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.