Musing

Foodways: Researching Fishing Practices in Dhofar and Selected Bibliographies

(photo by Hussein BaOmar)

Impetus            

In my first book I wrote a little about Dhofari fishermen in terms of how they viewed their independence and interdependence. For my second book, I wrote about procuring and gifting fish. I then changed my research focus to houses.

However, in early 2021 I happened to hear a discussion between several researchers who believe that Dhofaris are not as connected to the natural world as they have been in previous generations. One affirmed that Dhofari men no longer work with their hands. Another researcher has told me that that fishing is now outsourced to expat laborers.

This was interesting to hear as it is a good lesson in how different researchers can view the same area in different ways. Those researchers are talking to different types of people and looking at different issues than I am. The men who are part of my research group have all done and continue to do different types of manual labor, including daily fishing.

There is a lot of casual expat fishing in Dhofar: non-Omanis fishing from shore and/ or in hired boats to do sport fishing or catch a few fish for dinner. There are also expat laborers who are connected to the fishing industry by working to clean boats, repair nets, put together fish traps, help fishermen load and unload boats etc.

My perspective is that I have been talking with Dhofari fishermen who work in the coastal towns of Salalah [the main city in the Dhofar region], Taqa (28 km east of Salalah), Mirabt (70 km E), Sudah (135 km E), Hadbeen/ Hadbin (167km E) and Hasik (187 km E) for over 15 years. I have been with Dhofari men in boats throwing nets, throwing boxes, fishing for tuna and fishing with live bait during over a dozen fishing trips in boats, as well as more than 20 fishing-from-shore outings. I have also done several boat excursions. I have watched Dhofari fishermen leaving and returning to shore dozens of times and listened to men discuss fishing trips during most of the over 350 picnic dinners I have attended. I have only once seen an expat laborer take part in a fishing trip on a boat.

Thus, after hearing that discussion between researchers, I thought about how I could best set out what I have seen to add to the on-going conversations about Dhofari cultures. One idea was to document the different kinds of labor the men in my research group are involved in such as herding camels, another was to try to code how many hours per day were spent outside in different locations. But given the persistence of the pandemic, I realized I needed to work on something that would could be done mainly by distance. I also wanted to work on something about which there was no or little current data.

I finally decided on a simple question: how much does fishing cost? I could do interviews on windy beaches for safety and during my food research I found no other similar research on the Arabian Peninsula although there has been work done on the types of fish along the Omani coast (e.g. Al-Jufaili, Hermosa, Al-Shuaily and Al Mujaini 2010; Choudri, Baawain and Mustaque 2016, Harrison 1980; McKoy, Bagley, Gauthier and Devine 2009) and how fish are sold (e.g. Al-Marshudi and Kotagama 2006; Al Rashdi and Mclean 2014; William and Fidelity Lancaster 1995; Omezzine 1998, Omezzine, Zaibet and Al-Oufi 1996; Siddeek, Fouda and Hermosa 1999).

Research Trajectory

Most research on fishing concentrates on which kinds of fish were caught and how they are sold. I wanted to look at fishing from another angle: how do Dhofari fishermen prepare to catch fish? I am very grateful for the many hours informants spent with me going over the costs and answering questions over the past year. I am also grateful to Helen Macbeth and the International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition for organizing the very interesting “Fish as Food: Lifestyle and a Sustainable Future” conference hosted at the University of Liverpool in September, 2021 [ http://www.icaf2021.uk/ ].

When I started my research on fishing costs I had thought to frame with discussion by talking about the non-monetary costs and benefits to fishing but the data led me in another direction. First, given the cultural disinclination to brag or report good deeds, it was not easy to get fishermen to talk about how they often gave fish away. Secondly, to my surprise, fishermen did not perceive any drawbacks to fishing. I had supposed that being away from home for long periods of time might be seen as creating difficulties for family members but fishermen affirmed that they would either buy supplies for the house before they left or that other family members would help to bring anything that was needed.

Most of my time was spent trying to figure out the cost of all the component parts of a fishing trip, but the most interesting conversations were about how the day’s catch is divided. In one interview I threw out a series of math-problem hypotheticals such as: If four men caught 100 kilo of fish how many kilo would each person take home and how much would be sold?

My informant started to work through long decision trees while I simply wanted a clear number. After a few minutes of frustration, I realized that I was approaching the subject from the wrong direction as I have a non-tribal, non-community-based outlook. There is no answer to: If four men caught 100 kilo of fish how many kilo would each person take home? It’s a meaningless question because in Dhofar each of the men would take into account a whole series of factors before deciding how to divide the fish such as how many people lived in each of the men’s houses.

Trying to articulate how decisions are made about sharing the fish and the profit led to many interesting discussions and connected back to my previous work about gift-giving in Dhofar (in the list of references below).

Three cultural understandings were explained over the course of several conversations on windy beaches. First, fishermen told me that in other parts of Oman the owner of the boat takes a double share of the profit. For example if 4 men went fishing and the profit was 200 OR, the money would be split 5 ways, with the boat-owner taking 80 OR (2 shares of 40 OR each). In Dhofar, the 4 men would first pay all the costs for the fishing trip, then divide the profit by 4, with the boat owner taking the same share as the other men.

However if the boat or engine needed repair, that money would be also taken out of the profit before splitting the money. For example if 4 men had a profit of 200 OR after paying for the expenses of gas, food, bait. etc. but the engine had just been repaired at a cost of 100 OR, the boat-owner would be given 100 OR. The remaining 100 OR would be divided equally between the 4 men. [Money for boat and engine repairs is sometimes fronted by the man who buys the catch, then repaid from future profits without any interest charged.]

Secondly, the fish must always be divided in the same manner, even if the fish are used for different purposes. For example, one fisherman (X) explained that he often went fishing with a man (Y) who had only a few people living in his house while X had over 25 people in two houses for whom he supplied fish. Before selling the catch, X would set aside at least 3 large fish for his family and put the same amount aside for Y. Y would protest that he didn’t need that much fish. X insisted that Y take an equal share, even if Y’s fish would be given away and not used by Y’s family.

Lastly, given my previous work on gift-giving, I had thought that perhaps a fisherman would ask for extra fish if, for example, he planned to go camping with friends so he would need more fish. Or he might decline to take fish if all of his family was out of the house so there was no need to bring fish for dinner. Or if one fisherman was known to be in need, the others would swear that all the proceeds would go to him or a man could ask for more than his share as a loan. And I wondered how fishermen dealt with a man who frequently asked for extra fish or money.

The answers to these queries was that a group of men may fish together for a season, several seasons or for years [men change groups because of someone buying or selling a boat, having more or less time to fish, etc.] but once in a group everyone attempts to keep a fair and level distribution of fish and profits at all times. No one should ever ask for more than his share or attempt to decline his share.

If a man is in need, he can ask his friends after the distribution. The cultural understandings I had previously worked out were for personal situations. Fishing was “work,” I was told and within “work” there must careful attention that everyone is given an equal share. This is done in part because Dhofaris usually try to cover their problems.

One example I was given that if A, B, C, and D go fishing and A proposes to give that they give the day’s profit to B because B will get married soon, perhaps C is planning to take a family member to Muscat for a health emergency and actually has more need of the money. Rather than trying to decide who has what need, the fish and money are split evenly but not a predetermined levels such as each man will take 5 kilos.

At some point I would like to engage with the articles listed below in terms of how others’ research corresponds to the Dhofari context, particularly with the Lancasters’ excellent, detailed discussion of fishing in Ja’alân and Al Rashdi and Mclean’s article about women and fishing in Al Wusta.

Resources

  • selected bibliography – fish and fishing in Oman
  • related research on M. Risse’s website
  • related publications and presentations by M. Risse
    • books
    • other publications
    • presentations
    • research in partnership with other members of the Dhofar University community

Selected Bibliography – Fish and Fishing in Oman

Al-Jufaili, Saud, Greg Hermosa, Sulaiman S. Al-Shuaily and Amal Al Mujaini. 2010. “Oman Fish Biodiversity.” Journal of King Abdulaziz University 21.1: 3-51.

Al-Marshudi, Ahmed Salim and Hemesiri Kotagama. 2006. “Socio-Economic Structure and Performance of Traditional Fishermen in the Sultanate of Oman.” Marine Resource Economics 21: 221-30.

Al Rashdi, K. and E. Mclean. 2014. “Contribution of Small-Scale Fisheries to the Livelihoods of Omani Women: A Case Study of the Al Wusta Governorate.” Gender in Aquaculture and Fisheries: Navigating Change – Asian Fisheries Science Special Issue 27S: 135-149.

Chittick, Neville. 1980. “Sewn Boats in the Indian Ocean, and a Survival in Somalia.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 9.4: 297-310.

Choudri, B., Mahad Baawain, and Mustaque Ahmed. 2016. “An Overview of Coastal and Marine Resources and their Management in Sultanate of Oman.” Journal of Environmental Management and Tourism 7.1: 21-32.

Clements, Frank.  1977. “The Islands of Kuria Muria: A Civil Aid Project in the Sultanate of Oman Administered from Salalah, Regional Capital of Dhofar.” Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies) 4.1: 37-39.

Field, Richard. 2013. Reef Fishes of Oman. Gharghur, Malta: Richard and Mary Field.

Gardner, Andrew. 2013. The Amphibians and Reptiles of Oman and the UAE. Frankfurt: Edition Chimaira.

Haines, Stafford. 1939. “Memoir to Accompany a Chart of the South Coast of Arabia from the Entrance of the Red Sea to Misenat, in 50, 43, 25 E. Part I.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 9: 125-56.

—. 1845. “Memoir of the South and East Coasts of Arabia: Part II.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 15: 104-60.

Harrison, David. 1980. The Journal of Oman Studies: Special Report 2: The Oman Flora and Fauna Survey 1975. Muscat: Diwan of H. M. for Protocol.

Janzen, Jorg. 1986. Nomads in the Sultanate of Oman: Tradition and Development in Dhofar. London: Westview Press.

The Journal of Oman Studies: Special Report 2: The Oman Flora and Fauna Survey 1975. Muscat: Diwan of H. M. for Protocol.

Kenderdine, Sarah and Tom Vosmer. 1994. “Maritime Graffiti in Oman.” Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Maritime Archaeology 18: 33-45.

Lancaster, William and Fidelity Lancaster. 1995. “Nomadic Fishermen of Ja’alân, Oman.” Nomadic Peoples 36/37: 227-44.

McKoy, John, Neil Bagley, Stéphane Gauthier, and Jennifer Devine. 2009. Fish Resources Assessment Survey of the Arabian Sea Coast of Oman – Technical Report 1. Auckland: Bruce Shallard and Associates and the New Zealand National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research.

Mendonca, Vanda, Barry Jupp, Musallam Al Jabri, Thuraya Al Sariri and Mohamed Al Muzaini. 2003. National Report on the State of the Marine Environment. Muscat: Ministry of Regional Municipalities, Environment & Water Resources, Marine Pollution and Coastal Zone Management Section.

Morris, Miranda. 1987. “Dhofar – What Made it Different’,” in Oman: Economic, Social and Strategic Development. B.R. Pridham, ed. London: Croom Helm. 51-78.

“National Aquaculture Sector Overview-Oman.”  2019.  Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations-Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. http://www.fao.org/fishery/countrysector/naso_oman/en

Omezzine, Abdallah. 1998. “On-shore Fresh Fish Markets in Oman.” Journal of International Food and Agribusiness Marketing 10.1: 53-69.

Omezzine, Abdallah, Lokman Zaibet and Hamad Al-Oufi. 1996. “The Marketing System of Fresh Fish Products on the Masirah Island in the Sultanate of Oman.” Marine Resources Economics 11: 203-10.

Randall, John. 1996. Coastal Fishes of Oman. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press.

Saunders, J. P. 1846. “A Short Memoir of the Proceedings of the Honorable Company’s Surveying Brig ‘Palinurus,’ during Her Late Examination of the Coast between Ras Morbat and Ras Seger, and between Ras Fartak and the Ruins of Mesinah.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 16: 169-86.

Serjeant, Robert. 1995. “Customary Law Among the Fishermen of al-Shihr,”in Farmers and Fishermen in Arabia: Studies in Customary Law and Practice. G. Rex Smith, ed. Aldershot: Variorum. 193-203.

—. 1968. “Fisher-Folk and Fish-Traps in al-Baḥrain.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 31.3: 486–514.

Siddeek, M., M. Fouda and G. Hermosa. 1999. “Demersal Fisheries of the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Gulf.” Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 49.1: 87-97.

“Sustainable Management of the Fisheries Sector in Oman: A Vision for Shared Prosperity, World Bank Advisory Assignment.” 2015. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group and Muscat: Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries Wealth.

Tabook, Salim Bakhit. 1997. Tribal Practices and Folklore of Dhofar, Sultanate of Oman. Unpublished PhD thesis, Faculty of Arts, Exeter University.

Vosmer, Tom. 1997. “Indigenous Fishing Craft of Oman.” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 26.3: 217-35.

—. 1993. “The Omani Dhow Recording Project: Sultanate of Oman.” Indian Ocean Review 6.2: 18-21.

Wilkinson, J. C. 2013. Water & Tribal Settlement in South-East Arabia (Studies on Ibadism and Oman). New York: Georg Olms Verlag.

related research on M. Risse’s website: https://mariellerisse.com/

related publications and presentations by M. Risse

books

Foodways in Southern Oman. Routledge, 2021

This book examines the objects, practices and beliefs relating to producing, obtaining, cooking, eating and disposing of food in the Dhofar region of southern Oman. The chapters consider food preparation, who makes what kind of food, and how and when meals are eaten. Dr. Risse connects what is consumed to themes such as land usage, gender, age, purity, privacy and generosity. She also discusses how foodways are related to issues of morality, safety, religion, and tourism. The volume is a result of fourteen years of collecting data and insights in Dhofar, covering topics such as catching fish, herding camels, growing fruits, designing kitchens, cooking meals and setting leftovers out for animals.

Community and Autonomy in Southern Oman. Palgrave Macmillan, 2019

This book explores how, in cultures which prize conformity, there is latitude for people who choose not to conform either for a short time and how the chances to assert independence change over time. The main focus is on how the traits of self-control and self-respect are manifested in the everyday actions of several groups of tribes whose first language is Gibali (Jebbali/ Jebali, also referred to as Shari/ Shahri), a non-written, Modern South Arabian language. Although no work can express the totality of a culture, this text describes how Gibalis are constantly shifting between preserving autonomy and signaling membership in family, tribal and national communities.

other publications

“Questions About Food and Ethics,” in Emanations: When a Planet was a Planet. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2021. 403-408.

“What’s in Your Bag?” Anthropology News. American Anthropological Association. Oct. 30, 2019. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2019/07/23/whats-in-your-bag-2019-edition/

“Generosity, Gift-giving and Gift-avoiding in Southern Oman,” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 45 (Oxford: Archeopress) 2015: 289-296.

presentations

“The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman.” Fish as Food: Lifestyle and a Sustainable Future, annual conference of the International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, hosted at the University of Liverpool. Sept. 1, 2021.

“Ethical Eating in Southern Oman.” Just Food, virtual conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society; Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society; Canadian Association for Food Studies and the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, hosted by the Culinary Institute of America and New York University. June 12, 2021.

“Foodways in Southern Oman.” for the session “Uncovering Truths, Building Responsibility in A Pandemic: Insights from Emerging Monographs at the Nexus of Culture, Food, and Agriculture.” American Anthropological Association, on-line conference. Nov. 9, 2020.

“Foodways in Southern Oman” (June 23) and “Overview of Community and Autonomy in Southern Oman” (June 16) for the Language and/or Nature in Southern Arabia Workshop, sponsored by Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Leeds. 2020.

“Foodways and Society in Southern Oman.” British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Leeds. June 26, 2019.

“Accounts from the Journeys of the Brig ‘Palinurus’ Along the Dhofar Coast in the mid-1800s.” Maritime Exploration and Memory Conference, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England. Sept. 15, 2018.

“‘Words Mean Nothing’: Fluency in Language and Fluency in Culture in Anthropology Fieldwork in Southern Oman.” British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Wales. July 15, 2016.

“‘A Man Was Always Catching Fish’: Fairy Tale Elements in the Ali al-Mahri/ Johnstone/ Rubin Gibali Texts from Southern Oman.” American Comparative Literature Association Conference, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. March 18, 2016.

“Generosity, Gift-giving and Gift-avoiding in Southern Oman.” British Foundation for the Study of Arabia’s Seminar for Arabian Studies, The British Museum, London. July 27, 2014.

research in partnership with other members of the Dhofar University community

“Culinary Examples,” photographs by Salma Hubais as part of the Foodways in Southern Oman project, 2019-2020.

“Fishing Boats,” photographs by Onaiza Shaikh as part of the Fishing Practices in Dhofar project, August-December 2021.

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Sardines

A second type of fishing near the shore is catching schools of sardines by encircling them with a net that is pulled to shore. This is impossible in places with a rocky ocean floor which would snag the net, so it is only done from Salalah [the main city in the Dhofar region] to the east towards the towns of Taqa (28 km east of Salalah) and Mirabt (70 km E).

As this work requires many people moving to a certain place quickly, the set-up is different than other kinds of fishing. First, the men who own a boat and the large net (costing at least 300 OR) will leave at fajr (daybreak) with several experienced men in his boat. “Experience” in this case means knowledge about where the fish might be and how the schools move, as well as a detailed understanding of the coast line, as the net can only to thrown in areas without rocks. For sake of clarity here, I will refer to the man who owns the boat and net as ‘captain’ but the term used is ruban; this word is only used to differentiate him from other men with the same name, not an honorific in daily use.

The second group is the men who habitually work with the captains to pull the nets in. They gather at a certain restaurant in Taqa Saturday to Thursday between 7 and 8am. Each man will work with only one captain through the season of October to March and will work most days; however there are enough men on each crew that it’s up to each man to decide to work or not. As with the informal football games, there is no such thing as too many men and no one who wants to work is turned away. Sometimes there are 15-20 pulling in the net, sometimes over 40 men.

The third component is the men with Land Cruiser, single-cab pick-up trucks who ferry the men to where the sardines are and bring the sardines to the broker. At least one of these men is in contact with the captain; for example if the captain plans to leave shore at a certain time, he will tell the men with pick-ups when to be ready.

Each morning the captain and the men in his boat drive parallel to the beach looking for schools of fish. When a group of sardines is spotted, the captain will call one of the drivers to tell him where the fish are. The waiting men will pile into several pick-ups and go to the spot indicated.

The captain will come to shore and hand out one end of the net, then he will slowly drive in a large semi-circle around the fish as the men in the boat slowly drop the net in the water. Finally, he will bring the boat back to shore and hand off the second end of the net. The men on shore will then pull the net in or attach each end to one of the trucks and haul it in by using a winch or towing the net.

Many seagulls will flock to the area hoping for an easy meal while the men get the fish above the water line and out of the net. The catch is then loaded into the beds of the pick-ups. Only one type of truck is used because a full bed is a unit of measure (trib). The full trucks are driven to the sardine broker in Taqa. The captain tells the broker if he wants the catch sold fresh to restaurants, sold processed or simply processed, then he will take the sardines himself to use, give away or sell.

The broker notes the captain’s name and catch, then the sardines to be processed are spread out in the sun to dry and turned at least once. Depending on the weather, smaller fish take about three days and larger up to six days. When the fish are sufficiently dried, they are loaded into canvas sacks and are ready for sale.

Bagged sardines cost cost between 2-4 OR and can last around a year if well-stored, i.e. out of wind, sun and the khareef (monsoon) rains. Both sizes of sardine are in demand as camel and cow owners prefer large sardines and goat owners prefer small to use as fodder during the dry months.

One trib (pick-up load) is worth 80-130 OR depending on demand; a good haul is 15 trib or more. The intricacies of payment are beyond the scope of this short essay but in general, the captain takes 30% of the total price of the entire haul as decided with the broker. The broker will take a small percentage for the work of processing, holding and selling the sardines. The remaining amount is divided not by the number of men but by number of shares as each man in the boat is given at least a double share, perhaps more depending on experience. Each man who pulls the net has one share and each man who drives a truck has one share. Each man is free to take his share in cash or in sardines, fresh or processed. In other words, there are a lot of variables but as this system has been in place for decades among men who have known each other their whole lives, the payments are worked out and distributed every day.

This customary divisions of labor means that men with differing skills and abilities can participate. A man who is not physically strong can earn a share by taking net-pullers in his truck to the place where the sardines are; a man who pulls the net does not have to have a truck or pay for gas. Also, a man who drives a truck and also wants to help pull in the net would get a double share.

The amount caught varies widely from day to day. There might be a good haul for several days in a row and then nothing for a few days. If there is a small haul early in the day, for example only 4 or 5 trib, the boat may go out again looking for another school but usually the nets are pulled in only once per day.

As with all types of fishing, there is a lot of charity built into the practices of pulling nets. Any man [see note below] who comes to watch the sardines being brought in can ask for/ be given a 1-4 kees (plastic bag used to haul goods from shops, usually holds about 5 kilo of sardines). The sardines given should be used as food or bait, not sold on to another person. If anyone wants more than this “fair usage” (my term), the sardines are paid for.

Some fishermen will also catch sardines standing on the shore or in a boat close to shore by throwing small cast nets. These are circular nets which sink quickly after they are flung because of small weights sewn into the perimeter of the net. The net is then cinched, by pulling on a rope that gathers it together into a bag, and hauled to shore or onto the boat.  Fishermen who fish with live bait spend approximately 50 OR per year to buy sardine cast nets because they need different sizes for small, medium and large sardines; most fishermen have 5 or 6 nets which cost 25-80 OR each and are sold based on two measurements. First, by the “eye,” meaning the size of the hole, i.e. smaller hole size for smaller fish. Secondly, the radius which is measured by dhirae (‘arm’ in Arabic, from the inside, center point of right elbow to tip of middle finger on right hand); sizes range from 5-15 dhirae.

Related Essays on Fishing

Foodways: Researching Fishing Practices in Dhofar and Selected Bibliographies

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Boxes

Foodways: Catching Lobsters and Diving for Abalone

Foodways: Fish traps

Foodways: Photos for my presentation “The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman,” ‘Fish as Food’ conference, International Comm. on the Anthro. of Food and Nutrition

Foodways: Data for my presentation “The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman,” ‘Fish as Food’ conference, International Comm. on the Anthro. of Food and Nutrition

(photo by Hussain BaOmar)

h - fish

Note – I use ‘any man’ as the sardines are often hauled in along stretches of beach which are not close to houses or stores; thus only the men working and men who drive by are present. A Dhofari woman/ women would not often be driving along a beach during the day. When the catch is close to developed areas, many people come to look but a Dhofari woman would seldom walk very close to where the sardines are being taken from the net and put into the trucks as there is a lot of noise and confusion from the working men, flopping fish and dive-bombing seagulls. A woman who wanted some sardines would send a male relative to ask or, if a male relative was working, ask him by phone. Female tourists often come close to take photos. I have seen hauls being brought in many times but do not get close as I feel the men are working in a certain rhythm that would be interrupted by a foreign female examining their labor. I am sure that if I asked for a bag of sardines, I would be given one but as I live here, I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself.

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Boxes

The Dhofari fishing industry is divided into three sectors. The first is wooden dhows, which are used to catch sharks, tuna, hamour and other ocean fish. The second sector is individual Dhofari men who own or borrow boats and go out full or part time for sardines, lobster, abalone, squid, tuna and/ or other ocean fish depending on the season. The smallest sector is Dhofari men who occasionally catch fish or squid from the shore and/ or set fish traps close to the beach and women who collect mussels and sufela (abalone) on rocky points in shallow water, usually at low-tide. There are also a few boats, mainly managed by expats and attached to hotels, which take tourists on day-fishing trips.

My main focus is “official” (meaning full-time) Dhofari fishermen who make daily decisions about what type of fishing depending on the “weather and season”; the four main methods are throwing nets, throwing “boxes” (fish traps), fishing with live bait on individual lines or fishing for tuna. In this essay, I would like to briefly discuss fishing from/ close to the beach.

There are many causal fishermen who throw a line with a baited hook or lure from shore in the late afternoons and evening for fish or squid depending on the season. They catch enough for dinner, to give to someone or to sell informally. This is done by all ages from boys in high school to older, retired men.

Women do not usually fish with a line or have fish traps, but they collect mussels and abalone (in season) during low-tides. The shell-fish are usually collected in amounts large enough to sell either by word-of-mouth, with a social media account or given to a male family member to sell ad hoc to a restaurant.

Setting fish traps (“boxes”) near the shore is mainly done by older men who grew up with more traditional lifestyles, are retired or are not working. It is usually done by one man working alone and does not require a boat. This type of fishing is seen as slightly old-fashioned and does not earn very much money, but it’s an important link with the pre-motorboat past. Further, this is the only type of fishing that is territorial, in that a man who puts boxes in a certain area will be seen as being responsible for that area and other men will not put boxes there.

This kind of demarcation is respected because the men are working in the same areas that their fathers and grand-fathers placed fish-traps. When a son retires or if he does not have a job, he might then take over that location from his father. Hence the fishermen are seen as “saving the place,” meaning both keeping the area clean and continuing an unofficial claim because they have spent hours of time, over years, creating the setting of the boxes.

Boxes are not just put down in the water but are placed within painstakingly designed rock-scapes made by clearing rocks out of certain areas, so that the box is surrounded on all sides by rocks that are higher than the trap with only one “door,” which faces the beach. Further, boxes are not set on the ocean floor, but balanced up on three rocks so that the water can move freely. This perception of work producing ownership rights can also found in the Dhofar mountains; a man who plants and takes cares of trees may eventually be given an non-official recognition of ownership by virtue of his time, effort and money.

The boxes are checked every 3 days or so around the time of low ebb with the fisherman wading or swimming out. In monsoon season (khareef, June to August) when the waves are very rough and there is a dangerous undertow, boxes are checked every day but only at the exact time of the lowest ebb. It takes about 15-25 minutes to check one box, meaning swim to the box, take it out of the water by bringing it to shore or placing it on a rock that is higher than water-level, transfer the fish to a mesh bag and replace the box. In khareef extra time is needed to gather a type of black seaweed that fish like and put it in the box; otherwise nothing is added to the box as fish near shore eat plants and small mollusks, not other fish.

The daily costs are negligible as there is no need to have a boat or buy food since checking boxes can be done between meal times. Boxes cost 25-50 OR each. Usually a man has 1-5, with 10 as a maximum. Because they are placed in water that is 2-3 meters deep, they are smaller and flatter than the boxes that are thrown in deep water. Also, boxes thrown in the sea are made of two parts, the mesh top which must be replaced every year and the iron bottom which lasts 2 or 3 years. Boxes placed near the shore are made from aluminum so they don’t rust; traditionally this type of trap was made from plant material which lasted only 3 or 4 months. Besides the boxes, the costs are a mask (5-55 OR, usually 20-25 OR), snorkel (10-12 OR), mesh bag (7 OR) and swimming clothes.

Related essays on fishing

Foodways: Researching Fishing Practices in Dhofar and Selected Bibliographies

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Sardines

Foodways: Catching Lobsters and Diving for Abalone

Foodways: Fish traps

Foodways: Photos for my presentation “The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman,” ‘Fish as Food’ conference, International Comm. on the Anthro. of Food and Nutrition

Foodways: Data for my presentation “The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman,” ‘Fish as Food’ conference, International Comm. on the Anthro. of Food and Nutrition

Foodways: Catching Lobsters and Diving for Abalone

 (photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

There are two types of fishing that is regulated by the government: abalone (sufela) and lobster. The abalone season is usually 10 days to 3 weeks in November or December, but is only opened if the government deems there is a good crop. Lobster season is from March to the end of April.

The approximate costs for abalone season is about 10 OR daily. About 300 OR is also needed for accommodation and food for the season but this is usually only paid by older, experienced divers who will work for the whole season. Diving is very difficult and many boys and men will join in for only a few days.

Divers wake up at fajr (the sunrise prayer), pray, drink tea and go to the boats, timing their first dive for when the sunlight hits the water so they can see the abalone on the rocks. They will continue for as long as possible; men who are become tired will sit in the boat keeping a look-out for sharks. They will stay in one location until no one can find abalone, then move (perhaps 1 or 2 time during the day), not returning to shore until the last person is out of the water, approximately 4 to 5 pm. Given the dangers of sharks and exhaustion, it is very rare to dive alone. There are usually 3 or 4 men in each boat. At the start of season there may be perhaps as many as 8 or 9 depending on size of boat and engine, but the number tapers off quickly.

The daily costs are about 5 OR for gas for the boat and 5 OR for water and food. For fishing trips, normally the cost of gas is paid from the sale of the fish, with the fishermen then splitting the rest of the profits. However for abalone fishing, the owner of the boat will pay for the gas if he catches a good amount of abalone. If he does not, then the men who rode in his boat will all contribute. Further, the boat-owner will only accept payment from full-time divers. Young men who are learning to dive do not give money.

The costs for the season are for accommodation and personal gear. Any type of boat can be used, i.e. a boat fitted out for throwing nets with no thalaja (built-in freezer), throwing boxes with one thalaja or using live bait with two thalaja.

The main expense is 200-300 OR per person for renting a house or setting up a camp. The costs are usually shared among 4-6 men who are at least in their early 20s and serious divers. Younger men (brothers, cousins and friends) who are learning to dive might come for a few days so there might be as many as 15 men for first nights, but part-time divers don’t pay as explained above.

Sometimes the accommodation costs includes a contract with a cook or a restaurant to make meals for the group of men who are living together: a late lunch around 5pm, dinner at 8 or 9pm, breakfast at fajr and then food packed for the day in the boat. Normally food for a fishing trip is sandwiches, chips, soda, juice, etc. but because of hardships of diving, men usually only take water, drinkable yogurt, bread, and packaged leftovers from breakfast: oatmeal and/ or attriya (also known as balaleet, a dish made with vermicelli; usually it is very sweet, flavored with cardamom and rose-water and served with an omelet on top but for abalone season it is made with milk and without eggs).

The two most important pieces of equipment are the dive suit and knife. Dive suits normally cost around 60 OR and last 3 or 4 years. As it against cultural understandings to wear tight-fitting clothes, the wetsuit is usually bought in a bigger size than needed so it fits loosely. The knife used to pry abalone from the rocks is usually inexpensive (around 3 OR) but men take care of it and try to use the same one for years. In order to collect many abalone, a man has to be able to get the abalone off the rocks quickly so knowing the heft and balance of the knife saves valuable seconds underwater. Men must free-dive; oxygen tanks are not allowed.

Other gear includes flippers (55 OR, high quality pairs can last over 5 years), mask (from 5-55 OR, usually 20-25 OR, men usually bring 2 or 3 in case anyone needs one or one breaks), snorkel (10-12 OR, again, each man usually brings 2 in case anyone needs one or one breaks), mesh bags (7 OR each bought new every year, one is tied to waist to collect abalone underwater and one is left in the boat to hold the day’s catch).

For lobster season, the approximate daily cost is about 25 OR and about 150 OR for the season from March 1st to end of the April. The daily costs are for food and the gas to get to and from the places to throw nets. As with abalone season, the boat does not need to be fitted out in any special way.

The net needs to reach down to ocean floor and be there for several hours, but cannot be used in daylight as fish, squid and octopus will come to eat the trapped lobster. Therefore nets are set down into the water before maghreb (sunset). Throwing can be done by one person if needed and takes about 5 minutes per net. Pulling the net up starts close to (fajr) sunrise and takes 2 or 3 people about 20 to 30 minutes per net, longer if the net is stuck on rocks. Sometimes one man will wear a wetsuit and bring a mask and snorkel so he can go into the water to help free the net from snags. Thus fishermen pay careful attention to time; they need to reach the nets close to sunrise so that there is enough light to see if someone needs to dive to free the net, but not so late that other creatures have a chance to eat the caught lobster.

Fishermen usually return to port around noon, sell the catch, have lunch and rest, then go out again to drop nets for the night. As lobster season starts March 1, nets are first thrown on the evening of the last day in February.

The cost per season is approximately 150 OR for new nets and net repair. A net costs about 55 OR  and it is very different from the curtain net used for fish. The lobster net is smaller with a length of 200 meter and a height of only 5 ba’, the distance from furthest edge of left shoulder to tip of middle finger on right hand. Fish nets are usually 200 meters-wide with a height of 8-12 ba’. Lobster nets are also heavier than fish nets which have to be made from thin/ clear filament which fish can’t see; also, fish nets usually do not touch the seabed. Lobster nets have to settle on the sea floor so they get caught on rocks, meaning they need to be repaired often.

Fishermen usually throw 5-10 nets at one time. Some also catch lobsters in boxes placed in shallow water. The government gives each licensed fishermen 20 boxes for lobster, as the quantity is not decreasing like abalone, but most prefer to use nets.

(photos from social media)

Related essays on fishing

Foodways: Researching Fishing Practices in Dhofar and Selected Bibliographies

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Sardines

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Boxes

Foodways: Fish traps

Foodways: Photos for my presentation “The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman,” ‘Fish as Food’ conference, International Comm. on the Anthro. of Food and Nutrition

Foodways: Data for my presentation “The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman,” ‘Fish as Food’ conference, International Comm. on the Anthro. of Food and Nutrition

Foodways: Fish traps

A kind friend who knows I am doing research on fishing sent me these two photos from the Oman Aquarium in Muscat.

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Onaiza Shaikh took these photos of modern fish traps

Fish traps in Dhofar are referred to as “boxes.” A full time fisherman usually has 20-100 boxes, with 50 as the most common amount and a maximum of 150. They are put in the ocean in September or October and taken out before storms and the khareef (the monsoon season from June to August). If the ocean is quiet, it can take about 5 hours for 2 people to check 50 boxes. A person working alone can check 20 to 30 boxes in one day.

Related essays on fishing

Foodways: Researching Fishing Practices in Dhofar and Selected Bibliographies

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Sardines

Foodways: Fishing from or near the Shore – Boxes

Foodways: Catching Lobsters and Diving for Abalone

Foodways: Photos for my presentation “The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman,” ‘Fish as Food’ conference, International Comm. on the Anthro. of Food and Nutrition

Foodways: Data for my presentation “The Costs and Benefits of Fishing in Southern Oman,” ‘Fish as Food’ conference, International Comm. on the Anthro. of Food and Nutrition

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Communication in Dhofar: Getting Information and (not) Giving Compliments

The patience and tolerance to live harmoniously in an unfamiliar culture; the fortitude to be content with less than comfortable circumstances for prolonged periods; an understanding of and sympathy with a foreign history and religion; a willingness to learn a new language; the flexibility, imagination and humility necessary to climb into the head of people who live by a very different set of assumptions; none of these are found automatically in our modern developed Euro-Atlantic culture.  (Gardiner, In the Service of the Sultan, 174)

I have lived overseas in four countries and spent significant amounts of time in a fifth – it is easy to change what you wear, what you eat, when you eat, what side of the road to drive on, what days are the weekend, where the light switches are located, and what time stores are open. It’s difficult to learn a foreign language, but it is far more difficult to learn and understand new communication strategies.

I am still trying to understand and articulate how the Dhofaris who I do research with use language. Some people compare understanding a foreign culture as peeling back the layers of an onion, but to me that implies that there is finite level. To me, understanding culture is like mountains beyond mountains. You get to one level only to find there are infinitely more layers to discover.

How do I learn how to read communication exchanges? I was once talking to another American about my research and how difficult it is to get access and insight into Dhofari cultures. He said, “So you must ask a lot of questions.” I said, “No, I don’t ask any questions.” The look on his face was the look of a person struggling to reframe their whole conceptual framework of what “research” means. “Research” means asking questions, right? Socratic dialog, give and take, write a plan and make enquiries, figure out what you want to know and go look for the answers. You “pursue” research; you “hunt” for answers; you “capture” data; you “acquire” answers; there are so many metaphors of the “chase” for information.

But those metaphors don’t work here. For example, when Dhofaris greet each other, “how are you” is repeated over and over. Between good friends, the first 3 or 4 passes are expected to have a positive answer. After that, and after a little time, the actual answer can finally be revealed.

No one would think of saying, “Hey, you just said four times that you are ok and now you tell me that you didn’t get the job you wanted.”  “Everything is fine,” was the appropriate thing to say before, but now it’s appropriate to reveal what is really going on. You have to wait for the information; you can’t force it.

Another communication difference is compliments. When I had moved into a new villa with a large living room I had decorated with paintings, Arabian rugs, colored glass lanterns, pillows in abundance. When men from my research group stopped by, I asked, “What do you think of the living room?” The three men stood rooted, observed everything carefully, made expressions of surprise and approval, they waved their hands elegantly; they vowed that in their lives they have never seen such decorating; they swore they did not know that such marvelous decorating was possible on this earth; they wondered out loud how was it possible to take a plain room and turn it into a palace, a castle, a dream; they declared that I must come immediately to their own houses and commence redecorating their own homes.

Compliments are often seen as something for children. A grown person should not need positive verbal reinforcements on how they look or what they have done, so my research partners were teaching me that when I disingenuously asked for compliments, I was going to get enough compliments to choke on. Either ask and accept the fake whipped cream compliments with proper abashment or (better) don’t ask. In that case I had spent three days rearranging the living room and was not really interested in the truth; the cotton candy compliments were perfect.

Compliments between adults are often used to point out a mistake. Being told I look like a bride or “nice” means I am inappropriately dressed or look exhausted. Good food is eaten without comment; over-spiced, under-cooked, burnt or over-salted food is lavishly admired. When a man receives praise on his behavior, dishdash, car, fishing ability or singing voice, there is usually a problem.

I worked for several years at MIT which has managed to connect almost all the buildings on campus to each other through underground tunnels or above-ground walkways. When you map out a path between two buildings which are distant from each other, you need to remember which floor the connection is on. For example going through a line of four buildings, you might walk between the first two building on the 3rd floor, go up the 4th floor to walk to the next building and then up to the 6th floor to get to the last building.

This is the perfect metaphor of intercultural communication – if I stayed on my own floor with my own style, I would hit cement walls. Messages sent will never be received and I won’t be able make headway. With halting steps and many mistakes, I have to try to walk up to their level of communication.

(a favorite example of cultural misunderstanding: the saying in English is ‘if life gives you lemons, make lemonade’, in which ‘lemons’ is a metaphor for something difficult. Someone who works for Talabat misunderstood this and, to a North American, this sign means: if you don’t have enough problems in your life, we will bring you some.)

lemons

Conference presentation: Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms

Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms, Dr. Marielle Risse

English Scholars Beyond Borders International Conference, Dec. 4, 2021

Outline of ‘Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms’

1 – Introduction

2 – Choosing texts

3 – Teaching strategies

4 – Short lessons

5 – Assignments

6 – Examples: “July” by John Clare and Philoketes by Sophocles

Introduction

The title of this conference is crossing borders and that is a good metaphor for discussing literature and language teaching because it’s easy for a language teacher to cross the border between disciplines and become a literature teacher. Language teachers read books, poems and dramas and understand the concepts of genre, narrator, metaphor, connotations, etc.

But for a literature teacher to cross the border in the opposite direction and become language teacher is much more difficult. I can tell you from first-hand experience that a literature teacher in a language classroom is a miserable and lost creature.

I studied German and French at university so I am well acquainted with the grammar of those two languages, but in English – explaining the difference between when to use the present simple and present continuous? Rules for doubling consonants when making a present participle? Forming nouns off of verbs by adding ‘y’? Conditional clauses? When I have to teach a grammar class and explain ‘count’ vs. ‘non-count’ nouns or the present perfect or when to use ‘for instance’ instead of ‘for example’ – painful!

But I need to do some language teaching in all my literature class. When I walked into my first Middle Eastern literature classroom at the American University of Sharjah more than 20 years ago, I had students from 15 countries with varying levels of English. I had to blend some language information into my discussion of texts so I made a series of changes in my teaching.

In this presentation I want to explain how I teach literature differently with English major students than with literature majors, concentrating on four main areas: choosing texts, teaching strategies, short lessons and assignments.

Choosing texts

I have several publications on how to choose appropriate texts for literature classes and my main point is that it is vital to pick a text that students can connect to in some way as they are already fighting language and sometimes cultural difficulties and differences.

Dickens has written many classics, but his diction is difficult and the recurrent theme of a child cast out from the family, in novels such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, create hurdles for understanding and appreciation.  

Whereas, my students have really enjoyed Beowulf’s and Sir Gawain’s lessons about protecting one’s leader and staying loyal to one’s family.

For Shakespeare, I choose the accessible plays such as Much Ado about Nothing, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry V with selections from King Lear and Macbeth. Not Julius Caesar or Merchant of Venice.

As 99% of my students are female, for other dramas, I often pick ones with interesting heroines caught between conflicting duties such as:

  • Alcestis, Euripides
  • Deanira, Sophocles
  • Antigone, Sophocles
  • The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
  • Lady Windemere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde
  • Arms and the Man, Shaw
  • Quality Street, J.M. Barrie
  • Our Town, Thornton Wilder
  • Princess Sunshine, Tawfiq Al Hakim

In terms of fiction, I use Jane Austen, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier to spark class discussion.

Teaching strategies – using scaffolding to create a strong foundation

reading aloud – every class, every student reads to improve pronunciation and enunciation

  • poem – one line
  • fiction – one sentence
  • drama – one character’s words

comparing narrative structures

For example, I give students the first page of an autobiography from an Omani writer and from an English writer and ask them to work in groups to figure out what is similar and what is different. English writers usually have exact dates, list full names of family members, give specific place names etc., while local writers give more general impressions. This leads to a discussion of how cultures tell stories and give opinions differently

comparisons with Arabic

  • using the evocative O = ya
  • starting sentences with verb, often used in Arabic but in English = command or question

Short lessons

word attack/ word meanings

  • homonyms – prey / pray – bear / bare
  • teach prefix/ suffix/ root – Latin and Greek – like: auto-bio-graphy

explicit grammar

e’en – ‘Tis – apostrophe for missing letter

explicit teaching of archaic speech

  • thou, thee, thy, thine
  • ye, yon, yonder, yore
  • -th ending for verbs like thinketh

explicit metaphor teaching

  • color metaphors – I’m blue, he’s yellow, I’m green
  • animals – monkey, positive and negative
  • objects – the moon (positive in Arab cultures, negative in North America/ Europe)

Assignments

recitation

helps with pronunciation, enunciation and emotion

acting

helps students use the language in a natural way

with so many essays on the internet, make assignments which check for understanding and are personal

  • compare character to someone you know
  • have a conversation with a character
  • explain the drama or novel with a friend, your mom, your husband and write a short paper explaining what you agree and disagree on – my mom thought…

supporting opinions with proof/ evidence to help get ready for IELTS and standardized English exams

‘Some people’ or ‘everyone’ vs. I think Alcestis made the right choice because I think…

Two examples

1 -teaching grammar, vocabulary and literary terminology through poetry

“July” by John Clare

Loud is the Summer’s busy song,

The smallest breeze can find a tongue,

While insects of each tiny size

Grow teasing with their melodies,

Till noon burns with its blistering breath

Around, and day lies still as death

The cricket on its bank is dumb;

The very flies forget to hum;

And, save the wagon rocking round,

The landscape sleeps without a sound.

The breeze is stopped, the lazy bough

Hath not a leaf that danceth now;

  • topic students can relate to – hot weather, sleeping in the middle of the day
  • metaphors and simile – Summer’s busy song, day lies still as death
  • alliterations – sleeps without a sound
  • expand vocabulary – breeze, tiny, melodies
  • double meanings – bank and dumb 
  • grammar – hath, danceth

2 – picking an interesting text so that students want to read and discuss

Philoketes by Sophocles        

This drama is based on one of the stories from the siege of Troy. On the way to Troy, the soldier Philoketes is hurt and his wound does not heal, so he is left on a desert island by Odysseus. After ten years of fighting against Troy, Odysseus is told that the Greeks will never win Troy without Philoketes and his magic bow so Odysseus goes back to the island,

Odysseus tries to play a trick, he stays hidden and tells a young soldier, Neoptolemus, to find Philoketes, become friends with him, and then convince Philoketes to allow Neoptolemus to hold the bow – then Neoptolemus will run to the boat with the bow and they will sail away, leaving Philoketes stranded.

The play works well because:

1) a lot of suspense – Will Odysseus’ trick work? it seems to, but at the last minute, Neoptolemus tells Philoketes the truth

2) themes of forgiveness and trust – Should Philoketes forgive Odysseus for leaving him on the island for 10 years? Should he trust that Odysseus will bring him back to his country?

3) connection to Omani society – The dilemma is solved when Hercules appears and tells Philoketes to get on the boat, that he will be safe. This highlights the importance of mediators, a very important part of Omani cultures; when two people are at an impasse, they should look for someone older/ wiser to both give advice and guarantee correct behavior.

(photo by S. B.)

Related publications

Risse, M. “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts,” in Advancing English Language Education. Wafa Zoghbor and Thomaï Alexiou, eds.. Dubai: Zayed University Press, 2020. 221-223.

Risse, M. “Ok Kilito, I Won’t Speak Your Language: Reflections after Reading Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language,” in Octo-Emanations. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2020: 233-236.

Risse, M. “Teaching Literature on the Arabian Peninsula,” Anthropology News website, October 7 2019. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2019/10/07/teaching-literature-on-the-arabian-peninsula/

 Risse, M. and Miriam Al Sabbah. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Novel: Austen for ESL Students,” Proceedings of the 16th Oman International ELT Conference. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2017: 28-35.

Risse, M. “Writing Prompts to Facilitate Creativity and Interesting Texts,” Proceedings of the 15th Oman International ELT Conferences. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2016: 46-52.

Risse, M. “Selecting the Right Literary Texts for Middle Eastern Students: Challenges and Reactions,” in Focusing on EFL Reading: Theory and Practice. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2014: 165-188.

Risse, M.  “Frosty Cliffs, Frosty Aunt and Sandy Beaches: Teaching Aurora Leigh in Oman,” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 43.4, 2013: 123-145.

Risse, M. “Who Are You Calling ‘Coddled’?: ‘Cloistered Virtue’ and Choosing Literary Texts in a Middle Eastern University,” Pedagogy 13.3, 2013: 415-427.

Risse, M. “Do You know a Creon?: Making Literature Relevant in an Omani University,” in Literature Teaching in EFL/ESL: New Perspectives. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2012: 302-314.

Risse, M.  “Using Local Voices in Literature Classrooms,” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives 9.1, 2012. http://lthe.zu.ac.ae/index.php/lthehome/article/view/71

Risse, M.  “John Clare Looks Good in a Dishdash: Linking John Clare to Middle Eastern Poetry,” John Clare Society Journal 30, 2011: 53-63.

Risse, M. “An Open Letter to Alice Walker,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Feb. 20, 2009: B11. http://chronicle.texterity.com/chronicle/20090220b/?pg=11#pg11

Oman Football

It’s time for the FIFA Arab Cup [ https://www.fifa.com/tournaments/mens/arabcup/arabcup2021/match-center ] so I am re-posting an essay I wrote a few years ago about rooting for sports teams in Oman.

I grew up watching Washington football with my father and brother so I have a deep, fulfilling, unshakeable hatred for the Dallas Cowboys. Later, when I moved to Boston, I watched the Patriots pursue a perfect season and the Redsox chase the World Series, so I thought I knew all about being a sports fan and supporting the home team. Then I moved to a small city in the Middle East.

I teach at a university and one of the best ways to create links with my students is to connect what we are reading with their culture. And since ‘football’ (soccer) is a major part of their lives, I pull sports metaphors into my literature classes, explaining Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada in terms of offense and defense, comparing the queen protecting her country to the famous Omani goal-keeper Ali al Habsi.

But I have gradually realized that soccer here is quite different than in the States. My sister’s children play soccer. They have uniforms, scheduled practices, a coach, fields with clipped grass and painted white lines, goals with a net to catch the ball. And that ball is white, fully-inflated and regulation-sized. There is organization. There is a season with a beginning, an end, and a referee with a whistle. The kids wear cleats and matching shirts. The parents car-pool, have phone-trees, stand on the side-lines and watch. Everyone knows who, what, when, where. The ‘why’ is for the kids to enjoy themselves, get some exercise, and learn to be part of a team.

In Salalah, football is for anyone who feels like playing. Young girls play together or with male brothers and cousins in empty areas. Men gather in loose-knit teams every afternoon and whoever shows up plays, sometimes 20 players on one side. They play on the beach or gravel lots with rocks to mark the goal. The side lines are either lines drawn in the sand, quickly obliterated by scuffling for the ball, or a line of small rocks. The ball is whatever color, size and shape happens to be around. And when the kids play, there are no adults anywhere near. Everyone has a great time.

I got my second lesson in Omani-style sports when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met in the capital city of Muscat. The meeting of the government leaders was enlivened by the Gulf Cup, a football (i.e. soccer) tournament. I first realized something was odd when the DJs on the English-language radio station seemed weirdly humble. “Of course all the teams will play well,” they would declare. “We are rooting for all the teams!” “We wish everyone good luck!” When I asked an Omani friend for a “Go Oman – let’s vanquish our opponent” photo to put on my social media… I got a photo of the football team.

This is team-spirit? I asked myself. This is the battle cry? During a call-in show, one DJ asked the listener to predict the score of the first game (Oman vs. Kuwait). “Oman will win!” chirped the guest, “1-0.” 1-0? What kind of score is that? What happened to annihilating the enemy? Crushing them in devastating defeat? Humiliation! 24-0! I remembered the public buses in Boston during World Series frenzy displaying “Go Sox” instead of the route number. Everyone in the city had blood lust.

But, this is Oman. Public displays of bravado are not encouraged; the culture supports working together. I should have known better than to expect the whole ‘who’s your daddy’ insult-fest. When I watched the end of the Saudi-Kuwait game, as the camera panned the stadium full of fans from both sides calmly standing and applauding, it was hard to tell which side won. Sedate appreciation is the expectation. When a player falls on the field, it is normal to offer him a hand; but in the GCC Cup, a fallen player is grabbed from behind and scooped up onto his feet. Players arguing with the referee are quietly talked down by members of both teams.

Not that there isn’t deep emotion attached to the sports teams. A few members of the national team came to visit the University for a Pep Rally and the entire auditorium was packed. Students, male and female, wore their Omani football scarves to class during the tournament. Many young men decorated their cars with the Omani flag or striped in the Omani colors (red, green and white). After every Omani victory, guys would drive around the city honking and singing. There was even a spontaneous parade near the old souq. The celebrations were positive and family-friendly, without vandalism or  ‘hooligan’ behavior.

Playing well is important, but acting well is even more important.