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.

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 were 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, 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 families, sometimes a smaller one with 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

Houseways – Balancing Privacy and Hospitality within an Apartment

This is the first of several short essays about housing in Dhofar. After a few posts with photos illustrating types of homes, I will write about theories and cultural perceptions of safety and privacy within home-spaces. Before I begin I would like to thank my Dhofari friends and informants who are so patient in answering questions and so kind in allowing me to take and post these photos.

Normally, pictures are only taken while building a house or when someone has just moved in, in which case they are only shared between close friends. Rooms which have been prepared for a marriage (with wedding gifts on display) are sometimes circulated, without names, through social media. The only other time photos of interiors are taken is for a host or hostess to show that the house is ready for a party; photos of exteriors are usually only taken to be sent to delivery people so that they can recognize the house. So it is not normal to take “every-day” photos of a lived-in house. I am very grateful for their trust in me and their willingness to support my efforts to understand the cultures of Dhofar.  

These are photos from a newly-built, Dhofari-designed apartment that is at the side and back of a family house. The owner’s (X) family lives in a 3-story house which is accessible through a gate facing the main road. The apartment is on the south side, facing an unpaved alley, and is entered through a side gate which leads to a small paved area and steps up to the entry door. On the ground floor landing, there are two doors (with metal numbers attached so food delivery workers know which doorbell to ring) and then steps up to the upper floors. One of the ground floor apartments is my informant’s (Y, who is a member of X’s extended family) and the other is for a relative of X. On the first floor are two apartments: one used by X as a retreat and to entertain male guests without having to bother anyone in the main house; the other is for a relative of X. The top floor is one apartment rented by a relative of X, who is also related to Y.

I will discuss this sort of building in a later post, but briefly, this sort of structure is normal in the main city of Salalah. Until the last 5 or 10 years, houses were built as one entity, often one story, with additional stories added later to accommodate married sons and their families. Now, some homeowners find it easier to take (no-interest) loans from the bank or family/ friends, build a large (3-story) house with a few small, separate apartments which are entered through a second door. The flats are then rented out to help repay the loan and/ or given to older relatives, married sons or relatives in need (for example a young relative who is attending college in Salalah).

Larger homes have two front doors: one leading to the majlis, the men’s and male visitor’s sitting room. The other leads into the family/ private part of the house, with a long hallway which has a large opening for the salle (women’s, close family and female guests’ sitting room), e.g. the salle is a three-sided room with one side open to the hallway. But in an apartment with one entrance, the majlis is the open area is directly in front of the door and the salle is a room near the front of the apartment which can be closed off with its own door.

When you open Y’s door, directly ahead is the majlis area with a sectional sofa along the left wall and straight ahead with a coffee tale in front of it. At the end of the sofa to the right is an archway leading into a hallway off of which are the family/ private areas. To the right of the archway is a door leading to the salle and to the far right is a guest bathroom (with the door partially hidden by a curtain). Thus male guests are placed on the longer part of sofa (under the AC, facing the front door) so that if women are in the salle, they can get up and move to the kitchen and bedrooms without being seen. Or women can simply stay in the salle and close the door.

fa - majlis entry

[edge of majlis sofa and coffee table, hallway, door to salle and door to guest bathroom]

fa - hall

[edge of majlis sofa and the hallway; looking down the hallway, the kitchen door is to the left, then there is a hallway door so that the two bedrooms (each with their own bathroom, one bedroom door can be seen, the other is out of sight to the right) can be completely shut off from the front of the apartment. Thus a man can entertain male friends in the majlis area, with access to the guest bathroom and the kitchen, without disturbing other inhabitants. Women, children and other men can also access the kitchen without disturbing guests.]

fa - salle

[salle, notice how there are many square armrests with a set-in-square of glass – they are for cups of tea and small plates. When eating a meal, it’s normal to set the platter of rice and meat on a plastic mat on the floor, along with cans of juice or soda. But for relaxing, it’s normal to have the cups of tea and small plates with sweets up off the floor.]

fa - kitchen

[kitchen, note that since this apartment is on the ground floor, this kitchen has access to the bottom of the light well (door straight ahead) where the washing machine is placed; apartments on upper floors have only window access (above the sink)]

fa - kitchen2

[view from kitchen back towards hallway, note that walls are tiled up to the ceiling and the floor has a tile pattern that looks like a rug, the fridge (and stove) are slightly raised on platforms so that floor can be cleaned by sluicing water, which drains though an opening in the floor in front of the sink]

I will be presenting “Ethical Eating in Southern Oman” at the annual convention of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, June 2021.

I am pleased to announce that I will be presenting “Ethical Eating in Southern Oman” at Just Food, virtual conference of the Association for the Study of Food and Society; Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society; Canadian Association for Food Studies and the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition, hosted by the Culinary Institute of America and New York University. June 9-15, 2021.

(photo from social media)

y - good morning 1

https://foodanthro.com/2020/12/01/just-food-because-it-is-never-just-food/

https://www.food-culture.org/2021-conference/

Oman vs. Covid-19, 2021 graphics

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

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Foodways and Living Expat on the Arabian Peninsula – part 2

(photo by Salwa Hubais)

I love those moments in which foodways and culture interact in ways that take me by surprise. When I lived in Cyrus, a friend from India kept trying to find “Indian Chinese,” Chinese food spiced the way it is in India. I didn’t really understand what she meant until I moved to the Arabian Peninsula and realized that what I had thought of a “Chinese” was really “American Chinese”; there is no General Tso’s chicken outside of North America!

A non-American friend asked me why all American breakfast foods are spiced with cinnamon in the same way I wonder why people in the UK insist on putting raisins in every dish.

It’s always impossible to say what foods you will miss most when you move abroad. When I lived in Europe, I asked my mom to send me crab seasoning, a spice I never liked before and never used, but that little tin sat on my bookshelf proudly for a year.

Moving overseas always means culinary adjustments. One friend is vegetarian by choice, but when he tried to be vegetarian on the Arabian Peninsula, what he ate became the main topic of every meal. After many conversations centered around his food choices, he decided that when he was in the Middle East, he would eat vegetarian when he could (which meant, when he was alone) and ate sparingly of what was offered when he was eating with friends.

When I used to do cultural orientations for new teachers, I would tell them that everyone has unspoken/ unacknowledged expectations about foreign cultures in that they will think, “I know that X will be different but of course Y will be the same.” And when they see their “of course Y will be the same…” start to fall apart, it is painful. Especially when it comes to basics such as grocery stores (no pastrami, scone mix, turkey, toasted onions, salad-in-a-bag or soft pretzels); potato flakes are shelved next to pancake mix and every Cheeto is ‘flaming hot’ here.

You are faced with “Party fever” spray deodorant, hokey-pokey (ask someone from New Zealand), Jaggery (isn’t that a Dickens’s character?), angel delight (?), Tim-Tams (ask someone from Australia), “Chicago Sauce,” fish maw soup, and jungle oats with a recipe on the side for “fish cakes” which begins with “one tin of sardines in tomato sauce.”

The oil aisle is a pure delight. Of course you have your basics: almond oil, sunflower, coconut oil, pure ghee, Mazola, grape seed, and peanut oil, then the flights of fancy take off: olive oil from Spain and Italy, toasted sesame oil, gingelly oil, olive pomace oil, ground nut, walnut oil from France, basil, lemon, soy bean, avocado oil. The spice aisle has “Zeal” (aka MSG), “Spice for Mince,” “Zulu Fine,” “Spice for Rice,” “Spice for Mince,” “Veggie Season,” juniper berries, and my favorite: bits of raw sugar and cinnamon sticks in a grinder.

Many texts about the Middle East talk about guests being forced to over-eat or the horrors of being given camel eyes to eat. I have not seen that – my issues are with the jalapenos lurking under the cheese on pizzas, never being able to drink filter coffee (it’s always hot water added to an espresso), being invited for dinner at 8pm and having the food actually served at midnight, discovering that the dessert is sweetened shredded carrots, being invited over to chat and given a glass of tap-water and nothing else… Salads don’t have dressings, bread is not served with butter, drinks are brought out after the meal is finished – it’s different. Not better, not worse – just different.

good words

Foodways and Living Expat

One of the issues I have run into doing research about food is trying to stay neutral when describing unfamiliar foodways. It’s easy to fall into finger-pointing about “bad food” such as Omanis discussing my oatmeal cookies (to them, they taste like sand) and my declining to try their dried, salted shark filet.

The men in my research group are disgusted at my eating “old” food (cold, leftover pizza) and it took me a long time to accept that a toasted white bread sandwich with processed cheese spread, crushed Chips Oman, a sliced boiled egg and hot sauce is a good snack.

They tease me because I can’t cook rice; I have yet to eat a decent muffin in Oman (and don’t get me started on the hollandaise sauce!) Even food metaphors fall apart cross-culturally: one store had a large sign: “if life doesn’t give you lemons, we deliver.” I think I have enough ‘lemons’ at the moment, I do not want any delivered!

Like at home, my friends know each other’s favorite restaurants, but since food appears and disappears in the grocery stores, we are all on the look-out for basics. You slowly learn what others crave and preform the basic kindness of standing in grocery aisles and calling/ sending messages: “they have blueberry yoghurt,” “molasses is here,” “vanilla powder is in” and “I see Dr. Pepper!”

Shopping is more stressful to me than at home – there’s a lot of hide and seek. Pasta sauce is in three different aisles, and often the salsa is mixed in. Salt has its own section not near the spices (and don’t even dream of finding tarragon or rosemary), sugar is with the coffee not the flour, muffin cups are on the other side of the store from the muffin mix, the few times cranberry sauce appears it is next to the golden syrup, croutons are next to dried soup mixes and crackers are in the cereal aisle.

Then, when you have found something – there is always the debate: is this going to be worth the money? The joy of seeing Ben and Jerry’s was canceled by the fact that the three times I have ventured to try it, the ice cream had freezer-burn. Many delicious-looking cakes and tortes have tasted liked wood shavings. I have bought many items because I was afraid the store would never have it again (green salsa), to encourage the store to keep it in stock (dried tortellini) or that I will never eat (Lindt bears as holiday decorations, cookies and 7-Up for workers).

Once covid hit, friends and I tag-teamed shopping so I learned to find all sorts of things I never knew existed: sprouted rice, coconut flour, beetroot powder and pea pasta.

There a lot of rabbit holes to fall down, especially in reading menus. There are misspellings: “frut” for “fruit, “pommel grenade” for “pomegranate,” “mashromme” for “mushroom,” and “pasilic” for “basil.” Some words are just transliterated so you can get quickly lost with “rocka,” “arais,” “pine” and “akkawi.”

Just as a person needs to learn that “Florentine” means “with spinach,” there are place adjectives in Middle Eastern cooking; for example, “hummus Beiruti” means “with garlic.” When I try to get a pizza the way I want it, I need to use all three ways to describe one thing: green peppers, capsicum, and fil-fil bard (“cold peppers”). And you can’t order a cheese pizza, you need to say “margarita,” but that word is often confused with “fajita” so you end up with a spicy chicken pizza instead of plain cheese. 

In addition to food, it took me awhile to get used to how to eat – I still spill a lot of rice when eating with my hands. And, after a few years, I am finally accustomed to the eat-then-talk-for-hours routine in Dhofar. When a non-Omani friend invited me for dinner (sitting outside!), we arrived at 7:30, were done eating by 9 and as I was expecting that we were going to settle in to talk, she asked for the bill. I was amazed – weren’t we going to “visit”? I had forgotten my previous understanding that dinner in a restaurant took 1 ½ to 2 hours, 3 or 4 hours is normal to me now.

(photo from social media)

IMG_4560

New book on Dhofar forthcoming from Dr. Andrew Spalton and Dr. Hadi al Hikmani: “Dhofar: From Monsoon Mountains to Sand Seas”

Andrew Spalton and Hadi Al Hikmani’s book, The Arabian Leopards of Oman (2014), is an important resource for anyone interested in the Dhofar region and I am so pleased to see that they have another book coming out soon: Dhofar: From Monsoon Mountains to Sand Seas, Celebrating the Natural Diversity of Oman’s Dhofar Region.

More information can be found at: https://www.gilgamesh-publishing.co.uk/dhofar-from-monsoon-forests-to-sand-seas.html

A few of Dr. Al Hikamni and Dr. Spalton’s other texts about Dhofar:

Al Hikmani, Hadi, Said Zabanoot, Talah Shahari, Nasser Zabanoot, Khalid Hikmani, and Andrew Spalton. 2015. “Status of the Arabian Gazelle, Gazella arabica (Mammalia: Bovidae), in Dhofar, Oman.” Zoology in the Middle East 61: 1-5. 10.1080/09397140.2015.1101905.

Al Hikmani, Hadi and Khaled al Hikmani. 2012. “Arabian Leopard in Lowland Region on the South face of Jebel Samhan, Oman.” Cat News 57: 4-5.

Ball, Lawrence, Douglas MacMillan, Joseph Tzanopoulos, Andrew Spalton, Hadi Al Hikmani and Mark Moritz. 2000. “Contemporary Pastoralism in the Dhofar Mountains of Oman.” Human Ecology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-020-00153-5

Spalton, Andrew, Hadi Musalam al Hikmani, David Willis and Ali Salim Bait Said. 2006. “Critically Endangered Arabian Leopards (Panthera pardus nimrpersist) in the Jabal Samhan Nature Reserve, Oman.” Oryx 40.3: 287-294.