Foodways: Cultural Issues Pertaining to Litter

(photos by S. B.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hierarchies of Need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time

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

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

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

Reusing

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

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

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

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

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

Importance of Multi-faceted Research – Issue of  Blaming Tourists

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

Importance of Multi-faceted Research – Issue of Cleaners

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

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

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

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

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

sb - beach 2

Cows

As I did a post on camels – Camels and Camel-Owners  – I have to give equal time to cows. If Dhofaris have herd animals, it is usually either camels OR cows, not often does a family have both. Although it is common to own goats either alone or with camels or cows. None of the three types of animals like to be in the same area at the same time. In khareef  (the monsoon season which is ending now), camels are taken out of areas which get rain as their flat feet can’t get traction on slippery ground.  Cows are usually kept indoors during the day because of the swarms of mosquitos. With the start of fall weather (sunny and dry), camels will soon be herded back to the regular grazing grounds in the mountains and cows will be let out during the day; but the two types of animals usually keep to separate areas. Goats are almost always let out of pens with a herder, who will steer them away from the larger animals. 

 

cows

a mountain cow pen (photo used with permission)

 

IMG_3577

mountains in khareef

cows in mountain

cows in khareef

cows on beach

cows on the beach

You Have Nothing to Fear from Sheep’s Eyes but Beware the Carrot Sweet: Researching Foodways in Southern Oman

During over a decade of picnics with men from southern Oman, I have never been offered the eyes, brain, tongue or tail of any animal. The cliché of guests being offered the ‘unloved’ parts of an animal doesn’t hold here in the Dhofar region. And it’s not that large platter of rice and meat that will cause you problems. Men will encourage you to eat, but if you gather up a few grains of rice in your hand and lift it towards your mouth, the host’s attention will move on.

If you are given a fish, you can turn the head away from you and start to eat from tail up, scattering by chance a few shreds of lettuce over the eyes. Then you declare yourself full before you need to deal with the stomach area, much less digging into the skull for the fish cheeks.

What you should fear is ladies’ parties with lots of very generous, caring, strong-arming women.

Men usually have dinner with friends on the beach or in a scenic place in the mountain. It’s dark, eating is done quickly and men come and go freely; there is little policing of who eats what. Although the cook might toss special pieces of meat or fish towards you, if you don’t want to eat them, simply leave them alone.

But women parties are usually indoors, with lots of light and everyone sits in their places for several hours so you are constantly under observation.

I love wedding parties because the air is full of beautiful perfumes and everyone is in gorgeous, comfortable, multi-color thobes (the loose, traditional Dhofari dress). And the food is delicious, but you cannot escape it. Either waitresses or relatives of the groom will bring around trays of drinks and sweets and everyone, not just the hostess, but all the other guests, will encourage you to partake.

You have had four cups of super-leaded, espresso-strength, cardamom-spiced Omani qahwa (coffee)? The generous women would like you to have a fifth cup! “You didn’t drink anything! Do you not like the coffee? Do you want tea! BRING TEA, SHE WANTS TEA!”  they call.

You protest but, alas, give up. The tsunami of kindness is coming for you. Take up the tea cup and drink. And as soon as you set down the cup, here come someone with juice, soda, instant coffee, chai ahmar (“red tea,” black tea with only sugar added), chai haleeb (“milk tea,” black tea with milk and sugar), or karak (loose tea with spices and milk).

Then come the sweets accompanied by women benevolently asking you to take another spoonful of halwa, the traditional Omani dessert. And like a swan-dive into a bowl of whipped cream, you submit to your fate: a small plate of carrot sweet, a bowl of crème caramel, a slice of cake, a bowl of ice cream, fruit salad, luqaymat/ loqeemat (sweet fried dough with a sugar syrup), basbousa, and wrapped chocolates.

And now, just as you give up any thought of ever moving again, dinner is served. A generous woman hands you a plate heaped high with a selection of appetizers (hummus, fattoush, baba ghanoush, etc., with pita bread) and qabooli (a dish with spices, rice and meat). Then, of course, dessert is served.

There have been weekends in which I have inhabited both worlds. One night was spent wearing loose cotton trousers and a tunic top with a plain blue headscarf and sitting on a plastic mat on a beach out of sight from any man-made lights. Dinner was fresh-caught fish cooked over a fire. The men in my research group and I ate with our hands, drank Dew, looked at the stars, listened to the sea and talked until 1am. The next night I wore a decorated velvet thobe with full make-up, my meager supply of gold jewelry and a lot of duty-free perfume, in a room full of air-conditioning, bright lights, and delightful women who wanted to stuff me until I burst.

Omani people are very open-hearted and open-handed and doing research on foodways is a lot of fun, but it is not for the meek or the small of stomach.

Bibliographies on topics connected to Dhofar, Oman

(photo by S. B.)

Bibliography of the Modern South Arabian languages, compiled by Janet Watson and Miranda Morris, updated October 2021

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

Bibliographies I have compiled

Houseways

Pre-historical and Historical Houseways in the Dhofar Region: Selected References

Foodways

Updated bibliography from my research on Foodways in Southern Oman

Selected Bibliography: Animals, Birds and Fish in Southern Oman

What I’ve Been Reading: Food, Cooking, Cuisine, Culture, Anthropology, & History

General

Bibliography of Works Consulted for Research on Dhofar, Oman

Annotated Bibliography of Texts Pertaining to the Dhofar Region of Oman

Short bibliography of books about Dhofar in Arabic

Teaching Literature

Selected Bibliography: Primary and Secondary Texts for Literature Teachers on the Arabian Peninsula

I will be presenting “Ethical Eating in Southern Oman” at the annual convention of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, June 2021.

I am pleased to announce that I will be presenting “Ethical Eating in Southern Oman” at 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 9-15, 2021.

(photo from social media)

y - good morning 1

https://foodanthro.com/2020/12/01/just-food-because-it-is-never-just-food/

https://www.food-culture.org/2021-conference/

New book on Dhofar forthcoming from Dr. Andrew Spalton and Dr. Hadi al Hikmani: “Dhofar: From Monsoon Mountains to Sand Seas”

Andrew Spalton and Hadi Al Hikmani’s book, The Arabian Leopards of Oman (2014), is an important resource for anyone interested in the Dhofar region and I am so pleased to see that they have another book coming out soon: Dhofar: From Monsoon Mountains to Sand Seas, Celebrating the Natural Diversity of Oman’s Dhofar Region.

More information can be found at: https://www.gilgamesh-publishing.co.uk/dhofar-from-monsoon-forests-to-sand-seas.html

A few of Dr. Al Hikamni and Dr. Spalton’s other texts about Dhofar:

Al Hikmani, Hadi, Said Zabanoot, Talah Shahari, Nasser Zabanoot, Khalid Hikmani, and Andrew Spalton. 2015. “Status of the Arabian Gazelle, Gazella arabica (Mammalia: Bovidae), in Dhofar, Oman.” Zoology in the Middle East 61: 1-5. 10.1080/09397140.2015.1101905.

Al Hikmani, Hadi and Khaled al Hikmani. 2012. “Arabian Leopard in Lowland Region on the South face of Jebel Samhan, Oman.” Cat News 57: 4-5.

Ball, Lawrence, Douglas MacMillan, Joseph Tzanopoulos, Andrew Spalton, Hadi Al Hikmani and Mark Moritz. 2000. “Contemporary Pastoralism in the Dhofar Mountains of Oman.” Human Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-020-00153-5

Spalton, Andrew, Hadi Musalam al Hikmani, David Willis and Ali Salim Bait Said. 2006. “Critically Endangered Arabian Leopards (Panthera pardus nimrpersist) in the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve, Oman.” Oryx 40.3: 287-294.

 

 

Foodways – a few remarks about cows and goats

Cows

After camels, cows are the most important herd animal. Cow owners will argue that they are more useful than camels because they produce more milk and have more babies. They are also said to have sweeter temperaments, but that is an argument I am not getting into, nor will I discuss which animal is smarter.

Cows are usually kept in at night, especially calves, and let out to graze freely in the day like camels. Cows roaming free are a rarity on the Arabian Peninsula, so Gulf Arab tourists often stop to take photos of them as an exotic creature. During the khareef (monsoon season, June – August) they stay in the mountains but are usually kept in during the day, because of the numerous flies, and let out to graze at night. Owners will sometimes lit smoky fires to help get rid of flies.

The local type are small (shoulder-height), often with great curving horns, and are usually placid. In the mid- and late-1970s, new breeds were brought in to increase size and milk output [see Andrew Higgins (2011) and Janzen (1986)].

Like camels, cows stick together in groups and walk in line along the sides of roads but unlike camels, cows will often lie down or stand in the middle of roads as dark tarmac roads hold the warmth of the day.

Cows and camels don’t get along well and you seldom see them feeding near each other and very rarely intermixed in the same area. Most people have one or the other, a division which is partially based on tribes or family-clans within tribes. Some tribes are known for having a preference for one or the other; friends who have different animals will occasionally argue about the relative intelligence/ worth/ temperament of the two types of animals.

As with camels, cows are usually milked by men but a woman can do it if there are no men around. Cow’s milk is often turned into samn (clarified butter) which is kept in an urn-shaped metal container. This is seen as more valuable than milk and in the past was a primary exchange item in a system of barter with townsfolk.

The same customs for herding camels obtains for cows; either a man or an expat supervised by a local man will be responsible for a herd of around 20 to 50 cows which might be all owned by one person or several family members.

Goats

The third most important herd animal is the goat. Goats don’t have the prestige of cows or camels but are also named and looked after carefully. They are herded by Dhofari women or men, or an expat laborer. A herder usually stays with the goats all day. Both men and women milk goats.

Families in town will sometimes buy a goat and keep it in the yard of their house for a few hours or days, especially before the two Eids. I was reading in my garden one evening and felt something tugging and chewing on my shirt. I looked down to find two goats snacking on my L.L. Bean oxford. Turns out my neighbor had bought three goats to fatten up for the Eid. He let them out of his garden every day at 5 pm to let them forage and they would come over and snack on my flowers.

Goats with herder (from social media)

IMG_4640

Cows on the road!

cows on road