Steve Cass, teacher and friend

Today is truly a “sorrowing day.” I am grieving the loss of my dear friend and co-teacher, Steve Cass. I met him my first day at work and our offices were next to each others for more than 10 years. A kind and patient man who devoted all his energy to teaching, we had endless talks about how to teach well. He found joy in helping students learn and spent many happy years as head of the Learning Support Center. His legacy of education can be seen in the sadness of all who knew him and the many accolades from former students.  We will all miss him very much – his smile, his positivity, his gentleness, his honesty and bravery in always fighting for what was right for the students.
 
 
“The Tray,” Naomi Shihab Nye
 
Even on a sorrowing day
the little white cups without handles
would appear
filled with steaming hot tea
in a circle on the tray,
and whatever we were able
to say or not say,
the tray would be passed,
we would sip
in silence,
it was another way
lips could be speaking together,
opening on the hot rim,
swallowing in unison.
 
 
 
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photo by Stephen J. Cass
 
 
 

Cows

As I did a post on camels – Camels and Camel-Owners  – I have to give equal time to cows. If Dhofaris have herd animals, it is usually either camels OR cows, not often does a family have both. Although it is common to own goats either alone or with camels or cows. None of the three types of animals like to be in the same area at the same time. In khareef  (the monsoon season which is ending now), camels are taken out of areas which get rain as their flat feet can’t get traction on slippery ground.  Cows are usually kept indoors during the day because of the swarms of mosquitos. With the start of fall weather (sunny and dry), camels will soon be herded back to the regular grazing grounds in the mountains and cows will be let out during the day; but the two types of animals usually keep to separate areas. Goats are almost always let out of pens with a herder, who will steer them away from the larger animals. 

 

cows

a mountain cow pen (photo used with permission)

 

IMG_3577

mountains in khareef

cows in mountain

cows in khareef

cows on beach

cows on the beach

You Have Nothing to Fear from Sheep’s Eyes but Beware the Carrot Sweet: Researching Foodways in Southern Oman

During over a decade of picnics with men from southern Oman, I have never been offered the eyes, brain, tongue or tail of any animal. The cliché of guests being offered the ‘unloved’ parts of an animal doesn’t hold here in the Dhofar region. And it’s not that large platter of rice and meat that will cause you problems. Men will encourage you to eat, but if you gather up a few grains of rice in your hand and lift it towards your mouth, the host’s attention will move on.

If you are given a fish, you can turn the head away from you and start to eat from tail up, scattering by chance a few shreds of lettuce over the eyes. Then you declare yourself full before you need to deal with the stomach area, much less digging into the skull for the fish cheeks.

What you should fear is ladies’ parties with lots of very generous, caring, strong-arming women.

Men usually have dinner with friends on the beach or in a scenic place in the mountain. It’s dark, eating is done quickly and men come and go freely; there is little policing of who eats what. Although the cook might toss special pieces of meat or fish towards you, if you don’t want to eat them, simply leave them alone.

But women parties are usually indoors, with lots of light and everyone sits in their places for several hours so you are constantly under observation.

I love wedding parties because the air is full of beautiful perfumes and everyone is in gorgeous, comfortable, multi-color thobes (the loose, traditional Dhofari dress). And the food is delicious, but you cannot escape it. Either waitresses or relatives of the groom will bring around trays of drinks and sweets and everyone, not just the hostess, but all the other guests, will encourage you to partake.

You have had four cups of super-leaded, espresso-strength, cardamom-spiced Omani qahwa (coffee)? The generous women would like you to have a fifth cup! “You didn’t drink anything! Do you not like the coffee? Do you want tea! BRING TEA, SHE WANTS TEA!”  they call.

You protest but, alas, give up. The tsunami of kindness is coming for you. Take up the tea cup and drink. And as soon as you set down the cup, here come someone with juice, soda, instant coffee, chai ahmar (“red tea,” black tea with only sugar added), chai haleeb (“milk tea,” black tea with milk and sugar), or karak (loose tea with spices and milk).

Then come the sweets accompanied by women benevolently asking you to take another spoonful of halwa, the traditional Omani dessert. And like a swan-dive into a bowl of whipped cream, you submit to your fate: a small plate of carrot sweet, a bowl of crème caramel, a slice of cake, a bowl of ice cream, fruit salad, luqaymat/ loqeemat (sweet fried dough with a sugar syrup), basbousa, and wrapped chocolates.

And now, just as you give up any thought of ever moving again, dinner is served. A generous woman hands you a plate heaped high with a selection of appetizers (hummus, fattoush, baba ghanoush, etc., with pita bread) and qabooli (a dish with spices, rice and meat). Then, of course, dessert is served.

There have been weekends in which I have inhabited both worlds. One night was spent wearing loose cotton trousers and a tunic top with a plain blue headscarf and sitting on a plastic mat on a beach out of sight from any man-made lights. Dinner was fresh-caught fish cooked over a fire. The men in my research group and I ate with our hands, drank Dew, looked at the stars, listened to the sea and talked until 1am. The next night I wore a decorated velvet thobe with full make-up, my meager supply of gold jewelry and a lot of duty-free perfume, in a room full of air-conditioning, bright lights, and delightful women who wanted to stuff me until I burst.

Omani people are very open-hearted and open-handed and doing research on foodways is a lot of fun, but it is not for the meek or the small of stomach.

Reflections on Ethnographic Research: (Not) Asking Questions

“What is your favorite fruit?”

I stared in surprise at the younger relative who had just asked me that. There are a group of us eating breakfast and chatting; the question seemed odd to me, but I answered. Then I realized that I should ask “back.” So I asked her what her favorite fruit is.

Thinking about that exchange, I decided that I am out of practice for being asked questions. With my friends in Dhofar, I usually follow their pattern which is “if you want someone to know something, tell them.” Direct questions are rare, especially questions about expressing a preference.

At a friend’s house a few weeks later, I was talking to her son about of interest of his and ran into the opposite problem. I recognized afterwards that I should have asked what “his favorite” was – I had missed a good chance to hear his opinions.

Remembering those two moments in which I felt out of tune with American conversational tactics made me consider how I use and don’t use questions while doing research. Part of my hesitation about asking Dhofaris about their ideas and lives comes from trying to find a balance between a good friend and a good researcher. It’s not necessarily a tension, but it means (as Dhofaris say) “holding myself,” trying to think before speaking and choosing the right time and reason for asking for information.

As one example, a few years ago I asked one of the research guys (X) if he was free to have a picnic with the group on a Thursday night. He told me that his sister was getting married. I read that statement as a way of shutting down, not opening up, further conversation. If he had simply said, “I am busy” I probably would have asked if he wanted to meet with the group on Friday. I interpreted him telling me about the wedding, as if he was saying, “I and the people who you know in my family and extended family will all be busy all weekend” given that weddings are usually held on Friday or Saturday nights and in the days before, all members of the household are getting ready.

Dhofaris usually only talk about relatives when there is a specific need and usually only ask if there is a specific reason, such as asking after someone who you were told was sick or going to travel. Hearing that his sister was getting married made me want to ask a lot of questions; with Americans, asking about a sibling’s wedding is a positive sign of interest in your friend. But I couldn’t justify asking him. In my opinion, there was no need for me to know details. Even though I wanted to know, I felt that I had to accept Dhofari standards so I replied with the conventional statements about how I wished the couple well and hoped everything would be well. The next time I saw him I asked about “the wedding” in general terms. He affirmed that everything went well and that was the end of the topic.

Later, the situation changed. I was writing the section of my Houseways book about how Dhofaris move rooms (or don’t) when they get married or divorced. One facet that came out in interviews was whether a married woman would spend the night in her family’s home with her husband. I had information from a few women, but I wanted to get a man’s perspective.

So during a picnic, I told X that, if it was ok, I wanted to ask a few questions about where couples stayed after they were married. He agreed.

The next time I saw him, I pulled out my notebook and, even though I had done other interviews with him about topics related to houses, I started again at the beginning by explaining the Houseways project, then about my current focus about how people moved between houses. I said I wanted to ask some questions on that topic and that I would not write his name, tribe or any details that would allow readers to identify him or any family members.

When he agreed, I picked up my pen, opened my book and started in. I asked him about which houses he had spent the night in as a child and after he was married. Then I said, “Is it ok if I ask about your sister?” When he agreed, I asked a whole series of questions: How often does your sister come to visit your family house (where she was raised)? When your sister comes to visit, does she spend the night? How often? Does her husband stay the night with her? etc.

Then I moved on to general questions (do you know of any examples of married women who spend the night in their family’s house with their husband?) and hypotheticals. Then I paged back to a previous interview. I told him that I had asked a woman (Y) from Z group of tribes about this issue, I was going to read what she said and could he please give his opinion on her attitude.

I wrote up the interviews, tried to figure out the variables of the decision tree of who stays where in which house, then discussed what I had written with X, Y and other informants. At the end, I had a few paragraphs which I think accurately sum up the issue.

In the general context of talking between friends, asking X about his sister was not OK. But in the specific context of me trying to figure out how married Dhofari women maneuver through various houses, asking X questions directly related to my research was acceptable. He was helping me understand a world-view, i.e. what choices people perceived they had and how those choices were decided.

(picture is part of a photo from social media – yes Dhofar is very green now and, gentle reminder, please pick up your trash after picnicking!) 

Foodways: Cultures, Food Selfishness and “Could I Have a Little Bite?”

“May I have a sip?” asks a much-loved older relative.

I stifle a sigh and hand over my coffee cup.

Three minutes later, “Can I have another sip?”

With a small sigh, I hand over the cup.

Two minutes later, “Can I…” and I hand the cup over while biting my lip.

I don’t want to share. That cup of caramel/ Brazil nut/ vanilla-flavored coffee is my first flavored filter coffee in 11 months and, since I probably won’t be back to that store again this summer, it’s the last of that kind for another year. And I want to savor every drop of it.

And cherished older relative could have bought their own, heck I would have paid for their own. But no, my relatives want “just a sip” and “just a bite.”

This might have turned me into a person happy to share, but it did not. I turned into a person who hates handing over my coffee cup, doing it only under duress and after chiding myself about the importance of generosity.

Then I moved to Oman and learned a whole new system of dealing of food. There is no “mine” and no “yours” when eating with my Dhofari friends. There is “ours” and everyone attempts to be the person who is fastest to pass the freshly poured cup of tea or the newly opened box of cookies to someone else.

When I am with female friends at restaurants; food is automatically pushed towards the center of the table. We cut off pieces of whatever we ordered and place it on each other’s plates, even if that person is protesting that they don’t want any. We unconsciously put some French fries on a plate in the middle of the table or turn our plates so it’s easy for someone to take some.

On picnics, the food is set out communally on a platter. No one takes anything out of the coolbox without asking each person what they want first. At the end of the night, you try as hard as possible to give the leftovers to someone else. Several times I have pushed others to take food (halwa or qibqab, a thin, plain cracker-like bread) that I really wanted to bring home.

I do this instinctively in Oman but when I am staying with family, my food protection systems engage, the remnant of years of fending off “just a bite” and “you should share.”

Seeing food (taco salad! cinnamon-raisin bread! potato salad! cranberry muffins!) that I haven’t had for almost a year, I get selfish. When I open a small (one person!) bag of Old Bay-spiced potato chips and a relative hovers and dives in, I fight my instinct to hold the bag out of reach.

When people ask for “just a sip,” I am still cranky but I envision my Omani friends’ horror at the thought of my behaving badly. I remember all the meals shared and all the French fries I have stolen as I hand over the coffee cup.

“It’s just pie, people are more important than pie,” I say to myself as a foreign fork appears at the side of my plate. I push my plate towards the fork, saying “go ahead” with a cheery tone. Ethnographic work changes you. For the better.

 

 

 

Reflections on Houseways Research

I got the e-mail confirming that my Houseways book will be published in January 2023 while sitting in a living room that is completely opposite of the rooms I have described and lived in Oman. The Canadian house had wooden floors and furniture, windows without curtains, no AC, a big fireplace, floor lamps, crocheted afghans, many photos and bookshelves overflowing with novels, candles, puzzles, souvenirs and small wooden carvings of birds. Looking at the room while thinking of the descriptions of Omani houses in my book was a good reminder of how differently people arrange their living spaces.

Given that my academic background is literature and travel writing, it might seem odd that I decided to write about houses, but I grew up in a home in which everyone had strong opinions about how to live and an active interest in building decks, planting gardens, finding a rug in exactly the right shade of blue and putting the sofa there, no, not there, there, a little to the right, no, now forward a little.

As I child, I wanted to live in a Baroque castle; everyone else wanted to live in a modernist, northern European design-aesthetic structure. I wanted to read novels; everyone else wanted to figure out if it was possible to punch a hole in that wall to put in a window. For my 13th birthday I wanted a ball gown and was given my very own tool kit with hammer, pliers, wrench, level and screwdrivers.

I heard about Mansard roofs, color wheels, mixed-use developments and Frank Lloyd Wright. Our living room had a Barcelona chair, a Scandinavian Designs sofa and a Century House (Madison, WI) rug; when my father and I went to England, it was to see Milton Keynes and Welwyn Garden City. I watched my family build furniture, swatch paints, install insulation, build benches to strengthen community bonds in our neighborhood and weed. I read in cafés while they re-framed doorways.

The root of this problem was that when he was in his early 20s, my father walked into Louisburg Square in Boston and thought, “everyone should live like this.” That collection of houses changed his life; he became an urban planner and spent more than 60 years thinking, talking, writing and teaching about how to form better-organized houses, neighborhoods and cities. My mother creates gardens and both siblings have planned renovations of their houses down to the trim on the underside of cabinets.

I thought I had escaped this legacy until I got interested in how Dhofaris design kitchens as part of my Foodways project [ Foodways in Southern Oman – Short Essays and Images ]. I realized, while that I am not interested in decorating or remodeling, I love listening to people’s stories about how they live in their houses, what choices they make and why.

I am grateful to my family for all that early training and to the Omanis who have trusted me with their stories, opinions, photos and friendship.

https://www.routledge.com/Houseways-in-Southern-Oman/Risse/p/book/9781032218595

https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/mono/10.4324/9781003270317/houseways-southern-oman-marielle-risse