Musing

Aunt Alice

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

http://internationalauthors.info/index.html

 

My Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Expat – Dressing, Covering, Swimming, and Mutual Respect

In all my twelve years of living here and two years of living in the United Arab Emirates, I have never been harassed, insulted, frightened, much less attacked, by any Omani or Emeriti for being American or a Christian. Devout Muslim friends, neighbors and colleagues wish me “Merry Christmas” and I say, “Thank you.” I wish them “Eid Mubarak” and “Ramdan Kareem” and they say, “Thank you.”

Likewise, I have never been made to feel different or foreign or wrong because I was wearing clothes which were normal in my culture. Because I choose to live and work here, I do make the small adjustment of wearing clothes that cover my knees and shoulders when teaching, but I wear the same clothes I wear when I’m in the States: JJill, Fresh Produce, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, and April Cornell.

When I visit Omani friends at home, I wear what they are wearing out of respect. It is a simple adaptation like taking off my shoes before I walk into a friend’s house, learning to eat with my hands, shooing my cats out of the living room if a friend who is allergic comes to visit or not eating ice cream sundaes in front of a friend who is dieting.

In Omani houses, I wear an abayah (the long loose black cloak that women wear on the Arabian Peninsula) with a black headscarf or a dhobe (the long, loose, patterned cotton dress local women wear) with a lossi (a matching, light cotton headscarf). At first it was a little difficult to maneuver surrounded by almost 4 yards of fabric, but I learned how to gather up some of the extra while walking up stairs and to arrange my lossi to stay neatly in place, something akin to learning to French-braid my hair in middle school.

During Ramadan, I also wore a headscarf during the day out of respect for the culture and I was interested to see how it would feel psychologically to cover. In Oman, unlike some Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, abayahs and headscarves are not required by law for daily life. Most women wear them because of personal beliefs and/ or traditions.

Some abayahs are very loose and plain black, some are black with colored decorations, some are colored (often navy blue or beige) and some are worn like an open cloak showing the jeans or skirts worn underneath. Some women wear tightly wrapped, plain black scarves, others wear colored scarves or have the scarf resting on their shoulders. Some women have suggested non-Muslim women should wear headscarves as a show of solidarity. I don’t agree with that, as not all Muslim women believe it is necessary to cover their hair.

The first time walking into the mall with a colored headscarf was tough – I felt self-conscious and hypocritical. I am in the mall usually once a week, reading at my café or shopping, and to walk in with a headscarf made me feel like I was playing a game.

When the Omani men in my research group saw me wearing a headscarf for the first time, they would smile, nod, make a quick comment and then ignore the issue; no one ever pressed me to wear a black sheila (headscarf) or abayah. It probably took me six or seven times wearing the headscarf in public until I became comfortable with it; then the only issues were finding scarves which co-ordinated with my clothes and were the right fabric weight, not too heavy or stiff.

My big insight about wearing a headscarf is that it gives you something to do. Standing in the grocery store trying to decide which spaghetti sauce to buy, I reach up, tighten, adjust, and smooth it down. Fussing with the scarf became a habit, a micro-control fidget, like men straightening their tie or shooting their cuffs. It’s a little uncomfortable when it’s hot and humid outside, but very helpful when I’m in a room with the AC on full blast. It’s another 2 minutes of getting ready time as I pull out my tiered hanger with 15 scarves and try to figure out which one looks best with my outfit.

When Ramadan ended, I went back to uncovered hair during the day but I still wear scarves when I see my Omani female friends at home. The result was I put a piece of fabric on my head and it was sometimes a little hot but that’s about it. I did not feel more religious, or less religious, or any particular change. I am a Methodist by baptism and by my own choice when I was in my 20s. Neither my religious devotion nor personal beliefs are diminished or altered by having a piece of fabric on my head. I didn’t feel closer to God – I didn’t feel farther away from God. I don’t believe God enjoins me to judge other people by what they have on their head or their body.

Most Sunday and Tuesday nights I go swimming with 60 or so Arab, Muslim women wearing burqinis. I first learned to swim in a public pool with a Red Cross instructor and over my 50 years I have swum in the Wilde Lake village center pool in Columbia MD, the Old Red Gym at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of North Dakota pool when it was negative 10 outside, Canadian lakes, MIT, the Atlantic Ocean at Ocean City, and Tacoma, WA.

The women who swim at my pool now are just like the women I have swum with at all those other places, only they are wearing a bit more clothing. They are in swimming pants or leggings with short or long-sleeved tops as is consistent with the conservative culture, but no one has ever told me that I have to wear what they wear. I am a life-long feminist but I don’t believe my feminism allows me to dictate someone else’s feminism. The women at the pool and my Omani women friends (college-educated, multi-lingual, who work and have traveled/ lived abroad) don’t feel comfortable exposing their body to other women, much less men. Who am I to argue that with them?

When I go swimming, I get lots of smiles, waves, friendly glances and “hellos” from women I don’t know. In almost a year of twice weekly visits to the pool I have never received a harsh word, much less a lecture, on my bright blue Land’s End swimsuit. We all exercise mutual respect for different customs and religions while we exercise our bodies. And then we will go home happy.

Living Expat – Large Grocery Stores

Standing in the aisle of a large grocery store, liberally spraying air freshener, I am again reminded of different the most simple activities are when you live middle class expat in a small town in the Middle East. Shopping here is far more interactive than the USA. 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 you need them. Old air conditioners, colleagues who smoke, overuse of cleaning products – the only defense is finding a good water-based, pump-spray air freshener. 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 my Omani neighbor, we tried out a selection of 15 different incenses, 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 is always fun. Men do most of the shopping so you will often see guys standing in front of the female deodorant or hair coloring sections picking up an item with one hand and talking loudly 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. As I am looking at shower gel, there is often a man standing disconsolately by the hair conditioners and body scrubs, waiting for instructions.

There are products you learn to avoid. Never buy anything by the company “American Garden” which is supposedly located in New York, New York but everything tastes like, to mix metaphors, something made by HAL for Major Tom. Everything is in the correctly-shaped bottle with the right color and consistency but the mustard/ mayonnaise/ tomato sauce tastes like the makers saw people using the sauce in a movie but have no idea what the flavor should be. I think they have one non-toxic substance and when it is dehydrated and dyed taupe/beige/brown it is bread crumbs and when it is mixed with water and red dye it is ketchup, etc.

It’s also best to avoid the ice cream section all together. No use to make yourself sad looking at the vast, delicious selection – all the ice cream has freezer burn. Whatever you buy, when you dig a spoon into it, you can hear the ice crystals cracking. No one here complains because they have never had normal ice cream – they think it’s supposed to have that consistency.  Of course with a company called “London Dairy,’ you aren’t much tempted anyways; the idea of cows in London producing yummy ice cream does not compute. The Americans sigh at the cute little Ben & Jerry containers with mournful faces, tears glistening in the corners of our eyes, but we don’t dare take the plunge.

The vegetable section is pretty 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. Sometimes what’s on display is not fresh, so if you ask for some, for example, apples, they will disappear into the back to get you apples from the most recent delivery.

You can find the basics for Indian and Middle Eastern cooking: garlic, green peppers, limes, okra, ginger, chilies, fresh coconut and eggplant but things like carrots or large potatoes come and go. You can usually not find large onions (only shallots) but there are some 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 to Pepsi, which were past the sell-by date. Things are put on the shelf and left until they sell. Sometimes in October you can find Valentine’s hearts the candy aisle.

Secondly, 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). Suddenly all the stores will carry El Almendro products, absolutely fabulous almond candy from Spain, and then it will be gone forever. Also, given that few people who work in the store speak English, they can’t help you find things and will sometimes shelf things in odd places. No one knows the word ‘popcorn’ so you are on your own for finding that; when salsa appeared on the shelves a few years ago, it was usually mixed in with the spaghetti sauce. Ice tea mix is next to Tang, not in the tea aisle, and coconut milk is next to the salt.

So, although you might only need milk and eggs, it’s good to stroll around and see what’s new: did vanilla show up? Is there cranberry juice again? Has cheddar cheese arrived? You can’t rely on that what you saw before will ever be there again.

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 horde 10 cans of black beans and 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 yoghurt, Z know that there’s spelt bread and Christian expats are in contact (it’s all rather first cuckoo sighting for the Times) about when candy canes show up in December.

“I Came to You for Good”: An Ethnographic Discussion of Folk Tales from Southern Oman. – RAI, London, October 26, 2017

Risse, Marielle. “‘I Came to You for Good’: An Ethnographic Discussion of Folk Tales from Southern Oman.” Third Joint Seminar of The Folklore Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute;  Royal Anthropological Institute, London. October 26, 2017.

http://folklore-society.com/events/folklore-and-anthropology-in-conversation-1

In the 1970s Dr. Tom Johnstone documented the un-written, Modern South Arabian languages of Gibali and Mehri in the Dhofar region of southern Oman by recording autobiographical stories and folk tales. Several of these spoken folk tales were translated into written English and published by Aaron Rubin in 2014. My presentation will explain how these folk tales, recorded just at the beginning of modernization, reflect worldviews that I see daily in my anthropological work in Dhofar.

I will demonstrate how these texts are representative of southern Omani culture by analyzing the various textual elements of the folk tales such as use of setting, characters, plot events and theme. These texts are among the very few documents transliterated in Gibali and help illustrate ways in which the Dhofari culture has, and has not changed, since the rapid modernization after the 1970s. I am specifically interested in how the folk tales reflect still current understandings of the nature of the relationship between married couples and the existence of djinn.

The Beauty of Beau Geste

My first semester in Oman I didn’t read anything except texts for classes. I simply couldn’t get ahead of class preparations as there was so much to learn, process, translate and understand. When I lived in Boston I always had a book to read on the T (metro) so I started to carry Gulliver’s Travels with me when I left the house in Salalah. I finished it piece-meal: working through it while waiting at the phone or electric company, standing in line to pay a bill or at the grocery store or waiting for meetings to start.

Gradually, as I settled, I started back in on fiction only to find, somewhat to my horror, that there was a reverse correlation to what I was teaching. In Boston, I belonged to two book clubs at the Boston Athenaeum: Arcadia, Pale Fire, Invisible Cities, Passage to India, Trollope, Lolita, Racine’s Phaedra, Flaubert’s Parrot, The Movie-goer, etc.

Two different long-distance friends and I set up mini-book clubs; we would read the same book then make a phone-call date to thrash it out: The Forsyth Saga, Anna Karenina, Tristram Shandy, Herodotus, Brothers Karamazov, Reservation Blues, Tuchman, Tolkien, Wharton, various Greek and Latin dramas. On my own, I read all of Proust, most of Stendhal, Flaubert’s letters, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the first part of Autonomy of Melancholy. There were a few mysteries mixed in (Ian Rankin, Charles Todd, Barry Maitland and Julia Spencer-Fleming) and some Robertson Davies, but I reading mainly hard-core.

Then came Oman. The first non-class text I managed was Island of Sheep by John Buchan. Talk about a come-down. And worse: I really liked it. Restful. I remembered what I had tried to long suppress, that when I was teaching in the Emirates, I read all sorts of that type of late 1800s, early 1900s adventure books. Wordsworth Classics publishes “classics” for $3 each and living in Sharjah I read my way through most of Kipling, Beau Geste, H. Ridder Haggard, Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Last of the Mohicans, Prisoner of Zenda, Hound of the Baskervilles. Feeling guilty, I read the Post-Colonial Reader and Candide to make up for novelistic slumming. I tried to up-grade to C.S. Forester and The Three Musketeers but my heart was with Ivanhoe, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Lady Audley’s Secret.

In Boston, when I wasn’t teaching, I needed the intellectual challenge of good writing, but in Oman, teaching the “greats,” I drifted back into literary la-la land. After Island of Sheep, it was on to Greenmantle, The Children of New Forest, George MacDonald Fraser’s MacAuslan stories, Louisa May Alcott and Bemelmans’ essays. I dabbled with a few travel writers (J. Maarten Troost, Chris Stewart, George Courtauld, and the always marvelous Mark Salzman) but my heart went back to the fluff: Beverly Nichols! The Green Archer! The Black Arrow! Swallows and Amazons! The Coral Island!

I have read almost every canonical book in English literature (Middlemarch is still out there), representative works from all stages of American, French and German literature, a sprinkling of translated works written in Spanish, Scandinavian langauges, and Russian. I am working my way through classical and modern literature written by Arab writers. Every semester I read several hundred pages of English and Arabic poetry and short stories looking for texts to teach, but after a nice dose of Persuasion, I sneak off with Gerald Durrell.

One summer, in the time before Kindles, I ran out of books a few weeks before the end of the semester. I couldn’t get out of town to the capital to restock and found nothing at the small English language bookstore in town but Clive Cussler. So I jumped, making it through three Cusslers and then several Douglas Preston/ Lincoln Child books.

Most modern literature leaves me cold. Everyone is suppressed and unable to be themselves. How damaging it all is. And everyone has a miserable childhood. Sigh. Of course you have a miserable childhood. That is the point. Either your childhood is miserable, or you think it is wonderful and realize later it was horrible, or it truly was wonderful but you later become miserable because nothing is as nice as your childhood. All three choices result in desolation; let’s not dwell on that.

And all these serious novels about people who lost themselves. Well really, how does one do that? You are there – there you are. How can you get lost? Modern novels always seem to be set in living rooms, airports, cafes, bars and uninteresting offices, grey carpeting, anguish, but no one is actually doing anything. Give me a sword-fight, tundra, cannons, water-falls, honor, wolf packs, revenge, frantic horse rides across the moors, palm trees, a leaky boat, pirates, tigers, someone mysterious and threatening in the hedgerows, snipers, tea thermoses, terror, floods, breaking the square, hip flasks. Let’s get to the 2-seater running out of fuel over the desert, let’s get to the polar bear attack.