‘Little c’ Culture: Flooded Roads and Cheese Triangles

I am interested in ‘little c’ culture – everyday life examples of the values and principles of a culture, not the grand statements. For example, I love this ‘good morning’ greeting. It looks odd at first: “Good morning! the road is flooded and you can’t drive!” In some cultures it might be seen as sarcastic, but here it is heartfelt. Water is a blessing and it’s wonderful to have the wadis full. On the other hand, flooding can be dangerous and both the central government and civic entities work to limit damage by installing flood markers along roads; giving frequent forecasts and warnings; sending military personal to make sure no one attempts to go into flooded areas; and maintaining and training rescue teams, including helicopters.

Two keys to the image (which is don’t think is from Dhofar) are the trees and the clouds. The trees give the reason that the flood is good – periodic inundation means healthy plants and abundant crops. In Western cultures, clouds are a negative symbol, meaning something unclear, blighted, disappointing, but on the Arabian Peninsula clouds are positive. These clouds (which might be a little photoshopped) bring joy, not just for the rain but a respite from the sun. It’s telling that Arab cultures celebrate the moon (the nicest compliment for a woman is that she looks like the moon) while Western songs and poems celebrate the sun (“You are My Sunshine,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” by Emily Dickinson, “The Sun Rising” by John Donne and “Solar” by Philip Larkin:

Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.

The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Continuously exploding.
Heat is the echo of your
Gold.

Coined there among
Lonely horizontals
You exist openly.
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.

Another examples of  “little c” culture is the cheese sambosas that are a common Iftar treat in Dhofar. My first year here, I attended an all expat women’s Iftar and someone brought cheese sambosas. I was in heaven! Fried cheese pastries, what more could I want? I asked where they came from and was told a bakery. A few days later, I went to a bakery to buy some but none were available. I checked several more places and no luck.

I asked a Dhofari and was told that they usually made at home. Only a few places sold them and then only during Ramadan, which by now had ended. So I waited until the next Ramadan and went searching again, no luck. WHERE ARE THEY HIDING? I asked Dhofari friends and finally learned that they are usually only sold in the 2 hours before Iftar, and only in bakeries with special outdoor stands. I had been walking into bakeries during the morning when I should gone looking at 5pm for bakeries with sloping glass-front display cases set up outside the store.The clues had been there – but I hadn’t read them correctly. Now I am an expert at buying cheese sambosas, but I will never ever tell a Dhofari how I eat them (cold for breakfast with English-style chutney).

My article “An Ethnographic Discussion of Fairy Tales and Folktales from Southern Oman” will be published in Fabula

I am pleased to announce that my article “An Ethnographic Discussion of Fairy Tales and Folktales from Southern Oman” will be published in Fabula [https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/fabl]

This article discusses a collection of fairy and folktales from southern Oman to explain how some of the physical and cultural markers described in the texts which are still extant today. The tales, most of which were recorded in the 1970s, were originally spoken in Gibali (also known as Jibbali or Shahri, a non-written, Modern South Arabian language) and are published in Rubin’s The Jibbali Language of Oman: Grammar and Texts (2014). This paper does not place these texts within established codices; rather, the exegesis turns inward, examining how these stories, recorded at the beginning of modernization in the Dhofar region, reflect many traditional elements of Gibali cultures. Further, the article compares the texts to other Dhofari/ Omani fairy and folktales from Al Thahab’s Stories of My Grandmother: Folk Tales from Dhofar (2012), Al Taie and Pickersgill’s Omani Folk Tales (2008), and Todino-Gonguet’s Halimah and the Snake and other Omani Folk Tales (2008) to highlight how the Johnstone/ Al Mahri/ Rubin texts show Dhofari beliefs about oath-taking and the importance of teaching morality in written, but not oral, texts.

 

 

Foodways Images – Humor, Disseminating Information, and the Instagram Food/ Money Connection

Since Ramadan is the time for religious devotion, reflection and family, I have not been able to meet with my research groups so I have spent a lot of time over the last 4 weeks looking for images connected to food. These posts are a kind of rough draft of research as the first step is to gather data, then comes the comparisons and analysis. I have had a lot of fun, some of the images (like the sheep cake) are amusing, But I am also gathering insights into how social media is connected to foodways in Oman. One thread that has become clear is that varies entities use images to help spread useful information (halal Oreos, raising food prices, etc.) A second thread is that people use social media to monetize food (catering ads and fish prices, etc.).  This will be the last ‘images’ post for awhile and I hope you enjoyed the brief excursion from words to pictures.

Getting creative with cakes:

funny cake

Joke – “the proper treatment for hands after making sambosas,” i.e. buy gold for the women who worked hard to make good Iftars

sambosa-gold.jpg

Notices about food price increases

Warnings about food

Advertisements for home-based catering companies

Food images from home-based catering companies

Announcing fish prices:

 

Research questions – this image caught my eye because, during more than ten years in Oman, I have never seen fish presented like this. When I looked closely, it was was ad for a Kuwaiti restaurant so I wonder if this is, in fact, a difference of presentation or if I have simply not had the chance to see Omanis serve fish in this manner.

kuweit

Food Perceptions – Honey

honey - wooden bowl!

The role of a food product often changes between cultures and sometimes even within a culture. A friend from India once complained to me about how many American desserts and breakfast products and were flavored with cinnamon, explaining that cinnamon is, “not for sweets!”

In Dhofar, local honey is mainly a medicinal product, taken straight by the spoonful for coughs, upper respiratory and stomach ailments. Honey from hives in the mountains is usually bottled into glass bottles (often Vimto) and given to family, friends and neighbors; sometimes a few bottles are sold. This honey is taken in small amounts daily or when a person is sick.

There are also stores and booths at local festivals staffed by Yemenis and selling Yemeni honey. Rodionov has an excellent article discussing the cultural practices with respect to honey in Hadramawt (see below). The Yemeni dish, bint al Sahn, is not served as dessert normally in Dhofar, but it can be found in Yemeni restaurants.

On the other hand, commercially produced honey is bought at a grocery store and drizzled liberally as a sweetener on bread at breakfast. It is not expensive, for example if non-local honey is brought on a camping trip, whatever is not used is often poured out and the container thrown away.

Thus honey inhabits two separate spheres with a huge difference in the cultural importance  and function. Honey from Yemen or Dhofar is valuable, not just in price but in worth. A bottle of local honey is a treasured gift, consumed slowly and entirely over weeks or months. The tall glass bottles are kept out in a safe place, out of reach of children. Honey bought at the grocery store usually comes in plastic squeeze bottles and if it is spilled or wasted, it is not perceived as a great loss.

The Omani government supports bee-keeping both in terms of honey production and protecting/ increasing the bee population.

bees

 

Rodionov, Mikhail. “Honey, Coffee, and Tea in Cultural Practices of Ḥaḍramawt,” in Herbal Medicines in Yemen: Traditional Knowledge and Practice, and Their Value for Today’s World. Ingrid Hehmeyer and Hanne Schönig, eds. Brill: Boston, 2012, 143-152.

Images of Food during Ramadan – Iftar Humor and Iftar in Beautiful Places

Humor is a good way to get insight into cultures – what’s funny shows what’s important. Here are a few jokes circulating through Oman social media pertaining to food issues during Ramadan. I should be clear that there are no jokes about Ramadan itself, but about, for example, food for Iftar and who to have Iftar with. At the end are are few typical images of Iftar in a scenic place.

Joke about the differences in choices between Iftar on the first day of Ramadan and the last day.

ramadan joke

Joke about the difference between Iftar alone (in a strange place) and with your mom

ramadan - iftar

Stills from a video which makes fun of how prepared food is sold in front of shops for Iftar. Many bakeries and restaurants set up small tables with tents to sell samosas/ sambosas (fried triangles of filo dough filled with cheese, meat or vegetables; or a thicker, pyramid shaped dough filled with spiced mixed vegetables, meat or potatoes and fried) and sweets, but in this video a tailoring shop and a tire store have also set up tables to sell food.

Stills from a video making fun of issues of hospitality – people who insist on someone having Iftar/ a meal/ tea with them – this is one of several with the same theme. It opens with a man (A) inviting another man who refuses (B). The video them cuts to a movie scene in which a man who resembles B is trying to get away from a man who resembles A, the two fight and A eventually wins. The last scene is A and B eating in A’s house.  (Note the headscarves show that these are not Omanis, but there are Omani videos with the same theme of forced hospitality)

Iftar in a scenic place – the top left image is from Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat

 

Ramadan and Foodways – Images of food in connection to greetings and good behavior, Vimto and selling food

Marieke Brandt (2017) and John Postill (2016) have written about using social media to do anthropological research in places that are difficult to reach; it is also valuable when you are living in the same area. Scanning social media in Dhofar helps me to understand how food is conceptualized during the holy month of Ramadan. The analysis of the images comes next, but for now I am trying to discover the range of images and sorting through to see what kind of categories are found (and not found). In this post are some examples of food images in Ramadan greetings, different type of images with Vimto (a drink that has become associated with Ramadan), efforts by the government/ official channels to encourage good eating and generous behavior and an example of how prepared food is sold.

Food as a part of typical Ramadan greetings

 

The importance of Vimto!

 

Vimto at McDonald’s and Baskin-Robbins

 

Vimto as decoration

 

Fun with Vimto

vimto - moon

Efforts by government and private entities to improve eating habits during Ramadan

ramadan - nuts

This slideshow is stills from an ad which makes fun of people who have too much of something as a way to caution people against making too much (and then wasting) food at Iftar: a man who has several watches, a woman who has several TVs, a man wearing several hats, then the message.

 

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Stills from a short video reminding people to not embarrass (judge) others during Ramadan. The video starts with 2 women preparing iftar, one is seen by a man as she eats a samosa. Then you see the family sitting at the table and enjoying iftar. The man pretends to ask the girl if she is enjoying the food, then humiliates for breaking her fast. As she looks sad, his wife pulls his dishdash and explains that she has a lawful reason not to fast.

 

There are many photos to children helping to prepare Iftar/ handing out food

iftar help

Selling prepared food for Iftar:

 

The photos of the woman selling food are taken from an ad on social media which shows close-ups of several types of food and an description of the exact location of her tent.

 

Iftar in Dhofar – Typical Food Choices

My short essays on cooking/ food in Dhofar are not meant to be exhaustive or prescriptive. From purchasing food, cooking, eating and doing formal interviews with Dhofari informants for over ten years, as well as academic inquiries, I am attempting to build up a general picture of Dhofari foodways, with the understanding that there are elements I am missing and there is a wide variety of practices between house-holds. When I write “Dhofari” I am referring to Omanis who live in Dhofar, although there are many people from different countries who live in Dhofar with their own food traditions. For more details, see: Foodways and Society in Dhofar, Oman

[image from Sono Moza, for full image see end of post – Vimto has become a steadfast of Iftar, some people hate it but it’s ubiquitous in Ramadan. It is usually served plain (mixed with water), but it can also be jazzed up, for example, as a ‘Vimto Mojito’ which has Vimto mixed with slices of lemon, sprigs of mint, ice and 7-Up or Sprite.]

Drinks

  • Coffee (qahwa/ Arabic or Nescafe/ instant)
  • Juice, fresh or bottled
  • Laban (also spelled Leben; in English, buttermilk) Many people break their fast with laban and dates; they are usually the two items given out for free by restaurants and coffee shops at the Maghrib prayer, صلاة المغرب , during Ramadan
  • Tea (“red” [chai ahmar] black tea with only sugar added, “milk” [chai haleeb] black tea with canned milk and sugar, or karak is loose tea with spices and canned milk)
  • Vimto – the ‘signature’ drink of Ramadan
  • Water

Fruit

  • Dates
  • Bananas, Grapes, Oranges, Watermelon
  • Fruit Salad

Snacks

  • Sambosa سمبوس  (spicy vegetable, cheese or meat with vegetables)
  • Sandwiches
  • Shorba شوربة: ( Ramadan soup made with beef, vegetables and oats, sometimes with lemon)
  • Thareed ثريد : (light bread soaked in a beef or chicken sauce with spices)

Sweets

  • Cake
  • Cheesecake
  • Creme Caramel
  • Custard مهلبية
  • Dumplings (stuffed with cheese, soaked in lemon and sugar syrup with cinnamon)
  • Kanafeh/ Kunafa
  • Luqaymat/ Loqeemat/ Loukoumades لقيمات/ لقمة القاضي (sweet dumplings dipped in sugar syrup)
  • Pancake خبز حوح
  • “Traditional Sweet” (pita bread soaked in milk and sugar and cardamom)

Dinner – usually between 10 p.m and 1 a.m

  • Macaroni with tomatoes, meat, chicken or fish, with spices
  • Rice and meat/chicken
  • Drinks and sweets

Suhoor – before sunrise

  • Rice with meat or chicken with samn (claried butter)
  • Soup
  • Thareed ثريد : (light bread soaked in a beef or chicken sauce with spices)
  • Drinks

Ramadan Traditions in Dhofar

  • Qatil alhanash – “kill the snake” [snake as metaphor for hunger, I have been told this is a tradition from Salalah, which has been adopted by some groups who do not live in the city] – a party before before Ramadan to ‘fatten up’ before fasting, a chance for groups to meet before the holy month during which the focus is on religion. Women might have four of five parties, for example with a group of friends from high school or college, with female cousins, with work colleagues, with neighbors, etc. Sometimes extended families plan together and have a very large party.
  • A lot of joking about how, at the first Iftars, there is a huge range of food choices but the choices decreases as Ramadan goes on so that in the last nights there are only dates, sambosas and Vimto.

[from social media]

 

vimto