Newborns in Yemen [Archives:2004/757/Culture]

July 22 2004

By Rania Abdullah Al-Sharabi
For the Yemen Times

Each country probably has its set of unique traditions and customs for various social occasions. Yemen has a variety of very distinctive traditions, customs and rituals. In particular, Yemen has unique practices or rituals on the occasion of celebrating a newborn baby. Celebrations differ totally or slightly from one geographical area to another.

In the Sana'a area:
From the first day of childbirth to the fifteenth day, the newborn's mother stays and sits in the same room, where she receives intermittent visits from relatives and close friends, especially in the afternoon. During these first two weeks, she does not expect too many visits from relatives, friends, acquaintances or first-time congratulators. The first two weeks are considered recuperation time for the mother who has just delivered a baby. Each first-time congratulator normally presents a gift for the baby or juice or some money. The amount of money varies from one well-wisher to another. It is primarily a symbolic gesture.
Anyway, the mother of the newborn baby stays alone during the first three days after delivery before the visitors are permitted to sit in her room. The guests are escorted to another room where they would socialize with each other until it is time to leave. The third day, when guests can stay in the mother's room is marked by the distribution of candy and tea or coffee. The seventh day, Benan Day, is marked by drinking tea and eating cake.
After two weeks have elapsed, the mother moves to another larger room because more guests are expected to attend frequently. The mother's sitting, with her newborn baby, is elevated higher than the rest of the room and is wider so she can lie down. The sitting is normally decorated with a distinctive-smelling, plant “Shadhab”, and the mother is dressed up in traditional dress.
On the fortieth day, the final ceremonial day, the mother has special decorating drawings, “Nagsh”, drawn on her hands and legs. Almost all of the relatives, close friends and acquaintants who frequently paid courtesy visits are invited to attend this party, “Al-Arbaeen”. Tea, coffee, juices and cakes are distributed to guests. A traditional signer has to be hired to perform songs. Qat, packs of cigarettes, drinks have to be furnished by the family of the newborn baby.
As for the celebrations by the men's side of the family, they are usually marked only if the newborn baby is a boy. On the day the newborn baby gets circumcised, male relatives and friends are invited to a feast, and a qat chewing session follows the lunch.

In the Al-Mahweet area:
The mother of the newborn baby stays in one room where she receives the guests and their gifts. After one week, a peacock is slaughtered and its blood is buried to cast away envy and demons. This action is repeated after another week.

In the Hodiedah area:
The celebrations begin after one week has elapsed. On the morning of the eighth day, a sheep is slaughtered, especially when the newborn is a boy. Relatives and close friends are invited to lunch and a qat chewing session, which begins after four o'clock in the afternoon.
The female congratulators begin visiting the newborn's mother and present “Rafd” to the mother, an amount of money between 100-1000 Riyals. Giving money is considered a reciprocal treatment, therefore, the amount of money is expected to be returned when the guest delivers a baby.
Tea, “Sheesha”, “Mada'ah” and edible seeds are provided to guests during the remaining days until the fortieth day when the celebrations end. Celebrations in Hodeidah usually last until midnight and sometimes later.
The above are just examples of the various traditions and customs in Yemen. It must be noted that they vary from one governorate to another and from one village to another within the same governorate, and they differ from having a newborn girl to having a newborn boy.
However, it must be noted also that the celebrations in Yemen include some rituals and practices of no apparent meaning, but are followed as traditions and customs that must not be breached.
Also, due to the high illiteracy rate among Yemenis, especially in rural areas, many mothers are not fully aware on how to react properly to meet the demands and needs of the newborn baby. This is particularly true of first-time mothers. They may inadvertently harm their newborns by feeding them inappropriate food, in addition to breast-feeding milk, and in giving them or using on them drops of oils and honey in their ears, noses and throats. Some women who want to go with the trend introduce “Shesha” smoking in rooms where infants are also present.

Religion and receiving newborn:
Religious Sheikh Abdulrahman Qahtan, with reference to some conceptions that accompany the celebration on the occasion of having a newborn baby, said that they are merely the creation of people and are not implemented because there is a religious stipulation requiring them. Islam enacted the donation of money or gold that is equivalent to the weight of the newborn's hair when it is first cut to be donated to the poor and the needy, and to slaughter two heads of sheep and a head of sheep on the seventh day to commemorate the newborn boy or girl, respectively. It is preferred for the father to recite the call to prayer quietly in the left ear of the newborn baby immediately after the baby is born.
Of course, we did not ignore the scientific view towards some of the nasty habits associated with caring for newborns. Dr. Najeebah Al-Mahdi, a pediatrician, said that cutting the umbilical cord with an unsterilized tool could lead to the infection of the newborn with tetanus, and probably to death. Giving the baby sugary water during the first three days reduces the effectiveness of the baby's immune system, therefore making him susceptible to infections. Adding “Kohl” (a preparation of pulverized antimony used for darkening the edges of the eyelids) to the baby umbilicus (belly button) in order to stop bleeding may lead to inflammation, tetanus or poisoning the baby.
A strange habit is sticking one's finger, usually the grandmother's, inside the baby's throat to moisten the baby's throat or to put drops of oil, honey or ghee inside the baby's throat. This could lead to indigestion, diarrhea or infecting of the baby with acute pulmonary inflammation and subsequently to death.
Dr. Al-Mahdi said that the best methods to care for the newborn baby are first to cut the umbilical cord with something sterilized, to feed the baby from the mother after birth so that the baby gain immunity from his mother's milk, to avoid kissing the baby too much during the first three months to prevent the baby from getting a contagious disease, and to clean the baby and direct him to sunlight at sunrise to assist his bones to grow properly, to reduce the risk of paralysis. The newborn should sleep on his left or right side or on his stomach and the parents should check that the baby is still breathing.
Dr. Shdha Odai, on her part, said that the baby commence living outside his mother womb by a scream that must take place during the first minute. Otherwise, the baby could encounter a permanent disability due to damage to brain.