Anne Meneley, research on Yemen

(photo of Sarfait, close to the Dhofar border with Yemen, taken by M. A. Al Awaid)

I was so pleased that Anne Meneley came to the session on “Social Attitudes Toward Food and Eating” at the recent Just Food conference. It was her work on ‘food and morality’ that helped me start to think about the connections between food and ethical behavior in Dhofar. Although her research focus has moved beyond Yemen (see below) I would like to list four publications which have greatly helped me in understanding Southern Arabia.

Meneley, Anne. 2017. “The Zabidi House,” in Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill my Eye. Trevor Marchand, ed. London: Gingko Library. 195–203.

—. 2011. “Food and Morality in Yemen,” in Food: Ethnographic Encounters. Leo Coleman, ed. New York: Berg. 17-29.

—. 2007. “Fashions and Fundamentalisms in Fin-De-Siecle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks.” Cultural Anthropology 22.2: 214–243.

—. 1996.  Tournaments of Value: Sociability and Hierarchy in a Yemeni Town. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Re-released on the 10th and 20th anniversary of publication – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1436862.Tournaments_of_Value

Selected publications from her website:

https://www.trentu.ca/anthropology/faculty-research/anne-meneley

2020  Anthropology News, 29 June 2020 The Distance of a Hockey Stick, Pandemic Insights.

2020a Hope in the Ruins: Seeds, Plants, and Possibilities of Regeneration. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, online.

2020b The Olive and Imaginaries of the Mediterranean. History and Anthropology 31 (1):66-83.

2019 Walk This Way: Fitbit and Other Kinds of Walking in Palestine. Cultural Anthropology 34(1):130-154.

2018 Consumerism. Annual Review of Anthropology 47:117-32.

2017 The Zabidi House. Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill My Eye. Ed. Trevor H.J. Marchand, pp. 194-203. London: Gingko Library.

2016 Checking Your Waistline at the Checkpoint: Dieting as a Peace Initiative. Jerusalem Quarterly 68:90-103.

2014a The Accidental Pilgrims: Olive Pickers in Palestine. Religion and Society: Advances in Research 5: 186-199.

2014b Resistance is Fertile! The Re-invention of Food: Connection and Mediation, Cristina Grasseni and Heather Paxson, guest editors. Special Edition of Gastronomica Vol. 14(4):70-79.

2014c The Qualities of Palestinian Olive Oil in Fat: Culture and Materiality, Christopher E. Forth and Alison Leitch, eds. pp. 17-31. New York: Bloomsbury.

2014d Discourses of Distinction in Contemporary Palestinian Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Production. Food and Foodways 22 (1-2): 48-64.

2014e Comment on Andrew Bevan’s “Mediterranean Containerism.” Current Anthropology 55 (4):408-409.

2011 Blood, Sweat and Tears in a Bottle of Palestinian Olive Oil.  Food, Culture and Society 14 (2): 275-290.

2011 Food and Morality in Yemen.  In Food: Ethnographic Encounters.  Editor, Leo Coleman.  New York: Berg. Pp. 17-29.

2008 Time in a Bottle: The Uneasy Circulation of Palestinian Olive Oil.  Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). Fall 248:18-23.

2007 Fashion and Fundamentalisms in Fin de Siècle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks. Cultural Anthropology 22:214-243.

2003 Scared Sick or Silly?  Social Analysis 47(2):21-39.   Also reprinted in Illness and Irony.  M. Lambek and P. Antze, eds. 2004  New York: Berghahn.

1999 Goods and Goodness. Social Analysis 43(3):69-88.

1999 Introduction to “The Structuring of Subjectivities in Material Worlds.”  Social Analysis 43(3):1-5.

1998 Analogies and Resonances in the Process of Ethnographic Understanding.  Ethnos 63:202-226.

Today I will be presenting my talk “Ethical Eating in Southern Oman” for the Just Food conference, hosted by the Culinary Institute of America and New York University.

 

“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 9-15, 2021. 

 

My presentation combines research from the fields of anthropology and food studies to examine the connections between food and morality in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman. Much has been written about Arab hospitality in terms of generosity to guests, but this presentation focuses on two other aspects of food-related behaviors: the ethical way to eat and to dispose of food.

 “Ethical eating” refers to two common behaviors in Dhofar. One is the social pressure to eat in such a way that the left-over food is “clean,” meaning suitable to give to others because it is not touched by people’s hands. A second issue is that the remaining food must be given away, as quickly as possible, following the culturally-accepted sharing hierarchy of friends/ family, other humans, then animals.

 The information discussed has been gathered from formal interviews during 2019-2020 and countless social events with Dhofari informants and friends over the past 14 years.

This work is part of my Foodways in Southern Oman project.

Foodways in Southern Oman (Routledge) 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. Marielle 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.

 

https://www.routledge.com/Foodways-in-Southern-Oman/Risse/p/book/9780367859558

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/foodways-in-southern-oman-marielle-risse/1137456632?ean=97803678595587

 

Houseways – Types of Apartments Buildings (Family/ Public)

To start this discussion of apartments in Dhofar, I would like to informally divide apartment buildings into two types: “public” meaning available to be rented to any person (usually expat or non-Dhofari Omani) and “family,” meaning built to be given or rented to only people who the owner knows (usually family or tribe-members) or someone vouched for by a close friend or relative. Thus family-type apartments are almost always rented by Dhofari Omanis.

This difference is sometimes, but not always, by location, as some sections of land in Salalah are occupied by inter-related families within one tribe while others, especially newly-built areas, have a mix of inhabitants.

In general, “public” buildings have several floors and an on-site manager who has a small office and/ or lives in a small apartment near the front door and is responsible for up-keep, fixing problems and keeping an eye on the building.

A person who owns a “public” apartment building will advertise widely, for example hanging a ‘for rent’ sign, taking photos and putting them on social media and/ or registering the apartment with rental companies.

“Family apartment” buildings are usually smaller, either 2 or 3 floors, a subdivided house or apartments built into the back of a family house. When the apartments are ready, the owner will not advertise in any way, but fill the apartments by word of mouth among friends and relatives. There would never be an on-site manager for a family-only building as no one would want someone watching who comes and goes and when.

There are also significant differences in terms of how the rooms are placed and designed which I will discuss in a later essay.

“Family”

For the past 50 years or so, a “house” meant cement-block built living space for a father, mother, unmarried sons and daughters, married sons and their families, older relatives and temporary guests, for example a married daughter whose husband is out of town for work. Sometimes the house would be built to 2 or 3 floors, or one floor was built, then upper floors added when more space was needed.

From the 1990s until recently, sometimes the majlis (the male/ guest sitting room which has its own entrance and bathroom, separated from the rest of the house by an interior door) was rented out in khareef, the monsoon season from the end of June until the end of August. The owner would give the space to family living in other parts of Oman or rent it by letting friends and relatives know the space was available.

Sometimes there was the opposite use of space, in which a house was rented out but the majlis was kept for the owner. For example, if the owner worked in Salalah but lived in the mountains, the owner would be able to use the majlis as a place to nap/ relax and occasionally sleep in and rarely see/ interact with renters who lived in the house.

Another division I have seen (only once) was for the owner to put a new interior wall and a wall in the hosh (courtyard), then broke an exterior wall to make a door, thus lengthwise dividing a one-story house into two apartments: one with the majlis and salle (women’s sitting room) at the front of the house and the second with the kitchen and two bedrooms at the rear. The renters of the back half of the house had a narrow driveway to reach the kitchen door.

 A newer style is to buy land that is open on two sides, usually a main road to the front and an alley to one side. The house is designed with a front gate opening to the main road and a smaller gate on the side (which would normally lead to the kitchen) leading to a door which opens to a small landing with 1 or 2 small apartments. Thus the family lives in the main house, sharing a wall (but not entrance) with several small apartments which can be rented to help pay for the mortgage, given to relatives or, in time, given to the married sons so that the couple has some privacy, while still being close to the husband’s family.

Another style is to make a small apartment block with the same type of divided entrances. For example, a 2 story-building with 4 flats in which 2 flats (ground-floor and 1st floor) are accessed though one gate and the other 2 flats (ground-floor and 1st floor) are accessed through a second gate, with a cement-block wall dividing the hosh into two spaces. (example A, discussed below)

There are a few housing complexes, often only 4 to 10 houses surrounded by a wall with narrow, internal road(s), which are usually “public” and rented to expats, as well as Omanis who use the houses for informal get-togethers, not to live in. A few complexes are for one family, for example a wall surrounding 4 houses and a separate majlis for a man with four wives or a father with several sons. Infrequently there are larger complexes (with over 20 large houses) for one extended family.

Apartments and Sightlines

Another factor besides having a manager and number of units to differentiate “family” and “public” types of apartments is that for “family” apartments, it’s important to limit sightlines for outsiders. For example, in a small apartment building (A) as described above, not only are their two entrances, but each ground floor apartment is given control over the small hosh area, while each first-floor apartment is given control over half the flat, tiled roof.

Thus there are two factors to heighten privacy. First, the inhabitants of all four apartments have their own outside area to use for drying clothes, growing plants in pots, etc. The roof area is divided by a low wall, with the built-in drying racks built at opposite sides of the space.

Second, the building design means that the apartment’s front door is seen by very few people. If a person in the ground-floor apartment wants to leave and, while opening the front door, hears footsteps on the stairwell, they can quickly close the door, wait for the person (from the first-floor apartment) to leave, then go out. Thus the residents can limit or prevent being seen by anyone else.

Whereas a “public” style apartment building would have one hallway on each floor and only one main entrance, with perhaps a small back staircase for fire safety if it was several stories high. Every time a person exited their apartment, they would be on display, so to speak, for all the other neighbors to see and everyone would pass through the main entrance.

Two additional notes:

None of these houseways essays argue that these types of buildings/ ways of using the buildings in Dhofar are unique. I am trying to explain the current pragmatics of housing without making a claim that these methods are found only in southern Oman. For example, the methods of small-scale landlords using renters to find other renters (i.e. preferring to fill small buildings by word of mouth and personal recommendation, not using social media or public signs) reminds me of renting while I was getting my PhD in North Dakota. A friend (X) in my program found a beautiful apartment in a converted house that had two other apartments. Within a year both other apartments were also rented by English graduate students. X had parties, everyone liked the building and location, several colleagues asked about the two other apartments and the owners liked X, so as the two apartments came open, the owners asked X for recommendations. I eventually took over X’s apartment and when I left, another English graduate student took that apartment.

I would like to highlight that both men and women can own land and houses, although it is less common for a woman to live in a house she has bought entirely herself. For example, a woman might be given or buy a plot of land and have a house built which is then rented out while she lives in a house which her husband/ husband’s father owns. As I continue to look into houseways in Dhofar, I hope to find statistics on land and house ownership delineated by gender but among my informants I know of many types of ownership:

  • one man owning the land/ house where his wife, married sons and unmarried sons and daughters live
  • one man owning the land/ house where his wife and children, mother, married brothers and unmarried brothers and sisters live
  • brothers and sisters joining together to buy land and build a house for their mother to live in with them if the mother is widowed or divorced, with the deed either in the name of several siblings or one brother’s name (who acknowledges the ownership rights of his siblings although those rights are not legally represented)
  • one woman owning the land/ house which is rented out

There are a lot of possible permutations as house/land ownership and house/land occupancy are not necessarily the same. For example, it’s rare but an older woman might live alone in her father’s house when all the other family have moved away. The house might legally belong to a brother or a nephew, but the house is discussed as being “hers,” with the understanding that she has the right to live in it until she passes away. On the other hand, a man might live temporarily on land that is not his. For example, when herding camels, a man might set up a semi-permanent camp and stay for several weeks on land that he does not have a permit for.

Example of front door to family apartment building, having one door signals that the interior is divided into apartments as almost all  single-family houses have two front doors, one for the majlis and one for the main section of the house (photo taken by informant who wishes to remain anonymous and given to me for use on this webpage)

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/

Foodways and Living Expat

One of the issues I have run into doing research about food is trying to stay neutral when describing unfamiliar foodways. It’s easy to fall into finger-pointing about “bad food” such as Omanis discussing my oatmeal cookies (to them, they taste like sand) and my declining to try their dried, salted shark filet.

The men in my research group are disgusted at my eating “old” food (cold, leftover pizza) and it took me a long time to accept that a toasted white bread sandwich with processed cheese spread, crushed Chips Oman, a sliced boiled egg and hot sauce is a good snack.

They tease me because I can’t cook rice; I have yet to eat a decent muffin in Oman (and don’t get me started on the hollandaise sauce!) Even food metaphors fall apart cross-culturally: one store had a large sign: “if life doesn’t give you lemons, we deliver.” I think I have enough ‘lemons’ at the moment, I do not want any delivered!

Like at home, my friends know each other’s favorite restaurants, but since food appears and disappears in the grocery stores, we are all on the look-out for basics. You slowly learn what others crave and preform the basic kindness of standing in grocery aisles and calling/ sending messages: “they have blueberry yoghurt,” “molasses is here,” “vanilla powder is in” and “I see Dr. Pepper!”

Shopping is more stressful to me than at home – there’s a lot of hide and seek. Pasta sauce is in three different aisles, and often the salsa is mixed in. Salt has its own section not near the spices (and don’t even dream of finding tarragon or rosemary), sugar is with the coffee not the flour, muffin cups are on the other side of the store from the muffin mix, the few times cranberry sauce appears it is next to the golden syrup, croutons are next to dried soup mixes and crackers are in the cereal aisle.

Then, when you have found something – there is always the debate: is this going to be worth the money? The joy of seeing Ben and Jerry’s was canceled by the fact that the three times I have ventured to try it, the ice cream had freezer-burn. Many delicious-looking cakes and tortes have tasted liked wood shavings. I have bought many items because I was afraid the store would never have it again (green salsa), to encourage the store to keep it in stock (dried tortellini) or that I will never eat (Lindt bears as holiday decorations, cookies and 7-Up for workers).

Once covid hit, friends and I tag-teamed shopping so I learned to find all sorts of things I never knew existed: sprouted rice, coconut flour, beetroot powder and pea pasta.

There a lot of rabbit holes to fall down, especially in reading menus. There are misspellings: “frut” for “fruit, “pommel grenade” for “pomegranate,” “mashromme” for “mushroom,” and “pasilic” for “basil.” Some words are just transliterated so you can get quickly lost with “rocka,” “arais,” “pine” and “akkawi.”

Just as a person needs to learn that “Florentine” means “with spinach,” there are place adjectives in Middle Eastern cooking; for example, “hummus Beiruti” means “with garlic.” When I try to get a pizza the way I want it, I need to use all three ways to describe one thing: green peppers, capsicum, and fil-fil bard (“cold peppers”). And you can’t order a cheese pizza, you need to say “margarita,” but that word is often confused with “fajita” so you end up with a spicy chicken pizza instead of plain cheese. 

In addition to food, it took me awhile to get used to how to eat – I still spill a lot of rice when eating with my hands. And, after a few years, I am finally accustomed to the eat-then-talk-for-hours routine in Dhofar. When a non-Omani friend invited me for dinner (sitting outside!), we arrived at 7:30, were done eating by 9 and as I was expecting that we were going to settle in to talk, she asked for the bill. I was amazed – weren’t we going to “visit”? I had forgotten my previous understanding that dinner in a restaurant took 1 ½ to 2 hours, 3 or 4 hours is normal to me now.

(photo from social media)

IMG_4560

Foodways – Perceptions of “Old”/ “Fresh” Food

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

It is always interesting to have cross-cultural discussions of timing words such as “late” and “early.” If you say that you ate dinner “late,” do you mean 9pm or 2am? If you had breakfast “early,” did you eat at 5am or 8am?

In the same way, perceptions of when food is “fresh” varies widely between cultures. For example in Dhofar a meal of rice and meat, fish or chicken should be eaten right away. After 1 to 3 hours, it is seen as “old,” i.e. not edible/ not suitable to be given away to others and should be put out for animals.

However during Ramadan, the food cooked for iftar is usually left out for snacking for several hours. It is often covered with plastic wrap and placed on a side table but could also be simply left on the ‘table’ (thin plastic drop-cloth) on the ground for a few hours. For example, set out before the sunset call to prayer then people would eat, pray, perhaps eat again, relatives/ friends might stop by to eat, and the food is finally cleaned up/ thrown out/ given away at 10 or 11pm.

How is one meal “old” and another not “old” after several hours? This difference is partially because of method of serving and food choices. A rice and protein for lunch is usually served on a platter with a few sides dishes/ condiments, but iftars should have a much wider variety of food but with fewer portions, thus there is not usually one platter, but many plates (holding, for example, samosas) and small, glass open-proof dishes which are easy to cover.

Rice with protein on a platter is eaten with hands, but iftar choices are usually spooned out of a container or finger food so that when a person takes something, nothing else on the plate is touched. Examples of typical food served at an iftar – spooned out of baking dish: mashed potatoes spread on top of tuna with tomatoes and spices, baked macaroni with white sauce, shredded chicken with tomato and spices, baked compilation of vegetables (pieces of potatoes, onion, carrots, green peppers);  by hand: samosas, baked potatoes wedges, pieces of watermelon and melon.

The same idea obtains for water. On a picnic, water and drinks are usually give out of a coolbox (cooler) or a plastic bag, signaling that they were just bought and hence “fresh.” Since my friends know I always carry water in my car, if I offer anyone a bottle of water that they have not seen me take out of a bag from a store, they will ask, “How long was it in your car?” If I say, “a few days,” they will decline as they don’t want “old” water.

A related cultural construct is what happens when people finish eating? When I have dinner with Italian friends, we talk while eating and then sit at the dinner table for at least an hour after we are done. Dhofaris usually refrain from long conversations while eating and so soon as everyone is finished, the food is taken back to the kitchen or, on a picnic, covered and set aside. One doesn’t talk over the remains of a meal.

meat rice and solona

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

 

I am pleased to announce that my book, Foodways in Southern Oman, is now available for pre-order.

Foodways in Southern Oman. Routledge, ISBN: 978-0-367-85955-8

Foodways in Southern Oman 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. Marielle 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. It will be of interest to scholars from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, food studies, Middle Eastern studies and Islamic studies.

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/foodways-in-southern-oman-marielle-risse/1137456632?ean=97803678595587

‘Foodways in Southern Oman’ at the AAA annual conference

I recently spoke about my ‘Foodways in Southern Oman’ project at the session: “Uncovering Truths, Building Responsibility in a Pandemic: Insights from Emerging Monographs at the Nexus of Culture, Food, and Agriculture” at the American Anthropological Association on-line conference. November 9, 2020.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344707985_Foodways_in_Southern_Oman_session_Uncovering_Truths_Building_Responsibility_in_a_Pandemic_Insights_from_Emerging_Monographs_at_the_Nexus_of_Culture_Food_and_Agriculture

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

I am pleased to announce that I will be presenting about my ‘Foodways in Southern Oman’ project at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting

I will be presenting about my ‘Foodways in Southern Oman’ project at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in November in the session: “Uncovering Truths, Building Responsibility in A Pandemic: Insights from Emerging Monographs at the Nexus of Culture, Food, and Agriculture.”

Dreaming of Dhofari Picnics

I am very happy that my Dhofari friends are being careful about corona and not having social events and at the same time… I miss picnics! It’s almost time to go back to work but, even with all the lovely khareef drizzle, it doesn’t feel like there was a vacation as there were no picnics this summer.

“Picnic,” like all food terms, has different meanings as you move between cultures. Visiting family and friends at home, picnics mean making or buying food and then eating it on blankets in a scenic place. I miss deviled eggs, potato salad, coleslaw, and most of all: pie! Sometimes we grill hamburgers or hotdogs, but picnics usually do not mean cooking, especially a picnic with my mom. Her idea of a picnic is getting sandwiches or little containers of chicken salad, tangerine sodas and one bag of chips for me (because of course she doesn’t want any), then driving to a little cove near her house, sitting on a bench and watching the ocean. Pretty perfect except for her relentless chip-stealing.  

Picnics here usually involve cooking and a lot of communal work. One person will bring meat and vegetables, others will help cut everything, someone will cook and we will all eat off one plate. Really wonderful in normal times, but dangers abounding in the time of corona as most items are passed hand to hand, such as knives, plates, Tabasco, bottles of water, Kleenex, limes, etc.

I sometimes wish dinner was severed at a less than thermonuclear level of spiciness, but other than that, picnics in Dhofar are delightful and I am looking forward to the winter in which, I hope, corona goes away and I am back on a beach with good food and good friends.