My essay “Living Expat” has been published:
“Living Expat.” Emanations: Chorus Pleiades. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2018: 308-318.
My essay “Living Expat” has been published:
“Living Expat.” Emanations: Chorus Pleiades. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2018: 308-318.
(photo by M.A. Al Awaid)
Abstract from “Issues of Autonomy in Southern Oman” by Dr. Marielle Risse
Gibali (also known as Jibbali, Śḥeret, Shari and Eḥkili) is a non-written, Modern South Arabian language spoken by several groups of tribes in the Dhofar region of Southern Oman. While teaching in Salalah for more than ten years, I have been working with several Gibali-speaking men researching the culture and life-ways of one particular group of tribes, the Qara. Gibalis, both in interviews and from my long-term observations, see their culture as giving both men and women opportunities to craft their own lives and, specifically, to gain a positive reputation for wisdom.
This paper will explore how the Gibalis create and maintain an atmosphere in which both men and women are seen as having access to positive virtues and some control over their own lives. In addition to my observations and interviews, I will include examples from the fields of political science and anthropology, as well as stories from the first set of written texts in the Gibali language.
[painting: Island of Faroun near the head of the Sea of Akabah. Showing the HEIC’s surveying vessel Palinurus. © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London]
I will be presenting “Accounts from the journeys of the brig ‘Palinurus’ along the Dhofar Coast in the mid-1800s” at the Exploration and Memory Conference, Mational Maritime Museum, September 14 and 15th.
This three-day conference, from Thursday to Saturday, will consider exploration from the vibrant perspective of memory studies. Presentations will focus on the history, poetics, and material and visual culture of exploration, exploring how these have changed over the years and what their legacies have been, and continue to be.
Unseen Art of Australia’s First Fleet; Naval collecting between Cook and Darwin; Sir Rex Nan Kivell: ‘Collecting the explorers’ and not recalling ones’ past
Mapping movement and memories of coastal South America, 1680–1750; Representations of James Cook in Australia during the 1920s and 1930s; Convicts and Cartography in the Australian Colonies
Remembering the shipwreck of the Querina, 1431–32; Lost and forgotten: the story of the first Cook memorial; 21st Century challenges to the memorialisation of explorers
British perceptions of difference in voyage narratives to the South Seas in the 1740 and 1760s; Encountering a “Savage” Land in the Romantic Era; Indigenous knowledge in New South Wales and London in the early nineteenth century
The Afro-Brazilian architectural heritage in Nigeria and the Republic of Benin; Exploring inter-personal spaces in India-Bangladesh borderlands
Pacific Encounters: museums and memory making; The Taonga have memories too; Rites of space at ‘the shrine of geography’: the Royal Geographical Society, memory and exploration
Arctic expedition and encounter; Fragmented Landscapes: Memory, Photography and the Polar Expedition
Cabeza de Vaca’s Naufragios: exploration, ethnography, and identity negotiation; The Battle of Goringhaiqua and the death of Viceroy D’Almeida: contested histories, popular memory and ancestral voices
Between poles of memory in Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter; Accounts from the journeys of the brig ‘Palinurus’ along the Dhofar Coast in the mid-1800s; Time and memory in Antarctic exploration literature for children
Standing in the aisle of a large grocery store, liberally spraying air freshener, I am again reminded of different the most simple activities are when you live middle class expat in a small town in the Middle East. Shopping here is far more interactive than the USA. You want to know what a soap, air freshener, shaving cream, scented talc or body wash smells like? Open it! Take a sniff – spray some around. No problem.
And of course you are buying air fresheners because you need them. Old air conditioners, colleagues who smoke, overuse of cleaning products – the only defense is finding a good water-based, pump-spray air freshener. The culture in general is ‘scent based’ as all men and women leave the house wearing either perfume/ cologne or clothes which have been ‘smoked’ with scented incense. During one visit to my Omani neighbor, we tried out a selection of 15 different incenses, small chips of wood infused with scented oils which are placed on a small piece of smokeless charcoal to produce great wafts of perfumed smoke. This is not a culture for people with allergies!
In most large grocery stores, the aisle with cheap ($3-$10) bottles of perfume is located near the entrance and you walk up, grab a bottle off the shelves, or open a package to try a perfume not on display, spray yourself liberally, then start your shopping.
Next to the perfumes are the ‘personal products’ which is always fun. Men do most of the shopping so you will often see guys standing in front of the female deodorant or hair coloring sections picking up an item with one hand and talking loudly into a cell phone with the other. Men will sometimes take photos of several face creams, send them off and then wait for the answering message about which one to buy. As I am looking at shower gel, there is often a man standing disconsolately by the hair conditioners and body scrubs, waiting for instructions.
There are products you learn to avoid. Never buy anything by the company “American Garden” which is supposedly located in New York, New York but everything tastes like, to mix metaphors, something made by HAL for Major Tom. Everything is in the correctly-shaped bottle with the right color and consistency but the mustard/ mayonnaise/ tomato sauce tastes like the makers saw people using the sauce in a movie but have no idea what the flavor should be. I think they have one non-toxic substance and when it is dehydrated and dyed taupe/beige/brown it is bread crumbs and when it is mixed with water and red dye it is ketchup, etc.
It’s also best to avoid the ice cream section all together. No use to make yourself sad looking at the vast, delicious selection – all the ice cream has freezer burn. Whatever you buy, when you dig a spoon into it, you can hear the ice crystals cracking. No one here complains because they have never had normal ice cream – they think it’s supposed to have that consistency. Of course with a company called “London Dairy,’ you aren’t much tempted anyways; the idea of cows in London producing yummy ice cream does not compute. The Americans sigh at the cute little Ben & Jerry containers with mournful faces, tears glistening in the corners of our eyes, but we don’t dare take the plunge.
The vegetable section is pretty safe – you can pick your own produce or ask one of the helpers: just point and say how much you want in, all measurements in kilos. Some people make a huge fuss – bossing around the clerks, “No, not THAT watermelon, THIS watermelon.” I want to kick them in the shins. Sometimes what’s on display is not fresh, so if you ask for some, for example, apples, they will disappear into the back to get you apples from the most recent delivery.
You can find the basics for Indian and Middle Eastern cooking: garlic, green peppers, limes, okra, ginger, chilies, fresh coconut and eggplant but things like carrots or large potatoes come and go. You can usually not find large onions (only shallots) but there are some new discoveries: jackfruit (yuck), that little fruit with black wiry hairs growing out of it which gives me nightmares, fresh lemongrass tired into bundles, various ‘gourds,’ bumpy cucumbers, locky (?) and aravi (?).
But despite the plethora of new and interesting vegetables and fruits, the biggest difference for me about shopping here is that it is very interactive. First, you need to check each product for the expiration date. I have bought all sorts of things from vinegar to sunflower oil to cake mixes to Pepsi, which were past the sell-by date. Things are put on the shelf and left until they sell. Sometimes in October you can find Valentine’s hearts the candy aisle.
Secondly, even if you only need two or three things, you should walk every aisle in the store as what’s on the shelves changes all time. You simply don’t know what will show up (garden gloves, windshield de-icer, hoisin sauce, mint plants) or what will disappear for months at a time (French’s mustard, Diet Coke, croutons, Swiss cheese). Suddenly all the stores will carry El Almendro products, absolutely fabulous almond candy from Spain, and then it will be gone forever. Also, given that few people who work in the store speak English, they can’t help you find things and will sometimes shelf things in odd places. No one knows the word ‘popcorn’ so you are on your own for finding that; when salsa appeared on the shelves a few years ago, it was usually mixed in with the spaghetti sauce. Ice tea mix is next to Tang, not in the tea aisle, and coconut milk is next to the salt.
So, although you might only need milk and eggs, it’s good to stroll around and see what’s new: did vanilla show up? Is there cranberry juice again? Has cheddar cheese arrived? You can’t rely on that what you saw before will ever be there again.
The constant flux has two effects. One is stockpiling. I make it a rule to never take ALL of anything, but I have been known to horde 10 cans of black beans and take most of the Bitter Lemons. The second is that over time you get a sense of what your friends like so there is a fair amount of calling and messaging friends to let X know that there’s root beer, Y know that there’s cherry yoghurt, Z know that there’s spelt bread and Christian expats are in contact (it’s all rather first cuckoo sighting for the Times) about when candy canes show up in December.
My first semester in Oman I didn’t read anything except texts for classes. I simply couldn’t get ahead of class preparations as there was so much to learn, process, translate and understand. When I lived in Boston I always had a book to read on the T (metro) so I started to carry Gulliver’s Travels with me when I left the house in Salalah. I finished it piece-meal: working through it while waiting at the phone or electric company, standing in line to pay a bill or at the grocery store or waiting for meetings to start.
Gradually, as I settled, I started back in on fiction only to find, somewhat to my horror, that there was a reverse correlation to what I was teaching. In Boston, I belonged to two book clubs at the Boston Athenaeum: Arcadia, Pale Fire, Invisible Cities, Passage to India, Trollope, Lolita, Racine’s Phaedra, Flaubert’s Parrot, The Movie-goer, etc.
Two different long-distance friends and I set up mini-book clubs; we would read the same book then make a phone-call date to thrash it out: The Forsyth Saga, Anna Karenina, Tristram Shandy, Herodotus, Brothers Karamazov, Reservation Blues, Tuchman, Tolkien, Wharton, various Greek and Latin dramas. On my own, I read all of Proust, most of Stendhal, Flaubert’s letters, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the first part of Autonomy of Melancholy. There were a few mysteries mixed in (Ian Rankin, Charles Todd, Barry Maitland and Julia Spencer-Fleming) and some Robertson Davies, but I reading mainly hard-core.
Then came Oman. The first non-class text I managed was Island of Sheep by John Buchan. Talk about a come-down. And worse: I really liked it. Restful. I remembered what I had tried to long suppress, that when I was teaching in the Emirates, I read all sorts of that type of late 1800s, early 1900s adventure books. Wordsworth Classics publishes “classics” for $3 each and living in Sharjah I read my way through most of Kipling, Beau Geste, H. Ridder Haggard, Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Last of the Mohicans, Prisoner of Zenda, Hound of the Baskervilles. Feeling guilty, I read the Post-Colonial Reader and Candide to make up for novelistic slumming. I tried to up-grade to C.S. Forester and The Three Musketeers but my heart was with Ivanhoe, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Lady Audley’s Secret.
In Boston, when I wasn’t teaching, I needed the intellectual challenge of good writing, but in Oman, teaching the “greats,” I drifted back into literary la-la land. After Island of Sheep, it was on to Greenmantle, The Children of New Forest, and Louisa May Alcott . I dabbled with a few travel writers (J. Maarten Troost, Chris Stewart, George Courtauld, and the always marvelous Mark Salzman) but my heart went back to the fluff: Beverly Nichols! The Green Archer! The Black Arrow! Swallows and Amazons! The Coral Island!
I have read almost every canonical book in English literature (Middlemarch is still out there), representative works from all stages of American, French and German literature, a sprinkling of translated works written in Spanish, Scandinavian langauges, and Russian. I am working my way through classical and modern literature written by Arab writers. Every semester I read several hundred pages of English and Arabic poetry and short stories looking for texts to teach, but after a nice dose of Persuasion, I sneak off with Gerald Durrell.
One summer, in the time before Kindles, I ran out of books a few weeks before the end of the semester. I couldn’t get out of town to the capital to restock and found nothing at the small English language bookstore in town but Clive Cussler. So I jumped, making it through three Cusslers and then several Douglas Preston/ Lincoln Child books.
Most modern literature leaves me cold. Everyone is suppressed and unable to be themselves. How damaging it all is. And everyone has a miserable childhood. Sigh. Of course you have a miserable childhood. That is the point. Either your childhood is miserable, or you think it is wonderful and realize later it was horrible, or it truly was wonderful but you later become miserable because nothing is as nice as your childhood. All three choices result in desolation; let’s not dwell on that.
And all these serious novels about people who lost themselves. Well really, how does one do that? You are there – there you are. How can you get lost? Modern novels always seem to be set in living rooms, airports, cafes, bars and uninteresting offices, grey carpeting, anguish, but no one is actually doing anything. Give me a sword-fight, tundra, cannons, water-falls, honor, wolf packs, revenge, frantic horse rides across the moors, palm trees, a leaky boat, pirates, tigers, someone mysterious and threatening in the hedgerows, snipers, tea thermoses, terror, floods, breaking the square, hip flasks. Let’s get to the 2-seater running out of fuel over the desert, let’s get to the polar bear attack.
(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)
When I began to read anthropology texts about the Middle East. I found, as with travel books, anthropology is always fixated on “just vanishing, dusk-shrouded other whose shape can be discerned at the moment it slips forever from sight’ (Gilsenan 232). Literature, luckily, is not embedded with the same, depressing ‘it’s all over’ rhetoric of travel writing and anthropology. But it was interesting to see Peacock try to work out the relationship between the genres:
Ethnography is unlike literature and like science in that it endeavors to describe real people systematically and accurately, but it resembles literature in that it weaves facts into a form that highlights patterns and principles. As in good literature, so in good ethnography the message comes not through explicit statement of generalities but as concrete portrayal. (83)
What is significant is the vision of someone’s (the native’s) existence interpreted through he sensibilities of someone else (the ethnographer) in order to inform and enrich the understanding of the third party (the reader or listener). Ethnography in this sense is like literature: as a source of psychological and philosophical insight (and possibly aesthetic pleasure) when read as the author’s struggle to elucidate a perspective on life through his portrayal of a way of living – as he experienced it and analyzed it. (100)
Peacock, James. The Anthropological Lens: Harsh Light, Soft Focus. CUP; New York, 1986.
(photo by M. A. AL Awaid)
Marcus and Cushman write “The travel account is generally self-confident and authoritative in tone, and certain of a readership that wants a culturally shared translation of another way of life… but the realist ethnographic account has long been dogmatically dedicated to presenting material as if it were, or faithfully represented, the point of view of its cultural subjects rather than its own culture of reference” (1982 34). Thus in anthropology “the style of reportage was always pushed firmly toward generalization rather than maintained at the level of mere detailing of particular facts… it is impossible to work back from a final account to original fieldwork enterprise in anything like the way a chemist can work back through an experiment reported by another chemist” (35).
I think the travel writing framework is more useful as, when you know what filters and perspective are used by the person who is writing, you can sift the knowledge for yourself. As Lucien Lévy-Bruhl wrote in a letter to Edward Evans-Pritchard about using “evidences, often involuntary” of his sources: “I know their minds. I can understand the factors of their personalities, and behind what they say I can find what they have seen” (119).