Old Sanaa: Frankincense, Gold & Mhyrr [Archives:1998/01/Culture]

January 5 1998

The Author . . . Franc Mermier has been the director of the French Center for Yemeni Studies since 1991. While doing a field study about the old Sana’a, he got a doctorate degree in anthropology. His doctorate thesis was included in a book named The Night Sheikh, Sana’a, the Organism of the Market and the Urban Society, which was published in 1997. He is going back to teach Arab anthropology at Lyon University.
In his book, Franc Mermier talked about the social organism of the market and the old Sana’a. He studied the changes in the social hierarchy since the Revolution of 26th September, 1962, and the development the witnessed by society between 1960-70. He studied the issue of modernization, concentrating on the element of civilization. He talked about old Sana’a as a city surrounded by a tribal society and the characteristics of that society in order to know the elements of civilization in the old city itself.
Old City of Sana’a It is a city located on the Zeidi hill. Unlike other societies, its society is a native one which differs in its organism and social classes. The market is the place in which all social classes gather, the upper and lower classes as well as the craftsmen. Tribal and urban people, and people who left their villages to settle in the market are all there. A Sana’ani identity is developed out of the social organism. They share mutual concepts which express reactions against the tribal environment. They say that the civilized man is more religious and more knowledgeable than the tribal one. They look at the tribal society as a society of violence and aggression (the incident of 1948, when the tribes attacked Sana’a and for that reason it was walled), and a society which does not apply the law of Islam. On the other hand, they appreciate the strength, courage, and honesty as an inherent nature in the tribesmen. In the society of the old city there are different names associated with, or refer to, the social classes of the city: “Al-Arabi” is a one of a tribal origin, and “Al-Sadah”, who are descendants of the Prophet Mohammed (P). There are also people who have not a specific origin.
Market Organism through the law of the city The market is a mirror which reflects the consumption of people and the handicrafts they still acquire. It is, therefore, important that it maintains the traditional relations. For example, in the spice shops we find anything we need for weddings, funerals, circumcisions, and baby delivery. Some foreign people can be seen in the market, Jews and Ismaelites trade there. Women have a significant presence in the market as consumers and shoppers, though indirectly they also work there. What a woman sews at home is later sold by some market traders. Her role is more significant, in the old city, than the role of other working women outside.
Jambia Market Since the Revolution of December 26th, the Jambia market has grown ever larger. A lot of shops are open. Jambia is no more a mere symbol of the social pyramid. It is now a sign of social identity and it is the only handicraft that has been continuously developed in the market.
Qat Market It is no more a big market because many other markets are open outside the city. These markets are considered to be the “doors” of Sana’a instead of Bab Al Yemen and Bab Sho’ob.
Working Children Seeing children working in the market is not that common a thing in the old city. They might help their fathers in the market when they come back from school, but they do not undertake actual work as Egyptian children do.
Silver Market The Silver market has not improved much since 1970, due to the immigration of some of its craftsmen to Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, it recently started to regain its importance. Because of high marriage dowries, people began to replace gold with silver in wedding ceremonies. The activity of tourism in Yemen also helped the recovery of the silver market. Some families maintain a specific handicraft which they practiced one generation after another. For that they consider their workshop as a family endowment, not to be rented out or sold. There are nearly 40 specialized markets in the old city of Sana’a. These markets have links with some international markets by exporting goods through Aden and Al-Hodeida seaports. Some people who used to practice traditional trading are now agents for international trading companies. They bring cars, refrigerators, televisions…etc. This openness started in Yemen directly after the end of the civil war 1970.
By Dr. Salah Haddash, Yemen Times Managing Editor