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.

 

My Job

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

 

It’s possible for someone to be your mentor without every meeting them. Over ten years ago, when I started to do anthropology research, I found articles and books by Lila Abu Lughod and realized that she set the standard I wanted to emulate. Now a professor at Columbia University, she did research among the Awlad’ Ali tribe in Egypt for years, writing numerous articles and books which make the women come alive as complex, thinking, reasoning beings.

When I first read her work, I had a profound sense of relief – HERE was someone, finally, writing about Arab, Muslim, tribal women who were not passive, oppressed cardboard figures but real women who experienced emotions, trying to create a good life for themselves and their families. The women in her work are like the women I know here.

Her Writing Women’s Worlds: Bedouin Stories (1993/ 2008) is brilliant: section after section of real people talking about real life. One part that stands out for me is her writing about an older married man talking with his first wife, and later private conversations with each one about the changes in their lives when he married again. Abu Lughod lets the couple speak; she shows the short- and long-term effects and costs of multiple marriages on all the people involved and how the effects change over time. It is a nuanced, heart-breaking discussion of polygamy, how different people think different things are important at different times and she shows the cost to the husband. This section, and all her work, stand in contrast to so much lazy, sloppy, overheated and stereotypical writing about Muslim and Arab people who have never spent significant time in the area.

So I was stunned when I went to a conference and another woman on my panel made a dismissive remark about her – how could an Arab, Muslim woman disparage Abu Lughod, who has dedicated her life to understanding and helping others understand the lives of Arab, Muslim women? I talked to the woman for a while, trying to get to the root of her anger. She explained that she felt Abu Lughod was being used by traditionalists to show that Arab, Muslim women are happy and they have all their freedoms (i.e. there is no need for change and/ or reform in terms of women’s lives and choices).

I countered, as I can’t address how traditionalists/ conservationist are using Abu Lughod’s work, that she has spent her life articulating the lives of Arab, Muslim women. But therein lay another problem. The young academic felt that Abu Lughod had positioned her work towards non-Muslims, non-Arabs rather than working for increasing women’s freedoms in the Arab world.

I couldn’t think of a way to argue back because the statement which came to mind [“It’s not the responsibility of all women to fight the fight you are most interested in”] sounded too curt, so we agreed to disagree.

At the same conference, another Muslim, Arab woman took issue with a statement I made that it’s not my duty to make my students “modern.” I was speaking about trying to find texts that fit within the conservative worldview of the area where I teach; the woman suggested that I put modern novels (about social change) on my syllabus even if I don’t discuss them in class. I responded that it wasn’t my job to teach works with aspects (alcohol, adultery, etc.) that were not acceptable in the local culture. She countered that it was my job to open my students to new/ modern/ open ways to thinking. I laughed and said that as an American Christian, some students and some of their parents are already nervous that I might try to push a political or social agenda in my teaching and “It’s not my responsibility to change my students.” That conversation also ended in a strained silence.

As I wrote in an earlier essay, the image that comes to mind is the velvet rope blocking off the entrance to a room in a museum. The tour guide slips under the rope and shows off the treasures of the room, explaining their history and importance while the tourists stay outside, looking in. Against the colleagues who believe that Westerners should ‘liberate’ the students, I believe my job is to show that there are different ways to live and different ways to believe. The presentation should be honest but neither cheerleading (we do it better!) nor insulting. The tourist/ student should learn about different cultures but not feel pressured to adopt the manners and customs depicted, in the same way that I see Omani culture but am not able to enter fully as I am not Muslim or Arab. If the tourist/ student wants to change, that is a personal choice, not the responsibility of the tour guide.

When I worked at MIT, I went to a lecture by Noam Chomsky. During the question period, another person in the audience asked what could he (we) do about the persecution of the Falun Gong in China. Chomsky said, “Nothing.”  He continued by explaining that we weren’t there. A person can only work honestly and effectively in the place where they are.

The two Arab women I met at the conference had ideas and strategies that were effective from them where they are, but they would not work for me where I am, or for Abu-Lughod where she is. She specifically addresses these issues in a recent article [“The Cross-publics of Ethnography: The Case of ‘the Muslimwoman’,” American Ethnologist Nov. 2016].

Time and time again in her writing Abu Lughod argues that:

others live as we perceive ourselves living – not as automatons programmed according to ‘cultural rules’ or acting out social roles, but as people going through life wondering what they should do, making mistakes, being opinionated, vacillating, trying to make themselves look good, enduring tragic personal losses, enjoying others, and finding moments of laughter (Writing Women’s Worlds 27)

My students and the people I write about in my research are people who live valid lives and make valid choices – it is not my job to change them. It is my job to listen carefully and speak honestly. In teaching, I should find interesting, relevant texts and give assignments that allow students to express their own opinions and improve their language skills. In my research, I should observe as accurately as possible, ask questions and write only after reflection and double-checking. That’s my job.

Living Expat – Dressing, Covering, Swimming, and Mutual Respect

In all my twelve years of living here and two years of living in the United Arab Emirates, I have never been harassed, insulted, frightened, much less attacked, by any Omani or Emeriti for being American or a Christian. Devout Muslim friends, neighbors and colleagues wish me “Merry Christmas” and I say, “Thank you.” I wish them “Eid Mubarak” and “Ramdan Kareem” and they say, “Thank you.”

Likewise, I have never been made to feel different or foreign or wrong because I was wearing clothes which were normal in my culture. Because I choose to live and work here, I do make the small adjustment of wearing clothes that cover my knees and shoulders when teaching, but I wear the same clothes I wear when I’m in the States: JJill, Fresh Produce, LL Bean, Eddie Bauer, and April Cornell.

When I visit Omani friends at home, I wear what they are wearing out of respect. It is a simple adaptation like taking off my shoes before I walk into a friend’s house, learning to eat with my hands, shooing my cats out of the living room if a friend who is allergic comes to visit or not eating ice cream sundaes in front of a friend who is dieting.

In Omani houses, I wear an abayah (the long loose black cloak that women wear on the Arabian Peninsula) with a black headscarf or a dhobe (the long, loose, patterned cotton dress local women wear) with a lossi (a matching, light cotton headscarf). At first it was a little difficult to maneuver surrounded by almost 4 yards of fabric, but I learned how to gather up some of the extra while walking up stairs and to arrange my lossi to stay neatly in place, something akin to learning to French-braid my hair in middle school.

During Ramadan, I also wore a headscarf during the day out of respect for the culture and I was interested to see how it would feel psychologically to cover. In Oman, unlike some Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, abayahs and headscarves are not required by law for daily life. Most women wear them because of personal beliefs and/ or traditions.

Some abayahs are very loose and plain black, some are black with colored decorations, some are colored (often navy blue or beige) and some are worn like an open cloak showing the jeans or skirts worn underneath. Some women wear tightly wrapped, plain black scarves, others wear colored scarves or have the scarf resting on their shoulders. Some women have suggested non-Muslim women should wear headscarves as a show of solidarity. I don’t agree with that, as not all Muslim women believe it is necessary to cover their hair.

The first time walking into the mall with a colored headscarf was tough – I felt self-conscious and hypocritical. I am in the mall usually once a week, reading at my café or shopping, and to walk in with a headscarf made me feel like I was playing a game.

When the Omani men in my research group saw me wearing a headscarf for the first time, they would smile, nod, make a quick comment and then ignore the issue; no one ever pressed me to wear a black sheila (headscarf) or abayah. It probably took me six or seven times wearing the headscarf in public until I became comfortable with it; then the only issues were finding scarves which co-ordinated with my clothes and were the right fabric weight, not too heavy or stiff.

My big insight about wearing a headscarf is that it gives you something to do. Standing in the grocery store trying to decide which spaghetti sauce to buy, I reach up, tighten, adjust, and smooth it down. Fussing with the scarf became a habit, a micro-control fidget, like men straightening their tie or shooting their cuffs. It’s a little uncomfortable when it’s hot and humid outside, but very helpful when I’m in a room with the AC on full blast. It’s another 2 minutes of getting ready time as I pull out my tiered hanger with 15 scarves and try to figure out which one looks best with my outfit.

When Ramadan ended, I went back to uncovered hair during the day but I still wear scarves when I see my Omani female friends at home. The result was I put a piece of fabric on my head and it was sometimes a little hot but that’s about it. I did not feel more religious, or less religious, or any particular change. I am a Methodist by baptism and by my own choice when I was in my 20s. Neither my religious devotion nor personal beliefs are diminished or altered by having a piece of fabric on my head. I didn’t feel closer to God – I didn’t feel farther away from God. I don’t believe God enjoins me to judge other people by what they have on their head or their body.

Most Sunday and Tuesday nights I go swimming with 60 or so Arab, Muslim women wearing burqinis. I first learned to swim in a public pool with a Red Cross instructor and over my 50 years I have swum in the Wilde Lake village center pool in Columbia MD, the Old Red Gym at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of North Dakota pool when it was negative 10 outside, Canadian lakes, MIT, the Atlantic Ocean at Ocean City, and Tacoma, WA.

The women who swim at my pool now are just like the women I have swum with at all those other places, only they are wearing a bit more clothing. They are in swimming pants or leggings with short or long-sleeved tops as is consistent with the conservative culture, but no one has ever told me that I have to wear what they wear. I am a life-long feminist but I don’t believe my feminism allows me to dictate someone else’s feminism. The women at the pool and my Omani women friends (college-educated, multi-lingual, who work and have traveled/ lived abroad) don’t feel comfortable exposing their body to other women, much less men. Who am I to argue that with them?

When I go swimming, I get lots of smiles, waves, friendly glances and “hellos” from women I don’t know. In almost a year of twice weekly visits to the pool I have never received a harsh word, much less a lecture, on my bright blue Land’s End swimsuit. We all exercise mutual respect for different customs and religions while we exercise our bodies. And then we will go home happy.