when we were given generous helpings of butter and jam for breakfast, not those little cellophane and cardboard containers; remember when the weather was reliable. (12)

Dear people, the weather was never reliable.

Against Jeffery Bernard in Egypt:

My daughter Isabel’s bar bill was LE32 for four days’ Coca-Cola which struck me as fairly revolting. I don’t think she liked the holiday very much… On our last day we went to see the pyramids and the Sphinx and took pictures of each other standing in front of them. But I shall remember the Nile especially during its brief sunsets. The heat of the day makes the sky white and not blue and when the sun goes down over those angry orange carbuncles of mountains, it is also pale and yellow. Then the color of the river changes too and it becomes as gunmetal. The distant chanting of calls to prayer are only interrupted by calls for Coca-Cola on the boat. I hope the ghosts of the old kings get angry one day. (Views from Abroad 311)

I place, standing in roughly the same place at the same time of day, Lawrence Durrell:

If you sit on the top of the Mena House pyramid at sunset and try the same thing [clearing your mind] (forgetting the noise of the donkey-boys, and all the filthy litter of other travellers–old cartons and Coca-Cola bottles): if you sit quite still in the landscape–diviner’s pose–why, the whole rhythm of ancient Egypt rises up from the damp cold sand. You can hear its very pulse tick. Nothing is strange to you at such moments–the old temples with their death-cults, the hieroglyphs, the long slow whirl of the brown Nile among the palm-fringed islets, the crocodiles and snakes. It is palpably just as it was (its essence) when the High Priest of Ammon initiated Alexander into the Mysteries. (Spirit of Place 158-59).

The great travelers and travel writers don’t whine about how it’s all over; they don’t take travel seriously enough to get all worked up. With brave intrangence they refuse to write sentences like: “India and I are inextricably linked,” (Scoop-Wallah 2), gush over fortune-tellers’ prophecies or share their souls. Good travelers go for stupid reasons, maps or books given as a present, a bet made while drunk, boredom, on a lark, or for some reason that they are simply unable to explain. They have an “emotional distance” (much as I hate to use the term) from what they are doing and seeing.

Thesiger and Cherry-Garrard faced more pain, physical and mental, than most people could bear, but they scarcely mention it. Thesiger sees sand and writes about sand, not about his mother. He may drift now and then into a soliloquy about himself in the sand, but it is sand AND self. You never forget that he is an Arabian desert which wants nothing more than his desiccated bones. Not that Freud is not welcome, or relevant, but he is a desperately dull companion when you are in the Empty Quarter.

Cherry-Garrard tells of finding Scott’s body in the simplest declarative sentences: “We have found them,” “Oate’s death was a very fine one,” “It is magnificent that men in such case should go on pulling everything they died to gain” (472). Robert Twigger in Angry White Pyjamas: A Scrawny Oxford Poet Takes Lessons from the Tokyo Riot Police (1997) can’t stop talking about what hurts and how much, knees, shoulders, hands, his sense of well-being, his sense of accomplishment. On the other hand, you get rare travel writers who erase themselves out of the picture so thoroughly; you finish the book wondering who wrote it. I defy you to read Roff Smith’s Cold Beer and Crocodiles: A Bicycle Journey into Australia (2000) and learn anything about him.

Good travel writers have to have a vantage point from which they can examine and judge themselves as well as the place, giving movement to the writing – back and forth between what it should be and what it is. Bad ones are self-centered.

The good ones get themselves into horrible situations through wretched stupidity and generally ought to be taken out of the gene pool. Mark Salzman, Stuart Stevens (damn his politics – I had to give up buying his books but I still read them), PJ O’Rourke (oddly, his politics are also abhorrent but they don’t give offense), and the highly charming Tony Hawks (Round Ireland with a Fridge, 1998). I give you George Courtland, smug with his cricket-bat willow trees wondering if the “small translucent pebbles” on a beach in Liberia are diamonds (The Travels of a Fat Bulldog, 172). No George, they are pebbles, but we appreciate your leaving such silliness in the book, as well as conversations such as this:

One of the guests aboard is a beefy, brainy-looking man wearing thick spectacles. He is a geologist called Mousewinkle.

“The only Mousewinkle I ever knew was a weedy whey-faced fellow at my prep school who was always homesick.”

“That was me,” says the beefy geologist, somewhat testily.

“You’ve changed a bit,” I titter, abashed.

“So have you,” he replies, staring meaning at my pink-topped head. “What happened to all that blond hair you used to have?”

“I passed it on to my children.”

“That sounds like a well-rehearsed reply.”

“It is a well-repeated question,” I say ruefully. (45)

A normal travel writer would have stopped after “testily,” showing himself the master of the situation; a good writer would have stopped after “children,” showing himself the wit. Courtland goes all the way, allowing Mousewinkle his revenge. Courtland’s self-possession is so strong, a mere Mousewinkle repartee cannot touch it, so the full exchange is included. And since you now trust him to be honest on the small matters, you trust him on Thailand, Zambia, Mongolia, the Barents Sea and La Paz.

The English are better travelers and travel writers because they don’t have that pesky American trait of thinking they can make things better. You get on a plane in the UK and you may have to walk out on the tarmac and climb steps to the plane’s door. Retractable do-hickeys to link plane and airport? Why bother? Americans are all about inventing, improving, not taking something as given, working it. Brits, knowing how it should be, seethe and endure, refusing to snivel.

The English have understatement, sprezetura, the stiletto. Americans have the club. Americans are touched, moved, suffering, full of woe, of grief, of mid-life crises, desire to find out who they are, despair over that pesky divorce. Mark Twain, in The Innocents Abroad (1869), opens his remarks on Rome with a long paragraph asserting that discovery “swells a man’s breast with pride above that which any experience can bring him” (274). He then asks

What is there in Rome for me to see that others have not seen before me? What is there for me to touch that others have not touched? What is there for me for me to feel, to learn, to hear, to know, that shall thrill me before it pass to others? What can I discover? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. One charm of travel dies here. (275)

Grumpy petulance – so unbecoming.

Now take Redmond O’Hanlon’s Into the Heart of Borneo (1984). Here are O’Hanlon and the poet James Fenton, on the first afternoon of their journey, attempting to impress their guides with their fishing acumen:

“The trouble is,” said James, flicking a rod handle and watching the sections telescope out into the blue beyond, “my elder brother was the fisherman. That was his thing, you see, he filled the role. So I had to pretend it was a bore; and I never learned.”

            “What? You never fished?”

“No, Never. What about you?”

“Well, my elder brother went fishing.”

“So you can’t either?”

“Not exactly. Not with a rod. I used to go mackerel fishing with a line. All over the place.”

After managing to knot all the lines, forget the weights and break one line, they regroup and try again.

James reached right back and swung the rod forwards and sideways as if he was axing a tree. At that very moment, it seemed, the Borneo banded hornet, Vesta tropica, sunk its sting into my right buttock.

            “Jesus!” I said.

It was huge and jointed, this hornet, flashing red and silver in the sun.

“You are hooked up,” said James matter-of factly. “You have a spinner in your bum.”

There was a weird, gurgling, jungle-sound behind us. Dana, Leon, and Inghai were leaning against the boulders. The Iban, when they decide something is really funny, and know that they are going to laugh for a long time, lie down first.

Dana, Leon, and Inghai lay down. (37)

O’Hanlon went to Borneo as a naturalist looking for birds and information about the now-extinct Borneo rhinoceros; compare him to the American Eric Hansen’s Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo (1988). When Hansen tries to explain why he traveled, he writes into his text a long quote from Isabelle Eberhardt’s The Oblivion Seekers, in the middle of which comes the sentence:

The cowardly belief that a man must stay in one place is too reminiscent of the unquestioning resignation of animals, beasts of burden stupefied by servitude and yet always willing to accept the slipping of the harness. (44)

American writers focus the narrative on themselves, their reactions and emotions to the place visited, allowing the reader to experience every nuance of the traveler’s emotions. The British style is to center on the location and appear as an, usually offstage, narrator. Using other people or the pronoun “one,” makes readers feel that anyone traveling the route would see and hear the same events.

By chance, both men write of the cicadas in the up-river town of Belaga. O’Hanlon:

The big green and black insects whirred into the lights, pulled their joy sticks the wrong way and knocked themselves out on the ceiling, mixed up their flaps and powered into the shelf of baked beans tins, forgot their ailerons and splashed down in James’s beer. James picked up his captive, his finger and thumb on its abdomen, and it protested with a burst of sound like a football rattle.

“They good to eat,” said Leon, ‘they taste like little fishes.”

“No more little fishes. Not this week,” said James, releasing his captive. (159-60)

Hansen makes the insects personal:

An ancient ceiling fan squeaked and wobbled unevenly as the wooden blades batted giant cicadas against the walls, occasionally cutting one of the insects in half. From the cool concrete floor, one of the cicada heads, with wings and thorax intact, buzzed to life and flew out the door of the coffee shop, leaving its abdomen behind. Ten minutes later, seemingly unperturbed by its accident and once again attracted by the light, the head and wings flew back into the shop only to be swatted against the wall by the same overhead fan. Blind persistence–I could relate to that. (267)

O’Hanlon’s quest was scientific, to find evidence of the Borneo rhinoceros. When he finds a man who had killed one, the book stops. Hansen does not reach his stated goal, crossing the island from East to West. Reach your goal? Why bother? Within a day of his goal, he asks his guides to turn the boat around and heads back into the highland jungle. Heading towards the Eastern coast, he sees increasing signs of current Euromerican culture in the clothes of his guides and the motors on the boats. Poised between two worlds, a jungle that has just spat him “out like a piece of old chewing gum” and what is, to him, a hostile modern world, he goes back in the jungle (173). The jungle which, just to be clear, he ends up leaving, returning to Sydney, to America, the goal unfinished – something for his soul to ruminate on.

The point is not that Americans are famously self-involved, we knew that. The point is not that you can buy an adventure, you could always do that. What’s new is that the swerve of one’s emotions are now the adventure. The English are against the ropes; American psyches invading the travel landscape.

This is not a cri de coeur, but a battle cry. Ye English arise, wake that sleeping lion and go valiantly into this dark fight! Stop talking about yourself unless you can make fun of yourself, unless you can gracefully occupy a corner, and only a corner, of the stage. I beg you to take up the falling flag of travel writing or we will be lost in the choking sulphur of Frances Mayes:  “I could kiss the ground here, not to feel myself in that tight space where the past gnaws the future but in the luxuriant freedom of a long day to walk out for a basket of plums under the great wheel of the Mediterranean sun. At the tail end of the century, continual splashes of newness” (250).

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

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.