Life Under the Mutawakilite Kingdom of Yemen [Archives:2004/732/Culture]

April 26 2004

By Sumaya Ali Raja
For the Yemen Times

What was it like growing up in the Mutawakilite Kingdom of Yemen in the late fifties?
It was magic! Taiz is situated in the midst of the Sabir mountains; it is
a city with many hills. It is surrounded by the magnificent Sabir range. Our house was on a small hill named al-Ourthi, which took its name from the garrison further up the hill that housed the Imam's (Seif al Islam Ahmed Hamid al-Din's) soldiers. Al-Ourthi overlooked the walled city of Taiz, simply called al-Medina (the city). The market place where merchants sold their wares was situated between Bab al-Kabir and Bab Musa.
Early every morning, father, a towering man of six feet, but slim as a reed, would take his zambeel and head to the morning market in Houthe al Ashraf. Since the average Yemeni man was pretty small, we could see him from far away with his bursting zambeel, filled with his daily purchases of lamb, butchered that morning, fresh vegetables and fruits. Houthe al Ashraf had a very blue-blooded sounding name, but it was one of the dirtiest parts of Taiz. “Valley of the Nobility” indeed.
Ali Raja' would make this journey everyday of his life until he had a son old enough (over puberty) to teach how to choose the finest quality meat cuts, the freshest produce and how to smell the fruits to gauge their ripeness, whom he would train to take his place.
He came a year after I was born in 1955, his name was Abdelrahman. But I am getting ahead of my story.
We had a huge garden with guava trees, mango trees, papayas and grand monstrous eucalyptus trees planted on the birth of every child beginning with Suad. Suad was the eldest child and she was named after my grandmother Saadah Al Bedwi the wife of Mohamed Raja'.
Women in Yemen don't change their names after marriage. You are born and buried with the same name. That is how people can trace their heritage back to Sam and Noah. Today it's different. Many modern wives use their husbands' name, whilst our garden has become one of the main streets in Taiz.
Suad is the modern version of Saadah, and when she did or said something to make me angry I would call her Saoud, the masculine version of her name, which she loathed.
My second sister, Selwa, had large doe eyes and was destined to be the beauty of the family.
I was the third daughter, Sumaya. The exalted (her highness). My mother read a lot of novels, and she had chosen these names carefully, so she said.
Suad was happy! Naturally she was, she was the eldest, so she could make us all unhappy when she wanted to. Such is the authority invested in the eldest by my parents. Selwa was beautiful, intelligent and quiet. I was a tomboy I didn't live up to my name, I climbed so many trees, fell off my bicycle, fell off horses. I nearly drowned in our tiny swimming pool.
Suad, Selwa and Abdelrahman did all those things, but they were more resilient. I forgot to mention that I was the smallest and shortest, and the most accident-prone. It's lucky I survived my childhood, but then Yemen was 'the magical kingdom'.
Since Suad and Selwa were the eldest they did everything first. For
Abbdelrahman and me the most humiliating moment was when we had to follow them on mules while they rode horses.
The year before that, it was donkeys.
This moment in history is dedicated to Janet Stoltzfus, my kindergarten Teacher, and written in loving memory of Al Ghurbany and Raja'.