Anne Meneley, research on Yemen

(photo of Sarfait, close to the Dhofar border with Yemen, taken by M. A. Al Awaid)

I was so pleased that Anne Meneley came to the session on “Social Attitudes Toward Food and Eating” at the recent Just Food conference. It was her work on ‘food and morality’ that helped me start to think about the connections between food and ethical behavior in Dhofar. Although her research focus has moved beyond Yemen (see below) I would like to list four publications which have greatly helped me in understanding Southern Arabia.

Meneley, Anne. 2017. “The Zabidi House,” in Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill my Eye. Trevor Marchand, ed. London: Gingko Library. 195–203.

—. 2011. “Food and Morality in Yemen,” in Food: Ethnographic Encounters. Leo Coleman, ed. New York: Berg. 17-29.

—. 2007. “Fashions and Fundamentalisms in Fin-De-Siecle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks.” Cultural Anthropology 22.2: 214–243.

—. 1996.  Tournaments of Value: Sociability and Hierarchy in a Yemeni Town. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Re-released on the 10th and 20th anniversary of publication – https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1436862.Tournaments_of_Value

Selected publications from her website:

https://www.trentu.ca/anthropology/faculty-research/anne-meneley

2020  Anthropology News, 29 June 2020 The Distance of a Hockey Stick, Pandemic Insights.

2020a Hope in the Ruins: Seeds, Plants, and Possibilities of Regeneration. Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space, online.

2020b The Olive and Imaginaries of the Mediterranean. History and Anthropology 31 (1):66-83.

2019 Walk This Way: Fitbit and Other Kinds of Walking in Palestine. Cultural Anthropology 34(1):130-154.

2018 Consumerism. Annual Review of Anthropology 47:117-32.

2017 The Zabidi House. Architectural Heritage of Yemen: Buildings that Fill My Eye. Ed. Trevor H.J. Marchand, pp. 194-203. London: Gingko Library.

2016 Checking Your Waistline at the Checkpoint: Dieting as a Peace Initiative. Jerusalem Quarterly 68:90-103.

2014a The Accidental Pilgrims: Olive Pickers in Palestine. Religion and Society: Advances in Research 5: 186-199.

2014b Resistance is Fertile! The Re-invention of Food: Connection and Mediation, Cristina Grasseni and Heather Paxson, guest editors. Special Edition of Gastronomica Vol. 14(4):70-79.

2014c The Qualities of Palestinian Olive Oil in Fat: Culture and Materiality, Christopher E. Forth and Alison Leitch, eds. pp. 17-31. New York: Bloomsbury.

2014d Discourses of Distinction in Contemporary Palestinian Extra-Virgin Olive Oil Production. Food and Foodways 22 (1-2): 48-64.

2014e Comment on Andrew Bevan’s “Mediterranean Containerism.” Current Anthropology 55 (4):408-409.

2011 Blood, Sweat and Tears in a Bottle of Palestinian Olive Oil.  Food, Culture and Society 14 (2): 275-290.

2011 Food and Morality in Yemen.  In Food: Ethnographic Encounters.  Editor, Leo Coleman.  New York: Berg. Pp. 17-29.

2008 Time in a Bottle: The Uneasy Circulation of Palestinian Olive Oil.  Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP). Fall 248:18-23.

2007 Fashion and Fundamentalisms in Fin de Siècle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks. Cultural Anthropology 22:214-243.

2003 Scared Sick or Silly?  Social Analysis 47(2):21-39.   Also reprinted in Illness and Irony.  M. Lambek and P. Antze, eds. 2004  New York: Berghahn.

1999 Goods and Goodness. Social Analysis 43(3):69-88.

1999 Introduction to “The Structuring of Subjectivities in Material Worlds.”  Social Analysis 43(3):1-5.

1998 Analogies and Resonances in the Process of Ethnographic Understanding.  Ethnos 63:202-226.

Today I will be presenting my talk “Ethical Eating in Southern Oman” for the Just Food conference, hosted by the Culinary Institute of America and New York University.

 

“Ethical Eating in Southern Oman.” 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. 

 

My presentation combines research from the fields of anthropology and food studies to examine the connections between food and morality in Dhofar, the southern region of Oman. Much has been written about Arab hospitality in terms of generosity to guests, but this presentation focuses on two other aspects of food-related behaviors: the ethical way to eat and to dispose of food.

 “Ethical eating” refers to two common behaviors in Dhofar. One is the social pressure to eat in such a way that the left-over food is “clean,” meaning suitable to give to others because it is not touched by people’s hands. A second issue is that the remaining food must be given away, as quickly as possible, following the culturally-accepted sharing hierarchy of friends/ family, other humans, then animals.

 The information discussed has been gathered from formal interviews during 2019-2020 and countless social events with Dhofari informants and friends over the past 14 years.

This work is part of my Foodways in Southern Oman project.

Foodways in Southern Oman (Routledge) examines the objects, practices and beliefs relating to producing, obtaining, cooking, eating and disposing of food in the Dhofar region of southern Oman. The chapters consider food preparation, who makes what kind of food, and how and when meals are eaten. Marielle Risse connects what is consumed to themes such as land usage, gender, age, purity, privacy and generosity. She also discusses how foodways are related to issues of morality, safety, religion, and tourism. The volume is a result of fourteen years of collecting data and insights in Dhofar, covering topics such as catching fish, herding camels, growing fruits, designing kitchens, cooking meals and setting leftovers out for animals.

 

https://www.routledge.com/Foodways-in-Southern-Oman/Risse/p/book/9780367859558

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/foodways-in-southern-oman-marielle-risse/1137456632?ean=97803678595587

 

Pre-historical and Historical Houseways in the Dhofar Region: Selected References

 

 

Al Baleed and Sumhuram

Avanzini, Alessandra. 2007.“Sumhuram: A Hadrami Port on the Indian Ocean,” in The Indian Ocean in the Ancient Period: Definite Places, Translocal Exchange BAR International Series 1593. Eivind Heldaas Seland, ed. Oxford: Archaeopress. 23-31.

—. 2002. “Incense Routes and Pre-Islamic South Arabian Kingdoms.” Journal of Oman Studies 12: 17-24.

Buffa, V and A.V. Sedov. 2008. “The Residential Quarter,” in A Port in Arabia between Rome and the Indian Ocean (3rd C. BC – 5th C. AD). A. Avanzini, ed. Khor Rori Report 2, Roma: L’Erma di Bretschneider: 15-59.

Carter, Henry. 1846. “The Ruins of El Balad.” Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 16: 187-99.

Cleveland, R. L. 1960. “The 1960 American Archaeological Expedition to Dhofar.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 159: 14-26.

—. 1959. “The Sacred Stone Circle of Khor Rori (Dhofar).” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 155: 29-31.

Costa, Paulo. 1982. “The Study of the City of Zafar (Al-Balid).” Journal of Oman Studies 5: 111-50.

Degli Esposti, Michele and Alexia Pavan. 2020. “Water and Power in South Arabia: The Excavation of “Monumental Building 1” (MB1) at Sumhuram (Sultanate of Oman).” Arabian Archeology and Epigraphy. 1 – 29. DOI: 10.1111/aae.12159

Orazi, Roberto. 2002. “The Harbour and City of Khor Rawri.” Journal of Oman Studies 12: 210-222.

Pavan, Alexia. 2017-2018. “Husn Al Baleed: Civil and Military Architecture along the Indian Ocean in Medieval Times.” Journal of Indian Ocean Archaeology 13-14: 28-41.

Pavan, Alexia and Michele Degli Esposti, 2016. The Urban Shrine in Quarter A at Sumhuram: Stratigraphy, Architecture, Material Culture. Quaderni di Arabia Antica, Roma: L’Erma di Bretschneider.

Pavan, Alexia, Agnese Fusaro, Chiara Visconti, Alessandro Ghidoni, and Arturo Annucci. 2020. “New Researches at The Port of Al Balid and Its Castle (Husn): Interim Report (2016-2018).” The Journal of Oman Studies 21: 172 – 199

Pavan, Alexia, S. Laurenza, and R. Valentini, 2020. “Masonry and Building Techniques in a Medieval City Port of the Sultanate of Oman: Preliminary Typological Atlas at al-Balīd.Newsletter Archeologia 10.

Pavan, Alexia and Chiara Visconti. 2020. “Trade and Contacts between Southern Arabia and East Asia: The Evidence from al-Balīd (southern Oman).” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 50: 243–257.

Pirenne, J. 1975. “The Incense Port of Moscha (Khor Rori) in Dhofar.” Journal of Oman Studies 1: 81-96.

 

Pre-historic Dhofar: Himbert, Rose and Usik

Hilbert, Yamandu. 2013. “Khamseen Rock Shelter and the Late Palaeolithic-Neolithic Transition in Dhofar.” Arabian Archeology and Epigraphy 24: 51-58.

Hilbert, Yamandu, A. Parton, M. Morley, L.P. Linnenlucke, Z. Jacobs, L. Clark-Balzan, R. Roberts, Chris Galletti  J.-L. Schwenninger and Jeff Rose. 2015. “Terminal Pleistocene and Early Holocene Archaeology and Stratigraphy of the Southern Nejd, Oman.” Quaternary International 282: 250-263.

Hilbert, Yamandu, J. Rose, and R. Roberts. 2012. “Late Paleolithic Core Reduction Strategies in Dhofar, Oman.” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 42 1-18.

Hilbert, Yamandu, V. Usik, Chris Galletti, M. Morley, A. Parton, L. Clark-Balzan, J-L Schwenninger, L. Linnenlucke, R. Roberts, Z. Jacobs, and Jeff Rose. 2015. “Archaeological Evidence for Indigenous Human Occupation of Southern Arabia at the Pleistocene/Holocene Transition: The Case of al-Hatab Dhofar, Southern Oman.” Paléorient 41.2: 31-49.

Rose, Jeff and Yamandu Hilbert. 2014. “New Paleolithic Sites in the Southern Rub’ Al Khali Desert, Oman.” Antiquity 88.381.

Rose, Jeff, Yamandu Hilbert, Anthony Marks and Vitaly Usik. 2018. The First People of Oman: Palaeolithic Archaeology of the Nejd Plateau. Sultanate. Muscat: Ministry of Heritage and Culture

Rose, Jeff, Vitaly Usik, A. Marks, Yamandu Hilbert, Chris Galletti, A. Parton, V. Černý, J. Geiling, M. Morley, and R. Roberts. 2011. “The Nubian Complex of Dhofar, Oman: An African Middle Stone Age Industry in Southern Arabia.” PLoS ONE 6(11) e28239.

Usik, V., J. Rose, Y. Hilbert, P. Van Peer, and A. Marks. 2013. “Nubian Complex Reduction Strategies in Dhofar, Southern Oman.” Quaternary International 300: 244-266.

 

Other selected references

de Cardi, Beatrice. 2002. “British Archeology in Oman: The Early Years.” Journal of Oman Studies 12, 2002.

Charpentier, Vincent, Alex de Voogt, Remy Crassard, Jean-Francois Berger, Federico Borgi and Ali Al-Mashani. 2014. “Games on the Seashore of Salalah: The Discovery of Mancala Games in Dhofar, Sultanate of Oman.” Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 25: 115-120.

Costa, Paulo. 2001. Historic Mosques and Shrines of Oman. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

—. 1983. “Notes on Settlement Patterns in Traditional Oman.” Journal of Oman Studies 6.2: 247-68.

Cremaschi, Mauro, Andrea Zerboni, Vincent Charpentier, Remy Crassard, Ilaria Isola, Eleonora Regattieri, Giovanni Zanchetta. 2015. “Early-Middle Holocene Environmental Changes and pre-Neolithic Human Occupations as Recorded in the Cavities of Jebel Qara (Dhofar, southern Sultanate of Oman).” Quaternary International 382: 264-76.

Garba, Roman and Peter Farrington. 2011. “Walled Structures and Settlement Patterns in the South-western Part of Dhofar, Oman (poster).” Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 41: 95–100.

Hulton, Jessop and J. Smith. 1830. “Account of Some Inscriptions Found on the Southern Coast of Arabia.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 5.1: 91-101.

McCorriston, Joy, Michael Harrower, Tara Steimer, Kimberly D. Williams, Matthew Senn, Mas‘ūd Al Hādhari, Mas‘ūd Al Kathīrī, ‘Ali Ahmad Al Kathīrī, Jean-François Saliège and Jennifer Everhart. 2014. “Monuments and Landscape of Mobile Pastoralists in Dhofar: the Arabian Human Social Dynamics (AHSD) Project 2009-2011.” Journal of Oman Studies 12: 117-44.

Newton, Lynne. 2010. “Shrines in Dhofar,” in Death and Burial in Arabia and Beyond: Multidisciplinary Perspectives, Society for Arabian Studies Monographs 10. Lloyd Week, ed. 329-340.

Newton, Lynne and Juris Zarins. 2017. The Archaeological Heritage of Oman. Dhofar Through the Ages. An Ecological, Archaeological and Historical Landscape. Muscat: Ministry of Heritage and Culture Sultanate of Oman.

Zarins, Juris. 2001. The Land of Incense: Archaeological Work in the Governorate of Dhofar, Sultanate of Oman, 1990-1995. Muscat, Oman: Sultan Qaboos University Publications.

Zerboni, Andrea, Alessandro Perego, Guido S. Mariani, Filippo Brandolini, Mohammed Al Kindi, Eleonora Regattieri, Giovanni Zanchetta, Federico Borgi, Vincent Charpentier and Mauro Cremaschi. 2020. “Geomorphology of the Jebel Qara and Coastal Plain of Salalah (Dhofar, southern Sultanate of Oman).” Journal of Maps 16:2, 187-198.

Zimmerle, William. 2017. Cultural Treasures from the Cave Shelters of Dhofar: Photographs of the Painted Rock Art Heritage of Southern Oman. Washington: Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center/Liberty Press.

—. Crafting Cuboid Incense Burners in the Land of Frankincense: The Dhofar Ethnoarchaeology Preservation Project. 2017. Washington: Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center/Liberty House Press.

 

Houseways – Windows/ Sightlines

[this essay is part of a series about the practicalities and pragmatics of one-, two- or three-story houses built within the last twenty years on one or two plots of land in the Dhofar region of Oman; extremely expensive houses often take up three or more plots and have very different architectural styles]

One of the hardest concepts for language students to grasp is to rethink common metaphors. It’s ok to call kids “monkeys/ cheeky monkeys” in North America and the UK, but not in Oman. “Moon faced” is negative in the US, but not in Oman. In the Middle East, the full moon is seen as a time of safety and peace because you can see everything without the heat of the sun, unlike the negative connotations of danger found in North America.

It’s the same way with architectural details. Someone from the UK might argue that windows should be used to look out of, thus a window should be made of clear glass, uncovered during the day, often uncovered at night and, in good weather, left open to let in fresh air. The front door will usually be closed all the time.

None of this obtains in Dhofar. Windows are either made of opaque glass (in bathrooms and the kitchen) or are completely covered with treatments which usually have several layers, such as a heavy or lined, light-blocking fabric with a tulle/ sheer overlay which is sometimes tied back or swept to one side [jabot] with a fringe and/ or beading. There are usually heavy frame elements with a valance or pelmet/ cornice with swags. Sometimes there are three layers, a plain, dark fabric which hangs straight, a sheer overlay and then decorated drapes pulled to one side. This makes it look like one might be able to see out/ in but in fact the window is totally covered. [see examples below]

Drapes seldom have a simple, open style such as tabs and if there is a visible rod, there is almost always a finial. Café curtains are rare – usually the whole window is covered at all times. Ground-floor windows and the window at the first landing of a stairwell are frequently barred. However, depending on the weather and the neighborhood (how close are the other houses and whether the neighbors are ‘known’ and/ or family) the front door might be left open during the day.

Given that windows have reflective treatments which make it difficult/ impossible to see in, sometimes the heaver drapes might be opened during the day, leaving only the sheer covering.  If there are no possible sight lines, i.e. there is a high surrounding wall, the house is far from other houses and the road, etc. the heavier covering might not be closed at nightfall but windows that allow you to see directly  into a house is rare.

Another way to explain the non-use of windows is that before the infrequent, severe rainstorms, Dhofaris often cover the house windows with blue or grey/ opaque tarps, which are sometimes left up for weeks or months after the storm. Some houses are built with no windows on the side that is close to the surrounding wall and facing another property.

As Dhofaris are always fully dressed in their houses (see below), sometimes an upper story window in a public part of the house (for example, a family salle at the top of the stairs) will only be covered with sheet fabric if there are no direct, close sightlines. One can sometimes get a glimpse of an indistinct shape moving, but there is nothing like the large, uncovered, picture windows in the living rooms of most American mid-western towns.

Light indoors is provided by overhead florescent tube-lights and/ or chandeliers; sometimes there are transoms/ fanlights over doors. If someone needs to see something, they go to the front door and look out. During over ten years of visiting, I have never seen an adult pull back a curtain to look outside. Small kids will sometimes do so, then tell an adult in the room what they see, but usually grown-ups don’t show their faces in a window.

To say that a person “looks out of windows” is the only negative comment I have heard from informants and friends about a neighbor. I have heard that expression three different times and always with a sense of exasperation. The issue is not simply the “looking” but the interest in other people’s lives and telling others what was seen: two very unattractive traits. The correct behavior is, of course, to try not to see and, if seen, never discuss any speech or actions done by neighbors. If one has good neighbors, say alhumdulilah and if not, a dismissive wave of the hand is enough.

In the three cases I know of, I was told about the person because of circumstances that warranted me knowing. For example, a Dhofari friend (X) asked me to be sure to wear Dhofari clothing when I visited her because she had a neighbor (Y) who “looks out of windows” and if Y saw a Western person enter X’s house, Y would tell people and insist on knowing who I was and why was I visiting. In the other two cases, when asking Dhofaris if they were free to visit, the friends told me that there was a problem within the family because of a neighbor who misconstrued something seen and told other people.

As the exception that proves the rule, rental houses usually have sitting rooms with sheer curtains as such houses usually have higher than normal surrounding walls and are located outside of congested areas. The understanding is that no one can see in and everyone in the house is related, so window coverings are not necessary. Rental houses sometimes also have bigger windows because there are often small jungle gyms/ playground equipment and/ or pools so adults can easily sit inside and watch the children. [see example below]

The information above is for houses in and close to towns; outside of towns, as there are either no neighbors or the neighboring houses belong to relatives, there is less concern about privacy. The surrounding walls are low (waist-high) and serve primarily to keep livestock away from the home. Houses often have a dekka, an outside seating area accessible from the front door. Sometimes it is covered and furnished, sometimes it is simply clean swept mats to sit on. If the house is built up and there is only a small landing in front of the main door, people will sit on front steps in cool weather. Thus, although windows are similarly covered with fabric, people have far more visual access to their surroundings.

Housing/ Clothing: The point about Dhofaris always being fully dressed at home is very important. As I have explained in my first book: Once outside the bedroom, there is a chance to see any of the other people in the house, the live-in maid and/ or a repair person. Therefore, at all times, a man must wear at least a wazar (sarong) and t-shirt, a woman must be in a dhobe (loose housedress) and losi (light cotton headscarf), kids are dressed in at least shirts and underwear/ diapers.

Housing design and living patterns create this necessity of always being modestly dressed. For example, a man leaving his bedroom might see a brother’s wife who lives across the hallway, the teenage daughter of another brother or an older female relative. As he leaves the house, he might pass the salle [female/ family sitting room] which is open to the main hallway and see/ be seen by his mother’s sisters or female neighbors who are visiting.

I will discuss window design and construction in a following essay.

examples of covered windows

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

examples from rental house (larger windows, less covering)


Houseways – Rental Apartments in Dhofar, Khareef and Dhofari/ Non-Dhofari Designs

A unique aspect of housing market in Dhofar is that there is a large supply of furnished rental apartments and houses because of the khareef (monsoon) season. In non-covid times, thousands of Arabic visitors come between June and August to enjoy the cool, foggy weather. Visitors to Dhofar will often stay 2-3 weeks, so they want all the conveniences of a set-up home. In other parts of Oman, unfurnished apartments and houses are the norm because the expectation is that people will rent for several months or years and landlords don’t want to deal with the wear and tear on furniture from renters.

Another aspect of the huge rental market for khareef is that landlords will sometimes rent apartments and houses very cheaply for 9 or 10 months (September to May or June), then raise the prices for high tourist season. For example, a 2-bedroom apartment might be 150 OR per month for most of the year, and then 50 OR per night in July and August. This means some renters will, year after year, move their belongings into their office and leave for the summer, then move back in September first.

In terms of how the apartments are planned, there is a basic division between those designed by and built for Dhofari Omanis and for non-Dhofari Omans. [For a general discussion of apartment buildings see Houseways – Types of Apartments Buildings (Family/ Public) ]

The main difference is that for Dhofari-Omanis space is allocated between guests and family members with the intention that family members can move freely within the apartment, in addition to usually being able to come in and leave.

Most Dhofari-designed apartments have two doors [see example below] so that, like houses, guests are secluded in one room while family members have access to all other rooms and the main entrance.

There are other formats. In my (Dhofari-designed) apartment [see Houseways – Cultural Perspectives and Movement within an Apartment: The Practicalities of Having Guests  ], the front door is not visible from the majlis so anyone could come and go without being seen. In another apartment [see Houseways – Balancing Privacy and Hospitality within an Apartment ] this is not possible because the majlis is next to the door, but there is a door to the salle which cannot be seen by a guest sitting on the sofa, so family members can go into and out of the salle and kitchen without being seen. Further there is a hallway door, so the area with bedrooms is visually and acoustically separated.

Another type of design is a one main door which opens into a hallway, with the main sitting room as the first door on the left or right. Once guests are inside, the family members have access to the hallway and all other rooms. For the moments of entry and exit, the host will be speaking loudly, welcoming guests or trying to convince them to stay/ saying goodbye, so everyone will know the hallway is in use.

Rental apartments for tourists are usually built within a different framework, in which the section of the apartment near the front door is open to the back of the apartment so that if there are male guests, there can be little or no movement.

An example: the front door opens directly into a small living room with six armchairs. Along the left-hand wall is a guest bathroom. In the back left-hand corner is a short, five-foot hallway which ends in six-sided open space about eight feet across with four doors. First door to the left is small kitchen, second door (ahead, to the left) is bedroom, third door (straight ahead) is a bathroom, then there is a small alcove with a washing machine, then fourth door (to the right) bedroom. Thus, guests can hear anything that is happening in the back of the apartment and those sitting along the far wall of the sitting room can see down the short hallway.

In this set-up the front “controls” the back of the apartment. This makes sense in terms of khareef rentals as tourists come as large groups of family or friends, thus there is no need to worry about keeping guests separate. The housing space is family-only. If a male tourist meets a friend in Salalah, they will both understand that the housing is not set up to entertain guests and they will have a picnic or take a meal/ coffee together in a restaurant (pre-covid).

(Example of apartment with two doors, main door and majlis to the right, photo by homeowner and given to me with permission to use for this website)

g - doors 2

Foodways – Thoughts on Iftars, Food and Cultures

One aspect of living in Dhofar that can be hard to explain is that people are often judged on the intention, not on the rightness (or wrongness) of the action. I have been the happy recipient of this characteristic as I muddle along trying to do what is appropriate.

A few days into Ramadan my doorbell rang about half an hour before the maghreb (sunset) call to prayer which ends the day’s fast. It was an Omani neighbor who had moved in a few months before. We had waved ‘hello’ but didn’t know each other. He had set a covered paper plate, a small packet of dates and a small packet of figs down on the table next to my front door. I smiled and said, “thank you! Ramadan kareem.” He waved at me and walked back down the stairs.

The plate had 2 pieces of grilled bread with cheese, 2 quarters of a toasted sandwich with sliced hotdogs and cheese, 2 samosas with a hash of meat and potatoes and 3 spicy, breaded, fried mashed-potato rounds. YUM! Neighbors, relatives and friends often give each other plates of prepared food for Iftar, the meal at sunset that breaks the fast. This was a kind gesture and the way it was packaged meant there was no dishes that I had to return.

I knew I should reciprocate, but not the next day (which could lead to a ‘food war’). In Dhofar, with family and close friends, it doesn’t matter if or when you give a return gift, but for people you don’t know well, it’s best to wait a few days and keep the energy causal, not frantically trying to quickly repay.

So I waited a few days and then started to think what I should give. First, I should not give something that I had made as there is often a worry that I might have accidentally added something haram (forbidden). Second, I decided to give items that would keep for a few hours, so if the family already had a plan for Iftar, what I gave could be kept for a later meal or suhoor, the meal eaten before dawn.

As only a husband, wife and small child lived in the house, I went to a well-known Lebanese restaurant and bought a plate of falafels with cut tomatoes, lettuce and pickles, a container of hummus, a container of tabouli, two packets of fresh Lebanese bread and a plate of mixed, fried sweets.

Then, I went to the front of their house and was surprised to see two doorbells on the outside gate, and a low wall dividing the interior courtyard. Because of the relative position of our houses, I had only seen one side of the house, with the kitchen door through which I had seen the three occupants enter and leave. But two doorbells meant the house was subdivided, probably two close relatives and their families, which meant they would be having Iftar together and my food gift was going to be wildly inadequate.

Which is what happened. The people I knew didn’t answer, but a woman from the other side of the house opened a window and as I tried to explain what I was doing there, she said that the woman who I knew was her sister. So I handed over the bags, feeling rather stupid, and went home. Then I realized that I had mis-read the time. It wasn’t 40 minutes to Iftar (a time when most people are up and awake); it was 1 hour and 40 minutes to Iftar, often a time for napping.

But the normal Dhofari kindness won through and about five days later, my neighbor stopped by again with a plate of pakoras, vegetable samosas, triangles of tuna salad on white bread and arays [Lebanese bread sliced open, spread with spiced meat (kafta), grilled flat and cut into triangles]. And their Eid present from me? A very large box of chocolates!

***********

My favorite Ramadan treat is triangle cheese samosas: the perfect food. Delicious hot or cold and they pair with condiments from any culture: cranberry sauce, mango chutney, onion marmalade, or coconut/ green chili sauce. They are only sold in Ramadan, usually from a road-side stand set up in front of a bakery about two or three hours before the maghreb (sunset) call to prayer, earlier now because of the curfew.

These samosas are a good example of food can get connected and unconnected to religious holidays. I wonder if there are Omanis in the States who mark Christmas time by the arrival of peppermint-mocha coffees or Omanis in the UK who mark Easter by the appearance of Cadbury eggs.

The samosas are also an example of how foods which represent cultures can be very idiosyncratic. “Amazing Italian food” to me doesn’t mean pasta, it means the little stands with a cascading fountain of cool water with small pieces of fresh coconut that I first saw in Florence when I was a teenager. It seemed to me the most perfect snack and I begged my father for cash to buy pieces every time I saw one.

“German food” makes me think of my absolute terror of ordering bread in a German bakery when I lived there. Counter-people and other customers expected you to have your order ready and be able to answer the quick, sharp questions hurled at you. Hesitation or confusion resulted in many baleful glances. I would stand outside and practice saying my order to myself for a few moments before I ventured into bakeries.

(photo of a family Iftar by an informant, shared with permission to use on this website)

iftar - g

***********

an interesting ad campaign about not wasting food during Ramadan

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Houseways – Cultural Perspectives and Movement within an Apartment: The Practicalities of Having Guests

Illustration by Maria Cristina, website: https://www.mariacristinah.com/

 

In this essay I would like to focus on Dhofari cultural expectations of space and movement, using the example of Dhofari men from my research group visiting me in my apartment. I want to highlight what physical movements are possible within a typical Dhofari-designed apartment in terms of both spacing and cultural beliefs. What actions would they expect to take and what actions would they expect of me? What are my personal and cultural expectations of where I should stand and sit? [The examples are from pre-covid times.]

My apartment is on the first floor of a 4-apartment building, with one apartment below and 2 others (ground floor and first floor) which are entered through another door.

To enter, you walk up one flight of stairs (with a turn and landing 1/2 up) to reach my landing, from which the stairs continue up to the roof. [illustration is below]

Standing just inside the front door, the kitchen door is 5 feet to the right. Ahead and a little to the left is the main hallway. About half-way down the hallway to the left is the opening for the salle [women’s and family’s sitting room], but it’s set back so you can’t see into it. Down to the right is the door to one bedroom. At the end of the hallway, opposite the front door, is a bathroom. There is a bedroom to the left and to the right of the bathroom, with both doors set back.

Thus, when a guest steps inside, the only spaces visible are the hallway and the guest bathroom which is 8 feet to the left. You can’t see the kitchen (as it is obscured by the open front door) or the majlis [the men’s/ guest’s sitting room]. The door to the majlis is parallel to the front door but set back. To enter, you need to turn left, walk a few steps and, in front of the door to the guest bathroom, turn left.

How I would want to behave with guests is to open the front door with my left hand, verbally welcome guests and make “come in” gestures with my right hand and point them to the majlis. The guests would enter in the order that they have walked up the stairs, pass in front of me, move to my right, then I close the door with my left hand.

This doesn’t work for my apartment for several reasons. First, the men in my research group, like most Dhofari men, will never walk straight through a doorway if they are part of a group. There will be many slight movements (such as stepping backwards/ to one side or pushing another man gently forward) to allow another man the honor of being first through the door.

So men won’t enter in the order that they walk up the stairs, there will be a little logjam on the landing, with men perhaps walking up or down one or two steps to avoid being first. This is accompanied by friendly banter as I stand near the open door.

I can’t hold on to the door, as this would mean that the men would have to pass too closely. For their comfort and mine, we usually stay at least three feet apart unless we are eating from the same platter. So I have to let go of the door and step back down the hallway, where my sightlines become very limited with walls on either side of me. As I call out greetings and try to signal ‘go to the right,’ they eventually settle on who is walking in first and then a second small problem arises.

I am signaling ‘go right’ but when they turn, they see an open guest bathroom door, something that never happens in their own houses as bathroom doors are always kept shut. [see below] Also, the door to the majlis is not visible until they have taken a few steps, so there is a moment’s hesitation as it appears I am telling them to walk into the guest bathroom.

Once they are all in the majlis there is another series of micro-hesitations, as I, as host, should already be in the majlis and telling them where to sit, making sure everyone has a cushion to lean on and there is a little table with a tray of drinks and snacks near them.

But I am, instead, hovering near the door because I have to wait until the last person has entered the apartment to shut the door. Then I have to wait to enter the majlis because there are 5 men milling around the middle of the majlis trying to give each other the best place to sit.

Once they have all sat down, I greet them, then try to disappear into the kitchen to bring tea and coffee, while they all yell that they don’t want anything to drink. This is hard for both them and me. The water, soda and snacks are already set out but as I am not sure about when they will arrive, I don’t mane the tea and coffee until they are in the apartment. As an American, I am not worried about leaving guests alone for a moment to get something from the kitchen, but their expectation is that the host has set up all the food and drinks before their arrival so the host will immediately sit down and will (should) not stand up again until everyone leaves.

A few times I tried a different way. I opened the door, stepped to the right (beckoning them to follow me), walked backwards into the majlis and sat in the furthest corner, then I could direct people where to sit and toss cushions around. But when I tried to stand up to bring tea, they stormed at me. It’s overwhelming as men who are always patient and low-key will suddenly and voraciously protest my attempting to leave the room: “SIT DOWN,” they yell, “WE DON’T WANT ANYTHING.” To them, they are showing that they are good (non-demanding) guests by saying that they don’t want me to make more of an effort to bring them hot drinks.

I know, and they know, that the visit will probably be two or more hours so I steel myself and leave the room to make tea. When I am in the hallway, I turn the key to lock the front door. When the door is not locked, if someone opens the house door (downstairs), my front door opens, so I make sure it is locked at all times. In most Dhofari houses, especially those outside of the city of Salalah, front doors are usually not locked during the day.

When they are ready to leave, they will stand up. From Dhofari perspectives, a good host will attempt to stop guests from leaving to show that they are welcome to stay as long as they want. Therefore, I should be protesting and telling the men from my research group to stay, but they and I both know that once they stand up, they will leave. I deal with the contradiction of both expressing politeness and acknowledging reality by saying the expected words, while dashing out of the majlis so I can unlock the front door, then step back down the hallway to be out of the way for their exit. So there is a silly moment of me saying, “stay, stay” at the same time I am opening the door.

If I don’t move quickly, they will leave the majlis, walk into the hallway then hesitate by the front door, creating a brief logjam. There are a few seconds while the person closest to the door realizes it is locked and figures out how to unlock it. Meanwhile, I am stuck in the majlis, keeping space between myself and the last man. This means that by the time I get to the front door, some of the men are already out of sight beyond the turn in the stairs.

This is fine for them as, among friends, there are no protocols for leaving. But the few times this happened, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of incompleteness. I hadn’t realized how important it was to me to say ‘goodbye.’ Once I followed them down the steps and got yelled at, “GO BACK!” (again, them expressing politeness by telling me it is not necessary to follow them to their cars.) So now I make sure I leave the majlis first so I can say ‘goodbye.’

Because there are fewer cultural constraints on women being in physical proximity to women, the space limitations in my apartment don’t matter when Dhofari women visit. I can stand with my left hand on the front door, signal where to go and be in the majlis when they are choosing their seat. There are no protests if I get up to get tea and we can all crowd by the door when they leave.

Note: Bathroom doors are a good example of cultural perceptions impacting space. In Oman, bathroom doors are almost always closed when not in use as bathrooms are perceived as unclean at all times. In the States, bathroom doors are often left open when not in use. Sometimes it’s to allow more light into the hallway or the bathroom is nicely decorated or it might have the cat’s litterbox or to show that it is not occupied, etc.

apartment plan

Illustration by Maria Cristina, website: https://www.mariacristinah.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Houseways – Types of Apartments Buildings (Family/ Public)

To start this discussion of apartments in Dhofar, I would like to informally divide apartment buildings into two types: “public” meaning available to be rented to any person (usually expat or non-Dhofari Omani) and “family,” meaning built to be given or rented to only people who the owner knows (usually family or tribe-members) or someone vouched for by a close friend or relative. Thus family-type apartments are almost always rented by Dhofari Omanis.

This difference is sometimes, but not always, by location, as some sections of land in Salalah are occupied by inter-related families within one tribe while others, especially newly-built areas, have a mix of inhabitants.

In general, “public” buildings have several floors and an on-site manager who has a small office and/ or lives in a small apartment near the front door and is responsible for up-keep, fixing problems and keeping an eye on the building.

A person who owns a “public” apartment building will advertise widely, for example hanging a ‘for rent’ sign, taking photos and putting them on social media and/ or registering the apartment with rental companies.

“Family apartment” buildings are usually smaller, either 2 or 3 floors, a subdivided house or apartments built into the back of a family house. When the apartments are ready, the owner will not advertise in any way, but fill the apartments by word of mouth among friends and relatives. There would never be an on-site manager for a family-only building as no one would want someone watching who comes and goes and when.

There are also significant differences in terms of how the rooms are placed and designed which I will discuss in a later essay.

“Family”

For the past 50 years or so, a “house” meant cement-block built living space for a father, mother, unmarried sons and daughters, married sons and their families, older relatives and temporary guests, for example a married daughter whose husband is out of town for work. Sometimes the house would be built to 2 or 3 floors, or one floor was built, then upper floors added when more space was needed.

From the 1990s until recently, sometimes the majlis (the male/ guest sitting room which has its own entrance and bathroom, separated from the rest of the house by an interior door) was rented out in khareef, the monsoon season from the end of June until the end of August. The owner would give the space to family living in other parts of Oman or rent it by letting friends and relatives know the space was available.

Sometimes there was the opposite use of space, in which a house was rented out but the majlis was kept for the owner. For example, if the owner worked in Salalah but lived in the mountains, the owner would be able to use the majlis as a place to nap/ relax and occasionally sleep in and rarely see/ interact with renters who lived in the house.

Another division I have seen (only once) was for the owner to put a new interior wall and a wall in the hosh (courtyard), then broke an exterior wall to make a door, thus lengthwise dividing a one-story house into two apartments: one with the majlis and salle (women’s sitting room) at the front of the house and the second with the kitchen and two bedrooms at the rear. The renters of the back half of the house had a narrow driveway to reach the kitchen door.

 A newer style is to buy land that is open on two sides, usually a main road to the front and an alley to one side. The house is designed with a front gate opening to the main road and a smaller gate on the side (which would normally lead to the kitchen) leading to a door which opens to a small landing with 1 or 2 small apartments. Thus the family lives in the main house, sharing a wall (but not entrance) with several small apartments which can be rented to help pay for the mortgage, given to relatives or, in time, given to the married sons so that the couple has some privacy, while still being close to the husband’s family.

Another style is to make a small apartment block with the same type of divided entrances. For example, a 2 story-building with 4 flats in which 2 flats (ground-floor and 1st floor) are accessed though one gate and the other 2 flats (ground-floor and 1st floor) are accessed through a second gate, with a cement-block wall dividing the hosh into two spaces. (example A, discussed below)

There are a few housing complexes, often only 4 to 10 houses surrounded by a wall with narrow, internal road(s), which are usually “public” and rented to expats, as well as Omanis who use the houses for informal get-togethers, not to live in. A few complexes are for one family, for example a wall surrounding 4 houses and a separate majlis for a man with four wives or a father with several sons. Infrequently there are larger complexes (with over 20 large houses) for one extended family.

Apartments and Sightlines

Another factor besides having a manager and number of units to differentiate “family” and “public” types of apartments is that for “family” apartments, it’s important to limit sightlines for outsiders. For example, in a small apartment building (A) as described above, not only are their two entrances, but each ground floor apartment is given control over the small hosh area, while each first-floor apartment is given control over half the flat, tiled roof.

Thus there are two factors to heighten privacy. First, the inhabitants of all four apartments have their own outside area to use for drying clothes, growing plants in pots, etc. The roof area is divided by a low wall, with the built-in drying racks built at opposite sides of the space.

Second, the building design means that the apartment’s front door is seen by very few people. If a person in the ground-floor apartment wants to leave and, while opening the front door, hears footsteps on the stairwell, they can quickly close the door, wait for the person (from the first-floor apartment) to leave, then go out. Thus the residents can limit or prevent being seen by anyone else.

Whereas a “public” style apartment building would have one hallway on each floor and only one main entrance, with perhaps a small back staircase for fire safety if it was several stories high. Every time a person exited their apartment, they would be on display, so to speak, for all the other neighbors to see and everyone would pass through the main entrance.

Two additional notes:

None of these houseways essays argue that these types of buildings/ ways of using the buildings in Dhofar are unique. I am trying to explain the current pragmatics of housing without making a claim that these methods are found only in southern Oman. For example, the methods of small-scale landlords using renters to find other renters (i.e. preferring to fill small buildings by word of mouth and personal recommendation, not using social media or public signs) reminds me of renting while I was getting my PhD in North Dakota. A friend (X) in my program found a beautiful apartment in a converted house that had two other apartments. Within a year both other apartments were also rented by English graduate students. X had parties, everyone liked the building and location, several colleagues asked about the two other apartments and the owners liked X, so as the two apartments came open, the owners asked X for recommendations. I eventually took over X’s apartment and when I left, another English graduate student took that apartment.

I would like to highlight that both men and women can own land and houses, although it is less common for a woman to live in a house she has bought entirely herself. For example, a woman might be given or buy a plot of land and have a house built which is then rented out while she lives in a house which her husband/ husband’s father owns. As I continue to look into houseways in Dhofar, I hope to find statistics on land and house ownership delineated by gender but among my informants I know of many types of ownership:

  • one man owning the land/ house where his wife, married sons and unmarried sons and daughters live
  • one man owning the land/ house where his wife and children, mother, married brothers and unmarried brothers and sisters live
  • brothers and sisters joining together to buy land and build a house for their mother to live in with them if the mother is widowed or divorced, with the deed either in the name of several siblings or one brother’s name (who acknowledges the ownership rights of his siblings although those rights are not legally represented)
  • one woman owning the land/ house which is rented out

There are a lot of possible permutations as house/land ownership and house/land occupancy are not necessarily the same. For example, it’s rare but an older woman might live alone in her father’s house when all the other family have moved away. The house might legally belong to a brother or a nephew, but the house is discussed as being “hers,” with the understanding that she has the right to live in it until she passes away. On the other hand, a man might live temporarily on land that is not his. For example, when herding camels, a man might set up a semi-permanent camp and stay for several weeks on land that he does not have a permit for.

Example of front door to family apartment building, having one door signals that the interior is divided into apartments as almost all  single-family houses have two front doors, one for the majlis and one for the main section of the house (photo taken by informant who wishes to remain anonymous and given to me for use on this webpage)

Foodways – Iftars in Ramadan

Ramadan started on Tuesday night in Oman. Given the circumstances of fighting Covid-19 there are fewer advertisements showing large gatherings/ family iftars (the meal eaten at sunset to break the fast). Families are highly encouraged to only share meals with those who live in the same household.

Photos such as these (above and below) are usually shared just within family members (usually with a ‘wish you were here’ kind of greeting). I asked X, who has helped me with my food research, if X might take a photo that I could use on this webpage to show a typical Dhofari iftar.

A few things to note:

  • Every-day family dinners usually have one large dish (fish or meat [cow, camel, goat] with rice or pasta) accompanied by salad and condiments, For rice dishes, plates are not needed as everyone shares from the platter. But for iftars, there is often soup (requiring bowls) and various choices, never only one dish. This means that everyone has a plate to take a little from the numerous dishes, including dates (the most important element), stuffed grape leaves, salads, sandwiches, a fruit bowl (bananas, grapes, oranges), cut fruit and/ or fruit salad with oranges, watermelon, apples, etc.
  • Three typical iftar dishes are 1) sambusas (aka samosas, a baked or fried pastry with a savory filling such as spiced vegetables, cheese or meat). Meat and vegetable sambusas are available all year, but cheese ones are usually only available during Ramadan. Sambusas are sometimes made at home but are usually bought at little covered stalls which are set up outside most bakeries from 4pm-6pm; they are sold by the kilo in brown paper bags. 2) shorba, a soup made with beef, vegetables and oats (sometimes with lemon) and 3) thareed, a dish made with khubz roqaq (raqeeq/ roqaqr, a round bread about 24 inches across and very thin) soaked in a beef or chicken stock with spices. Sweets include custards, kanafeh/ kunafa (shredded filo pastry or semolina dough that is baked in sugar-based syrup usually with a layer of cheese, sometimes served with cream or nuts), luqaymat/ loukoumades (sweet fried dumplings dipped in sugar syrup), saffron/ coconut/ chocolate cake, etc. The most important drink is laban/ labneh/ leben (fermented milk, known in America as buttermilk) which is usually taken with dates to break the fast. The second most common iftar drink is Vimto, a cordial of fruits and spices that is diluted with water. (I think of it as the Omani equivalent of eggnog, a pumpkin spice latte, or a peppermint-mocha coffee, a drink that it is ubiquitous during a holiday season; even the people who hate it admit it is part of the atmosphere.)
  • Another difference between every-day family dinners and an iftar is that normally the food is not served close to prayer times and everyone eats at the same time. There is little conversation while eating and the food is cleared away as soon as everyone is done. For iftars, as seen below, most of the food is kept in a covered containers as it has to be prepared and set out before the call to prayer. After the sunset prayer, family members will sit together for a longer time, eating slowly as they have been fasting all day. Some will eat a little, wait for some time, then eat again. Thus the iftar meal can be left out for hours and the food choices need to either be palatable at room temperature or kept in covered containers.
  • School-age children eat lunch at home, not at school, and most adults are also home for lunch which is the main meal of the day. Dhofaris who work will rarely eat a packed lunch at their desk. This means that kitchen are usually not equipped with the accoutrements for household members taking meals from the house like lunch boxes, mini ice-packs and single-serving size plastic containers. But most households share many-portion amounts of food with neighbors and relatives so there are usually inexpensive duplicates of items such as coffee carafes and glass or plastic serving dishes, and single-use thin metal containers with cardboard covers. For example the dish below with the green cover will hold a rice or pasta dish. This would be used as shown below, with the cover on to keep the food warm until the call for prayer has sounded, or filled with food and given away. A typical kitchen will have several of these so that there is no need to worry if/ when it will be returned if one is given away.

iftar k - 2