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 – a few remarks about camels

 (photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

Camels are the most prestigious animal as they are seen as a link to the past, are the most expensive animal and are needed for marriages and funeral feasts. There is a small but growing interest in camel races and camel beauty contests, but those are events organized by the government (partially for tourism purposes) and while people participate and enjoy they aren’t seen as part of traditional Dhofari culture. No one travels by camels now except for men such as Ahmed Harib al Mahrouqi, who does camel treks to promote Omani culture. A few Gibali men I know remember riding them as children and have stories from the older generation (fathers/ uncles) about traveling by camel.

All camels, cows and goats in Dhofar are owned by someone. A person can have any number of each animal but will usually have only one kind. 20 to 50 camels with one owner is the median; some men have more than one hundred. A person with one or only a few will add them to a family member’s herd; relatives working together will rotating the daily responsibility of watching them, have one person do to the work or jointly hire a shepherd. Sometimes a child is given an animal when they are born so that animal is herded with the family’s animals and all its offspring belong to the child. Usually herds are all owned by people within one family. It is less common to have friends herd their animals together.

The herding is done by the animals’ owners or hired expat workers; the owners know the names and characteristics of all their camels, including parents, age and temperament. Some older men keep camels almost as pets, seldom selling them as meat and spending a lot of money on feed to the occasional consternation of their children. Now and in the past, dried sardines are used as feed during the dry months.

Some herds are kept near permanent homes. Other herds are moved among several different places depending on the season and rainfall. These places might be improved with a metal-framed tent which could be locked to hold supplies or a windbreak that a man or someone in his family made.

Camels are sometimes simply let loose during the day. As camels stick together and will not travel too far, some herds will come home by themselves when an owner or herder hits the metal feeding troughs and hollers. Hearing these familiar sounds, the camels will slowly perk up and start to move homewards, naturally clumping together and often organizing themselves in lines nose to tail. Once they get close to the corral/ feeding spot they will sometimes start to trot or race each other, shouldering each other; humans need to get out of the way. Mother camels have their teats tied up in a bag so babies can’t nurse; this (and the idea of extra food, water and safety) keeps most camels returning home every night.

Normal daily herding is done with one or two pick-ups or two or three men on motorbikes for longer distances; when the herders need to get camels moved across roads, the pick-ups will be parked on the shoulder with blinkers on to let traffic know camels are close to crossing. In the mountains, men will drive on dirt tracks to a spot on the far side of the camels and then walk, waving a stick and whooping occasionally, them back to the corral or to a long, stone or wood wind-break that the camels will bed down next to.

For the khareef (June-September monsoon season) camels are kept in camps on the flat plain (jarbaeb in Gibali/ Jibbali/ Shahri) at the foot of the mountains. To keep the camels from wandering into populated areas, between Salalah and the jarbaeb, the Dhofari municipality has built a road which has a shoulder-high divide and is steeply graded so camels can’t cross it; camels, either on their own or with the prompting of herders, use the roundabout to get to the other side of this divide.

Men milk the lactating camels after the animals have been fed and watered in the evening; as camels are so tall, men do this standing up, balancing the bowl on their raised knee. It’s somewhat precarious as it’s hard to keep one’s balance, even harder if the camel is moving about.

Young male camels are usually killed for meat as adult male camels are ornery and people usually only keep one or two males which are often kept in a coral. If a male camel is let out, it is usually hobbled.

Not all camels are herded home, so you need to be careful on roads in the mountains at night. A head-on collision is a forgone deadly conclusion. Camels have long legs so the body will hit the hood of the car and come straight through the windshield.

To prevent accidents, when you pass camels on or near a road, it is a driver’s duty to turn on the hazards to signal on-coming traffic. Older camels walking in line are normally safe and will not pay attention to traffic even if cars pass close to them at speed, but you never know when one might scare. Baby camels are the most dangerous, as they will take off in any direction at the slightest provocation, sometimes causing other camels to panic.

Throughout the region there are common vocalizations to tell camels to come or that there is water and food. Men raised with camels will stop and help herd camels which are in the middle of roads, but under no other circumstances should anyone interfere with another person’s camels. Only if dying of thirst should anyone milk a camel that isn’t theirs.

Children raised with camels have no fear, and as young as four or five will move about a herd easily, pushing camels out of their way. Girls might work with camels until they reach near puberty, then family/ social pressure will keep them from herding camels, but they might herd goats.

Foodways – other avenues of research

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

The good news is my book, Foodways in Southern Oman (Routledge), is now officially published. The bad news is, as every author knows, I keep finding topics I should have mentioned. Just today I happened upon: Of Dishes and Discourse: Classical Arabic Literary Representations of Food by Geert Jan van Gelder – what a great-sounding book! I will try to find a copy and read it.

I know there is a whole sub-genre in Arabic literature of personified ‘fights’ between different type of foods (munazara) for example “The Delectable War between Mutton and the Refreshments of the Market Place” featuring King Mutton and King Honey (or Clive Holes’ work “The Dispute of Coffee and Tea: A Debate Poem from the Gulf,” in Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Language and Literature, ed. J.R. Smart, 1996, 302-315). But I did not include a discussion of these as they seemed a little too far from my topic, as did poems about being a host/ guest such as Abu al Hakam Al Maghribi’s “A Domestic Disaster” which is too ribald to teach but is a good match with Ben Jonson’s “Inviting a Friend to Supper.” Perhaps at some point I can look more closely at this type of writing.

I have also realized that I was never able to find government documents about the number of animals (cows, camels, goats) in Dhofar – that was on my to-do list, but got lost in the shuffle of work and dealing with corona. I also wanted to go to a fish market and meat market and write a lot more about cuts of meat/ types of seafood in terms of prices, how they are prepared and sold but the markets didn’t re-open until after the books was sent to press.

Another topic I want to reflect about more is cultural issues relating to TIME and PLACE of eating, i.e. [pre-corona] my surprise that many of my students do not eat or drink anything before coming to class while they are surprised to see me eating lunch at my desk (“Why don’t you have lunch at home? How can you eat in your office?” they wonder.) Or the surprise of me drinking or eating while walking, something that is not done here. Another difference is my habit of making a cup of coffee last over an hour, while most Dhofaris will finish their drink quickly. A small cup of tea is usually gone in three sips, while I nurse mine until it is cold.

Lastly, I wanted to do interviews with Dhofaris who made/ sold food on Instagram, at festivals and small stores. I have heard of one Dhofari man who opened his own restaurant where he not only supervised, but cooked. However, between the public and private mourning for Sultan Qaboos and the on-set of corona, spring 2020 was not the time to ask strangers to help with my research. I hope 2021 affords more chances to write, research, think and discuss about foodways!

y - meat rice and fruit

Foodways and Literature – Animal Poems

As I was looking for food poems last week, I realized how many animal poems I have taught and have written out a partial list below.

One starting place is the Mu’allaqa, most of which have many vivid descriptions of desert animals, for example in Imru al-Qays “Halt, friends” and Labid’s “The campsites at Mina.” Another group of early poems which feature animals are by the sa’alik poets; no one who has read Shanfara’s Lamiyyat (“Sons of my mother”) can forget the wolf metaphors.

“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Adrienne Rich

“Bear,” Valerie Worth

“Butterflies,” Fawziyya Abu Khalid

“Cat, Valerie Harper

“The Crocodile,” Lewis Carroll

“The Darkling Thrush,” Thomas Hardy

“Darwin’s Finches,” Deborah Digges

“December Snow,” May Sarton

“The Dromedary,” Archibald Young Campbell

“The Eagle,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson

“The Face of the Horse,” Nikolai Alekseevich Zabolotsky

“The Gazelle Calf,” D. H. Lawrence

“The Goat Paths,” James Stephens

“The Horses of the Sea,” Christina Rossetti

“How To See Deer,” Philip Booth

“The Last Wolf,” Mary Tall Mountain

“Minnows,” Valerie Worth

“A Night with a Wolf,” Bayard Taylor

“Not Swans,” Susan Ludvigson

“The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn,” Andrew Marvell

“Pangur Ban,” unknown, Irish

“The Plaint of the Camel,” Charles Edward Carryl

“The Poet and the Moth,” Ahmad Qandeel

“The Raven,”  E.A.  Poe

“The Seal’s Lullaby,” Rudyard Kipling

“Sister Cat,” Frances Mayes

“Snake,” Emily Dickinson

“Snake,” Valerie Worth

“The Terrapin,” Wendell Berry

“To a Skylark,” Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Turtle Came to See Me,” Margarita Engle

“Upon a Snail,” John Bunyan

“The Vixan,” John Clare

“The War God’s Horse,” unknown, from the Navajo

“The White Stallion,” Abu I-Salt Umayyah

and many poems by Mary Oliver including “Ravens,” “Swans of the River Ayr,” “Turtle” and “White Heron”

More of her poems can be found at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/mary-oliver

Short stories: “Pepsi” by Mohammad Al Murr, “A White Heron” and “A Dunnet Shepherdess” by Sarah Orne Jewett and all the Jungle Book stories by Rudyard Kipling

Foodways and Literature – Food Stories and Poems

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

I teach literature classes but my most recent book is on foodways, which might seem like two dissimilar topics but food is omnipresent in poems, stories and dramas so my students and I often have conversations that include foodways, literature and cultural differences. Explaining a reference to Persephone in a poem led to my telling the story of Demeter/ Ceres, which led to a conversation about cereals.

Sometimes I focus simply to the vocabulary aspect: explicating “civil as an orange/ and something of that jealous complexion” in Much Ado about Nothing or “cucumber sandwiches”  and “sugar tongs” in The Importance of Being Earnest. But occasionally food takes center stage as with the fishing with a sword scene in Tawfiq Al Hakim’s Princess Sunshine when the question of ‘who makes dinner’ helps carry the theme of the play. Another food-centered example is the dual breakfast scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. On our first run-through, it’s simply a confusing jumble of random statements. But when we have read it a few times and then ‘perform’ it with one student per character, the beauty (and sadness) of that section shine through. Students often remark, “it’s like that at my home.”

Some stories show cultural similarities, such as Laura bringing food to the widow in Mansfield’s “Garden Party,” but they can also show differences. Unlike in Oman, only Laura visits the house (not with her mother and older sister) and she only stays a brief time.

Another Mansfield story “The Doll’s House” uses food to give insights into the social standing of the schoolgirls – having a sandwich with meat shows wealth while a jam sandwich wrapped in newspaper points to poverty. Similarly, the social niceties observed in the dining room at the beginning of Room with a View preview the theme of the novel. Who sits at which table reveals the hierarchies which Lucy will eventually break.

Food issues can even be the comic element of a story as with Elizabeth Gaskell’s magnificent Cranford with its details of manage your cook, take care of your cow and why you should eat your orange in your room (so you can roll it under your bed to check if anyone is hiding there and then slurp the orange sections in private).

Food essays are also wonderful for sparking good student writing. “Jam” and “A Thing Shared” from The Gastronomical Me  by M. F. K. Fisher, “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid and “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” by Alice Walker are great example texts to help students see how to write about their own food experiences.

As for poems about food, we have to start with

“Talk,” Gökhan Tok

You never hear it

but at breakfast the sweetest talk

is between the jam and the honey.

and Naomi Shihab Nye’s wonderful “Arabic Coffee,” “My Father and the Fig Tree,” “Sifter,” “The Traveling Onion” and “The Tray.” For more, please see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/naomi-shihab-nye and https://poets.org/poet/naomi-shihab-nye

Other poems include:

  • “After Apple-Picking,” Robert Frost
  • “The Angler,” Thomas Buchanan Read
  • “The Bean-Stalk,” Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • “Blackberry-Picking,” Seamus Heaney
  • “Coolness of the Melons,” Matsuo Basho
  • “Cynddylan on a Tractor,” R.S. Thomas
  • “The [Date] Palm Tree,” Adnan Mohsin
  • “The Fisherman,” Goethe
  • “From Blossoms,” Li-Young Lee
  • “I Return to the Place I was Born,” T’ao Yuan Ming
  • “Love Poem With Toast,” Miller Williams
  • “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost
  • “The Solitary Reaper,” William Wordsworth
  • “Sorry I Spilled It,” Shel Silverstein
  • “What’s That Smell in the Kitchen?” Marge Piercy

A few food-oriented short stories include: “A Dash of Light” by Ibrahim Aslan, “I Saw the Date Palms” by Radwa Ashour, “A Cup of Tea” by  Katherine Mansfield and “Lamb to the Slaughter” by Roald Dahl, as well as several by Mohammed al Murr including “A Late Dinner,” “The Night’s Catch,” “Look After Yourself” and my favorite: “Dinner by Candlelight.”

y - morning coffee

A Sense of Place – Everyday Images of Animals and Landscapes in Dhofar

RAIN in Dhofar today! A tropical depression is blessing us with a lot of rain. The camels, cows, goats, and donkeys are going to be really happy – it will be green in Dhofar long before Khareef arrives.

This is the second post of ‘everyday’ images – taken by me, friends or from social media (with the photographer’s name in the image). I think sometimes people focus on the different, the exotic, the special but I want to highlight the normal sights in Dhofar and the great variety of wildlife and landscapes.

Animals

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Landscapes – Coast

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Landscapes – Mountain and Desert

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The Non-metaphorical Camel

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

Driving to work one day, I once saw a big chicken by the road ahead of me. As I came closer, I thought: that is one big chicken. I got closer and thought: that is the biggest chicken I have ever seen. When I passed it I realized it was a peacock, just hanging out by the side of the road. And the funny thing is I know that peacock, he lives in a small palm grove next to the one of the buildings where I work. When I go to a meeting in a building near where it lives, I can hear that peacock calling.

It’s like that when you live in a small town. I was reading outside in my garden one evening and felt something tugging and chewing on my shirt. Looked down to find two goats snacking on my L.L. Bean oxford shirt. Turns out my neighbor had bought three goats to fatten up for Eid, the Muslim holiday. He let them out of his garden every day at 5 pm to let them forage. I would come outside to find them munching my flowers. A few times when I was bringing groceries in from the car, I would find them in my car, nosing through the plastic bags. This is cute and amusing until you have to clean hoof prints off the back seat.

Always on the lookout for texts to give to my students, I often read anthologies of Arabic poetry. An introduction to one anthology stated that there would be “no poems on camels” in a ‘we are all beyond that cliché’ tone, but camels aren’t a trope for me – they are here around me.

I came home once to find about 20 camels tearing at the branches of one of the trees which hung over my garden wall. I got out of my car and walked across the street to watch them. After a few minutes, a pick-up came screeching around the corner and a spry older gentleman hopped out and walked over to the herd yelling.

One of the neighborhood kids was standing with me and I asked him to tell the man to leave the camels alone. The tree was big enough and had enough branches inside the wall that the camels could not kill it. They were doing me a favor by trimming it back. The boy called over to the man who shrugged, got back in his pick-up and waited for them to finish their lunch. Then he moved the herd down the street.

All camels in Oman are owned by someone – but many are simply let loose during the day. As camels stick together and will not travel too far, if someone is not sent to stay with them all day, you can send someone out about 4pm to find them or they will come home by themselves, walking along the road nose to tail. Mothers have their teats tied up in a bag so babies can’t nurse; the need to nurse, eat fodder, drink water, and bed down safely (plus affection) keep camels returning home every night.

As the roads outside of town are often set level with the sand, it is perilously easy to hit one at night. To prevent accidents, it is your duty to signal when you pass camels near the road; the protocol is to turn on hazard lights to warn drivers behind you and those coming from the opposite direction. I now call hazards ‘camel-lights’ because the only time you use them is to signal for camels. Older camels walking in line are normally safe; they will not pay attention to traffic even if cars pass close to them at great speeds, but you never know when one might scare. Young camels are dangerous because they startle easily and might either run into traffic, or spook other camels to run. A young camel bleating for its mother can cause the mother to move hurriedly.

In the Khareef (summer monsoon) season, the camels which live in the mountain must be moved. Camel feet are smooth; they have no traction on slippery wet grass and will easily fall and break their legs so they need to be herded down roads to the flat area at the foot of the mountains. Their owners gather together and decide on a day and time to bring them to the plains in groups. It’s sort of fun if you pass one of the large herds: first there is pickup with hazard lights blinkering to warn oncoming traffic, then dozens of camels interspersed with young men with thin sticks calling to encourage the dozens of camels along. The camels walk steadily, calling out as they go along but in the large groups mothers lose babies so they will bellow, stop, turn around, and go back the way they came. At the end of the herd is another pickup or two.

[written in 2009]

What We Talk About When We Talk About Drinks and Sweets in Dhofar

This is the first of a few posts about what kinds of food are eaten/ served to guests on different occasions in Dhofar. These short essays 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 (n.b., 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

All of my informants agree that guests should immediately be offered drinks and sweets, but what are “drinks and sweets”? Even saying “coffee” or “tea” is not that specific because there are several kinds.

There are three main kinds of coffee. The most important and most traditional is qahwa (in Arabic) or “Omani coffee” which is made from roasted coffee beans that are ground, then boiled (plain or with spices), then other spices and flavors (cardamom, ginger, rose water, etc.) are added. In the northern parts of Oman, it is required to serve this with dates; this is also offered in Dhofar, but tea with cakes or qahwa with halwa (see below) can also be served.

“Coffee” can also mean instant coffee, sometimes called Nescafe although there are other brands of instant coffee for sale, which is usually served with canned milk and sugar. “Coffee” can also mean a drink from one of the several kinds of recently introduced coffee-capsule machines. For example, a guest might be offered a caramel macchiato, cappuccino, latte or mochaccino.

Tea is usually “red” tea [chai ahmar] which is black tea with only sugar added, “milk” tea [chai haleeb] which is black tea with canned milk and sugar, or karak which is loose tea with spices and canned milk. Green tea is sometimes offered; iced tea (Lipton cans) is rarely offered.

A selection of cold drinks are usually offered; this includes bottled water because tap water is usually not given to guests. Sodas include Coke and Pepsi products as well as various flavored “malt beverages” which usually have young men playing or watching sports in their advertisements and are packaged in green glass bottles with a shape similar to beer bottles. [see images at the end of this post]

Juices come in cardboard packages with added sugar and marketed to children (e.g. Suntop), clear plastic bottles and large jugs from a Dhofari (A’Safwah) or Saudi (Almarai) brand, or freshly blended and served in a pitcher, usually melon. The Omanis I know usually order fresh lemon with fresh mint in restaurants, but I have never seen that served in a home although I assume some families do. Mango juice is also a popular drink in restaurants but I haven’t seen in homes, probably because it is more labor-intensive to make. There is a vast array of powered fruit drinks available; the powered drink section of one grocery store is about five feet high and over ten feet long. These are loved by kids, but not usually given to guests.

Some changes in drinks over the past ten years include the introduction of soy milk, almond milk and commercially produced camel milk in the refrigerator section of stores. There is a limited, but growing selection of specialty drinks, such as root beer, Arizona Ice Tea, coconut milk and drinks from the Philippines.

Processed milk comes from three firms: A’Safwah (Dhofari), Al Razat (Dhofari) and Al Almarai (Saudi) (see images below). There have been a lot of changes over the last ten years, including offering plain milk in different sized containers and new types of milk such as low-fat and flavored with chocolate and strawberry. A’Safwah (Dhofari) and Al Almarai (Saudi) have a long running competition with milk-based products: if one introduces a new product, the other will have the same within a few months so there are now all sorts of choices such as low-fat and flavored yogurts and different kinds of cooking creams.

Before modernization, the more frequent drink was milk from goats, cows or camels – many families still drink it unprocessed. In the past, and sometimes now on picnics if someone is feeling nostalgic, rocks are cleaned and then put on coals to be heated. Once hot, they were dropped one by one into a bowl of camel’s milk. [see images at end of this post]. Camels and cows are milked by men; with camels, the man and camel are both standing. Men usually milk goats, but women will also do so.

Omani halwa (the Arabic word for sweet) is made with sugar, water, clarified butter, cornstarch and flavorings such as cardamom, saffron, sesame seeds, almonds and cashews. It is slow cooked in large batches and then poured into various-sized plastic trays and bowls. The color varies from a light blond to almost black to reddish depending on ingredients. The consistency is like a tough Jell-O. To eat, one scoops out a teaspoon- to tablespoon-sized piece with a spoon and eats it plain or plops the piece on of a small piece of a thin, plain cracker-like bread (khoubz raqaq/ raqeeq or kak) and eats both together. You usually take some mouthful by mouthful.

Snacks for guests include home-made and store-bought mini-cheesecakes, basbousa (usually flavored with coconut), baklava, small pieces of fried dough, mini-pizzas, etc. Fresh fruit is usually also put out, either whole or as a fruit salad with small bowls to take a serving, Whole fruits are usually grapes, oranges, and apples, as well as bananas which are grown in Dhofar. Although guava, mangos, papayas are also grown in Dhofar, they are not set out but found chopped into the fruit salads.

Images of drinks

Stills from a Ramadan greeting video in which a man is taking a heated stone from the fire (left) and placing it into a pan of fresh camel milk (right)

Processed milk

The “beer” in Root beer and Ginger Beer  are changed to “Bev”

IMG_2474

Various drinks packaged in ways that are similar to alcoholic beverages.