Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
The importance of politesse in the mountains of the Dhofar region of Oman stretches beyond strategery and even altruistic grace. In the conventions of hospitality interactions, which echo through other more intimate and everyday face-to-face encounters in the home, interlocutors try to act 'murtah' (local Arabic and Shehret: 'relaxed/comfortable'), to create a smooth and calm surface for others to see. As a form of talk and conduct, acting murtah is characterized by decontextualized, uninformative, and affable speech that is formulaic in form, topic, and expressive repertoire. Being murtah is both a way of appearing to, and a way of receiving others.
Yet, acting murtah is spoken of as an ethical approach to the necessity and spiritual danger of social interaction to living, not only to produce ideally smooth relations with others. The surface it creates circumscribes the self away from those others: an operation of protecting an interior space, not of reforming connectivity. This space is a buffer against over-attachment to evaluation, figuration, and fulfillment through social others that allows for a focus on judgement in the afterlife. In its norms and phraseology, being murtah both bespeaks an openness of the heart, and somehow also refuses to speak of the heart at all.
Rather than reforming the self to better accept another, a politesse of being murtah here suggests a different route between ideal images of sociality and the field of forces that is human community, in light of its encompassment by the Divine.