Reflections on Ethnographic Research: Changes within Cultures

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

Two writers about Dhofar were so firmly entrenched in the view that Dhofar should not be modern that their books had photos of empty streets; as if there were no Omanis in city settings. The only photos of Dhofaris had them positioned in rural landscapes.

I call this mindset “zoo mode,” and its adherents say things along the lines of:

Oh how horrible that the Dhofaris are losing their traditions! Every time I come here there are changes. Everything is to modern here now – they don’t have their culture anymore.

I have lost patience for this point of view that, in some manifestations, seems to want to turn Dhofar into a zoo-like entity where visitors can see people engaging in former lifeways. I try to be quiet (or change the subject) but sometimes I will remark:

But you yourself do not live in your grandmother’s house, with her furniture and decorations. You don’t eat what she ate in the way she ate it. You don’t wear her clothes or listen to the music she loved, so it might be unrealistic to expect other people to stay static.

Their reply is usually along the lines of: but they are losing themselves.

To me, this line of reasoning posits that the modern culture is inferior to and/or less appealing than that of previous iterations. And I wonder, how do non-Dhofaris find a vantage point from which to judge another culture?

I think Dhfoaris are transforming, adapting and making choices; all cultures change over time. What Dhofaris are “losing” is the desire to live in a way that visitors find interesting. That doesn’t mean they should return to the lifeways of 40 or more years ago. Dhofairs are not participants in a Colonial Williamsburg-type experiment in which they should work as historical reenactors to explain and demonstrate aspects of daily life in the past.

Yes, some lifeways are disappearing but so is diphtheria and washing clothes by pounding them on rocks. And the people who decide what parts of the culture should be carried forward are… the people in that culture.

As a literature professor, I take heart in rereading Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Deserted Village” written in the 1770s. In this poem the narrator laments the desertion of a village because of a variety of modern evils; this reminds me that in every century there are people who think all the good times, good manners, good objects and good traditions are gone forever. And yet humans continue to create new and positive ways to live.

Here is a simple example of cultural change from working with the research guys. Before Covid, picnic dinners usually meant someone cooking dinner over a fire. I enjoyed years of delicious stews and curries; fish was cooked over the flames or wrapped in foil in placed in the ashes. Picnics stopped during the time of lockdowns and curfews with people sticking close to family units. As the threat of disease retreated, the group started to meet again, but with changes.

The man who did most of the cooking has had changes in his responsibilities, so he no longer has the free time needed to cook dinners. We have adapted by the men bringing prepared food from home and me bringing food from a “safe” (well-known/ trusted) restaurant.

One night one of the men brought… individual pizzas. The first time in 17 years that I have seen a pizza at one of our meetings and the first time that we each had our own meal. I suppose I could have cut my hair and wailed at this terrible incursion of the modern but I said thank you and ate my pizza.

Yes, I would rather have fresh-caught fish cooked over the coals but I am aware of what a dish dinner entails: the time and effort to make a certain kind of fire, wait until there were the right kind of coals, preparing the fish, cooking it, preparing and cooking the rice, etc.

Actions have costs – a picnic dinner means someone cooking (a man standing over a beach fire or a woman standing over a stove at home) and all people make choices about which costs are worth the effort. Five years ago, pizza was not one of the choices for a group dinner. Now it is.

To me, this change is only a loss if I construe “fish cooked over a fire” as the only correct/ authentic type of beach dinner, a judgment I am unwilling to make.

Oman vs. Covid-19, 2021 graphics

The government has started a new campaign to highlight safety procedures and encourage getting a vaccine. I think it’s important to note that one of the people in the vaccine photos is NOT Omani. The government is giving access to free vaccinations for citizens and residents equally.

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Corona, Curfew and Dinner (and good graphics)

Oman now has a curfew – all stores/ restaurants closed and everyone inside from 7pm until 6am which is perfect timing because it is roughly sundown to sunrise. You don’t have look at your watch – just look for the sun. If you see the sun, it’s ok to be outside. If you don’t see the sun, stay in! 🙂

I am very interested in how the curfew might be changing planning for/ cooking dinner, which is usually eaten after 8pm, sometimes as late at midnight or 1am. With the curfew, one can’t order delivery or run to the store for anything. Some restaurants which previously closed mid-day, are now open straight until closing at 6pm (to do cleaning and give staff time to get home). This means no last-minute decisions or going for a schwarma-run at 2am!

When things quiet down, I would like to ask informants how the curfew changed eating habits. A few restaurants are advertising ‘buy at 5pm and reheat later’ – but reheating/ eating ‘old’ food is not often done here.

Restaurant delivery was common, so when the virus hit and restaurants were not allowed to have inside service, the loss of dine-in/ rise of delivery-only did not create a large change in eating patterns. Families could order delivery and then sit together at home, on a beach or in the flat open area to the north of Salalah. But to not have delivery or the chance to buy food after 7pm is a big change and I wonder how families are adjusting to it.

empty roads!

curfew - road

When the virus is beaten, I hope the graphic designers working with the Omani government get medals of appreciation! The government has, since day 1, been clear and unified about the risks of disease and has put out easy-to-understand public safety messages.

my favorite:

curfew - eyes

Images about Keeping Safe in Oman: Coivd-19 and Rain Storm

A small collection of images highlighting the Omani government’s efforts to keep citizens and residents safe with frequent and clear messages about Covid 19 and the weather, with a few photos of the effects of the recent rain storm.

Part of my reason for posting is to celebrate these graphic designers whose work conveys vital information in an easy-to-understand manner to people who live in Oman, some who do not speak Arabic. For example, the image about buying animals on-line (not in-person at markets) is clear and the animals are so cute, they attract you to look at them! Another good example is the image from Al Buraimi which has a lot of data carefully laid out so that the reader can understand quickly.

A second reason it that images like this are now seen everyday on social media, but they are ephemeral. I hope the virus will disappear soon and then these type of postings will also disappear. I think it’s important to consider (and remember in the future) how the virus is being fought not just by issuing rules and regulations, but educating, supporting and warning.

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Food Research/ Corona Virus in Oman

My research into foodways in Dhofar has been hampered by the corona virus, but when you work in the field of ethnography, any object or event is a way to gain insights so I have been focusing on: what food-related events can I notice/ interpret during this stay-at-home time?

First, the Omani government is doing a fantastic job of disseminating information to all citizens and residents. There are regular news bulletins (in Arabic and English) with not only clear instructions (how to properly wash hands, what are the symptoms of corona, etc. – example below), but also the rational for the government’s actions. There are daily updates of the number of cases in the Sultanate and where to go for medical help, including explicit statements that 1) health care is free to everyone and 2) expats will not be asked for a labor card, allowing people in the country without a valid visa to get help (example below).

Two small actions which I appreciate are that all official government notices are in same design/ font/ color so it’s easy to know it’s an official message. Also hypermarkets have the housewares, clothes, computer, appliance sections cordoned off/ lights turned off to prevent people from browsing for fun, but if you need a particular item, you can ask permission to enter and get one item. This reduces the stress of worrying about getting a replacement if something breaks but means that people aren’t congregating in large stores to pass the time.

Related to food issues, the government has done its best to stop hording with regular announcements that there is sufficient food (example below) and announcements/ photos of fresh fruits and vegetables purchased from India. There are announcements of the illegality of price-gouging in stores and that all delivery services must follow safety regulations (example below). All customers must have their temperature checked before entering a grocery store and all grocery stores must ensure all carts are sanitized before each use, all customers wear gloves, and free hand sanitizer is available (example below).

Grocery stores (during my once a week shopping trip!) are well-stocked with all the basics: vegetable oil, rice, meat, fish, basic fruits and vegetables such as onions, potatoes, carrots, cucumbers, apples, oranges, bananas, etc. There are all kinds of cleaners/ sanitizers; masks sell out quickly, but new supplies arrive every week. However, there are fewer types of fruits and vegetables (especially frozen ones) and some non-Omani, non-essential foods are not being restocked (cheddar cheese, types of noodles, sauces, chips).

In terms of my research, before corona, it was almost exclusively women who used Instagram and Whatsapp to advertise home catering businesses, but now men are starting to use social media to sell fish (cleaned, cut and delivered) and lobster (during the time it is in season) because the fish markets are closed. These ads explicitly state that safe hand-over procedures will be followed. The government has also created an on-line fish market to help buyers and sellers find each other (see below).

As it is Ramadan and I can’t check in with my informants (it would be impolite to bother them with research questions during the holy month), I am assuming, but can’t prove, that family/ neighbor supply lines are being used to share cow and camel milk, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. What I have heard anecdotally is that some Dhofaris whose workplaces are closed are using their free time to bring in extra food supplies by working/ supervising  on their farms, fishing etc. During every Ramadan, Dhofaris buy and make food to give to others, especially those in need, but during this Ramadan in particular, people are extending extra efforts to make sure everyone has sufficient fresh food.

examples of official testing message regarding food:

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examples for general safety/ staying healthy/ dispelling rumors

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