Going Back to the Legendary Land of Sheba: Yemen [Archives:1999/29/Last Page]
By Hajer Mitchell
And so the day nears when I will once again stand on Yemeni ground. Thanks be to God for the wonders of our minds, since mine is slowly bringing back all that I thought I had lost over the past two years while away from Sana’a in America. I am reminded that even though I visited Yemen for only eight very short months, it was, sincerely, long enough to make my heart question just where home is. While in Yemen, not one day passed without many prayers of thanks to be alive. I wanted for nothing nor did I miss the U.S.; I’m not sure if that was due to the awesome mental stimulation that took place each moment I remained, or the generosity and humble warmth of the Yemeni people.
Being a photographer, I captured many memories on film. I thought I would be able to bottle a small amount of Yemen in my photos and video tapes, taking the sights and sounds of such wonder back to my family and friends in Michigan. How completely nave of me. It is only now that I know I will revisit Yemen, God willing, that my senses have reawakened and I yearn for the taste of Sana’a once again.
Never, in all of my life, has the night air held such power as that of the scent from the blooming trees in Sana’a known as Atar al-Layl, or Perfume of the Night. When the sun goes down, tiny blossoms open, emitting such a sweet subtlety, and the night air is fragranced with fresh, delicate nectar. Even if I could write as descriptively as Edgar Allen Poe, the only way to fully understand, would be to stand on the streets of Sana’a, eyes closed, breathing slowly É deeply É deliberately. Only then could it be assumed, this is how heaven feels when it enters the soul.
The sounds of Sana’a Qadeema may be taken for granted Ð but only by those who have never left the city. For anyone who has traveled away from Sana’a must miss the clanking and clattering of its city life, the surrounding sounds of the neighborhood mosques, the honking of motorists making their way though the narrow streets, crowds of men and children clapping, laughing, dancing during the many nighttime weddings. The harmony of the people lies here in the heart of the souq. How should I have filmed such music? As God wishes, we are limited in our inventions. Perhaps visually I could collect, but what kind of experience is possible without the exchange of interaction with the environment? It could be, at best, a dry flatness.
I was lucky enough to have had gracious hosts who took me on long day trips. Within hours of Sana’a I saw the greenest valleys of Ibb, the desert sand dunes of Lahj, the seascapes of Al Baraka and Khor Maksar, the wondrous mountain ranges of Haraz in Manakha, a beautiful cloud-like mist whisk through Mahweet, flocks of pink flamingos take flight in Aden, hundreds upon hundreds of palm trees in Khokha, houses scattered on a mountain side displaying such a show of lights after sundown in Sana’a, lizards Ð with one half blue and the other half red, mountain water reservoirs, hot springs, fruits, flowers, art, all unlike any I have experienced, and the list never ends.
I tasted fruits and vegetables I had never seen before. A melon that has a clean, fresh, lemony flavor, an apple-like fruit, safarjal, that grabs the wetness from the tongue and mouth but yet itself is juicy. So many different kinds of breads! Thin, rufflely shavings of bread called miloweh. Khubiz Tawah, a thin, dense, flat bread made heavy with oil. Sabayah, layers upon layers of filo-like dough, soaked in ghee, baked and doused in honey! Sahawig, samboosa, shafoot, even aseed and salta. Sabhan Allah, the flavours of Yemen.
Some of my favorite memories? Drinking tea and smoking argyle with friends on the gulf shoreline of Aden late into the evening; bargaining with shop owners to get a cheaper price; eating foul in the early morning in Souq al Mileh; waking up for Fijr prayer to the sound of the many adthans; sharing conversation and a special brew of quishr and spices with Umi Fatimeh; driving the Land Cruiser in the village and shocking all the men; Laylat al-Qadr in al Aqil mosque when I became overwhelmed with feelings and began to cry uncontrollably Ð and the sisters who came to me in support though I was a stranger; searching for candles and then matches when the lights went out; the neighborhood boys fetching a water truck for us when we ran out; eating fish with my hands in Shibami Makbaza; the camel pulling the hayride during the Eid al Kabir in Aden; my weekly trips to Wadi Thahar to watch the men dance Bara’a style; long walks in Sana’a Qadeema at night; the Cave and Al Mankal restaurants; and though it may sound scandalous Ñ the one kiss from my fiance.
I choose to live in America because I am American. Each of our cultures is deeply ingrained within us. Even when we are open to others’ traditions, we are usually most comfortable with our own. Though I could accept many of the Yemeni ways in Yemen, I could not accept Yemen not accepting some of my American ways. So I returned to Michigan where I now reside and plan my vacations around Yemen. I may live in the United States of America, but I dream of Sana’a.
Why do I live in Michigan rather than Sana’a? When I left the US for Yemen, my dearest sister gave me a ring and with it, a poem she had written. It reads: The world is a circuit and round it goes to a distant place which you purpose of foreign sights and sounds as well to a cosmic kingdom or a worldly hell in each of us there is that place of secret thoughts and empty space an assembly of precept to the inner soul that subconscious being that keeps us whole be yin or yang or powerfully small remember the concept which began it all the origin you moved from is where you will end that wherever you go you’ll come back again so with this ring I thee wed but a promise from you I insist instead absorb the wealth of that foreign coast but remember the hearts who love you most. – a heart who loves you.