Musing

New Research Pertaining to Dhofar

New book: Language and Ecology in Southern and Eastern Arabia,

https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/language-and-ecology-in-southern-and-eastern-arabia-9781350184473/

*Table of Contents*
Introduction, Janet C.E. Watson (University of Leeds, UK), Jon Lovett (University of Leeds, UK) and Roberta Morano (University of Leeds, UK)
1. Language, Gesture and Ecology in Modern South Arabian Languages, Jack Wilson (University of Salford, UK), Janet C.E. Watson (University of Leeds, UK), Andrea Boom (University of Leeds, UK) and Saeed al-Qumairi (Hadhramawt University, Yemen)
Part I. Arabia: The Significance of Names
2. What’s in a Name? Miranda Morris (Independent Researcher)
3. When Water Shapes Words: Musandam’s Kumzari People and the Language of the Sea, Erik Anonby (Carleton University, Canada), AbdulQader Qasim Ali Al Kamzari (Sultanate of Oman) and Yousuf Ali Mohammed Al Kamzari (Ministry of Health, Oman)
4. Water and Culture Among the Modern South Arabian-Speaking People, Fabio Gasparini (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany) and Saeed al Mahri (Independent Researcher)
5. A Botanical and Etymological Approach to Plant Names in Southern Arabia, Shahina A. Ghazanfar (Kew Gardens, UK) and Leonid Kogan (National Research University, Russia)
6. Traditional Knowledge and Vocabulary around Weather and Astronomy in Qatar, Kaltham Al Ghanim (Qatar University, Qatar)
7. Plant and Animal Terms in ?a?rami Arabic Idiomatic Expressions, Proverbs, and Chants, Abdullah H. Al Saqqaf (Independent Researcher)
Part II. Arabia: Narratives and Ecology
8. The Language of Kumzari Folklore, Christina van der Wal Anonby (Carleton University, Canada)
9. Orature and Nature in Southern Arabia, Sam Liebhaber (Middlebury College, USA), Kamela al-Barami (University Leeds, UK), and Ahmed al-Mashikhi (Sultan Qaboos University, Oman)
10. Climatic Disasters and Stories of Resilience in Southern and Northern Oman, Suad Al-Manji (Ministry of Education, Oman) and Janet C.E. Watson (University of Leeds, UK)
Part III. Arabia: Conservation and Revitalisation
11. People’s (Non-)Participation in Conservation: A Case from Oman, Dawn Chatty (University of Oxford, UK)
Conclusion
Index

Editor: Janet Watson – https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/languages/staff/151/janet-c-e-watson

https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/centres-groups/doc/centre-endangered-languages-cultures-ecosystems-1

https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/modern-south-arabian-languages

Articles by Kamala Russell

The surface of politesse: Acting murtāh in Dhofar, Oman.’ (2022) in Rethinking Politesse with Henri Bergson ed. Duranti, Allesandro. Oxford University Press.

‘Facing another: The attenuation of contact as space in Dhofar, Oman.” (2020) Signs in Society, 8(2): 290-318.

Bibliography of the Modern South Arabian languages compiled by Janet Watson and Miranda Morris, updated Jan. 2023

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/345983960_Bibliography_of_the_Modern_South_Arabian_languages_Compiled_by_Janet_Watson_and_Miranda_Morris

New essay: “Ṣâd is for Zero” on the Arabic alphabet website

The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour – http://alifbatourguide.com/

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

“Ṣâd is for Zero” – http://alifbatourguide.com/the-arabic-alphabet/sad/

excerpt:

The shape of Ṣâd shares something with the letters of the Roman alphabet: the appearance of weight, the feeling that it stands, or reclines, rather than floats. Granted, that cushion shape doesn’t look particularly heavy or solid. In fact it looks a little squishy, rounded on the right, flattened down to a point on the left, but it’s wide and substantive enough to have some substance, to function as a base or stand.

The sound in Arabic is not quite that of Sîn. The term for the sound of Ṣâd is S “velarized.” It has to do with the position of the tongue. It feels more emphatic. Non-native speakers of Arabic who don’t always hear the distinction may try focusing instead on the vowel sound which follows it, particularly if the vowel is an A. After Ṣâd, that A is lengthened a little. In other words, ص is pronounced something more like the S in English “sod” than the S in “sad.”) A cunning student might learn to approximate it by lengthening that A before learning how to pronounce the consonant. Textbooks may not say this, but non-native speakers of Arabic who don’t differentiate Sîn from Ṣâd will still be understood. They’ll have a speech impediment, but there are worse obstacles.

In fact your listener may prefer you to have the accent. There is a funny and profound essay by Abdelfattah Kilito in which he confesses to discovering an anxiety in himself: “One day I realized that I dislike having foreigners speak my language…” and adds that the anxiety increases with the fluency of the non-native speaker. “What if this stranger speaks exactly, and expresses himself as clearly as we do?… This person who came from a faraway place causes confusion, not only because he undermines our sense of superiority but also because he suddenly robs us of our language, the principle of our existence, what we consider to be our identity, our refuge, ourselves.” He gives the example of a meeting with an American woman who spoke Moroccan Arabic like a native. He is surprised at his own reaction: “for the first time I felt that my language is slipping away from me, or rather that the American woman had robbed me of it” (Kilito, Thou Shalt not Speak my Language, 87, 91). Perhaps it’s a little like the paradox of animation technology: we admire the skill that makes the image on the screen look real, as it imitates the world outside more and more accurately, but there’s a point beyond which, if the images become too realistic, they start to look a little creepy. I’m not saying you shouldn’t try.

New essay: “Shin is for Saracen” on the Arabic alphabet website

New essay: “Sîn is for Zenith” on the Arabic alphabet website

New essay: ‘Zhe is for Bijan’ on the Arabic alphabet website

New essay: “Za” on the Arabic Alphabet website

New essay: “Ra” on The Arabic Alphabet website

Houseways: Including/ Excluding Expats in Discussions about Housing

All authors know that as you write in detail about a topic, you sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. In my first draft of  Houseways, I wrote:

And as only GCC citizens can buy land in Dhofar, non-GCCexpats live in Dhofari-designed houses or various types of apartment buildings designed for expats, without affecting the choices for house designs. In the one small, expat compound I lived in for a few years, I had Italian, French, Indian, Iraqi, American and English neighbors. In the two Omani neighborhoods I have lived in for a total of 12 years, I am the only non-Omani in whole area.

As I looked over my draft later, I realized I was not being clear; of course there are many non-Omanis in my neighborhood. I rewrote the section to read:

In the two Omani neighborhoods I have lived in for a total of 12 years, I am the only non-Omani who rents an apartment or house in whole area.

Other expats move through the neighborhood for various reasons. Some expats work as cleaners, either living in or coming a few times a week. Some expat men work as house builders; others come through regularly to go through the dumpsters for anything salvageable or recyclable. Knowing this, Omanis usually put anything that might be of value next to (not in) dumpsters so that it is easy to take. In the afternoons, men who work for small grocery stores bike around ringing a small bell, signaling that they have snacks to sell come.

Another issue is that sending in a manuscript and getting back the published book back is sometimes like sending a beloved pet for grooming. The animal that returns is your pet but looks completely different.

My abstract for the book is:

Houseways in Southern Oman explains how modern, middle-class houses are sited, designed, built, decorated and lived in with an emphasis on how room-usage is determined by age, gender, time of day and the presence of guests. Combing ethnography and architectural studies, the author draws on over sixteen years of living in the Dhofar region to analyze the cultural perceptions regarding houses and how residential areas fit within the urban areas of the southern Dhofar region.

From the average height of the walls surrounding houses to the color schemes of kitchen to the use of curtains, the book examines the material features of houses using formal interviews, visits to many Dhofari houses and the author’s ten years of living in Dhofari-designed houses in Dhofari neighborhoods. The book also discusses cultural expectations such as how and when rooms are used, who is in control of decorating choices, which spaces a guest might see and how to understand if a house is ready for visitors or if its inhabitants are celebrating or mourning. Dhofari houses are also compared to houses in other Arabian Peninsula countries and positioned within the theoretical frameworks of the “Islamic city” and the “Islamic house.”

the official abstract is:

This book explores how houses are created, maintained and conceptualized in southern Oman. Based on long-term research in the Dhofar region, it draws on anthropology, sociology, urban studies and architectural history. The chapters consider physical and functional aspects, including regulations governing land use, factors in siting houses, architectural styles and norms for interior and exterior decorating. The volume also reflects on cultural expectations regarding how and when rooms are used and issues such as safety, privacy, social connectedness and ease of movement. Houses and residential areas are situated within the fabric of towns, comparison is made with housing in other countries in the Arabian peninsula, and consideration is given to notions of the ‘Islamic city’ and the ‘Islamic house’. The book is valuable reading for scholars interested in the Middle East and the built environment.

The line: “This book explores how houses are created, maintained and conceptualized in southern Oman” is somewhat problematic for me as “houses” here is too general a term. My work is on modern, middle-class houses designed by and built for Dhofaris. There are other types of housing which I don’t have expertise in and don’t engage with.

To illustrate my point, I would like to explain one housing example I know of. For many years I visited a large nursery on the eastern side of Salalah. There was a high wall around the area, with a monumental gate as an entrance, as if eventually a large house would be built there, but in the meantime the land was used to grow plants/ turn a profit.

There were large trees planted on the perimeter, inside the high wall, and the middle area was netted over and planted with small shrubs and flowering plants. To the right was a small path which meandered past the planted areas into a section with trees which had small bags of soil tied to limbs so that the trees would put forth roots; the section would then be cut off and a new tree could be planted. To the right of this area was a small, paved courtyard, surrounded on three sides by a variety of one-story rooms made from cement blocks where the men who worked in the nursery lived.

In front of one of the rooms was a large trough sink and a basic open-air kitchen with a woven palm frond cover. A few of the rooms had open holes for windows, a few had window panes and doors. There was electricity and running water. The air was rich with tropical fragrances and birds were chattering everywhere. When I first saw it, my reaction was “I want to live there!”

I imagined how lovely it must be to sit outside at night and watch bats flit among the trees, the sound of palm fronds rustling and the air thick with jasmine. Or maybe not. Maybe there were endless swarms of mosquitos and the sound of insects was maddening. Did the men who worked there love their small courtyard? Did they wish they were in a big compound which was closer to stores with lots of other men to talk to? I don’t know; we didn’t have a language in common besides all of us knowing the names of the plants and the basics of “sun,” “too much sun,” and “no sun.”

It is with this (and many other) examples in mind that I have tried to clear that my focus on Dhofari houses means houses that are Dhofari-designed, -built, -owned and -lived in.

As a final note, I wish I had photographs of house builders as to not include them seems in a way to erase them and their work. But I haven’t figured out a way do this ethically. The person who takes most of the photographs I need is young, female and does not speak the languages common among house-builders. I do not feel comfortable asking her to engage in conversations requiring her to ask for permission to take photos and explain how those photos would be used. At some point I hope to find a way to have pictures taken with informed consent.

Houseways is published and more examples of houseplans

Houseways is published

I was thinking of moving houses this fall and it was fun to look at new houses in the context of the work I have done about houses in Dhofar.

One house had a floor plan that I had never seen before but makes sense in terms of how Omanis don’t think the smell of cooking/ cooked food is positive. The house had the common set up of a separate majlis and a large open salle. There was also a bedroom on the ground floor. However, as the house was small and the bedroom was to one side, the salle extended all the way to the back of the house. Along the far wall was sliding glass doors which led out to the hosh.

The home owner and I walked around the outside of the house and I walked into the kitchen, which had its own entrance. As I looked around, I realized that there was no connecting door from the kitchen to the inside of the house. I asked the home-owner and he showed me a narrow, raised walkway which led from the door of the kitchen to the sliding glass doors at the back of the salle. Food would have to carried from the kitchen to the salle for every meal.

As the walkway was about 4 feet above the level of the hosh, all I could think of was the possible dangers of navigating that ledge at night in khareef when the tiles would be slick with drizzle.

Another house also had a plan that was new to me. There was a majlis to the right (east) of the main door and then a large open area for the salle, but no main hallway. After the majlis on the eastern side, there was a large bedroom; its bathroom shared a wall with the bathroom of the majlis on the north side. On the south side, the bedroom shared a wall with the kitchen. The rest of the space on the ground floor was open with a stair case that started in the north-east corner (near the interior door to the majlis) and then wrapped around the north and west walls. There was a small bedroom tucked under the stair case.

There are two understandings at play here: 1) often there is a bedroom for a senior family member that is near the majlis/ salle on the ground floor so that they don’t have to walk up-stairs and 2) often the maid’s room is next to the kitchen. Given that the bedroom between the majlis and kitchen was large, I guessed that it was for an older relative and the small room under that stairs was for the maid.

I also looked at an apartment connected to a house. Facing the road there was a main entrance to the house and a door to the majlis, then a third door on the side which led to a landing with one door (the ground-floor flat) and a staircase up the first floor flat. As I walked through the first-floor flat, I realized there was no majlis. The apartment had been built for the families of sons who were not yet married. The owner was renting the apartments to help pay for the building costs, and when the sons were older, they would live in them. Thus, there was no need for a majlis in the apartment as the sons would meet in the main majlis of the family house.

I will be talking about “Changing Kitchens in Southern Oman” at the annual conference of The Association for the Study of Food and Society & The Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society

Risse, M. “Changing Kitchens in Southern Oman.” Knowing Food: The Association for the Study of Food and Society & The Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society Conference, sponsored by Boston University. Forthcoming, May 31, 2023.

My presentation will focus on the changes to kitchen design and use in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman, over the past 40 years. Using photos from my extensive collection and data from interviews, I will explain how newly-built kitchens look different, and are used differently, from kitchens built in the 1980/90s. I will discuss aspects such as placement within the house, color choices, cupboards and tables. In addition, I will show how kitchens are used by different people at different times in comparison to the late 1900s. My goal is to use kitchens as a microcosm of changes within Dhofari society as how people prepare and eat meals is a reflection of how families interact.

One example of the type of change that has happened is that now expatriate workers are often cooking within kitchens. As many families hire a male cleaner to come for a few hours every day, kitchens now should have a door so that male workers do not walk through the main parts of the house. One aspect that has not changed it that kitchens are designed for passive safety. For example, countertops are set higher than in Western countries, sometimes so high that a family member must stand on a footstool, and stoves are placed on pedestals several inches above the kitchen floor. This is done so that children cannot see or reach food or implements (such as knives) that are on the countertop, nor can they reach the controls for the stove.

Reflections on Ethnographic Research: Changes within Cultures

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

Two writers about Dhofar were so firmly entrenched in the view that Dhofar should not be modern that their books had photos of empty streets; as if there were no Omanis in city settings. The only photos of Dhofaris had them positioned in rural landscapes.

I call this mindset “zoo mode,” and its adherents say things along the lines of:

Oh how horrible that the Dhofaris are losing their traditions! Every time I come here there are changes. Everything is to modern here now – they don’t have their culture anymore.

I have lost patience for this point of view that, in some manifestations, seems to want to turn Dhofar into a zoo-like entity where visitors can see people engaging in former lifeways. I try to be quiet (or change the subject) but sometimes I will remark:

But you yourself do not live in your grandmother’s house, with her furniture and decorations. You don’t eat what she ate in the way she ate it. You don’t wear her clothes or listen to the music she loved, so it might be unrealistic to expect other people to stay static.

Their reply is usually along the lines of: but they are losing themselves.

To me, this line of reasoning posits that the modern culture is inferior to and/or less appealing than that of previous iterations. And I wonder, how do non-Dhofaris find a vantage point from which to judge another culture?

I think Dhfoaris are transforming, adapting and making choices; all cultures change over time. What Dhofaris are “losing” is the desire to live in a way that visitors find interesting. That doesn’t mean they should return to the lifeways of 40 or more years ago. Dhofairs are not participants in a Colonial Williamsburg-type experiment in which they should work as historical reenactors to explain and demonstrate aspects of daily life in the past.

Yes, some lifeways are disappearing but so is diphtheria and washing clothes by pounding them on rocks. And the people who decide what parts of the culture should be carried forward are… the people in that culture.

As a literature professor, I take heart in rereading Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” written in the 1770s. In this poem the narrator laments the desertion of a village because of a variety of modern evils; this reminds me that in every century there are people who think all the good times, good manners, good objects and good traditions are gone forever. And yet humans continue to create new and positive ways to live.

Here is a simple example of cultural change from working with the research guys. Before Covid, picnic dinners usually meant someone cooking dinner over a fire. I enjoyed years of delicious stews and curries; fish was cooked over the flames or wrapped in foil in placed in the ashes. Picnics stopped during the time of lockdowns and curfews with people sticking close to family units. As the threat of disease retreated, the group started to meet again, but with changes.

The man who did most of the cooking has had changes in his responsibilities, so he no longer has the free time needed to cook dinners. We have adapted by the men bringing prepared food from home and me bringing food from a “safe” (well-known/ trusted) restaurant.

One night one of the men brought… individual pizzas. The first time in 17 years that I have seen a pizza at one of our meetings and the first time that we each had our own meal. I suppose I could have cut my hair and wailed at this terrible incursion of the modern but I said thank you and ate my pizza.

Yes, I would rather have fresh-caught fish cooked over the coals but I am aware of what a dish dinner entails: the time and effort to make a certain kind of fire, wait until there were the right kind of coals, preparing the fish, cooking it, preparing and cooking the rice, etc.

Actions have costs – a picnic dinner means someone cooking (a man standing over a beach fire or a woman standing over a stove at home) and all people make choices about which costs are worth the effort. Five years ago, pizza was not one of the choices for a group dinner. Now it is.

To me, this change is only a loss if I construe “fish cooked over a fire” as the only correct/ authentic type of beach dinner, a judgment I am unwilling to make.

Foodways: Thinking about Uses of Plastic Bags and Bottles in Dhofar

In a previous essay [ Foodways: Cultural Issues Pertaining to Litter ] I talked about some issues pertaining to litter. I would like to expand on these reflections by discussing the use of plastic bags and plastic bottles.

Decreasing the use of plastics is a worthy goal and I believe that can effectively happen when the reasons for why and methods of how people use plastic products is investigated in terms of the cultural context. In my opinion, to find replacements that will be widely adopted, it needs to be clear which specific qualities are important. Thus, the substitutes for plastic bags and bottles need to meet cultural needs, as well as environmental needs.

Cultural Understandings of Plastic Usage: Plastic Bags

1 – anything given to another person should be in a bag, not put directly into someone’s hand

There is a cultural understanding that objects should be transferred in some sort of package, never passed by hand.

2 – adults seldom carry large bags and/ or anything on their shoulders

Only schoolchildren wear backpacks. It is not common for grown-up men to bear anything on their shoulders. Some female college students will carry a small rectangular bag on their shoulder, but only within the campus area. In a mall or public place, goods are carried by hand in bags.

3 – foodstuffs, including raw meat and fresh fish, are often distributed among relatives and friends

As I have discussed in my food research, many Dhofaris give extra or purpose-bought food for others. This is almost always handed over in plastics bags. For example, it is perceived as cleaner and easier to give fish and pieces of meat in plastic bags. If this was given in a dish or pot, it would need to be cleaned and returned. Also, giving food in a dish might result in spillage whereas plastic bags can be tied shut.

4 – accessibility of paper bags

Small paper bags, often printed with a store’s name or a decorative design, are common and can be used for transporting some items such as limes, books, dhobes and bukhoor. Thus there is a lot of re-use of printed paper bags with short handles which are bought for gift-giving and/or given away by stores. However, these bags usually only circulate among women as they often found in perfume/ make-up stores and men will not usually buy decorated gift bags.

4 – it is common to give food and unwanted supplies to expat laborers who travel by bike

In addition to Dhofaris giving food stuffs to family and neighbors, they often give left-over food to expat workers. As these laborers usually travel by bikes which do not have panniers, they need a bag which will easily fit over their handlebars.

For example, I sometimes buy packages of cookies for the man who cleans my car. I have to put them in a plastic bag so that he can transport the cookies home. The shopping bags for sale in the large grocery store are too large and unwieldy to be hooked over handle bars and bikes usually do not have a flat rack behind the seat.

5 –  issues of privacy/ safety/ smell

In some cultures, small, mesh/  jute/ string bags are used for everyday carrying. But open-weave bags would not always work in Dhofar as there are cultural understandings of keeping goods private, i.e. not allowing everyone to see what you are transporting. For example, in large supermarkets, there is always a pile of small plastic bags near the sanitary supplies so women can put what they are buying into a plastic bag, then set it in their shopping cart. As in many aspects of Dhofari life, people want to keep their private life private.

Another concern is that Dhofar has three months of drizzle during the khareef (monsoon) and frequent wind/sand storms in winter. Moving anything in an open-weave bag could result in the contents being splashed with mud or covered in sand.

Lastly, bad smells are perceived as very negative. Sometimes meat or fish bought at the souq is put in a plastic bag and tied the rear-bumper of the car to be taken home because no one wants the smell to permeate the car.

To me, thinking about decreasing the use of plastic bags means looking for solutions which fit within the culture. For example, one use of plastic bags among fishermen is to put pieces of sardines in a plastic bag with sand and place this within a fish box (metal fish trap which sits on the bottle of the ocean). One fisherman I know did this for years as the sand keeps the sardines at the bottom of the trap, allowing the scent of the fish to mix slowly with the water to attract larger fish. Last year, he decided to re-think this usage and now uses a sharp, large needle to pierce a group of sardines with fishing line into a circle (looking like a necklace of sardines) which is tied to the side of trap. This keeps the sardine in the trap and allows the water to carry the scent, without the plastic bag.

Small, plain brown paper bags with handles could be used in some circumstances instead of plastic bags and it might make sense to have them widely available. Another idea might be to have large stores sell or give away sturdy, long-use shopping bags which are smaller than the ones currently found. The smaller bag might also have a wide flap which could be placed over the opening (to keep what is inside clean) or simply left hanging inside the bag when not needed.

Cultural Understandings of Plastic Usage: Plastic Bottles

* hosts should give guest unopened bottles of drinks

Fresh fruit juice can be brought out for guests in (preferably clear glass) pitchers but usually water and all other beverages are served in individual bottles to be opened by the person who will drink. At restaurants, soda and water are brought to the table in closed bottles, opened and poured in front of customers; the only place you can get a pre-poured soda is at fast-food restaurants.

Many Dhofaris have a “bubbler” (a large, plastic jug of water upended into a stand; to get a glass of water, you push a small lever – some bubblers will heat or cool the water). Water jugs can be bought at stores but big families usually have a regular delivery service in which full ones are dropped off and used ones picked up. It is not common to have a bubbler in the majlis or salle; they are usually found in the kitchen.

* it’s not easy to find potable water to refill a thermos/ water bottle

In some cultures, many people carry water bottles with them, but in Dhofar it is not always easy to find potable water through water fountains. Most drinking water is carried in plastic bottles.

*a bottle of water is a kind of currency

I don’t use small bottles of water for drinking but I always have a 12-pack at home and my office to give away. At work I hand them out to the man who repairs the copy machine, the FedEx delivery guy, the worker who comes to fix the AC and the cleaner. At home I give them to the repairmen. As they don’t carry water bottles and it’s often over 85 degrees, a plastic bottle of water is a welcomed gift.

To me, thinking about how to lessen the use of plastic bottles means thinking about practical measures that would work within a Dhofari context. For example, an expat faulted me for giving away plastic bottles of water but the alternatives would be handing over a glass of water to be drunk immediately or giving a thermos full of water, which might cause the recipient to wonder how fresh the water was. I could get a bubbler in my office, hand the worker a thermos and let them fill it themselves, but then they would have to carry around the thermos. The best option is the most expensive: I would need a supply of thermoses with carrying straps and a bubbler. And not everyone has time and easy access to a sink and soap to clean the thermos. The safety issue is paramount – hot weather and high humidity can mean water becoming contaminated quickly.

Some milk is sold in cardboard containers; that is one method that might be tried for water and juice. Another idea might be for water and juice to be sold in small glass bottles which could be delivered to houses and restaurants in flat; then the empties could be picked up, washed by the company and reused.

Foodways: Cultural Issues Pertaining to Litter

(photos by S. B.)

I recently heard a lecture by Dr. Sean Smith about Pro-Nature/ Anti-Litter Environmental Discourses in Oman which led me to reflect on cultural understandings relating to litter in Dhofar.

Three issues come to the forefront for me: hierarchies of need, time and the re-use of materials. It’s also important to think about creating research that opens up discussions about blame and the role of people hired to pick up trash.

First, I want to give a short example of how “litter” can be conceived in different contexts. Last summer, I was walking around Boston with a cup of coffee. When I had drunk as much as I wanted and decided to toss the cup, I realized that I felt compelled to put my leftover coffee into the ground. Putting a liquid into a trash can felt like “littering” to me.

I hadn’t known before how much I had internalized this aspect of Dhofari culture. If one is inside a building, liquids stay in the bottle/ can/ cup and get tossed away, but if one is outside, then you empty the liquid into the earth (or in the ocean if you are in a boat) before putting the container in the trashcan. This means less weight in trash bags and less chance of spilled liquids, but to me there is also an intangible sense that you should put liquids back into the earth. Sometimes there is a more prosaic reason; while camping, you pour leftover liquids onto a fire to stop the wood from burning so you can use the wood later or to leave useable wood for someone else.

So I stood on the Boston sidewalk and looked around for an area without cement to pour my coffee. I finally found a small piece of ground next to a tree but it was very dry and hard-packed; as I poured, some coffee splashed back up and stained the hem of my skirt, the rest flowed off the dirt and onto the sidewalk. Hmmm. A research moment indeed – I was used to pouring liquid into forgiving sand.

Below are some cultural understandings of litter/ waste in Dhofar.

Hierarchies of Need

1 – making recyclable trash convenient to take is more important than maintaining clean areas by dumpsters

If someone saw me put a bag of aluminum soda cans next to a dumpster, they might think I was being lazy but several years ago a company started to pay for empty/ used cans so expat workers started to collect them. To help in this effort (and to save people from the indignity of having to get into a dumpster) Dhofaris often put empty cans next to, not inside of, dumpsters. So I collect my soda cans in my kitchen and, when I have a bag-full, I set it close to the dumpster.

At picnic sites, Dhofaris often separate cans from other trash, sometimes leaving them in a small pile by dumpsters or leaving trash in closed (knotted) plastic bags with the aluminum cans in heap nearby.

Some people, including myself, do the same with cardboard boxes. Boxes are flattened and set near dumpsters either for people to take and sell to the recycling company, or for people to take, tear into pieces and feed to goats.

2 – leaving food in a way that is palatable for animals is more important that picking up all food containers

In general, Dhofaris try very hard not to waste food. On picnics, leftovers might be carefully packaged and given to other people (even strangers) who are sitting nearby or expat workers, such as gas station attendants. If people are sitting far from others and/ or will be returning home late, extra food is usually set out for animals.

If there are clean-swept, flat rocks nearby, the food is placed there. If not, the food is placed on a piece of plastic or in a flimsy metal container. Even members of my research group, who pick up every piece of litter before leaving, will leave the food container so that wild animals (foxes, stray cats and dogs, seagulls by beaches, etc.) will have “clean” food. To set food on sandy ground is seen as not just unkind but wasteful as the food will not be eaten.

3 – taking food in a way that makes it easy to give to other people (usually strangers) is more important than not having a single-use container

It is normal in some cultures to bring glass containers to restaurants, so that leftovers can be taken home without using additional packaging. But Dhofaris do not often eat “old” food, leftover food from restaurants is either left on the table or set into foil or plastic containers and put into a plastic or paper bag which is then handed over to an expat laborer.

Time

It took me awhile to understand that during a picnic or camping trip, litter has a time component. The men in my research group will toss bottles and cans behind them (away from the campfire) or towards periphery of the living area as we talk and eat. My attempts to stop this behavior was met with firm disapproval. “Let the people take their rest,” I was told.

At the end of the evening, when the men get up and start to put belongings into their cars, one or more of them (without discussion) will do clean-up duty, pouring liquids into the earth, putting all the trash into bags and setting aside aluminum cans. So now I do the same, flinging soda cans with abandon during dinner and assiduously picking up everything later.  

If a person came in the middle of dinner/ the camping trip and saw the mess at the outskirts of where we were sitting, they might do an internal condemnation such as I used to do. Yet, in over 17 years of picnics and camping, I have never seen any Dhofari leave litter at a picnic or camping site.

Reusing

From what I have seen, only two items (aluminum cans and cardboard boxes) are collected to be sold back to a recycling company, but two other items are put to new uses: glass containers with metal screw-tops and plastic laundry soap/ cleaning fluid jugs.

Both small and large glass containers are cleaned and reused. Small glass jars bottles (with the previous label removed) are used for storing bukhoor, small pieces of wood perfumed with aromatic oils.

Large glass bottles, such as Vimto bottles, are used for honey from local hives. That size container is a standard measurement and giving honey is a smaller container would be seen as being cheap.

The large plastic jugs for laundry soap/ cleaning fluid/ automobile oil are used by fishermen to mark their fish traps. The containers are large and brightly colored (thus, can be seen from a distance), cheap, sea-worthy, long-lasting and buoyant. Several are tired to a rope attached to a fish trap which is resting on the seabed. The colors of the jugs and the way they are tired are distinctive for each fisherman so he can easily find his own traps.

[This brings up a topic I will discuss in a later essay: replacing plastics means reflecting on all the ways that item is used. For example, banning plastic laundry soap jugs would cause hardship for fishermen. One alternative might be incorporating an environmentally practical alternative in conjunction with meeting the needs of the community, such as requiring stores to carry only biodegradable laundry soap pods sold in cardboard boxes and making free, colored buoys available to all fishermen.]

Importance of Multi-faceted Research – Issue of  Blaming Tourists

The presentation quoted someone who made fun of the “blame the tourist” excuse for litter on Omani beaches/ scenic places but I have never seen a Dhofari who owned or was related to someone who owned herd animals (camels, cows, goats) leave litter after a picnic or camping. Nor have I ever seen a fisherman toss anything plastic into the ocean as “it will stay too long time.” The people who live here and are connected to animal husbandry or fishing are aware that litter will kill animals/ hurt the environment that they count on for their livelihood.

Importance of Multi-faceted Research – Issue of Cleaners

The presentation also quoted someone who suggested that the government should stop paying for workers to clean the beaches as a way to teach people to pick up after themselves.

My take on this point of view is that there is no one alive who thinks littering is a good idea. People don’t litter because they are unaware that it’s wrong, they do it because they are lazy. If such are people are confronted with a beach full of trash, they will simply find another beach and destroy that one.

And given the prevalent “don’t interfere with other people” mentality in Oman, having people police each other is not going to work. [The one scenario that might be effective is if one or more older men talked to a group of young men, but that would require the older men arriving at exactly the right time, the ages to be clear (young men would not shame older men) and for there to be no women as in Dhofar, a man will not approach a group with women he doesn’t know unless there is an emergency.]  

In Dhofar, the men who clean beaches are incorporated into systems of giving. As I mentioned above, the men in my research group will always separate out empty aluminum cans for the cleaners to sell to the recycling company; half-empty jugs of water and extra containers of drinks will also be left. Also, if staying in a shelter, Dhofaris often leave extra foodstuffs, such as vegetables and fruit, tied up to the rafters of shelters for anyone to take.

Thus there is a mutually symbiotic relationship. The picnickers/ campers can leave their trash in an organized manner (in the dumpster or in tied plastic bags) so that they don’t need to carry it home and they can leave any leftover goods knowing that they will be used. Cleaners are paid for their work and are often able to take away foodstuffs that might be eaten or sold.

sb - beach 2