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Bathing in the Falaj

A Falaj, in Oman, is an irrigation system used for agriculture and domestic use. Many of you would see these at some districts in Oman, such as Sama’il, Al Rustaq, Jabal Al Akhdar, Bahla, etc.

Bathtime in Wadi Fanja, Oman (c) Christian Fenwick

When I used to be a kid, my mother would take us to the Falaj to bathe. Now, in the 1980’s, people still didn’t have full bathrooms in their clay houses. So, we used to go to the Falaj, and it was fun. The women’s Falaj is usually enclosed within clay walls. Only women are allowed to go inside. You can usually tell where the women’s Falaj is located verses the men’s. The men’s Falaj is usually next to a Mosque. The women’s is usually further away and is totally enclosed between clay or cement walls.

We used to be very shy girls, not used to bathing in public. Even though we managed to clean ourselves properly, we would bathe with our pants and shirts on.  However, other women wouldn’t. Some would take their scarves and tie it on the nails sticking out of the walls making a small partition where they can wash “properly”. Other women were less shy. Though I preferred not to talk to them or look them in the eye when they asked me “How are you doing?”, it was considered normal for women to be nude in the Falaj. They still somehow managed to keep their privacy intact.

There was of course the other part of the Falaj. The “matrab” is where women go to get rid of their bodily waste. This place is an open space. I remember always being uncomfortable walking around that open space trying to find a “clean” spot. If you wonder about all that waste, well, local men come in to gather it either once or twice a week and use it as a fertilizer. Yea, those days nothing was just waste. Anyway, as I think of it now I think it is interesting how female-to-female nudity in Oman was culturally acceptable (not as much anymore).

As for men, on the other hand, you can never catch two nude males at the same place. It was and will never be accepted. The men’s Falaj has a couple of small partitions to segregate the men from being nude together. I remember my uncle getting a beating from my grandfather for being impatient (he wanted to perform the Wudu before prayer, and there were no empty spots) and invading another man’s privacy. It is considered offensive. If they are in a public Falaj (similar to the kids in the picture above) then they are usually wearing shorts.

Today, men still sometimes bathe at the Falaj. However, for women it is almost a lost tradition. The Falaj that I used to go to is still used for washing dishes and clothes, but you never see it crowded with women bathing. The walls of the “Matrab” had fallen down as people these days enjoy the privacy of going to the toilet at their own houses. Female tourists from other (more conservative) towns in Oman are no longer shocked with the view of nude women chitchatting together.

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