Perfume: The Great Healer

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)


When I moved into a “villa” (small house with a dirt yard surrounded by a seven-foot concrete block wall) the winter sand-storms were in full blast. My town gets three to ten major ‘blows’ per season, lasting a few hours to several days, so I snuck into my neighborhood, as it were, under cover.

All the houses on the street were built from the same basic plan from concrete blocks. The houses are set about six to ten feet off the ground on a concrete base. As you walk up the steps you find yourself on a small covered porch with two doors. One opens to the majlis, the men’s sitting room, for male visitors. The other is the front door, used by people who live in the house, and it opens into a large sitting room used by the women and children of the house. Most of the houses have a third entrance that leads directly to the kitchen for deliveries and cooling off the kitchen.

Given that all men wear dishdashs (long shirts), always white for work or formal occasions, and all women wear loose black cloaks or a loose dress with a large black scarf covering her from her head to her knees, it is pretty much impossible to tell how many neighbors you have for a very long time, nor how old they are. In addition, there’s zero body language information. It is not part of the culture for husbands and wives to hold hands in public. If you see a man and a woman leave a neighboring house, you can’t tell if it is husband and wife, brother and sister, mother and son, father and daughter, etc.

The way to figure out who you are living near is to pay attention to the cars – the number of cars parked outside early in the morning usually gives you an idea of how many “households” are abide. (When a man marries, he usually brings his wife to live in his parent’s house.) But you never know. There might be, for example, young cousins from the country who come to town to attend college and live with another family. Others park their cars in the open space between the wall surrounding the house and the house, as I did.

I would always raise my hand in greeting to the people who lived near me, but for months I wasn’t able to figure out who lived in the houses. I would often sit on the covered porch and read in the afternoons and could see people coming and going without knowing who they were.

One day I could see a neighbor boy and his brothers/ friends/ cousins throwing something back and forth. Then one of them threw the object up and onto the top of the AC, about 10 feet off the ground. One of the boys screamed. Two adult men came outside. Much discussion, everyone looked at the AC, way out of reach. Someone started throwing sticks to try to knock it off. I sat there thinking, I don’t want to get involved – this could end badly in some unforeseen way. It would be nice to make contact with neighbors, but I was a little worried contact might not go well.

They keep throwing sticks – the small boy was really unhappy. I think, if one of the sons of my friends or my nephews lost something I would want someone to help him. I went into house, covered my hair with a head scarf, put on long, loose Omani housedress, and dragged my 12-foot ladder out onto the porch. Positioning the ladder next to me, I screamed, “Hey.” The men in the other house heard me but ignored me. Omani men have the ‘I am ignoring you’ ability like no one on earth but this isn’t rudeness. It is politeness; a “good” man doesn’t stare at foreign women.

I yell a few more times and wave my arms. I know they hear me, are glancing at me but they don’t know what is going on, so they will ignore me. I point to the ladder. Finally (I am sure the men discuss it quietly), one of the men looks directly at me. I point to ladder; he makes a gesture.

I drag the ladder to my bab (sliding metal gate) and wait. I am not sure what the correct behavior is but I think that if I bring the ladder over to their house, they will be a little stunned at a woman carrying a 12-foot ladder in public and would feel obligated to offer me tea, and I would need to accept. Way too much unplanned, unforeseen ‘togetherness.’ I need to wait for the boys. And here they come, walking out of their bab.

I hand over the ladder and they all trip back. I go huddle in my corner. They lean the ladder against the wall, shimmy up, get the thing, and bring the ladder back. I make sure all my hair is under the scarf and go stand by my bab. They hand it back and say, “Thank you.” I say, “You are welcome.” One of the men calls from his house (I can’t see him). “Thank you.” And I close my bab. Big sigh of relief. As far as I can tell, we have all negotiated this exchange correctly, except that it was rude of me to yell to get their attention, but then I don’t know how else I would have, short of twirling the ladder over my head.

After a few months, I get to know this family and make the big step of going to visit them for Eid. We talk for about half an hour, then the women rise up at and bring a tray of perfume. Any self-respecting woman has at least 10 bottles of perfume, as expensive as possible. She gets a ‘trousseau’ of perfumes when she is married and a ‘good’ man will continue to add to his wife’s collection – partly for her and partly because guests who come to the house should be sprayed with perfume, like it or not! A woman with many nice perfumes to offer her guests is considered a good hostess.

She picks out two, hands them to me and I spray myself. The women then tell me how much they want to see my house. I say, “Sure!” Then, it’s time to go.

When I get home, I sit on the sofa and stare at the floor for a while, which is my basic reaction to stress. It was a little overwhelming, not in a bad way – but I knew that I was making mistakes left and right and my Arabic was weak at that time (“How long have you lived in Salalah?” “Three streets! Not streets! Three months! No, three…three…” “Years?” “Thank you! Years! Three years!”). After I went to bed I realized OH NO I had forgotten to take off my shoes in their house! Rude!

But it did seem that they wanted to come over. A few days later I put on my wrap (big, black, transparent shawl) and walked over about 4:30pm. After I knocked, one of the boys called “Who is it?” out the window; I just called “Hello!” He opened the door and I walked into the living room, the woman came out carrying her baby and I invited her to come over, with her sister, her mother and all the kids the next night. She said she would ‘Insha’Allah.’

It might be a little muchish to think of eight kids in my house but I had seen local kids in action. In formal situations, they are amazing at behaving well. I have seen 2-year olds sit motionless on a sofa for 45 minutes. I had coffee once with a friend and her 3-year old sat on a chair for 2 1/2 hours without fidgeting or whining, without a toy or book to occupy him. And we were speaking English so he couldn’t even listen. Kids in my house I knew would be silent and still.

I undertook massive preparations – got 15 juices, three kinds of cookies, brand new box of wrapped chocolates, turned the ACs on at 2pm to cool down the house, washed all my trays, put my perfumes on a tray by the front door, choose my best dhobe (Omani house dress) and practiced draping the scarf over my head, which I never do in public, but I knew they would keep their hair covered in my house, so I wanted to be polite.

When my neighbor came with her children, I was very happy, like passing a test. I knew whether she should visit would have been discussed in her family and if someone had thought it was a bad idea, she would not have come.

I asked them to sit, then dashed to kitchen and get the juices and cookies on a tray. I set out the chocolates, then made tea. Then I (trying to be cultural) hand them pictures of me with my mom and sister, and me as a little girl with my brother and sister. Validity through family!

The boys sit next to each other on my sofa, immobile – no squirming. They are entranced with the cats and are so quiet, the cats come into the room and lay down, which they never have done with guests before.

We go through again how many brothers and sisters we each have, about our parents and lives. We chat pleasantly about keeping the house clean, the garden, the weather. I show them the majlis (men’s sitting room, with rugs and cushions to sit on) and the two bedrooms (because I know how curious I am about Omanis arrange and decorate their houses and I assume she has the same she curiosity). When she says she should leave, I pick up the tray of perfume. She chooses one, sprays herself and carefully gives each of the boys a squirt, just as she made each boy eat at least one chocolate and one cookie. Then I walk them all to my bab.

I am so happy – I feel like I accomplished something major. We might not see each other again but at least we each made an effort. I read somewhere or was told a story about a foreigner who invited some American friends for dinner and, trying to be ‘American,’ gave them pickles, popcorn and ice cream. I think I did something similar – it is so hard to know what is right and polite when you start to maneuver in a foreign culture. You can only hope and trust that your intended goodwill is clear and will smooth over the rude questions or lack of questions, of staring or not looking, of offering the wrong thing at the wrong time. Truly, all you can do is smile and try. World peace – one squirt of perfume at a time.