Marielle Risse / No. The Car Wasn’t Actually on Fire: Understanding Communication in Southern Oman

No. The Car Wasn’t Actually on Fire: Understanding Communication in Southern Oman (published in NDQ 84.1/2)

Marielle Risse

The patience and tolerance to live harmoniously in an unfamiliar culture; the fortitude to be content with less than comfortable circumstances for prolonged periods; an understanding of and sympathy with a foreign history and religion; a willingness to learn a new language; the flexibility, imagination and humility necessary to climb into the head of people who live by a very different set of assumptions; none of these are found automatically in our modern developed Euro-Atlantic culture. (Gardiner 174)

I am an example of the difficulties of transnationalism; I’m a Christian American and have spent the last eleven years trying to understand the Sunni Muslim people who belong to the Gibali-speaking tribes of Southern Oman. I have lived overseas in four countries and spent a significant amount of time in a fifth—it is easy to change what you wear, what you eat, when you eat, what side of the road to drive on, what days are the weekend, where the light switches are located, and what time stores are open. It’s difficult to learn a foreign language, but it is far more difficult to learn and understand new communication strategies.

I once met a Gibali-speaking friend, Mahad, for a day-fishing trip. I had known Mahad for several years at that time but he brought along two cousins whom I was meeting for the first time. I pull my car up alongside his and he announces that we will all go in my car. His car had “a fire.” I look at his car (engine running); there don’t appear to be scorch marks anywhere.

“What caught on fire?” I ask.

“The car!” Mahad says, in an isn’t-it-obvious tone of voice.

“What happened?” I am now out of my car, walking around his car, which looks the same as always.

“Fire!” he repeats, hauling fishing gear from his car to my car.

“Did you take it to get repaired?” I venture.

“No,” he says, slamming his car doors. “It’s OK.”

I stare at Mahad.

“What happened?” I ask again.

He shakes his head in despair at my obliviousness, “fire.”

We get in my car and I start driving. He directs me off the paved road and onto a rough trail, full of loose rocks. I drive over rocks which ping up and hit the undercarriage with loud thuds. I yelp and wince.

“Don’t move! Don’t say anything!” Mahad instructs me. “My cousins will think you are scared.”

“Well, I am scared,” I say. “I don’t want my car hurt.”

“Don’t show that!” he replies.

Once we get to the beach, they sort out the gear and I take out the snacks, offering bags of chips to the cousins. They take them and begin walking to the rocks to fish.

“See how they are good!” Mahad says, “They are not hungry but they take the chips to be polite!”

“But if they are not hungry, they could just say no,” I answer. He glares at me. Exchanges like this would sometimes end with him asking a rhetorical question: how could a normal, sane person have the patience to have a conversation with an American woman?

I wrote down this conversation when it happened, more than six years ago, but it was only afterward that I could see the contours of what was said and not said. I have been doing anthropological research on Gibali-speaking tribes in the Dhofar region of Southern Oman for almost ten years, and I am still trying to understand and articulate how Gibalis use language to communicate, deflect, hide, and obfuscate. Even with Gibalis who are fluent speakers of English, verbal interactions can go widely astray, especially between Gibalis and expats.

For example, one of the hallmarks of American speech-acts is to be forthright, clear, to say what you mean and mean what you say, to try to make words mirror what you think and believe. Gibalis often use words as masks, using verbal communication to hide their intentions in ways which are clear to other Gibalis, but confusing to outsiders.

In Gibali communication, the result is what is most important: to put the correct ideas into the minds of those to whom one is talking, to get the desired outcome. In the above conversation “fire” was not the point; the point was he wanted us to go in my car as it was a long drive on rough roads. Perhaps he didn’t have enough gas and, in any case, my car was much newer and in better shape. But he didn’t want to express that he needed my car. When the rocks hit my car, he didn’t want me to react because of his cousins: if I was so obviously worried about my car, they would suggest we turn back. And he remarked on them not being hungry to show their self-sufficiency.

Being self-reliant, and expecting others to be self-reliant, are keystones of Gibali culture for both men and women. Handling the situation by saying “can we take your car?”, “if you act scared, my cousins will call off the trip,” and “thanks for bringing snacks” would be giving power to others. Mahad would have been placing himself in a subordinate position: asking me for the car, intimating that the trip depended on the agreement of the cousins, having to show gratitude or that his cousins needed my food.

I didn’t catch any of this at the time. I was just happy to be going fishing, but the exchanges amused me so I wrote them down. A few months ago, searching for something else, I found the document with the exchange and I could, at that time, “read” it. I saw the sub-texts I didn’t catch the day it happened because I spent the intervening years going on many more fishing, camping, and driving trips. Watching, watching, watching, and more watching made me realize if I leave town with men in the research group, we will usually take my car because, having been a girl scout, I have water, blankets, tow ropes, wood, knives, pillows, and matches in my car at all times; the lights, brakes, windows, and speedometer all work. If I am in the car with Mahad and other men from the research group, no one remarks if I react when rocks hit my car and the men take or leave the food I bring as they choose. However, in front of older men and men who don’t know me, the men use words to show their independence from me.

Some people compare understanding a foreign culture to peeling back the layers of an onion, but to me that implies that there is a destination to be reached. To me, understanding culture is like mountains beyond mountains. You get to one level only to find there are infinitely more layers to discover. Perhaps in another five years I will have an even deeper understanding of that conversation.

Understanding is such a slow process because it is unusual for Gibalis to become friends with people outside their religion and tribe. The Dhofaris who are part of my research group are Sunni Muslim and their mother tongue is Gibali, a non-written Modern South Arabian (MSA) language also known as Jebbali or Sheri. Most Gibalis also speak Arabic, the language of government, education, and business in Oman, as a second language. Most also know some Mehri, another unwritten MSA language; Urdu or Hindi, to communicate with expat workers; English; and/or languages picked up by travel or interest, including French, Korean, Swahili, and German.

Their social system is organized by tribes and sub-tribes. With the exception of expats who have lived in Oman for a long time and acquired a passport, all Omanis belong to a tribe. After identifying as Muslim, it is the most important way to classify people. When Gibalis call one another, the first question is “Where are you?”; when they talk about a person, the first piece of information is the tribe name. There is no way to exist outside of the tribal structure. In saying your name you will spark a whole series of associations in your listeners and all the positive and negative actions of your family, extended family, and tribe revolve around you like unseen gravitational fields, pulling people closer to you or keeping people away from you. A typical Western view is that tribes are harmful, but in Dhofar tribes are seen as a safety network.

Gibali women and men can become close friends with people from other tribes and even inter-marry. When a group of friends sits together it is impossible to tell who belongs to which tribe; yet, as Gibalis say, there are “lines” (limits) in friendships with non-tribal members. Nothing negative about a family or tribe member is ever said in front on non-tribe members.

It is even more difficult to be friends with people of a different religion. I know more than a dozen Gibali men well, and of them only two have ever talked to a Christian woman outside of a work situation, e.g., when she was either a passenger in their taxi or their teacher. The Gibali women I am friends with have never been friends with a non-Omani, non-Muslim woman.

So how did I manage to gain the trust of the Gibalis in my research group? How did I learn to read communication exchanges? I was once talking to another American about my research and how difficult it is to get access and insight into Gibali culture. He said, “So you must ask a lot of questions.” I said, “No, I don’t ask any questions.” The look on his face was the look of a person struggling to reframe the whole conceptual framework of what “research” means. “Research” means asking questions, right? Socratic dialogue, give and take, write a plan and make inquiries, figure out what you want to know and go look for the answers. You “pursue” research; you “hunt” for answers; you “capture” data; you “acquire” answers; there are so many metaphors of the “chase” for information.

To understand Gibali culture, I went on beach picnics and fishing trips and I sat. Gibalis sit. When there is work to do they work, but when there is no work, they sit. With men, meals are eaten with concentration so one can get back to sitting and talking. When there are kids around there is more talking during meals as the children need to be corralled and fed, but as soon as everyone has finished eating, it’s back to sitting and talking.

Westerners have the, usually unspoken, expectation that meeting for coffee should take an hour or two, but among good friends Gibalis don’t have a sense of how much time should be spent on a visit. When making a formal visit to someone’s house, one might stay fifteen minutes, half an hour, two hours, or longer; the time is predicated by outside factors: when men are free to drop off or pick up women, prayer time, when people will normally go to sleep, etc.

Among family and close friends you should stay together until there is a specific reason to go. Several times I will feel that the visit is done and my Gibali friend will suddenly order more food or make reference to us sitting for another two hours, with the caveat that Gibali women usually expect to be home before sunset. Agreeing to meet Gibali men at three p.m. might mean we will be together until five p.m., eleven p.m., or one a.m. If I try to leave at seven p.m., they will ask with surprise, “Why didn’t you tell us you were busy?” And by sitting, watching, and listening I was slowly able to see how Gibalis choose what to say and when to say it.

For example, when Gibalis greet each other, “How are you?” is repeated over and over in Gibali or Arabic. Between good friends, the first three or four passes are expected to have a positive answer. After that, and after a little time, the actual answer can finally be revealed. No one would think of saying, “Hey, you just said four times that you are OK and now you tell me that you didn’t get the job you wanted.” “Everything is fine” was the appropriate thing to say before, but now it’s appropriate to reveal what is going on. It’s not that Gibalis don’t know what truth is, or don’t believe in telling it­­—truth is a commodity to be displayed to those who need it, at the correct time. The correct time might be, in fact, never.

For researchers this can lead to serious misunderstandings. One man who was trying to research a sensitive topic complained to me that Dhofari men only wanted to talk about “cars and football.” Given that he made me uncomfortable with his blunt statements, I could imagine how Gibalis would cordially duck his attempts to get them on a sensitive topic with a long soliloquy on their favorite sports team.

Twice I have watched researchers give an overview of their project to Gibalis who nodded along and gave their full approval, but when the researchers left the Gibalis turned to me and said, “We didn’t understand anything.” Like Mahad above, Gibalis don’t want to show that they are in the position of needing something or not understanding something, especially in situations where there is a new person in the group. Knowing me for years allowed them to tell me that they were confused, but they would never admit that in front of the researchers who were strangers. “Let them enjoy their time,” the guys in my research group say. “But they think you agree with them,” I respond. They shrug, smile, make a motion of dismissal with their hands.

For Gibalis, words are used to show their independence, not necessarily reflect the true opinions of the person speaking. When at work one afternoon I called a Gibali friend to tell her I was ordering lunch. She said she was starving and that she also wanted food. When I called her back half an hour later to say that the delivery man wasn’t coming, she told me that, actually, she wasn’t hungry. When I called ten minutes later to say the delivery man had shown up after all, she told me she was starving. She had said that she wasn’t hungry to show friendship to me, so that I wouldn’t feel badly that I had disappointed her, and to show that she didn’t need the food.

When I don’t operate within the Gibali framework by not being independent and asking for reassurance, Gibalis react in an amusing but didactic manner. When I had moved into a new villa with a large living room I decorated it with paintings, Arabian rugs, colored glass lanterns, pillows in abundance. When Gibali friends stopped by, I asked, “What do you think of the living room?” The three men stood rooted, observed everything carefully, made expressions of surprise and approval, waved their hands elegantly; they vowed that in their lives they have never seen such decorating; they swore they did not know that such marvelous decorating was possible on this earth; they wondered out loud how it was possible to take a plain room and turn it into a palace, a castle, a dream; they declared that I must come immediately to their own houses and commence redecorating their own homes.

My friends were teaching me that when I disingenuously asked for compliments, I was going to get enough compliments to choke on. Either ask and accept the fake whipped-cream compliments with proper abashment or (better) don’t ask. In that case I had spent three days rearranging the living room and was not really interested in the truth; the cotton candy compliments were perfect.

Gibalis will sometimes say something negative about Dhofar to expats and then, when the expats start to join in, will bring up social problems in the expats’ country. It’s funny to see this in action, but not amusing for the expats who thought they were indulging in criticizing the trash on the beach and suddenly are trying to defend their own politicians. For example, if tourists object to the price of water, within a few minutes they will be casually asked about the cost of the airfare to Oman and then the hotel room price, until it becomes clear that it is ridiculous to complain about the price of water when they have already spent so much money on the vacation. Watching Gibalis and expats in conversation often reminds me of cowboys herding cattle. No matter where the tourist wants to go linguistically or physically, they will end up where the Gibali wants them to be.

Rarely, when expats don’t abide by these conversational rules it can lead to anger. Dhofari students become furious if an expat teacher says something along the lines of, “You failed the midterm and have done none of the homework, you are going to fail the class, so it’s better if you drop it.” From the Gibali point of view, how dare the teacher say that s/he might fail? There is always a hope and it is imperative for teachers to stay positive­—to say what the student wants to hear. A few times this has escalated to the point where students bring in parents and vow that “the teacher said I would fail, so I failed, it is his fault.” Of course, part of this is posing, but to state a possible negative outcome is seen as helping to create it.

Given the social pressure to keep a pleasant and polite atmosphere at all times, the need to say what one really believes is almost always trumped by the need to create the correct impression. Thus Gibalis understand that what a person says at one moment might not reflect what they actually believe, as a person is trying to cover what they feel and uncover what others feel. They assume everyone is equally engaged in a kind of spin management, whereas outsiders, especially Westerners, are usually working out of a completely different framework.

I call it the “Will the car ready on Thursday?” problem. Expats drop off their car to be serviced, ask, “Will the car be ready on Thursday?” and are told “Yes.” What is meant is “Yes, if the mechanic, who is currently out of the country for a two-month vacation, decides to come back three weeks early and fix your exhaust it might happen, it could happen, but otherwise it will probably be Sunday before we can find someone else to do it.”

The expat hears, “Thursday morning your car will be ready if I have to go without food and sleep; if I have to walk barefoot for seventy-five miles across burning sand, your car will be ready on Thursday.” This results in the expat arriving on Thursday and having a hissy fit because the car is not ready.

When I quoted back something a Gibali friend had said to me, he snapped at me, “Are you following me word by word?” i.e., I should not remember and repeat exactly what he said. As part of this construct, it is possible to argue in opposite directions from one day to the next and never get called out for it. One night I told the group of Gibali men I was with that I wanted to leave our picnic early because I was worried about the state of the road; they argued the road was fine and I disagreed. The next night I wanted to stay late, so I argued that the road was fine to drive on and no one mentioned my flip-flop.

A Gibali friend told me that no one gets sick during Ramadan minutes after telling me that a mutual friend’s parent was sick. Trying to parse this leads down rabbit holes of cultures, understanding, intentionality, and what is the truth. He believes that Ramadan is a special and separate time of year in which good things happen so that no one can get sick and at the same time knows that people not only get sick, but die during Ramadan. The two strands can exist separate and equal, without the need to twist them together into one narrative strand.

The link between words and actions works differently in Dhofar—sometimes it feels like living in a world formed by deconstructionists. Many times I have seen a Gibali man tell another that he will do something he has no intention of doing. Men thousands of kilometers from Salalah,  the town where I live, will tell friends that they will be at the café in five minutes; Gibali men who are in Dubai will proclaim they will meet friends for dinner in Salalah.

“I did not” can mean “I did not” or “I did it, but now sort of regret it,” or “I did it and regret it but would rather die than give you the satisfaction of admitting it,” or “I did it, am glad I did it and am really enjoying watching you twisting yourself into knots because I won’t admit it.”

As I think about the difficulties of intercultural communication, I remember the connections between buildings and floors at MIT, where I worked for several years. MIT managed to connect almost all the buildings on campus to each other through underground tunnels or above-ground walkways. As you map out a path from one point to another, you need to remember which floor the connection is on. For example, going through a line of four buildings, you might walk between the first two building on the third floor, go up the fourth floor to walk to the next building, and then up to the sixth floor to get to the last building.

This is the perfect metaphor for intercultural communication—if I stayed on my own floor with my own style, I would hit cement walls. Messages sent will never be received, and I won’t be able make headway. I am able to do my research because I show, with halting steps and many mistakes, that I am trying to walk up to their level of communication.

Work Cited

Gardiner, Ian. In the Service of the Sultan: A First-Hand Account of the Dhofar Insurgency. Pen and Sword, 2006.


Marielle Risse is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. She teaches literature and cultural studies in Salalah, Oman. Her research areas are Dhofari culture/ history, connecting Middle Eastern and Western writers in literature classrooms, and intercultural communication. She has presented at the annual conferences of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, Middle Eastern Studies Association, American Comparative Literature Association, Royal Geographical Society, British Foundation for the Study of Arabia, and the Modern Language Association, as well as at Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat and the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Her work has been published in the Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies, Pedagogy, Journeys: The International Journal of Travel and Travel Writing, Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Interdisciplinary Humanities, Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, and Travel Culture (Praeger).

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