Home alone [Archives:2008/1204/Last Page]

November 3 2008

Maryam Al-Yamani
Strange as it may sound, traditional families in some Yemeni areas have a strong conviction not to leave their homes empty. There always has to be someone in the house regardless of who this person is. Maryam Al-Yamani investigates this cultural habit.

There are various reasons why some Yemeni families always leave at least one person in the house. This is more prominent with older generations especially from Mahwait, Amran, Dhamar, Ibb, and even Sana'a as well as a few other governorates around the central western region. In governorates like Hadramout, Aden, Taiz and even Hodeidah this particular cultural habit is less common.

The common historical and geographical string between these places is that they are mostly mountainous locations with little exposure and a very traditional culture. They also have similar dialects -if not the same- and are generally from the same religious sect of Al-Zaydiah.

Fear of burglary

Some families say they fear thieves breaking into the house if no one is there, even during the daytime.

“Since I was a young child, I have always heard my mother arrange for one of us to stay at home when others go out. When I asked her why, she would warn me of thieves and say they could hide in the house and scare us,” explained Um Samar, a 30-year-old married woman.

Although Um Samar holds a university degree and her house is protected with a high fence, she still follows her mother's advice.Although 35-year-old Siham Ali agrees with Um Samar on the fear of burglary, she admits that thieves have entered their house and stolen valuables while they were at home.

“We have a four-storey house and, while we were all on the top most floor, some laborers who were doing restoration work on the ground floor went up and stole everything. We only realized a few days later,” she said.

Hospitality forever

Yet for others, hospitality is why they never leave the house empty. This reason is common to families originally from the countryside that have settled in the cities, as they maintain a strong connection with their hometown from where they regularly receive visitors.

“We always must have someone in the house in case someone comes to visit,” explains Shams, a 45-year-old woman.

For Shams, it is crucial that, when visitors come to their house, there is someone to let them in. Her guests are usually relatives from the village who come to the city to stay for a few days, either for a social occasion or to seek medical treatment. They don't call or set up appointments and so there always has to be someone to let them in, as receiving them is considered the duty of the extended family living in the city.

“Today the younger generation doesn't care much about this, and sometimes they all want to go out so I have to stay behind,” explained Shams.

Another woman, Faiza from Bani Matar in the outskirts of Sana'a, agrees and adds that many relatives come to visit carrying gifts and heavy presents such as fruit and crops from the field, so they need to rest and be taken care of as soon as they arrive, not wait outside the door for someone to return home.

Many men and women simply explained that this habit is a part of Yemeni hospitality, and that putting the best interest of guests first has always been an important practice among Yemenis. Some prefer not to depend on modern comforts such as regular transportation, telecommunication and hotels, and explain that it is shameful for a relative to come all the way from the village and to stay in a hotel, if someone from his village already lives in the city.

“Sometimes we don't really know those guests, we just have a common friend or a common relative, but still we have to play host and we take pride in this,” said Fatima Al-Ajel, a young woman from Sana'a. This also explains why, for some people, it is the family house that always has to be available and not just any house.

Nadia Al-Harithi, an environmental specialist, says that her family owns a four-storey building in which the main family lives on the top floor, her brother and his family live on the third floor and the other two floors are rented out. She explains that her mother insists that someone be present at the main family house at all times. “If no one is able to stay in the house, my mother orders my sister in-law to lock her home and come to stay in ours until one of us returns,” she said.

Her mother insists that the family home is more important financially as it is where they keep all the family heirlooms because the mother is considered to be the safe-keeper for the larger family.

Not only do Yemeni families open their homes and play host to their relatives, but they will also do so for any distant acquaintance, ashamed to let a visitor down and tell them to stay in a hotel.

“My sisters met some people from Aden at a wedding. After a few hours, they became friends and they invited them to stay a few days in our home,” said Nasser Ali, a 40-year-old man originally from Ba'adan in Ibb and living in Sana'a.

The culture of openness and accepting others as part of the family -even though one has just become acquainted- is still present among some Yemeni families.

City culture

This practice was only found in the urban areas. Yemenis living in villages do not have this habit as they live in a small community. Khalid Qaid from Al-Hayan village in Ibb governorate said that the people of the house have to go out and do farm work while someone remains at home to prepare food. If the cook needs to go anywhere, she simply alerts the neighbors and off she goes. The neighbors let the rest of the family or any visitors know where everyone is.

Village culture is quite different, especially as some of the elderly spend most of their time on the terrace or at the window watching the village move out and about. Everybody knows they are usually on top of things as they idle the day away making “loud” small-talk with anyone who passes by.

Even in terms of security, there is not much of a problem in the villages compared to the cities as people are generally more honest and trustworthy. “If we need to go out and are expecting someone, we simply leave our keys with the neighbors who let the guests in on our behalf,” said Hani, a 35-year-old man from a village in Taiz governorate.

A dying practice

Regardless of the reasons why this practice started in the first place and why it is somewhat limited to certain areas and families, younger generations have gradually let it slip away and are embracing the fast pace of modern life more enthusiastically than their parents.

This is mostly obvious in families in which most family members have jobs.

“If we have something to do, we just go out and get it done. We do not expect someone to suddenly turn up to visit with nowhere else to go, and we lock the house well so that strangers don't have easy access,” said Samah Al-Akwa a 35-year-old employee. Moreover, today's residential architecture is different from that of a few decades ago. Because urban areas are crowded, more privacy is needed and independent homes in the cities usually have high fences to prevent burglaries and to stop onlookers from seeing the women of the house and, in residential compounds, flat owners or renters are less interested in their neighbors. House owners have better safety mechanisms to keep their houses protected.

Unfortunately, there are no official studies or any kind of documentation of this practice yet. Dr. Arwa Abu Othman, a cultural expert and a writer specializing in Yemeni traditions, said she has not come across this issue and has not read about it.

Amatalrazaq Jahaf, who runs a cultural organization called Baituna Lil-Turath and is involved in cultural issues in Taiz, also said that she has never heard about this before.

Morever, Dr. Adel Shargabi, a social sciences professor at University of Sana'a, explained that never leaving the home alone is not a common practice and is not visible among the young generation. He suggested that perhaps this is why it has not been mentioned or studied by social scientists or academia.