Living Expat – Grocery Stores

Standing in the aisle of a large grocery store, liberally spraying air freshener, I am reminded of how different activities are when you live as a middle class expat in the Middle East. Shopping here is very interactive. You want to know what a soap, air freshener, shaving cream, scented talc or body wash smells like? Open it! Take a sniff – spray some around. No problem.

And of course you are buying air fresheners because the culture in general is ‘scent based’ as all men and women leave the house wearing either perfume/ cologne or clothes which have been ‘smoked’ with scented incense. During one visit to an Omani neighbor, we tried out a selection of 15 different ouds, small chips of wood infused with scented oils which are placed on a small piece of smokeless charcoal to produce great wafts of perfumed smoke. This is not a culture for people with allergies!

In most large grocery stores, the aisle with cheap ($3-$10) bottles of perfume is located near the entrance and you walk up, grab a bottle off the shelves, or open a package to try a perfume not on display, spray yourself liberally, then start your shopping.

Next to the perfumes are the ‘personal products’ which are always fun. Men often do the shopping so you will see guys standing in front of the female deodorant or hair coloring sections picking up an item with one hand and talking into a cell phone with the other. Men will sometimes take photos of several face creams, send them off and then wait for the answering message about which one to buy.

It’s best to avoid the ice cream section all together. No use to make yourself sad looking at the vast, delicious selection –  the ice cream usually has freezer burn. Whatever you buy, when you dig a spoon into it, you can hear the ice crystals cracking. Some people think it’s supposed to have that consistency.  Of course with an ice cream company called ‘London Dairy,’ you can resist temptation; the idea of cows in London producing yummy ice cream does not compute.

The fruit and vegetable section is very safe – you can pick your own produce or ask one of the helpers: just point and say how much you want in, all measurements in kilos. Some people make a huge fuss, bossing around the clerks, “No, not THAT watermelon, THIS watermelon.” I want to kick them in the shins.

You can find the basics for Indian and Middle Eastern cooking: garlic, green peppers, limes, okra, ginger, chilies, fresh coconut and eggplant. Things like shallots or large potatoes are sometimes there, sometimes not, but there are always new discoveries: jackfruit (yuck), that little fruit with black wiry hairs growing out of it which gives me nightmares, fresh lemongrass tired into bundles, various ‘gourds,’ bumpy cucumbers, locky (?) and aravi (?).

But despite the plethora of new and interesting vegetables and fruits, the biggest difference for me about shopping here is that it is very interactive. First, you need to check each product for the expiration date. I have bought all sorts of things from vinegar to sunflower oil to cake mixes, which were past the sell-by date. Often items are put on the shelf and left until they sell so you can find Valentine’s hearts in August and chocolate rabbits in October.

And even if you only need two or three things, you should walk every aisle in the store as what’s on the shelves changes all time. You simply don’t know what will show up (garden gloves, windshield de-icer, hoisin sauce, mint plants) or what will disappear for months at a time (French’s mustard, Diet Coke, croutons, Swiss cheese, stuffing). Suddenly all the stores will carry El Almendro (absolutely fabulous almond candy from Spain) or Almond Roca (absolutely fabulous almond candy) and then it will be gone forever. So, although you might only need milk and eggs, it’s good to stroll around and see what’s new: did vanilla flavoring show up? Is there cranberry juice again? Has fresh mozzarella cheese arrived? You can’t rely that what you saw before will ever be there again. Plus, what you are looking for might not be where you think it is. Ice tea mix is next to Tang, not in the tea aisle;  coconut milk is next to the salt.

The constant flux has two effects. One is stockpiling. I make it a rule to never take ALL of anything, but I have been known to take most of the Bitter Lemons. The second is that over time you get a sense of what your friends like so there is a fair amount of calling and messaging friends to let X know that there’s root beer, Y know that there’s cherry yogurt, Z know that there’s spelt bread and Christian expats are in contact (rather like the first cuckoo sighting for the Times) when candy canes show up in December.

The Non-metaphorical Camel

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

Driving to work one day, I once saw a big chicken by the road ahead of me. As I came closer, I thought: that is one big chicken. I got closer and thought: that is the biggest chicken I have ever seen. When I passed it I realized it was a peacock, just hanging out by the side of the road. And the funny thing is I know that peacock, he lives in a small palm grove next to the one of the buildings where I work. When I go to a meeting in a building near where it lives, I can hear that peacock calling.

It’s like that when you live in a small town. I was reading outside in my garden one evening and felt something tugging and chewing on my shirt. Looked down to find two goats snacking on my L.L. Bean oxford shirt. Turns out my neighbor had bought three goats to fatten up for Eid, the Muslim holiday. He let them out of his garden every day at 5 pm to let them forage. I would come outside to find them munching my flowers. A few times when I was bringing groceries in from the car, I would find them in my car, nosing through the plastic bags. This is cute and amusing until you have to clean hoof prints off the back seat.

Always on the lookout for texts to give to my students, I often read anthologies of Arabic poetry. An introduction to one anthology stated that there would be “no poems on camels” in a ‘we are all beyond that cliché’ tone, but camels aren’t a trope for me – they are here around me.

I came home once to find about 20 camels tearing at the branches of one of the trees which hung over my garden wall. I got out of my car and walked across the street to watch them. After a few minutes, a pick-up came screeching around the corner and a spry older gentleman hopped out and walked over to the herd yelling.

One of the neighborhood kids was standing with me and I asked him to tell the man to leave the camels alone. The tree was big enough and had enough branches inside the wall that the camels could not kill it. They were doing me a favor by trimming it back. The boy called over to the man who shrugged, got back in his pick-up and waited for them to finish their lunch. Then he moved the herd down the street.

All camels in Oman are owned by someone – but many are simply let loose during the day. As camels stick together and will not travel too far, if someone is not sent to stay with them all day, you can send someone out about 4pm to find them or they will come home by themselves, walking along the road nose to tail. Mothers have their teats tied up in a bag so babies can’t nurse; the need to nurse, eat fodder, drink water, and bed down safely (plus affection) keep camels returning home every night.

As the roads outside of town are often set level with the sand, it is perilously easy to hit one at night. To prevent accidents, it is your duty to signal when you pass camels near the road; the protocol is to turn on hazard lights to warn drivers behind you and those coming from the opposite direction. I now call hazards ‘camel-lights’ because the only time you use them is to signal for camels. Older camels walking in line are normally safe; they will not pay attention to traffic even if cars pass close to them at great speeds, but you never know when one might scare. Young camels are dangerous because they startle easily and might either run into traffic, or spook other camels to run. A young camel bleating for its mother can cause the mother to move hurriedly.

In the Khareef (summer monsoon) season, the camels which live in the mountain must be moved. Camel feet are smooth; they have no traction on slippery wet grass and will easily fall and break their legs so they need to be herded down roads to the flat area at the foot of the mountains. Their owners gather together and decide on a day and time to bring them to the plains in groups. It’s sort of fun if you pass one of the large herds: first there is pickup with hazard lights blinkering to warn oncoming traffic, then dozens of camels interspersed with young men with thin sticks calling to encourage the dozens of camels along. The camels walk steadily, calling out as they go along but in the large groups mothers lose babies so they will bellow, stop, turn around, and go back the way they came. At the end of the herd is another pickup or two.

[written in 2009]

Why I Don’t Cook – Thinking about Food Exchanges

It was a sad and awful day the day I saw okra in the grocery store. Oh for Pete’s sake, okra! OKRA! the bane of my existence as a child: slimy and tasteless and, it turns out, quite the favorite here. Sigh. When I complained to my mom on the phone that I had to share this lovely country with that awful vegetable, she recommended that I could make a casserole with it and bring it to on a picnic.

I love going on picnics, but I have never brought a casserole or anything I have made, a fact I have been considering this week. One problem is that I don’t have cookbooks, another is that I am not a great cook. Also my oven has about a 20 degree temperature difference between the left and rights sides and I can’t always find things I want, especially herbs and spices.

But there are larger issues at play that make the food exchanges between me and Omanis I know so uneven. One factor is I don’t know how to make what they like to eat. Rice is a staple of Dhofari cooking and most Omanis in Dhofar eat it every day; I have cooked it perhaps twice in my life. Local favorites like asseda (cooked wheat flour with samn, clarified butter) and harees (boiled wheat with meat cooked and blended into porridge-like consistency) have only a few ingredients but need a lot of time and effort to be made properly. I am not fluent in the spices used here. I use rosewater and orange water as perfumes, not to cook with; I prefer olive oil to samn.

And I am hesitant to bring foods which had different flavors and textures than food normally eaten here: dill, brie, hollandaise sauce, pumpkin spice, sharp cheddar cheese, bitter orange marmalade. When I offered a Dhofari friend nachos, I got the same look as when I am offered cow’s stomach or goat’s intestines: “I am so happy you like that, please don’t try to make me eat it.”

There is also a worry when I bring something home-made that it might have something haram (proscribed in Islam). Dhofari friends know that I understand and respect Islamic dietary rules but, well, anyone can make a mistake. There might be a sauce I brought from outside Oman and I didn’t KNOW that there was something haram in it and…  So it is better if I bring packaged food such as cookies or dates. When bringing presents back from trips, I make sure gifts such as chocolates have a clear list of ingredients and/ or are labeled halal (permissible to eat in Islam).

Foreign restaurants are opening in Dhofar – Mexican, Thai, Sushi – and there are expanding types of food in the grocery stores such as organic and gluten-free. But this food diversity is under the umbrella of government control which ensures that all food sold in grocery stores and restaurants halal.

I love eating Omani food – white rice with freshly grilled fish and dates is one of my favorite meals. Their macaroni dishes are wonderful. All the dishes with meat, rice and spices are delicious: mandi, kabsa, makbus. I could eat halwa (see below) and basbousa (cake made with semolina, usually flavored with coconut in Salalah) every day. It’s not fair that I get enjoyable meals while only contributing Pringles, cookies, juice, soda and water but then I remember the reaction when I handed over oatmeal cookies. From politeness a few people took a nibble. The pain in their eyes was the same as mine when confronted with okra, liver, cooked carrots or bread pudding. It’s good to try new things but it’s also good to stick with what you know.


Halwa – (the Arabic word for ‘sweet’) is the traditional dessert of Oman. It’s made with sugar, water, clarified butter, cornstarch and flavorings such as cardamom, saffron, sesame seeds, almonds and cashews. It is slow cooked in large batches and then poured into various-sized bowls. The color varies from a light blond to almost black to reddish depending on ingredients. The consistency is like a tough Jell-O. To eat, one scoops out a teaspoon- to tablespoon-sized piece with a spoon and eats it plain or plops the piece on of a small piece of a thin, plain cracker-like bread (khoubz raqaq/ raqeeq or kak) and eat both together. Halwa is in the center of the photo above in the clear, square container.

Literature and Ethnography

I love turning from ethnography to literature, then back to ethnography. Thinking about culture helps me understand fiction and reading poems helps me see differences between cultures more clearly. As I sit down each semester to find new poems and stories to teach, I always think of “Finding Poems for my Students” by Mohja Kahf (complete poem below):

O my students,

I scour the world of words

to bring you poems like the rocks

my girls dig up in riverbanks

and come running to show me

because the notches in them

say something true, something

that an ancient Wisdom

wanted us to see.

I run to you, pockets full of poems…

One day,…

may the poem be for you

the one phone number in the universe

you were looking for

There is a pure joy in opening a new book of poems to see what is inside, to read how someone found a new way to describe the sky, a bird, a feeling, a person or even poetry itself. And sometimes a poem opens a door for understanding and I want to use it in a culture, not literature, class. For example in excerpt from “Four in the Morning” by Wislawa Szymborska (complete poem below) :

The hour swept clean to the crowing of cocks.

The hour when earth betrays us.

The hour when wind blows from extinguished stars.

The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us.

The hollow hour.

Blank, empty.

The very pit of all other hours.

No one feels good at four in the morning.

If ants feel good at four in the morning

–three cheers for the ants. And let five o’clock come

if we’re to go on living.

The words “The hollow hour./ Blank, empty.” struck me as odd, so I had to reflect and unpack until I could express what surprised me. In Oman, “Four in the Morning” is a dark time, but not “hollow” or “blank” or “empty” – it is the time of anticipation, the time before the first call to prayer. The dangerous time on the Arabian Peninsula is midday, under the killing sun. The “empty” time is in early afternoon, when lunch is finished, stores are closed and everyone is relaxing.

I do a lot of talking with students about metaphors in literature classes, e.g. the moon is positive in Arabian culture, with no connotations of werewolves or danger. In culture studies classes, we talk about time relativity, e.g. if you say that you “ate dinner late,” what time does that mean? In some cultures, a “late” dinner means 8pm, in others it means 2am.

We look at examples such as:

  •   It took a long time to get to work.
  •   She left work early.
  •   She did her shopping quickly.
  •   She had a short visit with her sister.

to see the different ways to interpret the phrases. Is a “short visit” 30 minutes or 2 days? In both literature and culture classes my students and I talk about how everything changes when you change locations. In the States, on a rainy day, you stay inside or use an umbrella; on rainy days here, people sit outside and have a picnic, saving unbrellas for sunny days.

When Szymborska writes that 4am is “The very pit of all other hours” she’s opening a window into her culture that allows us to see what she sees, but also allows us to be able to articulate something we knew, but never expressed, about our own cultures.

“Finding Poems for my Students,” Mohja Kahf

O my students,

I scour the world of words

to bring you poems like the rocks

my girls dig up in riverbanks

and come running to show me

because the notches in them

say something true, something

that an ancient Wisdom

wanted us to see.

I run to you, pockets full of poems.

I select: This poem will help you pass a test.

Here is one that is no help at all,

but is beautiful; take it, take it.

O my scroungers after merely passing grades,

I bring you poems I have hiked high

and far to find, knowing

they will mostly end up like the rocks

my daughters find, tossed in drawers

with old batteries, mislaid keys,

scraps bearing the addresses

of people whose names

you no longer recognize or need.

Your current glazed-eye indifference

doesn’t bother me.  One day,

when you are either cleaning house

or moving (and sooner or later

everyone must do one or the other),

you will shake the drawer and the poem

will fall out.  And may the poem be for you

the one phone number in the universe

you were looking for, and may it be

for you the mislaid key

to your greatest need.

On that day,

you will read.

 “Four in the Morning” by Wislawa Szymborska:

The hour from night to day.

The hour from side to side.

The hour for those past thirty.

The hour swept clean to the crowing of cocks.

The hour when earth betrays us.

The hour when wind blows from extinguished stars.

The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us.

The hollow hour.

Blank, empty.

The very pit of all other hours.

No one feels good at four in the morning.

If ants feel good at four in the morning

–three cheers for the ants. And let five o’clock come

if we’re to go on living.

May Bsisu’s The Arab Table – Reading Recipes for Cultural Understandings

Bsisu, May. (2005). The Arab Table: Recipes and Culinary Traditions. New York: William Morrow.

For years, I had only one cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, a present from my mother. But after I started to do research on foodways in Southern Arabia, I began to buy cookbooks to learn more about Arabic foodways in general and to compare and contrast with Dhofari foodways. My areas of interest are how “the Arab table” can have various meanings in various locations and what those meanings might be in Dhofar.

My favorite cookbook so far is May Bsisu’s The Arab Table (2005). She is so generous and comprehensive; she lived in several countries including Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, England and the United States so she knows several food traditions and the difficulties of cooking “home” food in a new land. She includes data about which plants grow where (e.g. 252) and recipes for non-Muslim celebrations (299, 303, 345). The photos are gorgeous, the recipes are clearly written and she always gives hints, substitutions and information about where to get ingredients. I wish I had someone who would cook the delicious dishes for me!

I am reading it for cultural data, trying to catch the moments of surprise then exploring and articulating the variances, such as the difference between Bsisu’s threed/ thareed recipe (188, a platter layered with bread covered with sauce, then rice, then chicken and finished with a garnish) and how it is made in Salalah (a soup to which pieces of dried bread is added). Her chicken schwarma recipe (190) calls for pieces, not slices, of chicken. She has Um Khalid (331); in Dhofar the bread-pudding dessert is called Um Ali.

She describes specific foods for New Year’s which indicate happiness (322), something I have not found here. In asking about ‘performative’ food, i.e. food that brings about a change such as good luck, my informants say that is not part of Dhofari cultures, although there are foods for physical changes such as to lose or gain weight. She also discusses foods, such as raw meat (225) and certain cheeses (16), which are not eaten here.

Other difference are that many recipes require a specific cooking environment such as accessories not easily found in Dhofar (especially in 2005 when the book was published, for example fleece blankets 220), the implication that meat is bought from butchers who will prepare meat as requested (207), and the implied need for a fully out-fitted kitchen with spice-grinder, food processor, sauce-boats, plates to invert dishes on, etc.

Thus reading The Arab Table is fun on several levels. First there are great recipes and also I can see how not just the food choices, but the expectations of serving food, vary greatly between cultures.  For example, Bsisu discusses putting things of “each guest’s plate” (188) and setting up various “table” or “stations” for dinners (264-6) whereas in Dhofar, almost every main dish is eaten communally and guests sit in one location unless it is a large wedding party with a buffet.

At a party in a private home, there might be a table with desserts, but guests do not choose for themselves. A plate is made up and brought to them. At an Omani wedding party once, the hostess told me that she would bring a plate for me. I told her not to bother and got up and took sweets for myself. Later I realized how rude I had been, to deny her the chance to take care of a guest and to possibly allow others to judge her as not being an attentive hostess, to let a clearly foreign woman fend for herself.

The Arab Table is an excellent, thorough, big-hearted overview of Arab cooking.

(photo above is from social media, I didn’t want to take images from her book without permission)


Food Here and There/ Missing Food

While traveling recently I was thinking about how people miss foods when they are not in their home culture, but it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes you miss a certain taste (Diet Coke served with a lime slice and a lot of ice) and sometimes it’s a food experience (food + activity, walking around a mall with a Diet Coke in hand).

When I am not in Oman, I don’t miss food – I miss food experiences. I don’t like rice, but I miss white rice with grilled fresh fish served with dates, eaten on a beach with friends next to a campfire. I miss the way of eating: eating with my hands and the knowledge that all food is communal, that I can take something from another person’s plate without worrying that they will be upset and all my food is up for grabs from someone else. I don’t miss hummus, but I miss how hummus (and all appetizers) are shared. There’s no ‘I ordered this, it’s mine, if you want to try you have to ask my permisson’ but you ask for hummus and fatoush, the person you are with gets vine leaves and baba ganoush and you each take as much as you want from any dish.

When I am in Oman, I really miss coffee, the joy of a waiter or waitress walking towards me with a large carafe of coffee that will be put on my table. I have had more than my fill of “espresso-coffee” (espresso with hot water is not really coffee!). And I miss food. I miss pie. I miss raspberries, big salads with 25 ingredients, cheese plates and Mexican food. I miss a real breakfast: eggs, toast, hash browns and all the trimmings. I miss the taste of cranberries: cranberry juice and cranberry/ orange muffins.

Thinking about ‘missing’ reminds me of a great quote from Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon (2001)

The things an American who is abroad for a very long time misses—or at least the things I missed—I was discovering, weren’t the things you were supposed to miss. We are supposed to come to Europe for leisure, sunshine, a more civilized pace, for slowness of various kinds. America we are supposed to miss for its speed, its friendliness, for the independence of its people and the individualism of their lives. Yet these were not the things I missed, and when I speak to Americans who have lived abroad for a long time, those are not the things they seem to miss either. I didn’t miss crosstown traffic, New York taxicabs, talk radio or talk television, or the constant, appalling flow of opinion that spills out like dirty floodwater…

I found, to my surprise, that what I missed and longed for was the comforting loneliness of life in New York, a certain kind of scuffed-up soulfulness. In Paris no relationship, even one with a postman or a dry cleaner, is abstract or anonymous; human relations are carved out in a perpetual present tense. There’s an intricacy of debits and credits. Things have histories…The things Americans miss tend to involve that kind of formlessness, small, casual, and solitary pleasures. A psychoanalyst misses walking up Lafayette Street in her tracksuit, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup with the little plastic piece that pops up. My wife, having been sent the carrot cake that she missed from New York, discovered that what she really missed was standing up at the counter and eating carrot cake in the company of strangers at the Bon Vivant coffee shop.





“Arabic Coffee,” a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye

A lovely poem by a wonderful poet.   (complete image is below)


It was never too strong for us:

make it blacker, Papa,

thick in the bottom,

tell again how the years will gather

in small white cups,

how luck lives in a spot of grounds.


Leaning over the stove, he let it

boil to the top, and down again.

Two times. No sugar in his pot.

And the place where men and women

break off from one another

was not present in that room.

The hundred disappointments,

fire swallowing olive-wood beads

at the warehouse, and the dreams

tucked like pocket handkerchiefs

into each day, took their places

on the table, near the half-empty

dish of corn. And none was

more important than the others,

and all were guests. When

he carried the tray into the room,

high and balanced in his hands,

it was an offering to all of them,

stay, be seated, follow the talk

wherever it goes. The coffee was

the center of the flower.

Like clothes on a line saying

You will live long enough to wear me,

a motion of faith. There is this,

and there is more.

Nye, Naomi Shihab. (2002). Arabic Coffee. Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye. Now Classroom.


gm - coffee 2

I am happy to announce that my article “مناقشة إثنوغرافية للحكايات الشعبية من جنوب عمان” [An Ethnographic Discussion of Folk Tales from Southern Oman] has been published in the journal Al Sha’ar (Alaan Publishers, Amman).

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

This paper examines the cultural markers within a set of folk tales recorded in southern Oman. In the 1970s Dr. Tom Johnstone documented the un-written, Modern South Arabian languages of Gibali (also known as Jibbali and Shehri) and Mehri in the Dhofar region of Oman. In 2014, Dr. Aaron Rubin’s published a book on Gibali grammar based on his own research, Johnstone’s notes and data from Gibali speakers living in America; the book includes 70 texts of taped speech transliterated into Gibali with an accompanying English translation which cover a variety of genres including folk tales, autobiography, grammar exercises, and fairy tales.

The paper explains how the folk tales texts are representative of southern Omani culture by analyzing the various textual elements such as characters, setting, plot events and theme, as well as physical markers such as landscape and animals. These texts are among the very few documents written in Gibali and help illustrate ways in which the Dhofari culture has, and has not changed, since the rapid modernization after the 1970s. I will also compare the elements from the Johnston/ Ali Al Mahri/ Rubin texts with folk tales from other texts Khadija bint Alawi al-Thahab’s Stories of My Grandmother: Folk Tales from Dhofar, Hatim Al Taie and Joan Pickersgill’s Omani Folk Tales, and Grace Todino-Gonguet’s Halimah and the Snake, and other Omani Folk Tales.