(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)
This paper examines the cultural markers within a set of folk tales recorded in southern Oman. In the 1970s Dr. Tom Johnstone documented the un-written, Modern South Arabian languages of Gibali (also known as Jibbali and Shehri) and Mehri in the Dhofar region of Oman. In 2014, Dr. Aaron Rubin’s published a book on Gibali grammar based on his own research, Johnstone’s notes and data from Gibali speakers living in America; the book includes 70 texts of taped speech transliterated into Gibali with an accompanying English translation which cover a variety of genres including folk tales, autobiography, grammar exercises, and fairy tales.
The paper explains how the folk tales texts are representative of southern Omani culture by analyzing the various textual elements such as characters, setting, plot events and theme, as well as physical markers such as landscape and animals. These texts are among the very few documents written in Gibali and help illustrate ways in which the Dhofari culture has, and has not changed, since the rapid modernization after the 1970s. I will also compare the elements from the Johnston/ Ali Al Mahri/ Rubin texts with folk tales from other texts Khadija bint Alawi al-Thahab’s Stories of My Grandmother: Folk Tales from Dhofar, Hatim Al Taie and Joan Pickersgill’s Omani Folk Tales, and Grace Todino-Gonguet’s Halimah and the Snake, and other Omani Folk Tales.
(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)
This chapter 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 chapter 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 pass on their insights to students.
In “Ethnography Is an Option,” Yadav discusses abductive reasoning, which she describes as:
an iterative process of “sense-making.” Rather than beginning with a research question and testable hypothesis, abductive inquiry rests on the articulation of a puzzle, where what “makes a puzzle ‘anomalous’ is a misfit between experience and expectations.”
This is good way of thinking about how I try to understand foodways and cultures, although I don’t always get to “sense-making.” Sometimes I end up still confused as I try to catch and hold onto those moments in which my expectations are not met; sometimes a new level of understanding opens up. A week or so after I moved into a villa, I heard loud thuds and rustling from outside my window. I forced myself to open the curtain and look – there was nothing in my yard, but the sound was loud and frightening. I decided the safest thing was to go up on the roof, so I could look down at whatever it was. It was a herd of donkeys eating the grass on the other side of my garden wall. Once I saw them, the sounds which were discordant and scary coalesced into stamping, breathing, tearing grass and rubbing against the wall.
So when those moments of perplexity come, I need to stop and reflect. For example, in this video a man is pouring honey on small brown objects.
Certain things I can ‘read’ – that’s a man’s hand, he’s wearing a dishdash, that mat is typically used in Dhofari picnics, the background looks like Dhofar in khareef. Certain things I can guess from experience: the man is not from Dhofar because Dhofari men on picnics will usually take off their dishdash and wear t-shirts and wizar, a sarong-like item of clothing made of thick cotton with a plaid pattern. The honey is in an unlabeled, Vimto-style bottle which means it is local honey, from the mountains, perhaps from Yemen. It is expensive and not commercially produced, hence probably not bought in a store but at a roadside stand or from a local contact.
It’s slightly odd to me that there is nothing else in the photo. There is a habit of showing a cup of tea alone (as above), or a tea kettle with cups, but usually shots of eating during khareef have more food items (like the photo below, which has its own mystery: why are there potato chips with the ‘good morning’ sign and pancakes, which signify that this is breakfast. Is it because they are ‘Chips Oman’ and the photographer wanted to emphasize that this is Oman?)
But the biggest question is – what is he pouring the honey on? It that dates or meat? I asked an Omani friend who said, “dates, people from the north do that.” But when I sent the photo to another friend, I got the response, “honey and meat.” So this is something I need to do more research on.
More moments of abductive reasoning come up when looking at photos of foodways in khareef and I have to catch myself when I think, “Why are they doing that?” For example, seeing a video of a man cooking meat while sitting in a chair made me surprised. Cooking in a chair?!? How odd. Then I had to process my surprise – I have never seen a man cook while sitting in a chair in Dhofar, why was that?
A partial answer is in what is cooked and how. In Dhofar, most food I have seen prepared is time-, but not labor-, intensive for cooks. Fish or lobster, for example, can be wrapped in foil, placed in coals and left to cook. Curries require a lot of cutting and then stirring for a few moments, but then can be left to simmer. Cooking meat on heated rocks (madhbi) requires that the cook be next to the rocks, sitting in a chair would be too far away. But visitors in khareef often cook 1) on gas rings or with small metal BBQs, not a fire, and 2) prepared foods which need careful watching such as pancakes, scrambled eggs, and meat kebabs. Further, when Dhofar men have a picnic, they are usually stream-lined: in addition to the food stuffs (meat, vegetables, salt, tea bags, sugar, bottled water, rice and/ or bread) one needs a mat, some wood, a tea kettle, cups, a pot, a knife, and a round plate to cut meat and vegetables on and to eat off of. A big spoon to stir is helpful, but the knife can be used in a pinch; extras like canned milk, fruit, limes, spices, spicy sauce, biscuits etc. are welcome but not necessary. Thus what strikes me as odd in the photo below is not the cows, but the windscreen for the fire. What a luxury to have a metal windscreen instead of tearing cardboard from the box holding the water bottles and propping it up with rocks to screen the fire!
The last photo stunned me: tables! for a picnic! and bolster pillows! My first thought was ‘I want to go on a picnic with you!’ My second was ‘good grief, it must take ages to get the car unpacked and then packed again, and to get those pillows dry.’ This led me to considering the connection between food and relaxation in Dhofar: what is needed to make one comfortable while cooking and eating? Why do I see spartan picnics as preferable? It’s partially because that’s what I am used to, but also a factor of time. I once watched a group of western expats take over an hour to set-up a camp site: foldable picnic table, table for food, table to cook on, tent with groundsheet, chairs, multiple mats. The pièce de résistance was a wooden caddy with two kinds of ketchup, 2 kinds of brown sauce and 2 kinds of mustard.
In Oman, hospitality is linked to speed – the good host gives everything that is available happily, quickly and gracefully. A guest who arrives should not have to wait for the host to produce something intricate or expensive, a simple cup of tea served with kindness is the mark of generosity.
(photos from social media)
Yadav, Stacey Philbrick. Ethnography Is an Option: Learning to Learn in/through Practice. DOI:10.1093/oso/9780190882969.003.0014
I had been in Salalah about ten months and it was the first day of my first khareef (the word means ‘autumn’ in Arabic, it’s used in Salalah to mean the monsoon season from the end of June until the end of August). I walked outside my house, felt the drizzle on my face and walked back in. With a washcloth I dried my face and thought about how could I possibly keep my hair de-frizzed in such humidity.
A few hours later, some of the Omani men in my research group stopped by. I made tea and set the carafe on a tray with cups and cookies and brought it into the majlis. One of the men picked up the tray and brought it out to the garden.
“We are NOT eating out there, it’s wet!” I yelled.
Oh, we were most certainly eating out there; it’s khareef. Time to eat outside.
For me then (and to a certain extent, even now) I don’t get it. Omanis are always so clean, so well-turned out: impeccable clothes, gorgeous perfumes and everything spotless. Why would you want to go sit in muddy fields and get rained on? And the mosquitos! Let’s not forget the mosquitos and some other smaller insect that leaves a welt that lasts for three days. And what happens to the food? Rained on. Damp cookies, soggy bread, a film of water on everything and you have to constantly drink tea to stay warm in your damp clothes.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” Omanis say to me.
I try to smile, using a mushy Kleenex to dry off my face, “Oh lovely!” And it is, the grass turning green, the fog rolling in, that wonderful damp earth smell – but could we not enjoy this through a plate glass window? No, we could not.
I have bowed to the inevitable and bought a water-proof purse; I wear washable Crocs. I have learned to always keep a stick or two of wood in my car so that it stays dry enough to get a fire started. I used to try to keep all the food covered but have given on that. Rain on the kabsa, rain on the briyani, rain on the mandi, rain on the mishgak (meat kebabs).
I have been on magical picnics. If you are sitting near the edge of a cliff, the clouds move in and out, opening and closing the vista down to the sea or over the plains. In the mountains, the ground is a carpet of green, with beautiful white flowers and purple flowers later in the season.
The culture you are born into is hard to shake; there are times I long for an umbrella, a rain jacket and a crisp cookie. But, food tastes better in the rain, or so I am told.
(photo from social media)
The monsoon season (finally) started yesterday so, in celebration, I went for the first time to a small, cute shop which sells food made by a local woman. I had driven by and seen it but never gone in. With the drizzle coming down at a steady pace, I decided to have a small party, support women who are selling food, and, of course, continue my food research!
As I viewed the sandwiches, cooked food and cakes on display, I discussed the food in a mixture of Arabic and English with the expat man who was working. “Is this strawberry cake?” I asked, pointing to a cake with a pink layer of what looked like jam. He said yes. I repeated the question in Arabic to make sure, then moved on, “Is this cake with coffee flavor? Is this chicken? Is the chicken spicy or normal?” etc. I bought a selection of things, went home and produced them for my guests: this is non-spicy chicken, this is strawberry cake, this is coffee cake.
Wrong. All of it wrong. The chicken was fiery hot, it wasn’t strawberry and the brown cake was ‘Lotus’ flavored, not coffee. Sigh. Last week it was at KFC, I ordered 4 chicken strips and Dew with ice; I got someone else’s order and was told that the Dew, which had no ice, has “ice inside.” Sigh. In these kinds of example, it’s a mixture of linguistics and culture. I would not think of a ‘biscuit-flavored cake’; a white cake with medium brown frosting looks like ‘coffee’ to me. ‘Ice’ to me is cubes the size of cherry tomatoes, not that the soda is cold.
Sometimes it is an issue of what you ask for is not what you get but sometimes it’s a visual and cultural problem, as in the photo above – I enlarged that photo several times, tilting my head, thinking “WHAT is that in the little bowl?” Finally I decided it was walnuts and date maamoul (dates with spices cooked into a paste, surrounded by a heavy sugar cookie dough and baked). I don’t think of walnuts as breakfast food so I had to wait until my eyes could “see” them. Several times I have seen shallow bowls of dates and assumed it was pieces of meat and vice versa. One trick I learned is that if there is a coffee dallah (traditional Arabian coffee pot) it is dates; if there are cups of tea, it is probably meat. [Or in the above photo, the piece of wood doesn’t look like what I expect ‘camp fire wood’ to look like: it’s dark, full of holes, almost insubstantial looking. But from camping in the desert, I know this is typical of wood you can find or buy and it serves as a marker, “we are very far from town.”]
There is another level of difficulties: seeing various food items and not understanding how they fit together. A friend remembers being in a grocery store with me when we were in grad school. As we came around the corner of an aisle and the end cap had: cans of tuna, cans of peas, cans of sliced mushrooms, egg noodles, salt and canned cream of mushroom soup. I looked at her and said how this combination of food was a culturally-bound signifier of middle-class American in middle America, an implied recipe without stated recipe. Everyone who saw that display would know that all these items should be bought and cooked together to create a tuna casserole. But someone from outside that culture would see a collection of disparate items. Such as the photo below: chips, processed cheese and bread. This might be read as “put cheese on bread and eat with chips.” But Omanis know, you open the bag a little then crush the chips. Put cheese on bread, sprinkle on chip fragments and then roll up into a tube.
Eating begins with the eyes and everyone sees food through their cultures, upbringing and experiences. Learning to see again, see new, and re-see is a long process that I am still in the middle of.
I have attached selected slides from my presentation on Foodways and Society at the BRISMES 2019 annual conference.
Keye Tersmette and I presented “Ghurba at Home – Views from Oman” at the ‘Arab World as Ghurba: Citizenship, Identity and Belonging in Literature and Popular Culture’; conference at the University of Warwick on June 21st.
I am interested in ‘little c’ culture – everyday life examples of the values and principles of a culture, not the grand statements. For example, I love this ‘good morning’ greeting. It looks odd at first: “Good morning! the road is flooded and you can’t drive!” In some cultures it might be seen as sarcastic, but here it is heartfelt. Water is a blessing and it’s wonderful to have the wadis full. On the other hand, flooding can be dangerous and both the central government and civic entities work to limit damage by installing flood markers along roads; giving frequent forecasts and warnings; sending military personal to make sure no one attempts to go into flooded areas; and maintaining and training rescue teams, including helicopters.
Two keys to the image (which is don’t think is from Dhofar) are the trees and the clouds. The trees give the reason that the flood is good – periodic inundation means healthy plants and abundant crops. In Western cultures, clouds are a negative symbol, meaning something unclear, blighted, disappointing, but on the Arabian Peninsula clouds are positive. These clouds (which might be a little photoshopped) bring joy, not just for the rain but a respite from the sun. It’s telling that Arab cultures celebrate the moon (the nicest compliment for a woman is that she looks like the moon) while Western songs and poems celebrate the sun (“You are My Sunshine,” “Here Comes the Sun,” “I’ll Tell You How the Sun Rose” by Emily Dickinson, “The Sun Rising” by John Donne and “Solar” by Philip Larkin:
Suspended lion face
Spilling at the centre
Of an unfurnished sky
How still you stand,
And how unaided
Single stalkless flower
You pour unrecompensed.
The eye sees you
Simplified by distance
Into an origin,
Your petalled head of flames
Heat is the echo of your
Coined there among
You exist openly.
Our needs hourly
Climb and return like angels.
Unclosing like a hand,
You give for ever.
Another examples of “little c” culture is the cheese sambosas that are a common Iftar treat in Dhofar. My first year here, I attended an all expat women’s Iftar and someone brought cheese sambosas. I was in heaven! Fried cheese pastries, what more could I want? I asked where they came from and was told a bakery. A few days later, I went to a bakery to buy some but none were available. I checked several more places and no luck.
I asked a Dhofari and was told that they usually made at home. Only a few places sold them and then only during Ramadan, which by now had ended. So I waited until the next Ramadan and went searching again, no luck. WHERE ARE THEY HIDING? I asked Dhofari friends and finally learned that they are usually only sold in the 2 hours before Iftar, and only in bakeries with special outdoor stands. I had been walking into bakeries during the morning when I should gone looking at 5pm for bakeries with sloping glass-front display cases set up outside the store.The clues had been there – but I hadn’t read them correctly. Now I am an expert at buying cheese sambosas, but I will never ever tell a Dhofari how I eat them (cold for breakfast with English-style chutney).
I am pleased to announce that my article “An Ethnographic Discussion of Fairy Tales and Folktales from Southern Oman” will be published in Fabula [https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/fabl]
This article discusses a collection of fairy and folktales from southern Oman to explain how some of the physical and cultural markers described in the texts which are still extant today. The tales, most of which were recorded in the 1970s, were originally spoken in Gibali (also known as Jibbali or Shahri, a non-written, Modern South Arabian language) and are published in 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 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) to highlight how the Johnstone/ Al Mahri/ Rubin texts show Dhofari beliefs about oath-taking and the importance of teaching morality in written, but not oral, texts.