Teaching Paired Literary Texts

Abstract

This essay focuses on a technique which increases students’ participation, creativity and analytical ability in literature and language classrooms. By teaching two texts together, one from a Western and one from a Middle Eastern culture, students can compare and contrast a familiar text to one that has new settings, themes, people and opinions. This analysis allows students to see how characters, leitmotifs and points of view can be both similar and different across cultures, and in turn improves students’ reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking abilities. As some teachers might be hesitant to use literature in a language classroom or be unfamiliar with texts from a different culture, this essay gives several specific examples, in addition to explaining how to teach paired texts. When teachers overcome the fear of working with new texts, they can expand their students’ knowledge.  

Introduction

This paper is designed to give practical advice about creating or augmenting syllabi for English language, English literature and literature in translation classes. It is for both teachers of English language and English literature in the Middle East because teaching literature, especially poetry, is a way for students to expand their vocabulary in a more fun, less regimented manner than textbook materials. Reading literature can also help introduce students to cultural differences in the use of metaphors. For example, when American people say, “I’m blue,” this means they are feeling sad. If students are not exposed to authentic, natural texts in the target language, they will miss the meaning of cultural idioms. This essay is also useful for teachers who want to use texts by Arab or Persian authors for World Literature or Literature in Translation classes.

Thus, the purpose of the paper is dual fold:  to assist teachers who are familiar with literature by Middle Eastern writers by giving ideas in English literature, as well as suggestions about Middle Eastern literature for teachers who are more familiar with English literature.

My method is to explain the use of “pairing” texts, meaning to find an English text  and a Middle Eastern text  which have similar themes, characters and/ or setting so that the students will have a text in their own culture to compare to a text in the target culture. When students have one familiar text as a basis, it is easier to make the jump to reading in and about a foreign culture. To give examples of this technique, tables are included with texts from different genres.

The basis of my strategy comes from 14 years of teaching on the Arabian Peninsula. This extensive experience has shown me that to get students interested in learning, it is important to choose literature which is both accessible and relevant. An accessible text will fit the learner’s language ability. A relevant text will have characters, settings, and/ or situations that are familiar to the learners. A text with these criteria allows the teacher to keep the students’ attention while working through the vocabulary and grammar as a text that is utterly foreign to students in terms of style and language will be difficult or impossible to teach.

This paper will begin with an explanation of how to choose Arabic and English poems that complement each other with several examples. Then there will be a discussion of pairing short stories and dramas. Lastly, there will be a description of how to teach paired texts.

Finding Useful Poems

For an English teacher, the first step of pairing poems is to look for classic English poems which have some aspect such as setting or characters which students can relate to. For example, I teach in the town of Salalah, Oman which is surrounded by tree-covered mountains where different types of animals graze. I often use Marlow’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” because as the students read the poem, they find vocabulary that they can use to describe their surroundings such as: “valley,” “rocks,” “shepherds,” and “flocks of sheep.” The poem has other nouns which have an Omani context such as “roses,” which are grown on Jebel Akhdar. Below are four of the stanzas with relevant vocabulary in bold:

Come live with me and be my love,

And we will all the pleasures prove

That valleys, groves, hills, and fields,

Woods, or steepy mountain yields.

 

And we will sit upon the rocks,

Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks,

By shallow rivers to whose falls

Melodious birds sing madrigals.

 

And I will make thee beds of roses

And a thousand fragrant posies,

A cap of flowers, and a kirtle

Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle;

 

A gown made of the finest wool

Which from our pretty lambs we pull;

Fair lined slippers for the cold,

With buckles of the purest gold

By focusing on the how the narrator’s words are connected to the students’ daily life in the context of Oman, I hope to motivate them try to understand and retain the new vocabulary. For example, in the above poem I can explain that “falls” is used here as a noun, not a verb, then give a local example of the “falls” in the town of Hasik. “Buckle” can be explained by discussing the belt that holds the traditional Omani dagger, the khanjar.

Similarly, Lord Bryon’s “She Walks in Beauty” is another famous English poem that is easy to teach in the Middle East because it is about a woman with dark hair and dark eyes, like most of my students. Many English poems celebrate a woman with blue eyes and blond hair, so it’s nice for my female students to have a text that describes someone like themselves. This similarity gives students a foundation of understanding when working through metaphors such as “she walks in beauty,” “tender light/ Which heaven to gaudy day denies” and “raven tress” which are in bold in part of the poem below.

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

Pairing Poems

After a teacher has found a few poems, the second step is to link those  texts with Middle Eastern texts. This means finding a poem from the other culture which has a similar setting, theme or plot. The first poem, from their own culture, will be easy for students to understand; the similar poem in a foreign culture will allow students to smoothly cross cultural boundaries. Further, with two similar poems, students can move from merely understanding to the higher order tasks of compare/ contrast and analysis.

For example, in Herrick’s canonical poem “Corinna’s Going A-Maying” the narrator is calling to a woman to join him in enjoying the beauties of nature. There are several commands in the first two stanzas as noted in bold below:

GET up, get up for shame, the blooming morn
Upon her wings presents the god unshorn.
       See how Aurora throws her fair
Fresh-quilted colours through the air :
Get up, sweet slug-a-bed, and see
The dew bespangling herb and tree.
Each flower has wept and bow’d toward the east
Above an hour since : yet you not dress’d ;
Nay ! not so much as out of bed?
When all the birds have matins said
And sung their thankful hymns, ’tis sin,
Nay, profanation to keep in,
Whereas a thousand virgins on this day
Spring, sooner than the lark, to fetch in May.

Rise and put on your foliage, and be seen
To come forth, like the spring-time, fresh and green,
       And sweet as Flora. Take no care
For jewels for your gown or hair :
Fear not ; the leaves will strew
Gems in abundance upon you :

Besides, the childhood of the day has kept,
Against you come, some orient pearls unwept ;
Come and receive them while the light
Hangs on the dew-locks of the night :
       And Titan on the eastern hill
Retires himself, or else stands still

These lines are direct requests from the narrator to a woman and are similar to the narrator in Ahmed Nedîm’s “Take Yourself to the Rose-Garden,” specifically the lines in bold below:

Take yourself to the rose-garden, it’s the season of our wandering

 Oh swaying cypress, give back the ruined spring its reign

 Pour down your dark curls, let your cheek be dressed in sable

 Oh swaying cypress, give back the ruined spring its reign

 

 Come rose-mouthed one, your nightingales are calling

 Come to the garden, that we might forget the rose has gone

 Come, before the meadow is ravaged by winter

 Oh swaying cypress, give back the ruined spring its reign

Another example is the famous English poet John Clare, who wrote many poems about natural landscapes which pair well with Middle Eastern poems. His poems “June,” “July” and “Summer” are descriptions of hot days, linking heat and death instead of, for example, heat and love. Connecting heat and death is normal to Omani students who live through months of temperature in the 40s and descriptions of heat are common in Arab literature so there are a plethora of choices to pair with Clare’s poem. Some examples are Ahmed Muhammad Al Khalifa’s poem “The Deserted Valley” which begins with the lines “I came to it when the valley flowers were withered”  and Abdalla Muhammad Jabr’s amusing poem “The Bursting out of Summer,” in which the second stanza begins “Tell the heat to spare me/ until another day.” Ibrahim Al-Hadrani’s poem “The Fountain” is another similar poem; it begins: “My love, we passed by this fountain once, / when our love was flowing freely, / we came back to it when the grass / was dry.”

An example of longer, more intricate poems which could be paired are “The Rider” by Qasim Haddad and “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. They are both entertaining poems which depict the life of brigands in the Gulf and England in previous time periods. “Welcome rider, highwayman,” says the Bedouin narrator of Haddad’s poem to the robber. The narrator agrees to share his fire, clothes and horses, but warns the rider that justice, in the form of caravans which “Come for you.” Similarly, the robber in Noyes’ poem faces justice in a thrilling narrative.

Since most of my students are female, I like to use poems by women such as “Sojourn Forever,” “Free Harbor” and “You Alone” by Suad al-Mubarak al-Sabah together with “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti. “Sojourn Forever” and “A Birthday” both have the metaphor of a woman in love being “on a throne”, while “Free Harbor” and “A Birthday” use metaphors of ships to show the happiness of shared love: “Your ships alone have the right to sail in my blood” trills the narrator of “Free Harbor”; “My heart is like a rainbow shell/ That paddles in a halcyon sea” echoes the narrator of “A Birthday”.

Below please find Table 1 which gives further suggestions for pairing poems.

Table 1: Poetry Suggestions

Theme Poems by Western poets Poems by Middle Eastern poets

(in English)

Middle Eastern Poets
 

Sea

Seafever, Masefield; The Sea View, Smith John Masefield, Charlotte Smith A Sailor’s Memoirs Muhammad al-Fayiz
Love A Birthday Christina Rossetti Sojourn Forever;

You Alone;

Free Harbor

Suad al-Mubarak al-Sabah
Butterflies Fawziyya Abu Khalid
Unsuccessful love When We Two Parted Lord Bryon Love’s Wounds Abdullah al Faysal
Death Some Clouds Steve Kowit Clouds Sulaiman al-Fulayyih
Death of a child On My First Daughter, Jonson; For My Daughter, Ignatow Ben Jonson, David Ignatow Death in Life Ahmad Qandeel
Brigades The Highwayman Alfred Noyes The Rider Qasim Haddad
Depression Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples Percy Bysshe Shelley The Lost Mirage and The Deserted Valley Ahmad Muhammad Al Khalifa
Lullaby Wind of the Western Sea Alfred, Lord Tennyson ask students to write/ translate lullabies from their own culture
Patriotism Patriotism 1. Innominatus Sir Walter Scott A Page from a Bedouin Notebook Muhammad Al Thuhaiti
Motherhood For My Mother May Sarton A Pearl

 

Fawziyya Abu Khalid
Muse Muse Not Muse Rosanna Warren The Poet and the Moth Ahmad Qandeel
Summer/ heat July, Summer, June John Clare The Deserted Valley Ahmed Muhammad Al Khalifa
The Bursting out of Summer Abdalla Muhammad Jabr
The Fountain Ibrahim Al-Hadrani

Finding Useful Short Stories

Before discussing pairing short stories, I would like to highlight three stories which Omani students have reacted positively to. The texts all center on a younger and an older female character navigating the realistic life changes of growing up, making choices about preserving family history and growing older. These themes are familiar and important to many female students’ lives.

The first text is “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid, a very short story made up of series of commands from a mother to a daughter. It takes a bit of time to unpack, but when students finally understand the set-up, they are amused, especially when they were asked to write their own version, using the commands and advice they heard as a young child.

The second is “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker which is about a simple country woman whose two daughters, one who lives with her and one who has moved to the big city, fight over a family heirloom quilt. The city daughter wants to preserve the quilt by hanging it on a wall, arguing that the other daughter would simply ‘use’ the quilt and thus wear it out. The mother finally decides to let the daughter who lives with her keep the quilt. The students could relate to the issue of preserving or using family artifacts, writing about the Omani khanjar (dagger), mandos (wooden chest), gold necklaces, and dresses that were their own family’s treasures.

The third text is “Going to Shrewsbury” by Sarah Orne Jewett, about an old woman moving from the simple house she has lived in all her life to the big city to live with nieces. The narrator meets Mrs. Peet on the train as she is going to the city; the older woman is worried about her unexpected and unwanted move. This text starts all kinds of class conversations about care of elderly relatives, specifically those who wish to preserve a more traditional life vs. younger generations who advocate for city living and modern amenities. The story ends happily, with Mrs. Peet making a successful adjustment and becoming the beloved ‘pet’ of the nieces.

All three of these stories have the same quality: the situation of the characters is similar to the situation of female college students in the Middle East. Although the texts are set in a foreign culture and written in a foreign language, Omani students can easily relate to a young girl who listens to her mother’s commands, a woman who wonders how best to preserve cultural artifacts and how to take care of an older relative who can no longer live alone.

Pairing Short Stories

In choosing short stories to pair, one of the easiest ways is to find two stories with a twist ending. For example, teachers could use a well-known English “surprise” short story such as “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant or anything by O. Henry with the Emirati author Mohammed al Murr’s “The Wink of the Mona Lisa.” In these kinds of texts, students want to read to find out what happens at the end and are rewarded with an unexpected ending. In “The Necklace” a woman borrows and then loses a rich friend’s diamond necklace. She forces herself and her husband into poverty in paying for a replacement. When she has finally paid for the piece of jewelry after years of hard work, she discovers that the necklace was made of fake diamonds and her hard work had no purpose.

In “The Wink of the Mona Lisa” a boy at his sister’s wedding party falls in love with one of his sister’s friends because she winks at him; he (as traditional) sends his mother and sisters to meet her and her family; his mother begs him to pick another girl with closer ties to his family but he insists on his choice. The students enjoyed condemning the shameless woman for such blatant behavior as winking at a strange man, until the last paragraph of the story when the happy protagonist, wedded to the ‘wanton’ woman, finally confesses to his wife after the birth of their first child, that is was her wink that stole his heart. Startled, she thinks back to the night of her friend’s wedding, the new contact lens that hurt her eyes, and decides not to tell her husband that she never even noticed him that evening.

A sadder Middle Eastern “surprise” short story is “The Persian Carpet” by Hanan Shaykh in which a girl realizes her adored mother gave a carpet to her lover but blamed a poor man in the neighborhood. There are many stories which fit into this category and the teacher can stop the reading part way through the text and ask students what they think will happen. After students have finished both texts, they can compare and contrast how the authors built by the suspense and misdirected the reader’s attention.

Another way to pick two similar texts is to try to match the protagonist’s feelings or the general atmosphere of the texts, instead of the characters or plot. For example, the dissipated, world-weary view expressed in “Another Evening at the Club” by Alifa Rifaat is a good companion-piece to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” or his short story “Babylon Revisited.”  Similarly, “Love and Rain” by Muhammad Alwan about a boy’s failed attempt to impress a female classmate is the Arabic equal to James Joyce’s “Araby.”

A third way to pick two texts to teach together is to find an English short story and a Middle Eastern short story which have a similar metaphor. In Muhammad Al Murr’s two short story collections in English, Dubai Tales (2008) and The Wink of the Mona Lisa (1998) there are many descriptions of the dissolution of the traditional family life with the coming of oil wealth in the Emirates. One recurrent theme is that of cars, how the apparent motion of being in a vehicle is actually representative of a life that is stuck. For example, “In Transit,” is told from the perspective of a woman who becomes close friends with her female driving instructor, Laila. The emphasis is not on the narrator’s desire to learn how to drive (freedom as positive) but on her friendship with Leila who is “free,” i.e. without a family, but lonely and unable to sustain friendships (freedom as negative). Laila’s life is “in transit” – teaching women to drive but never at rest herself.

In Al Murr’s works, cars have a positive appearance but become traps, for example in the story “Road Accidents” in which a husband and wife are unhappily stuck in a car and “Pleasures of the Night” in which a man picks up a woman who he thinks is a prostitute but turns out to be mentally-impaired. This negative type of car imagery is used by other Gulf Arab writers, such as Abd al-Hameed Ahmad’s story “Khlalah SEL,” and can be taught in conjunction with Western writers who use the same kind of metaphor such as Louise Erdrich.

In Erdrich’s short story “The Red Convertible” the narrator’s brother, Henry, haunted by his life as a soldier in Vietnam, painstakingly restores his beloved car. The narrator, Lyman, and his brother had many adventures in his red convertible before Henry’s deployment but when Henry returns, he lives in a stupor. Lyman, in an attempt to bring his brother back to life, wrecks the car. Henry fixes it, but then kills himself. Lyman rolls the car into the river in which Henry has drowned himself. On the surface Al Murr’s stories and Erdrich’s story may appear to be very different, but the core metaphor is similar. Cars are usually a positive symbol of freedom and movement, but in these stories cars represent how characters are trapped in difficult circumstances.

Below please find Table 2 which gives further suggestions for pairing short stories.

Table 2 – Short Stories Suggestions

Theme Stories by Western writers Western Writers  Stories by Middle Eastern writers

(in English)

Middle Eastern writers
Car/ Freedom The Red Convertible Louise Erdrich

 

In Transit and Road Accidents, Al Murr; Khlalah SEL, Ahmad Mohammed Al Murr; Abd al-Hameed Ahmad
Surprise ending The Necklace, de Maupassant;

O. Henry stories, e.g. Love Medicine

Guy de Maupassant; O. Henry The Wink of the Mona Lisa, al Murr; Mohammed Al Murr; Hanan Shaykh
Dreaming of a better life The Secret Life of Walter Mitty James Thurber The Staircase, Sayyar (A) and The Discontented, Abouzeid (A) Ali Sayyar, Leila Abouzeid
Importance of nature The White Heron Sarah Orne Jewett I Saw the Date Palms (A) Radwa Ashour
Nature/ memory The Worn Path Eudora Welty The Doum Tree of Wad Hamid Tayeb Salih
Love Mr. and Mrs. Dove Katherine Mansfield Dancing by the Light of the Moon (LMA) Salih Saeed Ba Amer
Childhood love Araby James Joyce Love and Rain Muhammad Alwan
World weariness The Great Gatsby or Babylon Revisited F. Scott Fitzgerald Another Evening at the Club Alifa Rifaat
Time shifts The Swimmer John Cheever Half a Day Naguib Mafouz

Finding and Pairing Dramas

There are fewer plays in the Arab literary tradition than poems or stories. One way to find dramas for classroom use is to teach a play which is set in the Middle East, such as Mary Zimmerman’s The Arabian Nights. The language is not difficult, which makes the text accessible to English language learners, and some scenes have familiar Middle Eastern characters and scenarios, such as the vast wealth implied by a “wedding guest in all her jewels” (59). One of the advantages of the play is that several scenes teach morals, for example the plot of “The Forgotten Melody” was seen by students as both enjoyable and didactic, i.e. an amusing story with realistic underpinnings. After discussing the “Prince and the Tortoise,” several Omani students gave examples of how, when a man married a woman his father did not approve of, the daughter-in-law overcame her father-in-law’s disapproval with careful attention to him when he was sick.

A second way to find dramas to teach together is to find Middle Eastern authors who have reimaged Western stories. For example, The Arab Oedipus (Carlson 2005) collects four versions of the canonical Greek story written by Arab authors. Any of these four dramas could be taught in tandem with variations of the legend of Oedipus by Greek authors such as Homer, Hesiod, Aeschylus, Euripides or Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus.

One drama from this book which is especially interesting is The Comedy of Oedipus by Ali Salim, a wonderful reimaging of the Oedipus story. In Salim’s version, Oedipus does not actually kill the Sphinx, but as the action happens out of sight of the citizens and the Sphinx disappears, he is celebrated for his achievement. Through most of the play, he wonders how he can tell the citizens, who hasten to buy “Oedipus Killed the Beast” action figures, that he never actually killed the Beast. At the end of the play, the Beast reappears and the citizens expect Oedipus to repeat his magic. When students read Sophocles’ and Salim’s versions of Oedipus, they can compare and contrast how the two authors approach this myth.

A third way to pair dramas is to find two texts with a similar theme, even if the settings and time periods are different. Plays, Prefaces and Postscripts of Tawfiq Al-Hakim (1981) has several thought-provoking plays. One that students have really enjoyed is Princess Sunshine because the drama has a serious theme which is leavened with many jokes. The play starts with Sunshine insisting that she choose her own husband. The man she chooses, Moonlight, takes her out of the castle with her disguised as a man. He teaches her how to work for herself, making dinner and living simply. They then catch two thieves and force them to return the stolen money to a Prince. At the end Moonlight leaves Sunshine to marry the “Prince” and continue to reform her country, as Moonlight continues on his way to teach other people his ideals of living simply and honestly.

Princess Sunshine’s theme of a woman deciding who she should marry and how she should live her life is similar to several plays such as Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare, Quality Street by J.M. Barrie (especially with the aspect of disguise) Lady Windemere’s Fan by Oscar Wilde and Arms and the Man by G. B. Shaw. Further, the pull between love and country (as Sunshine and Moonlight fall in love, but he convinces her to stay and spend her life helping her country) make it a great companion to, for example, Sophocles’ Antigone.

In addition to light-hearted plays, Al Hakim also wrote serious pieces, for example, the drama Death Song. This drama is about a man who returns to his village to discover that his mother expects him to carry out a revenge murder. He refuses, and his mother then has another man kill her own son. The theme of whether or not to revenge an insult is similar to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This gives students a chance to discuss and analyze the author’s and their own opinions about the necessity and righteousness of vengeance.

Below please find Table 3 which lists these suggestions for pairing dramas.

Table 3 – Drama Suggestions

Theme Plays by Western Writers Western Writers Plays by Middle Eastern Writers

(in English)

Middle Eastern Writers
Revenge Hamlet Shakespeare Death Song Tawfiq al Hakim
Female protagonist – duty to country Antigone Sophocles Princess Sunshine Tawfiq al Hakim
Female protagonist – making decisions about her own life Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare Princess Sunshine Tawfiq al Hakim
Quality Street J.M. Barrie
Lady Windemere’s Fan Oscar Wilde
Arms and the Man G. B. Shaw
The role of fate Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus Sophocles The Comedy of Oedipus Ali Salim

 

Teaching Paired Texts

Once a teacher has found two accessible and relevant texts, the method of teaching depends on the kind of class. If it is a language class, teachers will concentrate on vocabulary and grammar; in literature classes, teachers will use literary terms such as “narrator,” “setting,” “characters,” and “plot.” When comparing the two texts, the teacher will help the students see what is similar and what is different. This analysis can then be used as the basis for compare/ contrast essays depending on the level of students. Teachers might also divide the class in two and give one text to one half and the other text to the other half. Each group of students can study their text, then explain it to the other group. Then they can work together to figure out what the similarities and differences are.

Because poems are the shortest and easiest to read, pairing poems is more suitable for lower level classes or classes which are only one hour. Working with short stories should be reserved for students who are at the beginning intermediate level; the class time will usually take 2 or 3 hours. Comparing dramas should only be done with higher level language students and the class time will be more than 10 hours to read, understand and compare the two texts.

The benefits of teaching paired texts are numerous. Students can increase their vocabulary in a more interesting way than simply memorizing lists of words. If the teacher has found poems, stories and dramas which have a connection to the students’ world, then they will be more engaged in reading and understanding. Further, having two texts to work with means student will have a chance to use higher order thinking skills such as comparing and analyzing.

Conclusion

Teachers who choose accessible (at the student’s level) and relevant (of interest to students) texts will discover that students will be more engaged and interested in reading. Students feel more comfortable reading texts which are familiar to them, but teachers also need to expand students’ horizons with information from different settings and cultures. An easy way to accomplish this is to use one familiar text from the student’s own culture, and one from a new culture. Sometimes teachers do not have information about texts in different cultures, so this paper has given specific examples in the three genres of poems, stories and dramas. This paper is in no way definitive guide to all texts that can be used as there are endless possible combinations of texts, but this paper illustrates ways in which teachers can choose similar texts. The list of references is divided by genre and includes all the texts mentioned in this paper, as well as further suggestions to help inspire teachers to discover new texts on their own.

 

References

Examples of Middle Eastern Authors: Poetry – single author

Elmusa, S. (2008). Flawed landscape: Poems 1987-2008. Northampton, MA: Interlink.

Kahf, M. (2003). E-mails from Scheherazade. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.

Kabbani, N., trans. (1999). Arabian love poems. (B. K. Franieh and C. R. Brown, Trans.). London: Lynne Rienner.

Mersal, I. (2008). These are not oranges, my love. Riverdale, NY: Sheep Meadow Press.

Nye, N. S. (2002). 19 varieties of gazelle: Poems of the Middle East. New York: Greenwillow.

Williams, D. (1993). Traveling mercies. Cambridge, MA: Alice James Books.

Examples of Middle Eastern Authors: Poetry – anthologies

Charara, H. (Ed.). (2008). Inclined to speak: An anthology of contemporary Arab-American poetry. Fayetteville, AK: The University of Arkansas Press.

Fadiman, C., J. Major, and K. Washburn. (Eds.) (2000). World poetry: An Anthology of verse from antiquity to our time. New York: W.W. Norton.

Farrin, R.. (2011). Abundance from the desert: Classical arabic poetry. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Hammond, Marlé. (2014). Arabic poems: A bilingual edition. New York: Knopf Everyman’s Library.

Handal, N. (Ed.). (2001). The poetry of Arab women: A contemporary anthology. New York: Interlink.

Nye, N.S. (Ed.). (1996). This same sky: A collection of poems from around the world. New York: Aladdin.

Sells, M. (Trans.). (1989). Desert tracings: Six classic arabian odes by Alqama, Shanfara, Labid, Antara, Al-Asha and Dhu al-Rumma. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Examples of Middle Eastern Authors: Fiction

Al‑Murr, M. (1998). “The wink of the Mona Lisa” and other stories from the Gulf. (J. Briggs, Trans.). Dubai: United Arab Emirates: Motivate Publishing.

Al-Murr, M. (2008). Dubai tales. (P. Clark and J. Briggs, Trans.). Dubai: Motivate Publishing.

Husni, R. and Newman, D. (Eds.) (2008). Modern arabic short stories: A bilingual reader. London: Saqi.

Johnson-Davies, D. (Ed.). (2006). The anchor book of modern Arabic fiction. New York: Anchor Books/ Random House.

Johnson-Davies, D. (1994). Arabic short stories. Berkeley: University of CA Press.

Kaldas, P. and Mattawa, K. (Eds.). (2009). Dinarzad’s children: An anthology of contemporary Arab American fiction. Fayetteville, AK: The University of Arkansas Press.

Kamal, M. (1999). Juha: Last of the errant knights. (J. Briggs, Trans.). Dubai: Motivate Publishing.

Lyons, M., Trans. (2014). Tales of the marvelous and mews of the strange. London: Penguin.

Examples of Middle Eastern Authors: Anthologies of Poetry and Fiction

Allen, R. (1998). The Arabic literary heritage: The development of its genres and criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Akash, M. and Mattawa, K. (Eds.). (1999). Post-Gibran: The anthology of new Arab-American writing. Klagenfurt, Austria: Kitab. Published in USA in Jusoor, 11 & 12, distributed by Syracuse University Press.

Bushrui, S. and James M. (2105). Desert songs of the night: 1500 Years of arabic literature. London: Saqi.

Jayyusi. S. K. (Ed.). (1988). The literature of modern Arabia: An anthology. London: Kegan Paul International.

Irwin, R. (2002). Night and horses and the desert: An anthology of classical arabic literature. New York: Anchor.

van Gelder, Geert Jan. (2013). Classical arabic literature: A library of arabic literature anthology. New York: New York University Press.

Dramas

Al-Hakim, T. (1981). Plays, prefaces and postscripts of Tawfiq Al-Hakim, Volume One. (W. M. Hutchins, Trans.). Washington D.C.: Three Continents Press.

Carlson, M. (Ed.). (2005). The Arab Oedipus: Four plays. New York: Martin E. Segal Theater Center Publications.

Zimmerman, M. (2005). The Arabian nights: A Play. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Additional Suggestions

Risse, M. (2019, October 7). “Teaching Literature on the Arabian Peninsula,” Anthropology News website. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2019/10/07/teaching-literature-on-the-arabian-peninsula/

Risse, M. and Miriam Al Sabbah. (2017). “Don’t Be Afraid of the Novel: Austen for ESL Students,” Proceedings of the 16th Oman International ELT Conference. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2017, 28-35.

Risse, M. (2016). “Writing prompts to facilitate creativity and interesting texts,” Proceeding of the Oman 15th International ELT Conferences. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 46-52.

Risse, M. (2014). “Selecting the right literary texts for Middle Eastern students: Challenges and reactions,” in Focusing on EFL Reading: Theory and Practice. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Sultan Qaboos University Press, 165-188.

Risse, M. (2012). “Do you know a Creon?: Making literature relevant in an Omani university,” in Literature Teaching in EFL/ESL: New Perspectives. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 302-314.

 

 

I am pleased to announce that my article “An Ethnographic Discussion of Fairy Tales and Folktales from Southern Oman” has been published in _Fabula_

I am pleased to announce that my article “An Ethnographic Discussion of Fairy Tales and Folktales from Southern Oman” has been published in Fabula.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/fabula-2019-0020

https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/fabula.2019.60.issue-3/fabula-2019-0020/fabula-2019-0020.xml

Abstract:

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

 

Sports Fan

(in celebration of ‘my’ baseball team winning the World Series, this is an essay from about five years ago)

I grew up watching Washington football with my father and brother so I have a deep, fulfilling, unshakeable hatred for the Dallas Cowboys. Later, when I moved to Boston, I watched the Patriots pursue a perfect season and the Redsox chase the World Series, so I thought I knew all about being a sports fan and supporting the home team. Then I moved to a small city in the Middle East.

I teach at a university and one of the best ways to create links with my students is to connect what we are reading with their culture. And since ‘football’ (soccer) is a major part of their lives, I pull sports metaphors into my literature classes, explaining Queen Elizabeth and the Spanish Armada in terms of offense and defense, comparing the queen protecting her country to the famous Omani goal-keeper Ali al Habsi.

But I have gradually realized that soccer here is quite different than in the States. My sister’s children play soccer. They have uniforms, scheduled practices, a coach, fields with clipped grass and painted white lines, goals with a net to catch the ball. And that ball is white, fully-inflated and regulation-sized. There is organization. There is a season with a beginning, an end, and a referee with a whistle. The kids wear cleats and matching shirts. The parents car-pool, have phone-trees, stand on the side-lines and watch. Everyone knows who, what, when, where. The ‘why’ is for the kids to enjoy themselves, get some exercise, and learn to be part of a team.

In Salalah, football is for anyone who feels like playing. Girls play together or with male brothers and cousins in empty areas. Men gather in loose-knit teams every afternoon and whoever shows up plays, sometimes 20 players on one side. They play on the beach or gravel lots with rocks to mark the goal. The side lines are either lines drawn in the sand, quickly obliterated by scuffling for the ball, or a line of small rocks. The ball is whatever color, size and shape happens to be around. And when the kids play, there are no adults anywhere near. Everyone has a good time.

I got my second lesson in Omani-style sports when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) met in the capital city of Muscat. The meeting of the government leaders was enlivened by the Gulf Cup, a football (i.e. soccer) tournament. I first realized something was odd when the DJs on the English-language radio station seemed weirdly humble. “Of course all the teams will play well,” they would declare. “We are rooting for all the teams!” “We wish everyone good luck!”

This is team-spirit? I asked myself. This is the battle cry? During a call-in show, one DJ asked the listener to predict the score of the first game (Oman vs. Kuwait). “Oman will win!” chirped the guest, “1-0.” 1-0? What kind of score is that? What happened to annihilating the enemy? Crushing them in devastating defeat? Humiliation! 24-0! I remembered the public buses in Boston during World Series frenzy displaying “Go Sox” instead of the route number. Everyone in the city had blood lust.

But, this is Oman. Public displays of bravado are not encouraged; the culture supports working together. I should have known better than to expect the whole ‘who’s your daddy’ insult-fest. When I watched the end of the Saudi-Kuwait game, as the camera panned the stadium full of fans from both sides calmly standing and applauding, it was hard to tell which side won. Sedate appreciation is the expectation. When a player falls on the field, it is normal to offer him a hand; but in the GCC Cup, a fallen player is grabbed from behind and scooped up onto his feet. Players arguing with the referee are quietly talked down by members of both teams.

Not that there isn’t deep emotion attached to the sports teams. A few members of the national team came to visit the University for a Pep Rally and the entire auditorium was packed. Students, male and female, wore their Omani football scarves to class during the tournament. Many young men decorated their cars with the Omani flag or striped in the Omani colors (red, green and white). After every Omani victory, guys would drive around the city honking and singing. There was even a spontaneous parade near the old souq.

But the celebrations were positive and family-friendly. There was also no vandalism, no  ‘hooligan’ behavior. And when Oman ended up winning the championship game, the leader, Sultan Qaboos, declared a public holiday – all schools, offices and government offices were closed for a day. Sportsman-like behavior!

 (photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

Living Expat – Grocery Stores

Standing in the aisle of a large grocery store, liberally spraying air freshener, I am reminded of how different activities are when you live as a middle class expat in the Middle East. Shopping here is very interactive. You want to know what a soap, air freshener, shaving cream, scented talc or body wash smells like? Open it! Take a sniff – spray some around. No problem.

And of course you are buying air fresheners because the culture in general is ‘scent based’ as all men and women leave the house wearing either perfume/ cologne or clothes which have been ‘smoked’ with scented incense. During one visit to an Omani neighbor, we tried out a selection of 15 different ouds, small chips of wood infused with scented oils which are placed on a small piece of smokeless charcoal to produce great wafts of perfumed smoke. This is not a culture for people with allergies!

In most large grocery stores, the aisle with cheap ($3-$10) bottles of perfume is located near the entrance and you walk up, grab a bottle off the shelves, or open a package to try a perfume not on display, spray yourself liberally, then start your shopping.

Next to the perfumes are the ‘personal products’ which are always fun. Men often do the shopping so you will see guys standing in front of the female deodorant or hair coloring sections picking up an item with one hand and talking into a cell phone with the other. Men will sometimes take photos of several face creams, send them off and then wait for the answering message about which one to buy.

It’s best to avoid the ice cream section all together. No use to make yourself sad looking at the vast, delicious selection –  the ice cream usually has freezer burn. Whatever you buy, when you dig a spoon into it, you can hear the ice crystals cracking. Some people think it’s supposed to have that consistency.  Of course with an ice cream company called ‘London Dairy,’ you can resist temptation; the idea of cows in London producing yummy ice cream does not compute.

The fruit and vegetable section is very safe – you can pick your own produce or ask one of the helpers: just point and say how much you want in, all measurements in kilos. Some people make a huge fuss, bossing around the clerks, “No, not THAT watermelon, THIS watermelon.” I want to kick them in the shins.

You can find the basics for Indian and Middle Eastern cooking: garlic, green peppers, limes, okra, ginger, chilies, fresh coconut and eggplant. Things like shallots or large potatoes are sometimes there, sometimes not, but there are always new discoveries: jackfruit (yuck), that little fruit with black wiry hairs growing out of it which gives me nightmares, fresh lemongrass tired into bundles, various ‘gourds,’ bumpy cucumbers, locky (?) and aravi (?).

But despite the plethora of new and interesting vegetables and fruits, the biggest difference for me about shopping here is that it is very interactive. First, you need to check each product for the expiration date. I have bought all sorts of things from vinegar to sunflower oil to cake mixes, which were past the sell-by date. Often items are put on the shelf and left until they sell so you can find Valentine’s hearts in August and chocolate rabbits in October.

And even if you only need two or three things, you should walk every aisle in the store as what’s on the shelves changes all time. You simply don’t know what will show up (garden gloves, windshield de-icer, hoisin sauce, mint plants) or what will disappear for months at a time (French’s mustard, Diet Coke, croutons, Swiss cheese, stuffing). Suddenly all the stores will carry El Almendro (absolutely fabulous almond candy from Spain) or Almond Roca (absolutely fabulous almond candy) and then it will be gone forever. So, although you might only need milk and eggs, it’s good to stroll around and see what’s new: did vanilla flavoring show up? Is there cranberry juice again? Has fresh mozzarella cheese arrived? You can’t rely that what you saw before will ever be there again. Plus, what you are looking for might not be where you think it is. Ice tea mix is next to Tang, not in the tea aisle;  coconut milk is next to the salt.

The constant flux has two effects. One is stockpiling. I make it a rule to never take ALL of anything, but I have been known to take most of the Bitter Lemons. The second is that over time you get a sense of what your friends like so there is a fair amount of calling and messaging friends to let X know that there’s root beer, Y know that there’s cherry yogurt, Z know that there’s spelt bread and Christian expats are in contact (rather like the first cuckoo sighting for the Times) when candy canes show up in December.

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]

Why I Don’t Cook – Thinking about Food Exchanges

It was a sad and awful day the day I saw okra in the grocery store. Oh for Pete’s sake, okra! OKRA! the bane of my existence as a child: slimy and tasteless and, it turns out, quite the favorite here. Sigh. When I complained to my mom on the phone that I had to share this lovely country with that awful vegetable, she recommended that I could make a casserole with it and bring it to on a picnic.

I love going on picnics, but I have never brought a casserole or anything I have made, a fact I have been considering this week. One problem is that I don’t have cookbooks, another is that I am not a great cook. Also my oven has about a 20 degree temperature difference between the left and rights sides and I can’t always find things I want, especially herbs and spices.

But there are larger issues at play that make the food exchanges between me and Omanis I know so uneven. One factor is I don’t know how to make what they like to eat. Rice is a staple of Dhofari cooking and most Omanis in Dhofar eat it every day; I have cooked it perhaps twice in my life. Local favorites like asseda (cooked wheat flour with samn, clarified butter) and harees (boiled wheat with meat cooked and blended into porridge-like consistency) have only a few ingredients but need a lot of time and effort to be made properly. I am not fluent in the spices used here. I use rosewater and orange water as perfumes, not to cook with; I prefer olive oil to samn.

And I am hesitant to bring foods which had different flavors and textures than food normally eaten here: dill, brie, hollandaise sauce, pumpkin spice, sharp cheddar cheese, bitter orange marmalade. When I offered a Dhofari friend nachos, I got the same look as when I am offered cow’s stomach or goat’s intestines: “I am so happy you like that, please don’t try to make me eat it.”

There is also a worry when I bring something home-made that it might have something haram (proscribed in Islam). Dhofari friends know that I understand and respect Islamic dietary rules but, well, anyone can make a mistake. There might be a sauce I brought from outside Oman and I didn’t KNOW that there was something haram in it and…  So it is better if I bring packaged food such as cookies or dates. When bringing presents back from trips, I make sure gifts such as chocolates have a clear list of ingredients and/ or are labeled halal (permissible to eat in Islam).

Foreign restaurants are opening in Dhofar – Mexican, Thai, Sushi – and there are expanding types of food in the grocery stores such as organic and gluten-free. But this food diversity is under the umbrella of government control which ensures that all food sold in grocery stores and restaurants halal.

I love eating Omani food – white rice with freshly grilled fish and dates is one of my favorite meals. Their macaroni dishes are wonderful. All the dishes with meat, rice and spices are delicious: mandi, kabsa, makbus. I could eat halwa (see below) and basbousa (cake made with semolina, usually flavored with coconut in Salalah) every day. It’s not fair that I get enjoyable meals while only contributing Pringles, cookies, juice, soda and water but then I remember the reaction when I handed over oatmeal cookies. From politeness a few people took a nibble. The pain in their eyes was the same as mine when confronted with okra, liver, cooked carrots or bread pudding. It’s good to try new things but it’s also good to stick with what you know.

 

Halwa – (the Arabic word for ‘sweet’) is the traditional dessert of Oman. It’s 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 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 eat both together. Halwa is in the center of the photo above in the clear, square container.

Literature and Ethnography

I love turning from ethnography to literature, then back to ethnography. Thinking about culture helps me understand fiction and reading poems helps me see differences between cultures more clearly. As I sit down each semester to find new poems and stories to teach, I always think of “Finding Poems for my Students” by Mohja Kahf (complete poem below):

O my students,

I scour the world of words

to bring you poems like the rocks

my girls dig up in riverbanks

and come running to show me

because the notches in them

say something true, something

that an ancient Wisdom

wanted us to see.

I run to you, pockets full of poems…

One day,…

may the poem be for you

the one phone number in the universe

you were looking for

There is a pure joy in opening a new book of poems to see what is inside, to read how someone found a new way to describe the sky, a bird, a feeling, a person or even poetry itself. And sometimes a poem opens a door for understanding and I want to use it in a culture, not literature, class. For example in excerpt from “Four in the Morning” by Wislawa Szymborska (complete poem below) :

The hour swept clean to the crowing of cocks.

The hour when earth betrays us.

The hour when wind blows from extinguished stars.

The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us.

The hollow hour.

Blank, empty.

The very pit of all other hours.

No one feels good at four in the morning.

If ants feel good at four in the morning

–three cheers for the ants. And let five o’clock come

if we’re to go on living.

The words “The hollow hour./ Blank, empty.” struck me as odd, so I had to reflect and unpack until I could express what surprised me. In Oman, “Four in the Morning” is a dark time, but not “hollow” or “blank” or “empty” – it is the time of anticipation, the time before the first call to prayer. The dangerous time on the Arabian Peninsula is midday, under the killing sun. The “empty” time is in early afternoon, when lunch is finished, stores are closed and everyone is relaxing.

I do a lot of talking with students about metaphors in literature classes, e.g. the moon is positive in Arabian culture, with no connotations of werewolves or danger. In culture studies classes, we talk about time relativity, e.g. if you say that you “ate dinner late,” what time does that mean? In some cultures, a “late” dinner means 8pm, in others it means 2am.

We look at examples such as:

  •   It took a long time to get to work.
  •   She left work early.
  •   She did her shopping quickly.
  •   She had a short visit with her sister.

to see the different ways to interpret the phrases. Is a “short visit” 30 minutes or 2 days? In both literature and culture classes my students and I talk about how everything changes when you change locations. In the States, on a rainy day, you stay inside or use an umbrella; on rainy days here, people sit outside and have a picnic, saving unbrellas for sunny days.

When Szymborska writes that 4am is “The very pit of all other hours” she’s opening a window into her culture that allows us to see what she sees, but also allows us to be able to articulate something we knew, but never expressed, about our own cultures.

“Finding Poems for my Students,” Mohja Kahf

O my students,

I scour the world of words

to bring you poems like the rocks

my girls dig up in riverbanks

and come running to show me

because the notches in them

say something true, something

that an ancient Wisdom

wanted us to see.

I run to you, pockets full of poems.

I select: This poem will help you pass a test.

Here is one that is no help at all,

but is beautiful; take it, take it.

O my scroungers after merely passing grades,

I bring you poems I have hiked high

and far to find, knowing

they will mostly end up like the rocks

my daughters find, tossed in drawers

with old batteries, mislaid keys,

scraps bearing the addresses

of people whose names

you no longer recognize or need.

Your current glazed-eye indifference

doesn’t bother me.  One day,

when you are either cleaning house

or moving (and sooner or later

everyone must do one or the other),

you will shake the drawer and the poem

will fall out.  And may the poem be for you

the one phone number in the universe

you were looking for, and may it be

for you the mislaid key

to your greatest need.

On that day,

you will read.

 “Four in the Morning” by Wislawa Szymborska:

The hour from night to day.

The hour from side to side.

The hour for those past thirty.

The hour swept clean to the crowing of cocks.

The hour when earth betrays us.

The hour when wind blows from extinguished stars.

The hour of and-what-if-nothing-remains-after-us.

The hollow hour.

Blank, empty.

The very pit of all other hours.

No one feels good at four in the morning.

If ants feel good at four in the morning

–three cheers for the ants. And let five o’clock come

if we’re to go on living.

May Bsisu’s The Arab Table – Reading Recipes for Cultural Understandings

Bsisu, May. (2005). The Arab Table: Recipes and Culinary Traditions. New York: William Morrow.

For years, I had only one cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, a present from my mother. But after I started to do research on foodways in Southern Arabia, I began to buy cookbooks to learn more about Arabic foodways in general and to compare and contrast with Dhofari foodways. My areas of interest are how “the Arab table” can have various meanings in various locations and what those meanings might be in Dhofar.

My favorite cookbook so far is May Bsisu’s The Arab Table (2005). She is so generous and comprehensive; she lived in several countries including Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, England and the United States so she knows several food traditions and the difficulties of cooking “home” food in a new land. She includes data about which plants grow where (e.g. 252) and recipes for non-Muslim celebrations (299, 303, 345). The photos are gorgeous, the recipes are clearly written and she always gives hints, substitutions and information about where to get ingredients. I wish I had someone who would cook the delicious dishes for me!

I am reading it for cultural data, trying to catch the moments of surprise then exploring and articulating the variances, such as the difference between Bsisu’s threed/ thareed recipe (188, a platter layered with bread covered with sauce, then rice, then chicken and finished with a garnish) and how it is made in Salalah (a soup to which pieces of dried bread is added). Her chicken schwarma recipe (190) calls for pieces, not slices, of chicken. She has Um Khalid (331); in Dhofar the bread-pudding dessert is called Um Ali.

She describes specific foods for New Year’s which indicate happiness (322), something I have not found here. In asking about ‘performative’ food, i.e. food that brings about a change such as good luck, my informants say that is not part of Dhofari cultures, although there are foods for physical changes such as to lose or gain weight. She also discusses foods, such as raw meat (225) and certain cheeses (16), which are not eaten here.

Other difference are that many recipes require a specific cooking environment such as accessories not easily found in Dhofar (especially in 2005 when the book was published, for example fleece blankets 220), the implication that meat is bought from butchers who will prepare meat as requested (207), and the implied need for a fully out-fitted kitchen with spice-grinder, food processor, sauce-boats, plates to invert dishes on, etc.

Thus reading The Arab Table is fun on several levels. First there are great recipes and also I can see how not just the food choices, but the expectations of serving food, vary greatly between cultures.  For example, Bsisu discusses putting things of “each guest’s plate” (188) and setting up various “table” or “stations” for dinners (264-6) whereas in Dhofar, almost every main dish is eaten communally and guests sit in one location unless it is a large wedding party with a buffet.

At a party in a private home, there might be a table with desserts, but guests do not choose for themselves. A plate is made up and brought to them. At an Omani wedding party once, the hostess told me that she would bring a plate for me. I told her not to bother and got up and took sweets for myself. Later I realized how rude I had been, to deny her the chance to take care of a guest and to possibly allow others to judge her as not being an attentive hostess, to let a clearly foreign woman fend for herself.

The Arab Table is an excellent, thorough, big-hearted overview of Arab cooking.

https://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/00000144-0a39-d3cb-a96c-7b3d746a0000

(photo above is from social media, I didn’t want to take images from her book without permission)

 

Food Here and There/ Missing Food

While traveling recently I was thinking about how people miss foods when they are not in their home culture, but it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes you miss a certain taste (Diet Coke served with a lime slice and a lot of ice) and sometimes it’s a food experience (food + activity, walking around a mall with a Diet Coke in hand).

When I am not in Oman, I don’t miss food – I miss food experiences. I don’t like rice, but I miss white rice with grilled fresh fish served with dates, eaten on a beach with friends next to a campfire. I miss the way of eating: eating with my hands and the knowledge that all food is communal, that I can take something from another person’s plate without worrying that they will be upset and all my food is up for grabs from someone else. I don’t miss hummus, but I miss how hummus (and all appetizers) are shared. There’s no ‘I ordered this, it’s mine, if you want to try you have to ask my permisson’ but you ask for hummus and fatoush, the person you are with gets vine leaves and baba ganoush and you each take as much as you want from any dish.

When I am in Oman, I really miss coffee, the joy of a waiter or waitress walking towards me with a large carafe of coffee that will be put on my table. I have had more than my fill of “espresso-coffee” (espresso with hot water is not really coffee!). And I miss food. I miss pie. I miss raspberries, big salads with 25 ingredients, cheese plates and Mexican food. I miss a real breakfast: eggs, toast, hash browns and all the trimmings. I miss the taste of cranberries: cranberry juice and cranberry/ orange muffins.

Thinking about ‘missing’ reminds me of a great quote from Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon (2001)

The things an American who is abroad for a very long time misses—or at least the things I missed—I was discovering, weren’t the things you were supposed to miss. We are supposed to come to Europe for leisure, sunshine, a more civilized pace, for slowness of various kinds. America we are supposed to miss for its speed, its friendliness, for the independence of its people and the individualism of their lives. Yet these were not the things I missed, and when I speak to Americans who have lived abroad for a long time, those are not the things they seem to miss either. I didn’t miss crosstown traffic, New York taxicabs, talk radio or talk television, or the constant, appalling flow of opinion that spills out like dirty floodwater…

I found, to my surprise, that what I missed and longed for was the comforting loneliness of life in New York, a certain kind of scuffed-up soulfulness. In Paris no relationship, even one with a postman or a dry cleaner, is abstract or anonymous; human relations are carved out in a perpetual present tense. There’s an intricacy of debits and credits. Things have histories…The things Americans miss tend to involve that kind of formlessness, small, casual, and solitary pleasures. A psychoanalyst misses walking up Lafayette Street in her tracksuit, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup with the little plastic piece that pops up. My wife, having been sent the carrot cake that she missed from New York, discovered that what she really missed was standing up at the counter and eating carrot cake in the company of strangers at the Bon Vivant coffee shop.