January 20, 2013

The Camel's Hump (folklore in Oman)

by Kiera Lewis
From my first moments in Muttrah, I fell in love with the seaside and the romantic way the sun sets over the mountains. The smell of the sea air commingling with the scent of bakhoor (incense) gave me a taste of Arabia. Now, three years later, I'm back in Oman studying the intricate rhythms of oral storytelling and the ways in which a story can reveal how a society views the world; how these features are treasured as inherent elements of the culture and way of life. The salience of this kind of research is unmatched. In a world rife with violence and war, due at least in part to misunderstanding and differing fundamental belief systems about the world, it is relevant to study the underlying assumptions that guide societies around the globe. This becomes a mechanism for more effective international endeavours in government, business and humanitarian aid. Only with an understanding of the lens through which a people experience reality, can truly meaningful and respectful international relations be forged. One indirect way that a culture reveals it’s fundamental belief system is through the stories that are perpetuated to teach future generations how to be in that society.

After three months of preliminary research in Oman and Zanzibar, Tanzania (a former Omani dominion), I still know very little about the oral tradition here and the "units of worldview" embedded in the details of each tale.* Each storyteller adds and revises the story to fit the lesson or imagery that is needed for the moment. To focus the scope of my research, I began by reading Omani folktales translated into English, more than seventy to date. After identifying the major themes and motifs, I started to analyze them alongside historical and cultural documents on Oman. At this point, I have enough background knowledge to feel confident listening to storytellers share the stories in Arabic that had been passed on to them. Though I’m still at the initial stages of this process, some patterns have emerged. Specifically, the notion of sufficiency seems consistent throughout Omani folktales, daily life, and history. I will call it an Omani “principle of sufficiency” insofar as it seems to be at least one element of a fundamental belief system whereby one must act in accordance with what is sufficient to yield satisfactory results for herself and others, but need not extend beyond this point. That is to say, doing what is enough and achieving contentment. In reality, this appears in daily behaviors like taking only the food that you need or learning the skill that is sufficient to support your family, and a sense of contentment and plenty that one finds in Omanis.
Some examples of this principle come up in a few Omani proverbs, which advise one to be thankful for what one has received, not to waste resources, and to break fasting by eating simple food such as onion. By the same token, a famous folktale from Muttrah tells of a young man who receives just two dinars from his grandmother for a long journey. Throughout his trip his finds that everyone gifts him with riches, fine clothing, food and even a horse because his parents are "very kind people", and so he keeps the two dinars in his pocket, never needing
to spend them. Eventually he meets the beautiful daughter of the Sultan, and wins her love by his modest disposition and manner of eating; taking only small portions of each item placed before him; just enough to satiate his hunger. This story, then, extols an ideal way of being in this society and characterizes desirable qualities in a mate using the “principle of sufficiency”. This attribute might find its roots in the geography of the country, one of mostly arid to semi-arid desert which necessitates carrying only what is needed and exerting oneself just enough to satisfy needs. Much in the way of the camel.

If the camel is a metaphor for life here in the Arabian peninsula, then Omanis appear to be the camel’s hump; resilient, complacent and sufficient to maintain stability. But to make any true conclusions, this initial analysis calls for an an intensive investigation not only of folktales and proverbs of Oman, but also the folk speech and history of the people. As a case study for worldview studies, Oman could reveal implications for the broader geo-anthropological order on the Arabian peninsula and yield critical information that could develop stronger international ties between the United States and Arabia.
*The term “units of worldview” was first coined and published in The Journal of American Folklore,Vol 84., No. 331. Toward New Perspectives in Folklore (Jan-Mar., 1971), 93-103. “Folk Ideas as Units of Worldview” by folklorist Alan Dundes in 1971.
Kiera Lewis is a 23 year old Vermont native who is currently doing research on Omani Folklore and implications for worldview and national character. As an undergraduate she studied Continental and Analytic Philosophy as well as Arabic, Spanish and French. She enjoys learning languages and acquiring new tools for the study of human existence. Kiera plans to continue her current research when she returns to the US in the form of a documentary film of Omani folktales and also expects to return to Oman during her postgraduate work to learn more in the field of Folkloristics. Her passion is in travel and dance, as well as learning about other cultures. She is documenting her experience and lessons in Oman and beyond on her blog and you can follow her to at Criticalfindings.wordpress.net. Kiera can also be reached by email at kiera.lewis11@gmail.com 


nautilus January 23, 2013 at 3:20 AM  

I wonder if there is any connection between the rich tradition of proverbs (and storytelling) in the KiSwahili language and the Omani traditions.

nautilus January 23, 2013 at 4:42 AM  

I am sure that there must be quite an overlap of some of the proverbs from KiSwahili and those from Oman. As you probably know, KiSwahili is rich in proverbs. Regards Anne

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