Are You Myth- Informed? [Archives:1999/15/Health]

April 12 1999

By: Hatem Bamehriz, 
Yemen Times 
The world of the supernatural is more important in Yemen than in many other parts of the world. It is embedded in our everyday lives, and it is intertwined in everything we do. 
If you see a wealthy man, he may be carrying some form of protection against evil. You may see a lovely young woman, who may have just coughed up a good part of her savings to a witch who promises to get her a good husband. You may see a young student who is seeking ‘assistance’ to pass his exams. You may see a sick person going to some jester who takes the sick man’s money in return for kicking the devil out of his body. 
Many factors contribute to this reality. 
First, there is the long and rich heritage of our civilization. This lends itself easily to a blend of reality and legend. The silver lining to this is our deep and rich folk culture. 
The second factor is the backwardness to which the nation has fallen. With more than 60% of the adult population suffering from illiteracy, the nation is gripped by an oral culture. Word of mouth is less ably controlled, and often leads to exaggerations and, yes, to belief in the super natural. 
Whatever the cause, Yemen is a nation that boasts a vast and often almost endless backlog of superstitions. 
So, how well myth-informed are you? 
Abdullah Al-Baradoni, probably this nation’s current greatest writer, wrote a book about the superstitions and legends of this country. It is worthwhile reading. 
But let me tell you about a few of the prevalent beliefs. 
During the rule of the Imam – prior to the September 26th Revolution, 1962, almost the whole nation believed in the super natural powers of the monarch. In fact, they used to call him “Ahmed Ya Jinnah” as if he controlled the jins. It was one of his most effective instruments to control the people. He convinced them that he controls the super natural world , and they reported to him any citizen who was not loyal. 
At one time, he ordered all his citizens to put tar on their forehead, otherwise his evil spirits would come around to all homes and kill those who are not ‘protected’. For a while, the whole nation had a black mark on the forehead. 
One of the beliefs of that era is rather a funny one. The Imam convinced the people that this earth is placed on the horn of a huge bull, and that he controls the bull to keep the earth balanced. If somebody made the Imam angry, he would shake the world by stirring the bull. 
You will still find people today swearing in the name of Ibn Alwan. They say he was a pious man, but people’s beliefs have pushed him into legend. The legendary Ibn Alwan still has a shrine some fifty kilometers south of Taiz city, which people still visit to be blessed and relieved of various curses and ailments. People believe that the man performs miracles. A sick person would go to touch his tomb to be cured. A barren woman would go to be blessed with fertility. A person who lost some valuable property would go there in order to discover who took it. 
The shrine is surrounded by lots of strange people who capitalize on the ignorance of the “believers”. 
Wives often complain of a sudden change in their husbands’ behavior. They attribute that to an evil spell “sihr ” or evil eye “hassad” cast on them. In an effort to save the marriage, such wives routinely refer to many witches or sorcerers who have certain powers. They always get the same answer. “Yes, there is another woman who is after your husband, and she is using a very strong spell to separate you. But don’t worry, I can remove the evil spell and replace it with a love spell for you.” In Sanaa, there is one famous exorcist, there is another one in Sa’awan, and a third one in Bani Matar. 
If you try to visit Al-Owbaly in Redaa, you will have to stand in a long queue. He is famous for treatment against spiritual ills. An old man who has been traveling across the country with his son, looking for a cure for a mysterious illness, said, “My son is possessed by an evil spirit. He becomes violent and uncontrollable. He came to Owbaly but of course, the lad was not cured. 
Some women read the palm, others read the future through playing cards or what is left in the coffee cup. 
Shrines all over the country are filled with mystery and awe. The “believers” have so much faith in their “masters” and are willing to part with their lifelong savings in return for services from the supernatural. 
Arabic (traditional) medicine is often confused with such myths. Religion itself is intertwined with various shady practices by shadowy figures. 
At the end, it is a world of ignorance and lack of modern knowledge. In Yemen, there is plenty of both. 
    Career Women DEALING with the Public !
#1 of a series: 
Women make up about 6% of the work-force in Yemen’s modern sector. It is still a man’s world out there. 
Of course, rural women do work, but their work is neither remunerated, nor even considered in our national accounts. 
I thought I would address the situation of career women in a series of articles. I start with two case studies in this article. 
1. Asmahan Azzam: 
Telephone Operator: 
To get specific telephone information, many people in Yemen turn to switchboard telephone operators. The nation does not have a government support system for obtaining telephone numbers. 
You can try it. Just grab the phone and call a telephone operator and ask for assistance. Usually it is a woman who will answer, and she will give you the number if she has it. 
The task of operating a telephone switchboard is not an easy one. It requires patience and accuracy besides putting up with the various annoying people that may turn up every now and then. 
Handling such an occupation daily, especially by the fairer sex that represents the minority of workers in the private or public sectors, is a daunting task. Some jobs like telephone operators, airline hostesses, etc., look glamorous from the outside. But they are very demanding professions. 
Asmahan Azzam works in a travel and tourism agency (private sector) as a switchboard operator. Asmahan, 27, holds a BA degree, but had to accept this job due to the difficult labor situation in the country. “If I waited to get a job in my field, I might wait too long for a good opportunity.” She said her job does not require much physical effort, but brings lots of stress. 
Asmahan had previously worked in a private company, but left it due to the long working hours and the two shift work schedule, and a very low salary. Then she decided to find a single shift job. She has been in this job for two years. 
And when I asked her about the difficulties and annoyance she faces in her job, she replied, “All jobs have difficulties, especially at the beginning. Gradually you begin to learn, gain experience, and fully adjust.” 
Asmahan said that such a job requires firmness and willpower. Dealing with people by phone can be tough. Her conversation with clients are about procedures in ticketing, reservation confirmation, and generally providing information on flight schedules, etc. 
Asmahan thinks the the job requirements include proper education, good manners, and the ability to communicate. 
About her parents reaction regarding her job, she said that her family members are quite understanding and they did not oppose her employment. They trusted her and allowed her to work, which brought emotional stability in her life, though she is not married. “I do hope that my future husband will be as understanding as my family and allow me to continue to work.” 
2. Hayat Al-Mahbashi: 
Government Clerk: 
Then I talked to Ms. Hayat Al Mahbashi, 23, who works in the Central Bank. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce. Hayat said that she preferred a government job so she could guarantee a continued career in the future. She started her job four years ago. She is quite happy and satisfied and has no regrets. Ms. Al-Mahbashi pointed out that after those years, she has gained sufficient experience to feel at ease with her work. 
About the conditions to obtain such a job, Hayat said that first you should be educated, and well mannered besides the other conditions known to everyone. But her main advice to female career persons is to quickly gain confidence, and “not to let your male colleagues or any person from the public push you around”. 
Yet, she herself talked about various difficulties she faces in her work. Hayat spoke about the lack of manners in communicating as if a female employee has no dignity or rights. “It happens almost on a daily basis. People do not think a woman can be responsible. They sometimes go to my junior and ask him to tell me to get one thing or another done. Of course, I let them finish and wait for them to come back to me.” 
Regarding personal annoyances she said they were not many, and that she tries to ignore them. And when I spoke about her family’s reaction to her work, she was glad to state that her family was very helpful and understanding. “I was brought up well, and they gave me a good education. They have nothing to worry about. I will show them I deserve their trust,” she concluded. 
By: Ahlam Al-Khowlany, 
Yemen Times.