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.)


Oman Football

It’s time for the FIFA Arab Cup [ ] 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.

I will be presenting ”Private Lives in Public Spaces: Perceptions of Space-Usage in Southern Oman” on Dec. 2 at the MESA annual meeting

‘Private Lives in Public Spaces: Perceptions of Space-Usage in Southern Oman’ – Dr. M. Risse

photos by: Onaiza Shaikh; plans by: Maria Cristina Hidalgo

Middle East Studies Association annual meeting


This presentation discusses issues related to the cultural perceptions of space and privacy on the Arabian Peninsula. The Merriam-Webster definition of privacy is: the quality or state of being apart from company or observation, and it’s the “apart from observation” aspect that I want to focus on because if someone is in public spaces, they aren’t alone (i.e. can’t be “apart from company”) but they can be unobserved.  Based on fifteen years of experience and research in southern Oman, I will focus on how men and women navigate the same or nearby public spaces at the same time. Using examples from shops, grocery stores, universities, restaurants, cafes, airports and hospitals I will discuss who moves where according to cultural rules about position and proximity. For example, an initiative at one bank to have a “women’s only” teller fizzled out (as did a scheme to give women customers pink bank cards), but customers and clerks continue to follow strict, unwritten rules about who stands where. Another example is universities. In some Gulf countries, there are separate campuses for men and women. Omani institutions of higher learning have only one campus yet there are both physical (having two sets of doors for classrooms) and mental (where students choose to sit) barriers to gender-mixing.

Two articles by D. T. Potts about farming implements and food in the historical record of Arabia

I just found this great article that discusses references to cultivated plants by D. T. Potts [ ]

Contributions to the agrarian history of Eastern Arabia I. Implements and cultivation techniques

1994, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 5: 158 – 168,

This paper focuses on early agricultural implements in eastern Arabia, examining four hoe blades and an ard share ranging in date from mid-2nd millennium B.C. through the Seleucid or Parthian period. These objects are considered in light of more recent ethnohistoric evidence pertaining to garden cultivation by hand and the plough in the region.

Contributions to the agrarian history of Eastern Arabia II. The cultivars

1994, Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 5: 236 – 275;

Following on from an earlier study of agricultural implements and cultivation
techniques in eastern Arabia, this paper presents the palaeobotanical and ethnohistoric
evidence available on early cultivars in the region from the late 4th millennium
B.C. through the premodern era. The introduction of new crops is discussed and,
where possible, the evidence is marshalled which pertains to the origins of those
new introductions and the dates of their arrival in the Gulf region.

New essay: ‘Zhe is for Bijan’ on the Arabic alphabet website

New essay: ‘Zhe is for Bijan’ on the Arabic alphabet website

by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi

excerpt of ‘Zhe is for Bijan’

Zhe is the third of the four Persian letters that have been added to deal with sounds you won’t hear in Arabic. The sound of Zhe is the S of “measure,” the J of French (jupe, jour, bijou, jus), or the common mispronunciation of the hard J in “Beijing.” It is for indigenous Persian words still in use after the arrival of the Arabic alphabet, a glimpse of an earlier language. Today it also allows for proper transcriptions of words borrowed from European languages. Zhânvieh (through French) for January, Zhâpon for Japan. Dehkhoda’s massive Loghat-nâmeh, the OED of Persian, includes Zhen for Genoa, Zhâmâ’îk for Jamaica, Zhakobît for Jacobite. The last example may be a key to his political affinities.

The letter J is used for Zhe words in contemporary Turkish, though there aren’t many of them. There is less than a page of J words in Redhouse’s 1,292-page dictionary, most of them loans from French. Nine of them are on loan from Persian.

Household Words

Before Zhe was devised, you would just use Ze (Arabic Za’) and assume the reader would recognize the word from context, spoken but not visible on the page. And then sometimes pronunciation of Zh words would adjust to what the Arabic alphabet was able to express. Zhang, “rust,” became zang. Zhang still exists, with the same meaning, but you won’t see it often. If you look up zhang in a Persian/Persian dictionary the definition is likely to be zang.

Sometimes a Zhe word will evoke the substantial, resonant or sublime, as with the word zharf, “deep, profound.”  It’s a respected Zhe word, the only Zhe entry in A.K.S. Lambton’s shorter Persian Vocabulary. And sometimes a Zhe word will send us back to the heroic world of pre-Islamic chivalry, as in Ferdowsi, like zhubin, a spear.’ More frequently, though, the Zhe words which persisted over the evolution of New Persian, the ones that slipped through the 28-letter Arabic mesh, are the words closest to home, the intimate ones: household words, words for the ordinary, humble and non-heroic. Often you have to dig through those dictionaries which include the obscure and forgotten to find them. Zhakfar means patient, meek, mild. Zhakâreh is quarrelsome, squabbling. Zhan means deformed. (A cultured Iranian friend has never heard of the last three. It’s a good thing we have dictionaries.) Zhulideh, definitely still in use, is to be disheveled, tousled, scattered in the wind. Zhendeh, also a linguistic survivor, means old, worn out, frayed, or a patched garment. Imperfect things can be a source of praise too. Hair which is zhulideh is a source of fascination. Patches or patched clothes can be the clothes of someone who has taken a vow of poverty, a mystic. Zhendeh is a positive image, as you can see in a couplet of Hafez:

Chandân bemân ke kharqeh-ye azraq konad qabûl
bakht-e javân-at az falak-e pir-e zhendeh-push

[Stay as you are (or perhaps “be patient . . .”) until the sky’s patched blue (azraq) coat grants to you, though you are young, a spiritual elder’s patched robe (zhendeh).]