A distinctive society [Archives:2006/997/Reportage]

November 9 2006

By: Amenah bint Natera Al-Lahabi
I had my expectations tightly reined in as I buckled myself in for the flight bound for Yemen. It was neither my first, nor my last trip to the Middle East. We were talking about Yemen because the time I would spend there was a great unknown.

However, upon my arrival, my new family embraced me wholeheartedly and a touch of paradise graced all of my days. 'Aseed (a Yemeni lunch dish) became a daily staple that I now miss. Yet Yemen would test my patience and fortitude in ways I didn't think possible. Within three months, there were three weddings, two hospital visits, miles of spectacular landscapes and intriguing people and luckily, not one funeral.

The airport is small and unassuming. After the likes of Dubai and JFK or Heathrow, Sana'a is blessedly compact. The airport has more police doing clerical work than necessary, more hangers-on than space permits and all the red tape that officials love to blast one with when they don't want to be bothered. However, once you pass the visa stage – and I strongly suggest one obtaining a visa before arriving in Yemen – it's smooth sailing to the front door.

What next assaults the eyes is construction, construction and more construction. Everywhere something is going up as a new structure atop an older one or even underneath, such as new pipes ripping the uneven sidewalks. The unearthed streets help develop one's driving skills with their obstacle course-like twists and turns, not to mention all the extra sightseeing one gets while turning five extra corners to get to the front of a hotel or a friend's house. Whatever planning goes into this chaos, the end isn't part of it, as buildings and fully operational roads look like unfinished puzzles.

Women and men in Yemen

While I was busy looking out from behind my niqab, there were 10 times as many eyes trying to see through it. I'll never understand a society of men – raised among publicly black-clad faceless women – who do circus-like acrobatics and contortions to catch a glimpse of skin. The first glance is followed by a double take and then rounded out with a five-minute staring session. Unless the light changes or the person is pulled away to participate in a conversation, such staring easily could go on for hours.

Women seem to suffer the same obsession. When a newcomer enters the room, they'll stare her down while blatantly whispering about her in her face. I asked why, but not one person could give me an explanation worth Yemeni salt: The men don't have manners, they're not used to seeing women, they're curious people, etc. Oh, give me a break!

These men don't live in bachelor dens. They always have women at home – a mother and a few sisters in tow – so how could they not be indoctrinated? In Yemen, where uniformity is fashionable, that sameness is enforced – be it the niqab and balto or daily life rituals. The answer to many of my questions was, “Well, all Yemenis do this or that.” What I think we have here is groupthink about social graces – or the lack thereof.

However, a few conversations later, my new husband gave me a reason. I realized that most Yemenis talk to each other about all subjects, but they rarely can check the accuracy of their statements. If the head honcho of the diwan says it's blue, well then the grass better start mutating now.

Traveling around Yemen

In all his travels, my husband never had ventured past the outskirts of Aden into the city proper because of the things he was told existed in that metropolis of vice and 'haram' pleasures. Of course, there are no whiskey bottles strewn helter-skelter on the pavement, nor do women go around publicly smoking cigarettes while dressed in shorts and halter tops – sorry, wrong country. It was wonderful quickly traveling to Yemen's major cities with only the breeze from our speeding jeep moving our layers of clothing. The roads I saw improved weekly, considering the height and hairpin turns of the mountain ranges, whose roads were paved snugly onto them.

However, traveling to the inner villages was another thing altogether, as it's hard on some body parts and dangerous if one doesn't know how to drive the turns, breaks and dips such 'tariqs' entail. But one can picnic just about anywhere on the road, which goes a long way in refreshing body and spirit. Yet every abrupt stop, bang, splash, shifting rock and swerve is well worth the view. Ibb's terraced mountain heights were breathtaking and always left me hoping for a giant, clad in the Yemeni futa and belted jambiyya, to climb those fertile stairs.

Such is Yemen

Nevertheless, the spirit is tested if one gets sick, needs a test done or has some business in a government office. To my bitter disappointment, I learned that Yemeni blood is valued below that of American or Saudi blood, as we paid three times more for blood work than the average Yemeni because of a blue passport.

That same blue passport also cost us a bundle in legal fees while suffering comments like, “Americans are no good” and “Americans are rich and have lots of money.” Maybe this explains why so many Americans are workaholics, up to their eyeballs in debt, usually don't take vacations or, as in the case of Yemeni deli workers, stand for 12 hours straight, seven days a week – sans the qat cheek bulge.

Qat, central to the Yemeni lifestyle

I must mention qat or else I can't say I was in Yemen. I personally can't chew it because it doesn't agree with my stomach. Many would wish the same fate upon all Yemenis, which isn't feasible or economically safe, as others recently have pointed out. Such clamoring must take into account that there's nothing to substitute qat socially – it's endemic to the diwan-attending men and women who chew it. Tell me that men don't need to go to diwans, that their businesses don't need the atmosphere it creates, that traditions – both new and old – can go to pot or that one's attendance at the diwans doesn't affect family standing and friendships – especially in rural areas.

Thobes and jambiyyas worn with a sport coat would need to go out of style and ditto for the futa, which would be a shame because I find in them an elegance and reclining grace that can't be duplicated in a Western suit. The jalsi (sitting session) forsaken for the continental sofa (feet on the floor, please), the art of small talk relegated to its modern mobile device, the camaraderie of men reared in the diwan gone elsewhere. Goodness, what will everyone do without a beautifully decorated majlis (Yemeni sitting room)?

It's not nostalgic reminiscing, rather, it's part of what goes on just to prepare for business-as-usual in a diwan. Even those who don't go to diwans still work throughout the afternoon with bulging cheeks. I watched as men paved sidewalks, carved semi-circles of plaster for window dressing, hammered away at stone or iron-grid work, counted kilo upon kilo of rice, sugar, salt or what have you while slowly, and at times gracefully, chewing away. Drivers braving the late afternoon Sana'a traffic looked very much at ease with their qat.

Nevertheless, qat is drinking up Yemen's water supply, as this interesting fiend systematically replaces other crops. Also, men are eating less and chewing more qat, women aren't caring for their children properly – some don't take care of their kids, period – and lack of money from buying qat every day greatly impacts households.

A myriad of Yemeni women

The other lasting impression of Yemen is its women whose lives are a kaleidoscope of events not always meshing or matching evenly. For instance, one will find women using washing machines, but then not bothering to hang their clean clothes away from dust or dirty puddles. There are women who insist on wearing their jeans like underwear, those who can answer a mobile phone, but can't make a call and those who can't read or write.

One also can meet those women who don't want, care about or understand the need for their children to be literate in the 21st century. There are women who think the world revolves around rushing to cook afternoon lunch, wash qat and then run ragged while their husbands, brothers or sons demand their clothes and paraphernalia for their diwan hike. The stillness of the house is achieved only when the men leave with their bag of qat and bottles of Pepsi and water.

Women would ask me if American or Yemeni women are better, not realizing that, in her own way, each is unique unto herself. Even fewer realized that to say “American” doesn't mean U.S.-born, that America includes this whole part of the world, that regardless of what everyone might say, English isn't the only language spoken there.

All of these women, as well as the ones who don't suffer these maladies, live and breathe what Yemen as a whole dishes out to them. Some will surpass these shortcomings, while others will be blessed with progressive husbands, brothers and sons who deem it important to bring their families out of the quagmire of Yemeni groupthink.

Some will leave Yemen for other parts more advanced, but not more friendly or enchanting. Some actually will sit and learn a thing or two from others that have traveled and apply it to their lives. Many will continue as if the world doesn't have a new beginning every day and a few will die believing that what they had was all there ever was in life.

Amenah bint Natera Al-Lahabi is the Coordinating Manager of the Medical Director of Bellevue Hospital Center in New York. She lives in US.