Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Cave Dwellers: Dhofar's Collective Identity Crisis

If you remember, several months ago I published the longest post in the world. (more like the longest rant in the world). Today is one of those days. Forgive me if my thoughts seem random, violent, or incoherent. Every once in a while I feel the need for a good rant, hence the existence of this blog. I recommend a strong cup of coffee or tea before you read this. If you think I’m crazy, the least you can do is humor me. I started my grumbling this morning with a good friend (you know who you are) but if I had allowed our SMS conversation to continue, it would have eventually been forgotten and then disappeared into Omantel’s magnificent (and heavily monitored) infinity.
I was at the wedding of a distant cousin on Thursday where I wore the same ‘thobe’ (traditional dress) that I had worn to another relative’s wedding a couple of months back. I was sitting next to a woman I didn’t recognize (let’s name her Fatma). She stared at me for a good half hour and then finally spoke. This is how the conversation went:
Fatma: You’re X’s daughter?
Me: Yes. And you?
Fatma: Don’t you work?
Me: Yes, I do. Why?
Fatma: So you can afford a new thobe. Why are you wearing an old one?
Me: Excuse me?
Fatma: I saw you wearing this thobe at Y’s wedding in November.
Me: It’s only 3 months old and I’ve only worn it once.
Fatma: But the same people have ‘seen’ you wearing it. What will they say? My husband is not well-off and we have four daughters but even though it’s expensive, all my daughters are wearing new thobes today. We know how to ‘act’ in this society.
Me: How much did you spend on the thobes, makeup, wigs, and henna?
Fatma: What?
Fatma: Over 500 rials.
Me: And you’re convinced that it’s right?
Fatma: Of course. This is society. There’s nothing you can do. You can’t change society.
Fatma: You think that because you’ve been abroad for too long. My dear girl, you don’t understand anything.
Me: God help you. (and I stood up and left)
The sheer collectivism that I witness in Dhofar every day is baffling. Most of the time I am able to just keep calm and carry on, but sometimes it just drives me crazy. Why is it that after being back in Oman for over two years, I still haven’t been able to adapt? Or perhaps I never will?
My dear readers, I hereby accuse Dhofaris (and Arabs in general) of being unable to break out of what I call ‘Dhofar’s Collective Identity Crisis’. A collective identity refers to people’s sense of belonging to a group (Dhofaris). A collective identity forms the identity of the individuals until they are unable (in some cases) to make their own decisions. Sometimes the sense of belonging to a particular group will be so strong (tribalism) that is will undermine other aspects of one’s personal identity.
George Orwell, a dedicated democratic socialist, believed that collectivism resulted in the empowerment of a minority of individuals that led to further oppression of the majority of the population (in the name of some ideal such as honor or tribalism or whatever… ring a bell? Have you been following the news lately?)
In our defense, I must state the obvious: we have not been encouraged to think for ourselves. It all starts when we are young. We go to school and are taught to memorize. We spend 12 years memorizing and copying out what the teacher writes on the blackboard. When we get into college, we struggle because we are unable to write our own essays or form our own opinions and theories about anything. To survive, we plagiarize. We take the same courses as our ‘friends’ because we cannot face the idea of attending the classes alone and studying alone. We graduate (barely) and end up getting a job through someone’s wasta. We do what we’re told and nothing more. Then we whine like babies when we don’t get a bonus for being innovative. We watch hours of TV everyday and are fed media crap on a silver plate. We don’t do any thinking in the process.
We decide to get married when society starts pressuring us (you’re too old – 24- it’s time to get married!). We choose a husband or wife based on what society deems ‘suitable’ (i.e. someone from a ‘good family’ with a ‘good reputation’, ‘good morals’ and ‘good connections’ and preferably lots of money). When you finally get married, you are forced to spend thousands on stupid un-Islamic Dhofari wedding ‘necessities’ in order to be like everyone else, regardless of whether we can afford it or not.
We wear the black face veil and frequent the same stores, and buy the same things because other people are doing it. Men wear the kumma and dishdasha because guys who wear jeans are considered wild. (not only do we have an identity crisis, but a fashion crisis – a country of black and white).
We are told that we must pray 5 times a day to avoid going to hell. We go to the mosque and listen to sermons that in most cases are irrelevant to our times. Fathers beat their sons who do not pray. If you’re not seen at the mosque on Friday, people will talk about you. Fear of hell and fear of people. Since when was religion and spirituality built on fear? Islam is a beautiful religion. If we are to truly appreciate it, we must study and contemplate and think and write and discuss and not take things so literally. Fellow blogger and thinker Muawiya is an expert on metaphors. Sadly, most of us are not thinkers. We are followers. We question nothing. As long as we avoid going to hell, we’re cool. We listen to men with long beards in Saudi who thrive on ignorant people like ourselves. We demand fatwas for the simplest of matters like women driving, wearing mascara or whether men can wear shorts. Surely we can decide for ourselves without feeling the need to seek advice from bearded-dudes who threaten us with hell if we follow ‘The West’ (evidently even Brazil, Korea, and Sweden are considered ‘The West’ to our Arab intellectuals). Whatever happened to the days of Ibn Sina, Ibn Tufayl, St. Augustine (who just happened to be Algerian) and others like them? When did we stop thinking?
Several years ago, us Dhofaris adopted the second head and decided anyone who didn’t wear it was ‘weird’ and unfashionable (Do you know Manal in Grade 12? Who? Oh yeah, the one who doesn’t wear the 3okfa?). Recently, some sheikh in Saudi released a fatwa that is was ‘haram’. Immediately (like chickens), people panicked and forwarded the fatwa to everyone they knew via SMS and email. Our precious 3okfas (2nd heads) are now being discussed endlessly at social gatherings (should we or should we not?). Why do we even DISCUSS such petty things? Does society (collectively) have to ‘decide’ whether ‘we’ (the society) should wear this or that, do this or that, and act in this way or that way?
I’m looking forward to the grand opening of Salalah’s first shopping mall next year. I’m sure our men will debate endlessly about whether women should be ‘allowed’ to go there on their own. Will we ‘allow’ the women to go to the cinema? Will girls who go bowling be considered sluts? Can we go without the burqa or is that too much? Gosh, it’s going to be so difficult to decide. But we have to make up our minds at some point, so others can follow, right?
We’re just too comfortable in our own little lives. It’s so easy being a follower. Our sheikhs and tribal leaders make our decisions FOR us. The men in our life pick up on these decisions and implement them in our households. My society decides whether I can walk down the beach in the afternoons, whether I can leave the house alone, whether I can greet male visitors, whether I can go to weddings looking like myself or like a freak show. My society decides that any girl who has her own photo as a profile picture on Facebook has a bad reputation. My society decides.
Thank Goodness I don’t have to figure it all out myself! Hooray! *insert sarcastic tone*.
Dammit, people. It’s time to break out of our comfortable cocoon and learn to think for ourselves.
Our isolation from the realities of a bigger and greater world drives me crazy. Dhofaris are not travellers by nature. We stick to the tribe and stick to the homeland. We think we are better than everyone else, so why bother learning about other cultures and people? Most of us don’t really care about the rest of the world. Hell, we don't even like our fellow Omanis up north! Most of the discussions you hear among people in social gatherings or at your regular shisha cafes are simply EMPTY. The latest phone, latest car, cheapest abaya taylor, where to buy land, where to get wasta, whether the government is giving us a bonus, which minister is gay, who is marrying who, which girl was ‘SEEN’ driving a car in which area, what someone wore at a wedding, and what people are saying on the Sabla, etc. Most of us can’t go beyond that.
In our defense, we have some really interesting thinkers in this town (wonderful people) but they are a MINORITY (right, Ma7feef?). I’m talking about the majority.
With all the tension in the Middle East lately (fall of the dusty traditionalist Arab empire = hello new world!), I find it’s necessary for each and every one of you Dhofaris to get hip to the happenings. First you must understand what the situation really is about in order to have an opinion. Then for heaven’s sake form an opinion of your own. Do not echo the opinions of others. And do not believe everything you see on TV, or wherever.
With the revolutionary domino effect that is currently taking place in the Middle East (Arab subjects were significantly more collectivist, so no wonder…), don’t think Omanis aren’t watching. We all want change, but it’s time to realize that change comes from within. Do not be afraid of thinking for yourself. Stand up for your rights and decide what YOU want from life and how YOU want to live. There’s no point fighting unless you know what you’re fighting FOR.
I’m not saying rebel against the Sultan or the government. They’re not the cause of our problems. The problem with us here in Oman is that we act like children and expect the government to solve all our problems. For example, we criticize the government for not setting up a marriage fund to support ‘troubled young men who cannot afford dowries’ when the obvious solution would be to simply STOP feeding into these pathetic and useless traditions where a girl’s family demands a dowry of 10,000 Rials. Must we spend 2000 rials on frankincense and buhkoor, 2000 on a wedding dress and 4000 on jewelry simply to keep up with what everyone else is going?
We march and criticize the Sultan and government for not ‘cancelling’ all personal bank loans on the 40th National Day… but why should they be cancelled? Were you forced into taking a loan that you cannot handle? To buy a new 4WD Lexus when you can only afford a used Corolla…. in order to impress others? To build a mansion you don’t need? To apply expensive gypsum to your ceilings and purchase chandeliers for your bedrooms? To fly to Thailand to cure the simplest of ailments? To make sure you have the latest phone? Why? Because we MUST be like ‘everyone else’. Dhofaris have a terrible habit of living above their own level of income. Every family is in debt. It’s shameful. If you don’t have the money, don’t spend it. There’s no shame in saying ‘I can’t afford this’!
Don’t blame the government or the Jews or the Americans. Blame yourselves. Start at the bottom. Change the way YOU live. Start making your own decisions. Forget about what people ‘think’. Make your own decisions. Break out of the habits that you’ve been stuck with for so long.
In the conversation this morning with my friend, we touched upon Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (a little heavy for early morning conversation, but nevertheless….). If you’re unfamiliar with Plato – one of the great ancient philosophers circa 400 b.c - it’s time to slap yourself and start reading. If you’re unfamiliar with the theory I forgive you and here’s all you need to know:
In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes a group of humans who are trapped in a cave (chained to the floor) and facing the back wall of the cave. Behind them is a roaring fire. The world continues normally outside the cave, but these men can only see the shadows on the wall. After some time, they come to believe that these shadows are reality. The brave ones break away from their chains and turn around and see the light and the ‘real world’ but the majority remain in the cave and are content with sitting there in their own little reality. My summary does the theory no justice, so I advise you to look it up and read if you can.
In the theory, Plato depicts humans as being imprisoned in their own small reality (the cave) with only a fire behind them. They perceive the world by watching the shadows. They do not realize that this existence is wrong and in no way related to true realty. They doesn’t know any better, so who can blame them?
But what will happen if they suddenly turn around, break out of the chains and step out of the cave into the divine light? (i.e. true reality). What would happen if people became enlightened and free? Some won’t be able to handle it and will run back to the cave (their comfort zone). A few others (leaders) will not be afraid and will venture out and become enlightened. A couple of the kind-hearted ones will go back to the cave to try and educate their prisoner friends but they will be puzzled when they realize that the cave dwellers really don’t want to come out into the light. They prefer the darkness which they have become accustomed to. It baffles the enlightened ones that their cave dweller friends would refuse to acknowledge any truth beyond their current existence in the cave.
Here were are thousands of years later, and we remain cave dwellers. Most of us Dhofaris (and Omanis?) are stuck in our comfort zones (caves) and don’t want to break out into the unfamiliar. Plato is probably rolling over in his grave.
However, one thing remains true. A cave dweller who left the cave and then came back to educate his friends will not succeed. Why? Because TRUTH MUST BE EXPERIENCED rather than told. Language fails to convey belief. Language is the barest shadow of reality, yet it is the one weapon our leaders and religious sheikhs use against us. We must experience and see for ourselves what life is all about.
I can’t help but link Plato’s theory to society here in Salalah. For some reason, most people in our society are followers. We think collectively and act collectively. Anyone who is slightly different is looked down upon. We are expected to dress the same (black for women, white for men), act the same (women are timid and demure and quiet, men are MEN), attend the same events, follow the same rules and always care about ‘what people will say should we dare change’. We are afraid of change and of anything new and different.
I’m not saying all Dhofaris are isolated and the rest of the world are thinkers but I do believe that there are more cave dwellers in Salalah than there are enlightened individuals.
Dear Dhofari: Don’t be a cave dweller. God gave you a brain, so use it. Think for yourself. Life is too short. Aspire to be the leader, not the follower.
I need a cup of tea. I'll come back and review what I wrote in a little while. I know I'm being a little harsh today. Don't criticize me. Humor me. I look forward to your feedback. I need to know what YOU think. Your very own personal opinion.
Ideas: Collectivism. Groupthink. Identity crisis. Blind followers. Individuality. Cave dwellers. Reality. Tribalism. Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. Ibn Tufayl. Socrates. Plato. Dhofar. Salalah.


  1. wow, I haven't been here for a while and just fluttered in to face this humungous rant @@

    Anyway..Hi :)

    -Your Zeeky Cousin (collective tribalism pun intended): ADG

  2. I feel sleepy after reading the whole post... i will take a small nap and return to comment :p

  3. That was painful to read and insha Allah my daughters will be spared from such a suffocating society. The thing is, it is at the individual level that change starts, and as long as one complies to the expected norms as a result of peer pressure they can't really complain. Group behavior is the same the world over and is not unique to dhofar, or Oman or Arabia or Muslims. In the west just a century ago women were subjected to all sorts of ridiculous restrictions and fashions ... Just 60 years ago a woman's mission in life was to get married and have children and cook a nice wholesome dinner for her family. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is the lack of choice where there is something wrong. Some people want to talk about mobile phones that is their porrogative as long as they can talk about what they want. There was someone I can't remember who said that great minds talk about ideas, the average talk about things and the worst talk about each other. So each can decide what category they wish to fit in.
    It was just in the sixties that in the USA, on the wave of the civil rights movement did women start shouting out for their rights, and now 50 years later look, women in the west again have the short end of the stick cause they have to be both a man and a woman at the sime time, breadwinner, mother, caretaker, wife, cleaner .... My sister works, has three young kids, a big house and farm to maintain and NO maid or house help .... But at least she has the choice to live her life the way she chooses, even though it may be difficult, that is what she has chosen for herself.
    I think we need to take a step and make a difference, start with yourself, then talk to your spouse, your parents your siblings. Remember though the only thing you can control and change is your own behavior, and if you have enough friends and family who think like you soon you can jointly make a difference.
    I'll give you a small example, I wanted to move out of my dads house, I finished college and frankly didn't want to commute and wanted to live next to my office, my entire family was against it, but my dad told them all to shut up and not tell him how to raise his daughter, soon I had about 4 female friends of mine who also did the same, and now at least whenever a girl wants to move out they have an example to share of someone who did it before them, it is still not accepted, but at least the barrier has been broken.
    Good luck. No need to judge. If you don't like something just don't do it, and who cares if people talk, that will last only a few days, but that oppressed feeling you have inside when you don't do what you want will suffocate you everyday till you break the barrier. Life is too short to live in frustration!

  4. Salam

    If you good with arabic, then you will have great time reading this post on same topic:

    What you said is what the writer described as "Sheep was of thinking"

    Stay strong for your identity!.

  5. I love Dhofar, and I hate it at the same time. Or actually I hate it so much. I'm still Dhofari though.

    But who do I blame? I don't blame Dhofaris, but someone else. A Genie. I believe Dhofaris don't have a choice, because it's not their fault.

    I believe in them, and I hate that Genie so much for keeping us chained till today. He will pay for all this one day, I am sure.

    Haha :)

  6. Hi
    Excellent post that carries clear reflections and comparisons between people who depend on their own thinkings to build themselves in order to thrive their country, and those who just follow the trend or give up themselves to public opinion and support others belief without taking a second to think, we can call this type(mobs)
    I will be clear enough to make the arguement more meaningful.
    Therefore i'll strat by talking about illiterate people: they are innocent class have nothing to reflect that based on proves, so please forgive them if they offend or say something unsuitable.They shouldn't be laughed at or blamed,cause they had crossed very tough periods of sufferance,ignorance and poverty;on the contrary we must treat them by applying some itellectual methods,also we should take them out to see for themselves to see the diffrence( SEEING IS BELIEVING)in order to free their brains and not be cave dwellers any more.
    The previous excerpt should be applied on the woman whom Nadia met at the wedding.
    Regading to Omani youth who are the future and the backbone of this nation, we still have many barriers which impede them and press them to stand still for the rest of their lives gazing at one corner if they don't get help,that corner could be-*Strong beliefs each supports his or her sect(Mazahab)eventhough they are all Muslims,tribe,etc... which is wasting time I consider,*Studying for the sake of getting perfect job,not for knowledge and science,*Live for food and drink NOT TO ASK FOR ANY REFORMS IN THE GOVERNMENT, because they have been brought up on the idea that you will put yourself in danger if you criticize the government,so they live in intimidation and fear and not to demand their rights.
    In short, illiterate people are innocent,thus i don't have the right to damn them,whereas literate people are blamed because, most of them still cling to destructive thoughts sighted from one corner.

  7. Wow you really are a passionate young woman. I think you have a lot of sense and can really open up people’s minds (not just in Oman). The woman in the beginning sounded like a right fool, you responded in a clever way.

    I really enjoy reading your posts btw
    Take care

    From a 21yr old MAN (lol) living in the UAE, born in London UK

  8. I want to say something, but you wrote it better than I can at this moment.
    VIVA THE MIND THAT THINKS FOR ITSELF! I try to teach my foreign students this and prepare them to help others out of 'caves' despite possible backlash of their own people. Thank you for your candid blog. I may turn reading it into an assignment for my students.

  9. Mushallah, good post. How you described Plato was good. The Japanese have a saying "a nail that sticks out, is meant to be hammered in". It is common all over the world that people only like to think in there confront zone, where I am it is the same way. Once more people start looking outside, then it slowly becomes the norm.

  10. You're fantastic! It's not easy to stick your neck out in a society like this.

    I have a feeling you need to do something more with your thoughts. I mean, not only write them down. Although it's a very good start.
    You seem to posses the power & the drive to enable change.

    Good luck!

  11. how dear you talking about our holy 3okfa ( second head) hahahahahaah we just CAN't live without it :)

  12. Excellent post ! I am looking forward to reading about what you will do to try and change the things that frustrate you. When there's a will, there's a way, eh ?

  13. I just have to say that I LOVED this post!! Amazing reflections on society .. Posts like these make me want to change my career to sociology!! Maybe one day!

    However, I really think there is more to it then think to ourselves .. I think every society have a sort of collective thinking .. Call it culture, common sense (which are linked society wise), or whatever u want but it's a set of value that a society practices. Every person of that society is expected to behave in that manner. Is expected to think the same. Example just to explain my point, kids living with their parents after they turn 18. Dr Phil calls them moochers(sp?) and it's negatively looked upon while here in the Arab world its is encouraged.
    To tell you the truth sometimes I encourage collective thinking .. It is a way to control society .. Stop people from doing wrong, not the ideal way I know but it has worked for this society for very long. An example is tribalism .. In the past, a person wouldn't do a mistake just to keep the honor of the tribe. If they made a mistake, the shiekh used to be responsible of punishing the person and he was the most respected person around. Although there were no reports back then but I assure you that crime rate was much lower. Like I said, it worked for the society.

    I am playing the devil advocate, I agree with what you have said in your post .. I am just saying, there is more to it! .. This is a very interesting topic and needs a face to face discussion ;)

  14. I could only read part of your post but I have to say it was all too familiar. I once taught English in Oman (SQU) and found we were actually teaching basic critical thinking skills to first years, with English thrown in. It may have changed, this was 2000-2005. But yes, I have to say, as much as I love Oman and Omanis - when you leave Oman you are faced with thinking populations again in the West and I actually found it refreshing to have thinking people in the majority again but also a little hard at first to adapt back to this myself. It is the biggest memory for me, this when changing from Oman back to Western society. By the way, I used to really like Dhofari students because of their tribalism. And also the students I used to teach from Buraimi too.

  15. hey its too gud to read this...
    i can feel how u wud 've felt...

    "STOP feeding into these pathetic and useless traditions"
    this is harsh but i liked this,,it needs a courage to say and face this...

    every part of the world has a custom which may sound weird or aweful but there are people still living with it.

    only knowledge is wisdom and also Beauty is in the eye of the beholder too.... :)

    so people who think out of the circle wud like this topic... and its highly needed for many societies....


  16. individuality and consensus - difficult to achieve and yet better than conformity and inability to accept group decisions which differ from yours
    keep up the struggle

  17. man this was the most funny part, a woman telling u that u wore the same thob in that wedding, that's so typical!

  18. I feel you, am from Salalah but never lived there. It was only a holiday destination for my family .I can't feel but grateful to my dad for not making us live there. I feel that the society there needs a good shake to wake up from their slumber. This quest to copy each other and to compete in materialistic things irritates me. Their continuous insistence on spending for the sake of show more than they make baffles me and that sense of superiority well I won't go into that. If you don't act like them , you'll receive that look (either what the hell or pity she doesn't know better ). Anyways, I went and read Plato's allegory (am not into philosophy) and I found it interesting and that it almost describes the situation in all levels of life, community, workplace and even family. Most people rely on and depend on their comfort zones . They don't treed towards the unknown. They resist change and challenge whom ever tries to change their ways. Do you think that there is hope ? will they ever change? I've not been to Salalah for the last 4 years and the longer I wait , the more reluctant I become to go.
    PS: Congrats on your dress , seems that it was extra special for that lady to remember it after 3 months !!

  19. Good post - like always! Thanks for asking us to think :)

    Here, thought you might enjoy this:

  20. I have just come across your blogg while searching for news on recent protests in Oman. I trully enjoy your writing and I will follow you from no onwards. It is nice and refreshing to read intellectual material that is full of facts and truth. You are absolutely correct that "We need to start change from within".
    Thank you. Salim- Muscat

  21. This is the first time ever that I've actually been motivated enough to comment on a blog post- congratulations on being able to resist groupthink and it makes me immensely happy to see that a woman from Salalah is courageous enough to express her feelings in a public domain.
    While I'm not Omani, I actually spent the first 10-12 years of my life in Salalah and was then in Muscat until the end of high school. But like most expatriates, had to leave for an education (this was a long time ago, prior to Oman having any legitimate higher education beyond highschool) but return almost annually to visit the country of my childhood. Some of my best memories are associated with life in Oman and plan on visiting as often as I can.
    It's hard not to acknowledge the tremendous need for reform in Oman under the current circumstances but I think you will agree that the bulk of the impetus needs to come from the people themselves. I personally believe HM has done more than his share for the country and it's about time the populace starts to wonder what they're doing for the country as opposed to what the leaders are doing.
    I'm sorry but free public education, free health care, a cheap migrant workforce, free sanitation etc etc and the protesters demands are an end to taxes? money to get married?
    Is this a joke? Be thankful for the resources you have, get off your high horse and start working towards a better future for the country.
    Better yet, if there is any advice I can give an Omani, it's this- step out of your little cave and spend some time with the South Asian expatriate population, you don't even have to travel far to do that, they're practically living in your house, and you will inevitably learn work ethic like none other. Practically my entire school was kids of blue collar and white collar expatriates whose work ethic has led to a generation of successfull and productive members of the societies they live in. I only wish we had more assimilation growing up so each culture could have benefited from one another (but that's a whole different diatribe).
    Nonetheless, encountering free thinkers such as you has given me a new found hope in Oman and it's future. Keep up the good work.
    Ex Omani expatriate in San Diego

  22. This is probably one of my favourite posts of yours so far. I am Dhofari and because I live in the capital with more open minded parents, I am free to do whatever I want. However due to the Dhofari society, whenever I am there, I have to conform even if I don't want to.

    Being your own individual is very much looked down upon in society, I should know because it was what I experience, it is what I have to live through. People criticize me for everything, but I wouldn't ever get offended because their criticisms are stupid and based on air. Why would anyone criticize a person for wanted to study abroad? They should understand that it is for the greater good. Better education, better experience, so on and so forth. Why would anyone criticize a girl for wearing minimal make-up at a wedding? Whatever happened to natural beauty? Oh yeah.. Right, Marilyn Manson beauty -.-

    Love from London.