Modern times [Archives:2005/831/Culture]

April 7 2005

Yemen used to considered a backward country. It was to be referred to as an example of medieval conditions, habits and attitudes. Streets were not paved, there was no sewage disposal, news spread by word of mouth. Many people did not have a clock or wrist watch, and relied on the position of the sun and the call to prayer.

But even when in possession of a clock, women had a timetable of there own, dating back to the time of the Prophet, when every new day started at six a clock in the evening and hours were counted in two cycles from 1 to 12. Being invited at “eight” was a lunch invitation for 2.00 p.m., being asked to come at “two” was a dinner arrangement for 8.00 p.m.

People went to the suq every day to purchase food or household items, clothes or tobacco, and paid in cash. Traffic lights did not exist, and policemen did not attempt to reign in unruly motorists. Instead they eagerly guarded ministries and modest banking institutes. Dhababs only appeared in extremely small sizes, and only and could be stopped by using a unique sign language.

Then, slowly and gradually, but increasingly, Arabia Felix began to be modernised. To the average visitor, this process was intriguing. The ability to walk down the street without being shrouded in a cloud of dust was matched by the pleasure of seeing garbage being collected and removed. TV spots instructed the people to make use of towels offered next to wash basins for drying wet hands upon washing and not for blowing their noses. Foreigners venturing into hotels or shops were no longer automatically addressed as a brother or sister (“akhy” or “oukhty”), which Yemen lovers were pleased to accept as honorary titles, but were all of a sudden considered to be “ya sadiq” or “madam” respectively.

Banks have also grown in number and in size. Some even advertise the possibility of getting cash with your credit card, which perhaps patriotically, still accept only Yemeni credit cards. For foreigners it is still impossible to obtain cash with your credit card at a bank counter. This makes the disillusioned foreigner almost crave for the old days when you traveled with all the money you needed on the back of a camel.

While the construction of the underground passage at Tahrir square and the flyover at the Al-Mogly and Zubairy crossing were logistic necessities, the installation of traffic lights was not accompanied by a nearly so ready acceptance from motorists. These lights are considered more as suggestions than laws and are consistently neglected.

Modern dhababs have grown in size and proudly bear plates indicating their destination, the only problem being that passengers waiting for a journey cannot read the destination until the car is almost at eye level by which time it is too late to signal a stop and so often stop every passing van.

There are still intersections with no lights but policemen to direct the traffic instead, the idea of which undermined by their lack of training in actually conducting the passing cars. Particularly at rush hour, they can be seen despairing and flapping their arms in all directions, sometimes becoming so desperate as to leave their posts to lament with a friend, leaving drivers to their own devices.

For a very long time a prestigious Yemeni would not have left his house without his jambiyya. In modern times another object has become mandatory: the mobile phone. This should qualify as undeniable proof of Yemeni ingenuity to quickly absorb novelties. If not carried in the owner's hand while being listened to or spoken into – a process sometimes rendered all the more difficult with a bulging qat cheek – the mobile is exhibited dangling next to the jambiyya. (There is an impressive number of fake mobiles only used for decoration.) Why make an arrangement straight away or settle for a date at once? Why decide at the end of a meeting when to gather next time – is it not much more convenient to settle such questions via one's mobile? And if, at the very last moment, you reconsider the matter and prefer another time – no problem, your mobile will tell everybody else about this new turn of events.

In earlier times, when time did not matter (or so we are told) people gathered for a meal or the more modern ones later on for a party and talked to each other and discussed a chosen subject. This is becoming more impossible as every participant keeps being distracted by a ringing mobile diverting the attention of the guest to some other matter. And a true Yemeni is also a born acrobat, managing to use a mobile while dipping bread into steaming salta or attacking a specially juicy mutton bone – a breathtaking new feature in which Yemenis have surpassed the respective development in the so-called industrialised countries.

Modern times are an overwhelming challenge. Who would not want to participate in the race for universal recognition?