Cognitive Dissonance and Food Identification

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.

good morning - wood

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.

tea with chips

 

Food Often Served at Weddings in Dhofar

Most writing and visuals about food in the Middle East concentrate on one of four topics: food memories connected to loss (e.g. cookbook memoir of displaced people), food scarcity (areas of war/ poverty), elite food (extravagant meals, gourmet cuisine, social media photos) and sharing food at Ramadan (photos of giving away food and communal Iftar at mosques). I am interested in the often not-seen, not-discussed topic of everyday food: what is procured, produced, cooked, eaten, shared and disposed of by Omanis who have neither an insufficiency nor a super-abundance of food. These short essays on cooking/ food in Dhofar are not meant to be exhaustive or prescriptive. From purchasing food, cooking, eating and doing formal interviews with Dhofari informants for over ten years, as well as academic inquiries, I am attempting to build up a general picture of Dhofari foodways, with the understanding that there are elements I am missing and there is a wide variety of practices between house-holds (n.b., when I write “Dhofari” I am referring to Omanis who live in Dhofar, although there are people from different countries who live in Dhofar with their own food traditions). For more details, see: Foodways and Society in Dhofar, Oman

 

Drinks – offered by waitresses/ groom’s relatives

  • Coffee (qahwa/ Arabic or Nescafe/ instant)
  • Juice, fresh or bottled
  • Laban (also spelled Leben; in English, buttermilk)
  • Soda
  • Tea (“red” [chai ahmar] black tea with only sugar added, “milk” [chai haleeb] black tea with canned milk and sugar, or karak is loose tea with spices and canned milk)
  • Water

Snacks offered before dinner

  • Finger food such as mini-pizzas, spring rolls (filled with vegetables or cheese)
  • Fruit – Bananas, Grapes, Oranges, Watermelon or chopped as a salad
  • “Sweets” – see below

Meals – at a rented house or hall, usually served 8pm – 2am, after the bride has arrived

  • appetizer selections: hummus, fattoush, baba ghanoush, etc., with pita bread
  • rice and meat – usually qabooli, rarely/ never chicken or fish

Meal – at the bride’s house if she will be taken directly to the groom’s house or a hotel, usually served anytime from 5pm – 11pm

  • rice and meat – usually qabooli, rarely/ never chicken or fish – served with side salad and sauce, extra rice and meta is distributed to neighbors and relatives

Sweets

  • Baklava
  • Basbousa (usually flavored with coconut)
  • Cake
  • Cheesecake (either slices or mini individual ones)
  • Creme Caramel
  • Custard مهلبية
  • Dumplings (stuffed with cheese, soaked in lemon and sugar syrup with cinnamon)
  • Jell-O
  • Halwa (the Arabic word for sweet), Omani specialty made with sugar, water, clarified butter, cornstarch and flavorings such as cardamom, saffron, sesame seeds, almonds and cashews. Served with a thin, plain cracker-like bread (khoubz raqaq/ raqeeq or kak)
  • Kanafeh/ Kunafa
  • Luqaymat/ Loqeemat/ Loukoumades لقيمات/ لقمة القاضي (sweet dumplings dipped in sugar syrup)
  • Pancakeخبز حوح
  • Swiss Roll
  • “Traditional Sweet” (pita bread soaked in milk and sugar and cardamom).
  • Dream Whip

 

Typical Foodways at Wedding Celebrations

Groom’s Side

The party for men is usually held on a Saturday (second day of the weekend) morning; it is best if the date is close to the end of the month, after the salary has arrived. The groom’s family will usually arrange a marquee near their house, near a mosque or at a space outside of town. The marquee will be rented for the day and be furnished with rugs and chairs, arranged  in a circle. Sometimes there is a secondary tent to the side where the food is prepared. In many Dhofari tribes, the brothers, close friends and cousins of the groom will usually butcher the camels/ cows the night before, or very early in the morning; some meat is then distributed to close relatives and the rest given to restaurant workers to cook. The quantity of food shows the respect for the guests. No one is expecting (or would like) a new recipe or dishes. The two most important components are tea and meat with rice; Omani coffee, Omani sweet (halwa), fruit, soft drinks, water, salad are also served. Brothers and close friends come and go but there is always a core group next to the groom, i.e. he is never without a good friend and a brother or cousin to keep him company and help with the guests. The event ends at the ‘asr (mid afternoon) prayer when all the guests and the groom leave.

Bride’s Side

Sometimes the bride’s party will be quite simple. The bride’s friends and sisters help her get ready at home and serve dinner to female relatives and friends, while male relatives sit with her brothers and father outside the house or in a nearby relative’s house.

Then the bride is brought to the groom’s house by her relatives in a procession of cars. The groom’s sisters and her sisters take her to her new room. Her sisters help arrange her; then the bride’s female relatives come in to see the room and the groom’s female relatives come in to see the bride. She usually does not speak, and never smiles in keeping with the expected cultural ideal that she is “shy,” sad to leave her parents. Sometimes items bought with the mahar and gifts, especially of gold and perfume from friends and relatives, are put on display in the room.

The groom’s family gives the bride’s relatives dinner in the salle and majlis or in an open space near the house, then the bride’s family leaves except for the bride’s mother and/ or a close (older/ already married) sister or aunt. Then the groom, usually carrying a gun as a symbol of his ability to protect her, and his father will come into the room where her mom and (perhaps) sisters are sitting with her. After a short ice-breaker sort of conversation (the bride does not speak), everyone leaves the bride and groom alone.

A more elaborate wedding will be celebrated at a hotel or “hall,” basically an big empty enclosed space. Sometimes this is an issue of wealth but it also happens when there is more than one wedding (e.g. two brothers marrying), or if the bride and groom are from different tribes. In this kind of wedding, the women are invited by phone and sometimes given a ‘card’ for entrance by the groom’s family (who are paying for the event).

Close female relatives of the bride and of the groom show up in finery – often shimmering dresses they have designed themselves. They start to gather about 7 or 8pm; finger-food, sweets and drinks are passed around by waitresses. There is usually water, fruit and maybe snacks laid out on the tables, but no name cards – people sit where they like. The bride makes a triumphal entrance (think the fan fare from 2001: A Space Odyssey) late in the evening, perhaps 12 or even 1am. The main meal is usually served after the bride arrives. Then, with the bride seated on a sofa on the elevated stage,  various women dance for her in an open space in front of her or on the elevated stage. At the end of the event, the bride will be brought in a procession of cars to the groom’s house, or the groom might actually come into the room (a very new innovation) and escort her out.

 

What I’ve Been Reading: Food, Cooking, Cuisine, Culture, Anthropology, & History

(image from Instagram account of Tiny Spoon, tiny_spoon, full image below)

Food Practices in Southern Oman – My current research focuses on food practices in the Dhofar region, specifically how food is used to show personal generosity and how eating together defines and enhances social relationships.

[this post reflects my current reading – the permanent link for my updated food/ culture bibliography is: Selected References for Research on Foodways and Society in Dhofar] 

 

Al-Hamad, Sarah. (2016). Cardamom and Lime: Flavors of the Arabian Gulf, the Cuisine of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the U.A.E. Singapore: IMM Lifestyle Books.

Avieli, Nir and Rafi Grosglik. (2013). Food and Power in the Middle East and the Mediterranean: Practical Concerns, Theoretical Considerations. Food, Culture and Society 16.2: 181-195.

Appaduari, Arjun. (1985). Gratitude as a Social Mode in South India. Ethos 13.3: 236-245.

Boxhall, P. G. 1966. Socotra: ‘Island of Bliss’. The Geographical Journal 132.2: 213-222.

Brown, Victoria. (2014). Language: A Taste of Reality. One Dish Closer. http://www.onedishcloser.com/food-anthropology/2014/3/19/language-a-taste-of-reality.html

Campbell, Felicia. (2015). The Food of Oman: Recipes and Stories from the Gateway to Arabia. London: Andrew McMeel.

Clements, Frank. (1977). The Islands of Kuria Muria: A Civil Aid Project in the Sultanate of Oman Administered from Salalah, Regional Capital of Dhofar. Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies) 4.1: 37-39.

Cleveland, Ray. (1960). The 1960 American Archaeological Expedition to Dhofar. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 159: 14-26.

Ciezadlo, Annia. (2011, April 25). Eat, Drink, Protest: Stories of the Middle East’s Hungry Rumblings: Buying Peace, One Feast at a Time. Foreign Policy 186. https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/04/25/eat-drink-protest/

—.  (2011, March 15). Eating My Way Through the Cedar Revolution (excerpt). Foreign Policy. http://foreignpolicy.com/2011/03/15/eating-my-way-through-the-cedar-revolution-2/

Coleman, Leo, ed. (2012). Food: Ethnographic Encounters (Encounters: Experience and Anthropological Knowledge). Oxford: Berg.

Counihan, Carole and Penny van Esterik, eds. (2012). Food and Culture: A Reader. London: Routledge.

Crowther, Gillian. (2018). Eating Culture: An Anthropological Guide to Food. Toronto Press: University of Toronto Press.

De Regt, Marina. (2010). Ways to Come, Ways to Leave: Gender, Mobility, and Il/legality among Ethiopian Domestic Workers in Yemen. Gender and Society 24.2: 237-260.

—.  (2009). Preferences and Prejudices: Employers’ Views on Domestic Workers in the Republic of Yemen. Signs 34.3: 559-581.

Deeb, Lara and Jessica Winegar. (2012). Anthropologies of Arab-Majority Societies. Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 537-558.

Elie, Serge. (2006). Soqotra: South Arabia’s Strategic Gateway and Symbolic Playground. British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 33.2: 131-160.

Ferguson, Priscilla. (2011). The Senses of Taste. American Historical Review 116.2:  371-384.

Fieldhouse, Paul. (1998). Food and Nutrition: Customs and Culture. Cheltenham, UK: Stanley Thomas.

Fisher, Jennifer. (2003-2004). “Arabian Coffee” in the Land of Sweets. Dance Research Journal 35.2: 146-163.

Fox, Robin. (2018). Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective. Social Issues Research Centre. http://www.sirc.org/publik/foxfood.pdf

Gilette, Maris. (2019). Muslim Foodways, in The Handbook of Food and Anthropology. Jakob Klein and James Watson, eds. London: Bloomsbury Academic. 48-73.

Goody, Jack. Cooking, Cuisine and Class. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Julier, Alice. (2013). Eating Together: Food, Friendship, and Inequality. Chicago: University of Illinois, 2013.

—. (2013). Meals: ‘Eating In’ and ‘Eating Out’ in The Handbook of Food Research. Anne Murcott, Warren Belasco and Peter Jackson, eds. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Julier, Alice and Lindenfeld. (2005). Mapping Men onto the Menu: Masculinities and Food. Food & Foodways, 13:1–16.

Jurafsky, Dan. (2014). The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. New York: W. W. Norton.

Klein, Jakob and James Watson, eds. (2019). The Handbook of Food and Anthropology. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Lichfield, Gideon. (2010, January 15). A Look Inside the Middle East’s New Weapons of Mass Consumption. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/01/15/food-fight-4/

Maclagan, Ianthe. (1994). Food and Gender in a Yemeni Community, in A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East. Sami Zubaida and Richard Tapper, eds. New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers. 159-72

Mauss, Marcel. (2011/ 1924). The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Mansfield Centre, CA: Martino Publishing.

Mbaga, Msafiri Daudi. (2015). The Prospects of Sustainable Desert Agriculture to Improve Food Security in Oman. Consilience 13: 114-128. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26427275

Meneley, Anne. (2007). Fashions and Fundamentalisms in Fin-De-Siecle Yemen: Chador Barbie and Islamic Socks. Cultural Anthropology 22.2: 214–243.

Miller, Anthony, Miranda Morris, and Susanna Stuart-Smith. (1988). Plants of Dhofar, the Southern Region of Oman: Traditional, Economic, and Medicinal Uses. Muscat: Office of the Adviser for Conservation of the Environment, Diwan of Royal Court.

Mintz, Sidney. (1996). Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mintz, Sidney, and Du Bois, Christine. (2002). The Anthropology of Food and Eating. Annual Review of Anthropology 31:99-119.

Morris, Miranda. (1997). The Harvesting of Frankincense in Dhofar, Oman. In Alessandra Avanzini, ed.  Profumi d’Arabia. Rome: L’Erma Bretschneider: 231-250.

—. (1987). ‘Dhofar – What Made it Different’ in Oman: Economic, Social and Strategic Development. B.R. Pridham, ed. London: Croom Helm. 51-78.

Nagy, Sharon. (2000). Dressing up Downtown: Urban Development and Government Public Image in Qatar. City and Society 12(1): 125-47.

—. (1998). “This Time I think I’ll try a Filipina”: Global and Local Influences on Relations between Foreign Household Workers and their Employers in Doha, Qatar. City and Society 10(1): 83-103.

Omezzine, Abdallah. (1998). On-shore Fresh Fish Markets in Oman. Journal of International Food and Agribusiness Marketing 10(1): 53-69.

Omezzine, Abdallah, Lokman Zaibet and Hamad Al-Oufi. (1996). The Marketing System of Fresh Fish Products on the Masirah Island ion the Sultanate of Oman. Marine Resources Economics 11: 203-210.

Popp, Georg. (2018). Notes on the Omani Kitchen Eating with Tradition. Just Landed. https://www.justlanded.com/english/Oman/Articles/Culture/Notes-on-the-Omani-Kitchen

Rodionov, Mikhail. (2012). Honey, Coffee, and Tea in Cultural Practices of Ḥaḍramawt in Herbal Medicines in Yemen: Traditional Knowledge and Practice, and Their Value for Today’s World. Ingrid Hehmeyer and Hanne Schönig, eds. Brill: Boston. 143-152.

Roseberry, William. (1996). The Rise of Yuppie Coffees and the Reimagination of Class in the United States. American Anthropologist, New Series, 98.4: 762-775.

Rubin, Aaron. (2015). Recent Developments in Jibbali. Journal of Semitic Studies 60: 431–441.

Sadeghin, Farideh. (2015, Oct. 27). The Food of Oman is Too Good to Ignore: Recipe-testing a Middle Eastern Cookbook Gives our Test Kitchen Director a New Love for an Under-appreciated Cuisine. Saveur. https://www.saveur.com/food-of-oman-cookbook-cuisine-felicia-campbell

Stoller, Paul and Cheryl Olkes. (1986). Bad Sauce, Good Ethnography. Cultural Anthropology 1.3: 336-352.

Stork, Joe. (1973, March). Socialist Revolution in Arabia: A Report from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. MERIP Reports 15: 1-25.

Swift, Candice Lowe, ed. (2015). Teaching Food and Culture. London: Routledge.

vom Bruck, Gabriele. (2005). The Imagined ‘Consumer Democracy’ and Elite Re-Production in Yemen. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11.2: 255-275.

van Esterik, Penny, Alice Julier and Carole Counihan, eds. (2018). Food and Culture: A Reader. London: Routledge.

Watson, Janet C.E. (2013). Travel to Mecca in the Pre-motorized Period in The Hajj: Collected Essays. Venetia Porter and Liana Saif, eds. London: The British Museum. 96–99.

Watson, Janet C.E. & Abdullah al-Mahri. (2017). Language and Nature in Dhofar, in  RiCOGNIZIONI. Rivisti di Lingue e Letterature straniere e Culture moderne.  Simone Bettega and Fabio Gasparini, eds. Turin: University of Turin. 87–103.

Webster, Roger. (1991, October). Notes on the Dialect and Way of Life of the Āl Wahība Bedouin of Oman. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 54.3: 473-485.

Weir, Shelagh. (2007). A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Yamani, Mai. (2000). You Are What You Cook” Cuisine and Class in Mecca in A Taste of Thyme: Culinary Cultures of the Middle East. Sami Zubaida and Richard Tapper, eds. New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers. 159-72.

Blogs – Omani Food

Mariya. Omani Food. https://omanifood24.blogspot.com/

Omani Recipes. (2015). Arabic Recipeshttp://www.encyclopediacooking.com/recipes_in_english/omani-recipes-53-1.html

Traditional Omani Food. (2008, March 1). https://ward-traditionalomanifood.blogspot.com/

Yasmeen. (2018). Omani Cuisine. http://www.omanicuisine.com/

Websites – Expat, Tourist and Commercial

The Delicious Cuisine of Oman! (n. d.). Holidify. https://www.holidify.com/pages/omani-food-230.html

Food and Drink – About Oman. (2018). Rough Guides. https://www.roughguides.com/destinations/middle-east/oman/food-drink/

Guide to Omani Cuisine. (2017, June 14). Expat Woman.com. https://www.expatwoman.com/oman/guide/guide-to-omani-cuisine

Medhat, Gehad. (2017, Dec, 27). The 10 Best Coffee and Tea Shops in Salalah, Oman. Culture Trip. https://theculturetrip.com/middle-east/oman/salalah/food-misc/

Medhat, Gehad. (2017, Dec, 27). The Top Restaurants in Salalah, Oman. Culture Trip. https://theculturetrip.com/middle-east/oman/articles/the-top-restaurants-in-salalah-oman/

Oman. (2018). Countries and Their Cultures.  http://www.everyculture.com/No-Sa/Oman.html

Omani Food. (2015). Best Country. http://www.best-country.com/asia/oman/food

Omani recipes and cuisine. (2018). Nestle.  http://www.nestle-family.com/english/omani-recipes.aspx

Popp, Georg. (2018). Notes on the Omani Kitchen Eating with Tradition. Just Landed. https://www.justlanded.com/english/Oman/Articles/Culture/Notes-on-the-Omani-Kitchen

 

mini truck

(image from Instagram account: Tiny Spoon)

 

 

 

Considering Cartoons/ Graphic Art about Foodways

I started to look at cartoons (sent by Omani friends or posted on Instagram) because I wanted to see how buying, making, eating and sharing food was portrayed in graphic art. The cartoons are fascinating because they give personal insights into many aspects of Arab/ Muslim/ Gulf cultures, not just what food is eaten (when, where and why) but what is said (and the subtext), who is talking,  what clothes are worn (and what do the clothes signal?), body issues (how close do people stand to each other? do they face each other directly? how much can you tell about body size/ shape? can you see hair?), background (how is the place drawn? is it in the home or in public?), even how the words are spelled (are the people speaking formal Arabic?) and grammar choices mark the characters vis a vis status, nationality, sub-culture, etc.

For example in this cartoon – the woman on the left is drawn as less traditional with hair piled up under her sheila, hair showing, shaped eyebrows, prominent eyes (eyeliner? mascara? colored lens?), open-mouth smile (lipstick?), open abayah, colored dress and purse, showing more of her forearm showing (is her lighter skin tone deliberate?) but also because she is carrying a coffee clearly drawn with a green round label like Starbucks. The coffee is grey and in a larger cup; while the other woman is carrying a small cup filled with a light brown liquid that looks like tea with milk. The woman with the less conservative look goes to the expensive and foreign coffee company – the woman with the more conservative appearance drinks tea in the (traditional) smaller cup.

2 women.jpg

Not all of the cartoons below have food but all give important insights into cultural issues.

ramadan love

Vimto/ laban signal Ramadan because they are usually drunk at Iftar but henna is not usually worn during Ramadan so this image points towards Eid, especially with the moon design of the henna, the lights and the creme carmel.

looking at woman

new baby

argue man and woman

 

abayahs

share ramadan

 

 

 

 

 

Relationship Cartoons – Worthy of Study

shopping with manIt’s not my area of expertise, but I find relationship cartoons posted on social media fascinating. There is so much cultural information to be unpacked for example, many have women with uncovered hair in settings with other women, whereas Dhofari women keep their hair covered even if sitting in the salle with other women. Here are a few I find particularly interesting. I hope someone from or living on the Arabian Peninsula does some kind of systematic study by country, topic, etc.

emmy - brother asking

 

dano - legal look

 

emmy - girl guy apart

 

emmy - hair

 

emmy - fight

Excerpts from “Issues of Autonomy in Southern Oman”

(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.

Aunt Alice

My Aunt Alice passed away a few weeks ago. She was my mother’s older sister and lived in Wisconsin her whole life. She married a farmer, Bob, and raised six children on a farm. When I was in middle school I spent part of two summers living with her family and my grandparents, who lived a few miles away. She had the calm kindness of a woman who made her life looking after her family and her neighbors.

My aunt was the kind of woman who would pitch in to help and bring a casserole to those in need, which might not sound like much until you are the person in need and then Aunt Alice would be exactly who you would want to see. I never saw her deliberately mean to any person. She gardened, she read, she cherished her family and friends.

When my students say “America” they think of New York City. When I think of America, I think of driving a rental car from Madison or Minneapolis to northern Wisconsin to visit my aunt, my grandparents and the “Wisconsin cousins.” The road would start in the tangle of city streets and gradually the buildings would thin out and there would only be sky and gentle rolling hills, cows in pasture and rows of corn in summer and snow-covered fields with tree lines in winter. Small towns full of people growing the food that everyone eats, taking care of the cows which produce the milk that everyone drinks. Areas referred to by coastal people as “the flyover zone.” One trip was, by chance, on July 5th and flags fluttered from the infrequent farm houses and shops. That’s “my” America.

Part of the reason I can live here is because my life in Salalah reminds me of the life I saw in northern Wisconsin and Grand Forks, ND:  men and women who are quietly competent, who don’t need to make a big deal of what they know. In photos, her children and grand-children always stand with a little space between them, as if to show “we’re here together but not encroaching.” “We are glad to be together” the photos seem to say, but no need to make a fuss about it.

I visited Wisconsin infrequently after I graduated from UW-Madison and then I have lived overseas for 14 years. But I always sent Aunt Alice postcards – happy to think of her reading my notes in her kitchen and, later, in the assisted living home where she lived. She always wrote long Christmas cards, full of family news and what she was reading.

Aunt Alice lived a quiet life without fame or glory. She is one of the few people I know who are assured to be in heaven. If she isn’t there, then it’s not the sort of heaven for me. I can just picture here in line to talk to St. Peter with a “Well now, hello, isn’t this nice?” and chatting away with gentle small-talk with everyone else in line. And I can see her walking through the Pearly Gates and immediately inquiring if there is anything to be done, checking out celestial gardens, perhaps circling quietly around to find a favorite author, peeping though clouds to check on her family. She was an anchor for me and I am sorry she is gone.