Houseways in Dhofar: Placement of Furniture and Sightlines

I am grateful to Maria Cristina Hidalgo [https://www.mariacristinah.com/ ] for her helpful plans and to my informants who have allowed me to chart their homes.

1) Perspective view of front hallway

The first point is that when one walks through the main door, there is often no furniture in sight. Sometimes there is a high, narrow table near the door to set things on that will be out of reach of children or one might be able to get a glimpse into the salle but, as the perspective below illustrates, most of the furnishings are out of sight.

Model

2) Ground floor plan with furniture

Below is a bird’s eye view of the same house, showing how, as is usual in Dhofari houses, all the furniture is placed against the wall except for the small, moveable tables in the salle and majlis which are put in front of guests (represented here with small squares).

Model

A few notes about the ground floor plan:

  • All the furniture is against the wall, most notable in the kitchen which has a small built-in table.
  • The salle is open to the main hallway but there is also a sliding door in the family salle and a door in kitchen, plus the outside door in the majlis. Thus, there could be four different types of visitors to the house at the same time who would not see each other because each were using a different door: male guests in the majlis, female guests in the salle, relatives in the family salle and a cleaner, repair person or someone bringing supplies such as drinking water or a gas canister into the kitchen.
  • The arch over the hallway at the far end separates the more public area (guest and family salles) from the family-only areas of the kitchen and one of the family suites.
  • The bedroom and maid’s room doors are set at 180 degrees from someone walking in from the front door; there is no way to see in “by chance.” Further, the beds are placed in such as way that they can only be seen if a person walks into the room.
  • There is constant air movement; the house has split ACs (meaning the motor is on the roof) and the kitchen and every bathroom has an exhaust fan which are usually on all the time.
  • There are five family suites on the upper floor, meaning the staircase is both the least used in terms of time (no one sits on the stairs) and most used in that every member of the house will use the stairs several times a day, except for the person living in the downstairs bedroom. For example, a women who does not cook might not enter the kitchen every day and a man might not have a reason to enter the salle for a week at a time.

3) Example of family suite

A door to the hallway which leads to a suite with a bathroom and two rooms is a very common floor plan in Dhofar; sometimes there is an additional store room. When a couple is newly married, one room is a bedroom and the other a sitting room. If they have several children, the suite will be set up as below, with one room for the parents and one for the children. When the children are older, they might be moved into a different suite which has one room with same gender relatives of the same age (siblings, cousins, etc.) and the second room as a study/ plan room. Only in very large houses would one person have a suite to themselves.

Model

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Houseways: House plans

(drawings by Maria Cristina Hidalgo, https://www.mariacristinah.com/ )

Below are three houseplans with comments to help illustrate living spaces in Dhofar.Model

House 1 – It is easy to note that this is an older house, probably built in the 1980s or 90s, as it has the salle as the main, not separate, room. The second (back) door is also built off the salle, not from the kitchen as is usual in more modern houses. The unmarked room would be for storage. Also note that the internal door to the majlis opens directly into the salle; now there is usually a short hallway, or at least the entrance is set at an angle so there are no direct sight lines.

Model

House 2- Note that now the salle is now a separate room and there are two doors between the  majlis and the rest of the interior of the house so that the house feels more segmented. Also there is an internal door in the hallway, to give the two back bedrooms more privacy.

IMG_2010

House 3 – built approximately 2010.

These three examples show how the trend in housing is towards creating more closed off/ divided spaces. In house 1, a person sitting in the salle would have visual access to anyone coming or leaving; in house 2 someone in the salle could see the front door but in house 3 only a person sitting opposite the salle entrance could know who was coming or leaving. Likewise in house 1, someone in the kitchen could hear what was being said in the salle; in house 2, it would be more difficult but one could hear the sounds of people in the hallway. In house 3, the kitchen is very cut off from the rest of the house. In both houses 1 and 2, the majlis is separated from the rest of the house by the bathroom area and two doors. 

 

Houseways: Dhofari/ non-Dhofari house plans

[illustration plan by Maria Cristina Hidalgo, https://www.mariacristinah.com/ ]

Sometimes you can only understand what is “normal” for you when you see the same object used differently or in a different place. That sudden shock can help you understand the unwritten/ unacknowledged rules of your culture.

One housing example is light switches. Americans who move to the Arabian Peninsula are confronted with 6 or 9 identical switches in a room or in a hallway. The switches will be placed higher than expected, almost shoulder height, and will be for the ceiling lights, wall lights and fans. As most ceiling lights are florescent which take a few seconds to turn on and the fan has a separate circular switch for speed-adjustment (but is also turned on and off by a switch) you can spend over a minute pushing switches trying to figure out how to turn things on and off. It’s even more confusing for bathroom fixtures as the switches are outside next to the door and will be for the ceiling light, vanity light and extractor fan, as well as hallway lights.

Another example is looking at house plans; since I have started on this project, I have spent a lot of time looking at house plans and seeing examples from other cultures helps me articulate what are some of the expectations of designing Dhofari houses.

Example 1:

example - walk into kitchen

In this home, you walk into the dining room, something that would not happen in a Dhofari house. Also the kitchen in open-air, with no separating wall, much less a door. This would not work in a culture in which cooking smells are considered as negative. Notice how someone standing at the sink has complete visual access to the dining area, living room and porch; there is no possibility of gender segregation. And there are 21 seats (including the 2 floor cushions in the living room), if the dining room table was rotated 90 degrees and the 2 chairs in the living room were turned, the space could easily hold 25 or more people. The space allows for a large, mixed gender party.

Example 2:

example - maids room - ready

What struck me about about this plan is how little seating there is: only 14 seats in the main area and there doesn’t look like there is enough room for 4 people on the small sofa in the private TV space. If the couple who live here invite another couple for dinner, someone is going to spend the evening sitting on a dining room table chair. Also interesting is the maid’s bedroom and bathroom. Having a female maid live-in is common in Dhofar and the room is usually next to or near the kitchen in a one-story house

Example 3:

example - 4 sitting rooms

I loved trying to figure out this house – it’s the perfect expression of a culture that has a lot of concern over who sees what and how in/ out of the group a person is.

In the bottom left is the most ‘out-group’ space:  it’s a majlis (male sitting room) with NO connection to the interior of the house and no bathroom. To the right is the main male entrance, leading to majlis with a bathroom opposite. Further ahead to the left is a dining room that is set up with two doors so the lower door (near majlis) can be closed/ locked while the table is set up, then the door near the majlis is opened while the upper door (leading into the house) is closed for family privacy. When the men leave, the door near the majlis is closed and the door to the house is opened for clean up, so male visitors can never see or hear any of the house occupants.

To the right, above the majlis, is the family entrance which opens into an entryway with a bathroom opposite the salle (sitting room for female relatives and visitors). If needed, female guests could use the dining room if the lower door (to the majlis) is locked. Notice how, if a female visitor left the salle and turned left, then left again to enter the dining room, there are NO sight-lines for the family seating section or even the doors to the kitchen or bedroom. To get to the family seating area, a visitor would have to turn right and cross the atrium; there is no way someone could do this ‘by accident’ so visitors will never be able to see who else was in the house. 

Family members would pass through the entryway and turn right into the family space, with the family bathroom to the left. Except for the bathroom that is inside the bedroom, all three bathrooms (near majlis, near salle and near family space) are built in two sections with a sink area, then an inner door leading to a toilet and sink.

The kitchen is in the upper right-hand corner (with door to prevent cooking odors from reaching the house) and a door to the outside, for bringing in supplies and taking out trash without entering the family section. The bedroom in the upper left hand corner is, to me, too big for a maid’s room (which I would expect to be on the roof or near the children’s rooms). I would assume that this would be for either an older family member, so that they don’t have to climb the stairs, or the couple most responsible for the house.

There are a lot of details that remind me of Dhofari houses, such as the storeroom off the kitchen that can be locked and the side tables in the corners of all four seating areas (external majlis, main majlis, salle and family sitting space) so that people are always sitting in a circle-shape.

Another detail is the set-back of the bedroom and kitchen doors. If you look at the bedroom door, for example, you can see that it could be moved forward (to the left) so that the doorframe is flush with the end of the lower wall. But in its current position, one can’t see if the door is open or shut unless you are standing in front of it. Further, given that the TV in the family sitting room is on the lower wall (shared with the bathroom for the salle), the people in that area can’t see who is coming out of/ going into the kitchen.

Details I see as non-Dhofari are the separate dining room, the circular table near the family seating area and the door to second staircase (below the family area bathroom). That door surprises me as there is no way from that staircase into the house, one can only go up to the upper floor where I  would expect 5, 6 or 7 bedrooms. In the houses I have seen in Dhofar, where there is a second staircase accessed from outside the house, I have always seen an internal door on the ground-level.

Also the separation of the male visitor (majlis) and female visitor/ family doors is not usual. In Dhofar, the two doors are usually a few feet apart, set at a 90 degree angle. Also the outdoor seating area is unusual in Dhofar. Outside of towns there is usually not a high wall around the house so inhabitants might sit on chairs or the steps with an open view. In towns, there is usually not outside seating by a door.

A last note on sight-lines. To me, the kitchen table next to the outside door is awkward. Anyone bringing in supplies needs to walk past the table and turn. It would make more sense to have the table on the lower wall (i.e. sharing the wall with the chairs for the family sitting room). But if the table were moved, then the people sitting at it would be able to see the door to the bedroom. As it is now, the people sitting at the kitchen table have no sight-lines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

g - doors 2

Foodways: Thoughts on Iftars, Food and Cultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iftar - g

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an interesting ad campaign about not wasting food during Ramadan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

apartment plan

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

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 table 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/