Ethnically and linguistically, the original inhabitants of Dhofar – an intricate patchwork of mountain and desert tribes of which the Qara, Mahra and Bait Kathir are perhaps the most notable – have far more in common with the people of neighbouring Yemen to the west than with their fellow Omanis to the north. Jan Morris, writing during the mid-1950s in Sultan in Oman, described “tribes of strange non-Arab peoples, often living in caves, almost naked, speaking languages of their own and maintaining their own obscure manners and customs.” Other distinctive cultural traditions persisted until recent decades. The Qara, for instance, refused to eat chickens or any kind of egg, while their women were forbidden from touching the udders of the tribe’s cows (the cow being considered generally superior to a mere female, whose touch might offend it). Their religious beliefs also appeared somewhat unusual. As Morris described it, “They were nominally Moslems … but their theological principles seemed to be a trifle hazy: whenever I saw any of them praying during my stay in Dhufar, they were turned not towards Mecca, but towards the sun.”
Modernization and rising prosperity mean that physical reminders of traditional Dhofari life are now increasingly rare (and virtually extinct in Salalah itself), although up in the hills you may spot occasional examples of the region’s traditional round stone huts with straw roofs, or come across elderly Dhofaris wearing the distinctive indigo-dyed robes which have been replaced everywhere else by the white Omani dishdasha.
The original Dhofari tribes are also interesting from a linguistic point of view, speaking a range of South Arabian Semitic languages closer to Amharic (one of the languages of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea) than Arabic, and offering a living link with the region’s pre-Islamic history. The most important of these are Shehri (also known as Jebali – literally, “mountain”), spoken by the Qara, with around 25,000 native speakers, and Mehri (or Mahri), spoken by the Mahra, with an estimated 50,000 native speakers. All Shehri and Mehri speakers are also fluent in Arabic.