A Yemeni woman’s success in the mountains of Shabbam [Archives:2007/1044/Reportage]

April 23 2007
The first course.
The first course.
A natural view outside the restaurant.
A natural view outside the restaurant.
Alice Firebrace
For Yemen Times

The Hameeda restaurant in Shabam, in the shadow of the cliffs of Kawkoban is a three story house, overlooking views of the mountains. It serves a wide range of traditional Yemeni food in clean and comfortable conditions. What makes it so unusual it that it was set up by a woman from scratch. Now, after years of growth and prosperity, it is still run by her, though she now has had two children who help, her daughter taking on many of the responsibilities now and so ensuring that the women's legacy that has built this place into what it is survives. The restaurant has been going strong now for some 45 years, and has blossomed from its rudimentary beginnings at the time of the Revolution to delighting Yemeni and international visitors alike.

It was started by Hameeda Hassan, an orphan who, as a means to support herself during her teenage days, worked as a labourer carrying mud for the construction of houses. In 1962 during the civil war between Republicans and Royalists, many soldiers from the Republican army were billeted in the village. Life was tough and the front line was not so far away, the fighting was close and bullets hailed down daily. With no family to object, or provide for her she was both forced and empowered to work. She decided to set up a business supplementing the rudimentary rations of the soldiers. Working alone at the age of 18, she made local bread, from flour that she ground by hand on a stone mill and baked in a manure -fired mud oven. She also brewed local coffee from the husks of coffee beans and had to make do without meat which was too expensive. Water had to be carried in a 'tanak.' on her head from the cistern on the other side of the village. Understandably water was conserved and used as frugally as possible.

As the business grew, she moved into a 1 roomed restaurant where the soldiers would typically stay for 15 minutes to eat their maloug (bread) and asid (porridge) and then leave. 35 years ago she moved into her current property, a 3 storey building, with five rooms on each floor. There are private areas suitable for families and communal rooms also. The restaurant has views over the Kawkoban mountain range. She no longer has to work alone and has Arowa and Bashir, her children, who help keep things ticking over and assist with all the bustle of restaurant life. Tourists have been coming there for 20 years now, attracted by the quality local food (especially the sousy and bint al sahn, a kind of flat bread with honey drizzled over the top) and the traditional setting.

Now life is definitely much easier than in the early days. Water is pumped straight to the restaurant and they no longer need to hand-grind the flour for the bread. When I went to visit, we entered under an arch separating shops in front of the restaurant where a man cooked something delicious-smelling over a barbeque. We found ourselves facing a tall traditional Yemeni building. Outside you could see tens of little goats grazing around their pen, happily not realising that belonging to a popular restaurant such as this would not bode that well for them. We were ushered up to the top floor, where our party took up the whole of one end of the long rooms. We were just down from a group of Italians on cushions lining the perimeter of the room, happily munching goat from the low tables in the centre. Within minutes large dishes of bread and stew came into the room followed by goat, and numerous other things, the dishes filling the table so completely that you no longer could see the wood. Once everyone had eaten until they were verging on popping, sweet bread, saturated in honey was brought in. This was an immediate favourite among the younger, more sweet toothed members of our group who just managed to make space in their crammed stomachs to fit it in. People were now feeling full and content with the world, and just a little sleepy, and at this point the Yemenis among us decided that this was the perfect opportunity to chew a bit of a qat and we all settled down until, too soon, we realised that we had to leave and begrudgingly left the comfortable seats for the bumpy road again.

Hameeda does not see her being a woman running a business as a problem, she has done it since she was young after all and indeed sees it as an advantage as she does. Yet, few rural women have made the moves that she has, or reeled in the rewards that have been earned by this enterprising and woman.