Reminiscing in Wadi Sha’ab… Yemen in Transition [Archives:1998/09/Reportage]

March 2 1998

By: Samira Ali Bin Daair

When I went to Wadi Sha’ab over the last Eid holidays, two years had lapsed since my last visit – the longest period ever to stay away ever since I started my long saga with this wadi. It is now over three years since the old lady died… my mother in law… the tough lady of the mountain whose frail petite figure belied her strength and the fires in the spirit. Nothing had seemed the same since she was gone… there was only the echo of memories amidst the sounds emanating from fainter souls.
Nothing seemed to pull me there anymore… that’s not true… there were still dozens of cousins with whom my children still had strong bonds. There was my sister-in-law and my best friend in the village all these years… who was like a portal through which I could view all the different vistas of village life. She was like a bridge between the exotic traditional life of Yemen and the modern Yemen of cornflakes and tomato ketchup, in her prosaic wisdom coming from the natural school of life. There were my husband’s sisters-in-law whose husbands were doing business in the gulf… typical of Yemenis who apart from the wanderlust are often forced to venture abroad in search of a better living. For the women, it was a way of life they accepted… having a part-time husband was certainly better than having full-time unemployed husbands.

They didn’t mind the extra burden they had to take on being grass widows… they had learnt long ago that in life you cannot have your “hubz” and eat it!
The old days of glory were over in the Wadi. Unless you were teaching at the local school or working as a builder you had to emigrate either internally or outside. The second generation seemed to repeat the pattern.
Some of the sons work in nearby towns and marry their cousins staying as close to home as possible. Others venture further up north, or at least as far as Aden. The young men still go back to their mothers to celebrate Eid, especially the Haj Eid, where their strength is required to slaughter the goats and help with the chores that come with the festivities. They would leave their wives to celebrate Eid with their own families.

I remember the trepidation I felt when I went to the Wadi for the first time and my son was a little toddler. How my heart had sunk when I looked at the little busy-body, a sparkle in his eyes, eying the steep mountain on which my father-in-law’s house lay… oops the little ant-hill in the villagers’ dictionary. I fleetingly thought of him safely tucked away in his room playing with his toys on our tenth floor apartment in Abu-Dhabi, and my rushing every minute to check him, worried that someone had opened the French windows by mistake, and imagined the worst already! I then smiled and braced myself for a voyage of discovery in the wadi. All untrodden paths had always excited me since I was a little toddler myself. I remember my mother’s worried face as I had bade her good bye to spend my first few months’ salary on a package tour to North Africa, and Spain.
Going away to university had been bad enough but that had been for education on a scholarship with everything taken care of. “What if something happens to you… ?” “Ask the Travel Agents… they’ll know how to contact me,” I told her cruelly. Now every time I think of my teenage daughter nearing university, I get butterflies, moths, grasshoppers… the lot in my stomach! Here I am… an educated mother living in the age of Fisher Price toys and the Internet! I ought to be ashamed of myself.
When my husband had left the village to go with his father to Aden where he had his contracting business, and then to Zabeed, and Taiz, his mother had not spoken to his father for days for taking away her son.

When he finally said good bye to her to go to university, she had run behind the car almost to the nearby village trying to stop him, even if her gut feeling had told her long ago that he would leave some day. It was all her brother’s fault, the Uncle everyone in the village called “Al-Faqeeh.” He had worked at Sanaa University Library for many years, but now he was retired living full time in the village. His house is stacked with books from the ceiling to the floor, and I remember once teasing him about being careful not to suffer the fate of “Al-Jahidh” (A muslim scholar who died when his library collapsed on him). He was one of my favourites in the village, and no one could fail to be entertained by his wit and humour. The wheels of time spare no man… sadly he seemed older and more frail this time. My mother-in-law had told me that it was he who had made her son as useless as he was, filling his mind with ideas of going away to seek knowledge when all the knowledge was right here in the wadi amongst his ancestors. However, my husband had told me how disappointed his father had been when his other two brothers did not want to continue after secondary school, and how he had wanted them all to go to university to do better then he had. Who knows, if they had done that, they might not have joined the ranks of the unemployed graduates of Yemen. Life is unpredictable.

A lot of water has run under the bridge since that time… Every generation had tried at some time or the other in vain to catch the wind and still the motion of the younger generation but no one could ever keep the birds from flying to greener pastures in winter.
The sun had already set when we finally arrived in the Wadi but we had already stopped at Toor Al-Baha to break our fast. Everyone was talking at the same time as the children hugged each other in excitement and my sister-in-law would have made a very good shorthand expert in the old days as she tried to catch up on two years in five minutes. The vibrant sense of life seemed so out of place with the surrounding pitch darkness and deathly silence. I could not hear even the usual crickets chirping… or was it the deafening noise that made me hear the sounds of stillness? Very quickly everything was safely deposited where it should be in the little self-contained annex my brother-in-law had built and which we used whenever we went there.
Soon the “Aseed” arrived, since it was the quickest possible edible thing they could concoct unless we wanted to wait for the chickens to be slaughtered. But the chickens were for eggs really and for multiplying and we usually bought chicken from the nearby shopping area. When we were last there, my sister-in-law’s cow had produced a calf which was the mother cow now giving them milk and the cow had been sold for 50,000 riyals. So it is an ongoing business, since her husband had been forced into early retirement from the newspaper in Aden and the remaining income did not stretch far.
The donkey my children had ridden when they were little had long ago been sold because hay had become expensive.
The next morning I could not believe my eyes when I saw the green wadi. “Yes, we have had a lot of rain recently,” said my husband’s aunt. A cool wind blew over my face to relieve me of the rigors of fasting for by 10.00 p.m., the previous evening, we had given up searching the sky for the tell-tale signs of Eid, and succumbed to the radio which informed us it was still Ramadhan.
Until the day I die, the memory of Eid in my childhood will stay with me. When I close my eyes, I am transported back into time and I can still smell the sweets my mother baked and recall the excitement we felt as we went to inspect our new Eid clothes hanging in the cupboard for the hundredth time. We used to be lined up for henna on our hands in the evening and I remember waking up at night and relishing the strong smell on my hands which was sure proof that the day we had been waiting for for so long was coming. A few days before Eid Al-Fitr we would queue up for our little hands to be put into huge sacks of rice, flour and sugar, as verses from the Holy Quran were recited and then the sacks of rice and sugar would be given away to the poor as zakat-al-fitr. At Eid-al-Haj, we would always go and watch the goats being slaughtered, and after that it was time to go indoors to eat the sweets and heavy breakfast that was usual at Eid. I smile when I hear modern parents condoning the “primitive” habit of letting children watch the procedure of slaughtering when they have no qualms about letting their children watch violence on T.V., and play violent and bloody video games. In the village, Eid is special and all the trimmings and traditions still live on.

Many Yemenis living abroad and coming for a visit to Yemen also seem to want to erase old memories, although there are others who give in to their nostalgia for Salta, Makhbaaza and the natural smells of life and sweat in “Bab-al-Yaman,” that the neat streets and giant glass edifices elsewhere do not offer. I am sometimes amused at the fact that some cannot see anything but the garbage and the traffic chaos, as I drive them through the streets of Sanaa, admittedly trying to avoid my tenth accident, and my attempts at pointing out the charming and the unusual go unheeded. I still remember my surprise when some people used to say the same about Cairo for e.g. that it was dirty and crowded and so on and so forth, disappointed that they had not seen the Eiffel tower and the beautiful Parisian open-air cafes there. Cairo to me had the magic of the Pharaohs… the eternal charm of the mysterious Nile and the sanctuary of the Arab national movement and the citadel of Islamic scholarship. I could also relive the tales of Nageeb Mahfoodh and Tewfiq Al-Hakeem almost seeing AbdulGawaad and Fatma walking the streets! Well, they do say beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder! Well, how could one even begin to compare British Home Stores and Safeway, to good old Dhamraan and City-end? I still relish drinking the lemonade from Abu-Aleem in Maidan, Crater, Aden, and the special ice-cream I used to eat in Tawahi when I was still at school.

I remember asking my sister each time I went to Abu-Dhabi about landmarks we had known and she telling me with a shrug, “Oh, that’s been torn down… now its a pharmacy or a shopping centre.” Lest I be accused of romanticizing like Henry D. Thoreau in his “Walden,” I am grateful for all the comforts of modern life and technology but it is indeed a tragedy when human-beings cannot even have memories, as fragments of our lives are being bulldozed into oblivion! I remember feeling sorry for Sheikh Zayed of the Emirates on one of his official visits to the U.K., when he had to go through a particularly elaborate and pompous ceremony, as he watched the strange anachronistic attire of the royal family and the guards. For a man who often liked to shed his modern mask in order to escape into the simple life of falconry, camel’s milk, and the Majlis in the desert, I am sure he felt whatever many of us feel in a fast-changing and unfamiliar world with which we no longer feel so comfortable.

I used to be fascinated at the strange practices of the western world, that we always seem so anxious to emulate, imagining that rejection of tradition was part of the deal because it is associated with being “backward.” Habits like putting on funny hats and pulling crackers at Christmas time in England… and wishing upon a chicken wishbone; or wearing flowers on one’s head and the hundred candles which accompany all the ceremonies in the Scandinavian countries. For us in Yemen we use candles for the constant power cuts we used to have. I also remember my English friend in Manchester almost reduced to tears because I did not heed her warnings about passing under a ladder which was supposed to be unlucky… why nothing bad had happened to me was because I also was not born on the unlucky date of the 13th!

In the village I have learned to relax and listen to the voices within me, as I take time to look at the stars and stare at the empty space beyond the horizon without being cluttered by the fax or the phone. There I can escape from the world of the busy executives where it is considered a virtue to be workaholics even if some spend half the time twiddling their thumbs long after productivity has worn off! I have watched people work physically harder in the villages but there seems to be more balance and harmony in their lives despite the difficult conditions of life. One wonders whether all the artifacts of technology are enough to achieve this inner alignment with the self?
In the village, my children learned the secrets of birth, life and death naturally as they watched the animals with their cousins long before they studied reproduction in their science lessons. There they also learned the art of enjoying the simplicities of life and creating entertainment out of nothing as they played in the Wadi. I never heard the eternal sentence… “we are bored, what shall we do” often uttered within the backdrop of computers, and the whole catastrophe! We seem to imagine that children can only develop by surrounding them with electronics and programming them with “things to do,” in an artificial life. Come to think of it, Dewey gave the world his classification system and it is believed he learned it from the time he spent in his childhood organizing his mother’s kitchen cupboards. Newton discovered his theory of gravity when he was lying under the apple tree. There has to be a balance between opportunities for developing cognitive skills and a creative atmosphere for applying them to life, otherwise a generation from now we might have computer geniuses without any social skills.

Yes… there is a rough side to village life too when the nearest clinic is 20 minutes’ ride if you happen to own a car… and then it is only basic health services… sadly even though 70% of Yemenis live in the under-provided rural areas. But they say necessity is the mother of invention and somehow their survival skills seem to be better than ours in the cities, with recourse to the traditional medicine as leaves from surrounding trees are often pounded into remedies for different ailments. For e.g., people imagine the causes of a big population in Yemen is simply a lack of awareness which advocacy will fix; but I have watched women desperately try traditional remedies for family planning because they have no access to modern family planning techniques… it is attitudes plus delivery of services! We have also spent far too much time researching on why few girls go to school in the villages, putting all the emphasis on tradition and attitudes, whilst the simple fact is the services are either inadequate or non-existent… plus the economics of it!

In the cities in Yemen, however, with all the sophisticated ideas of women in development and gender studies, educated women can have a tough deal as they struggle to make the difficult transition into a demanding modern life in a society where many of the concepts have not yet become internalized creating many social conflicts. In the villages, there are more social support systems that women can fall back upon because there is still a strong sense of community. In the villages, it is considered normal for women to marry twice or thrice, if they have been unfortunate to be divorced or widowed even if they happen to be economically independent running their little businesses. In the towns, paradoxically social attitudes militate more against women than men in many respects, even coming from educated people.

When I wrote my last article on Wadi Shaab, my husband’s childhood friend, Dr. Yassin Al-Qobati accompanied us on the trip, and took us to the mountains of Qabetta where all kinds of fascinating happenings take place… like a procession of monkeys coming out exactly at the same time everyday after their daily haunts., etc. His spirit of adventure and love for the Wadi had made that trip special for us as we shared our nostalgic memories in the mountains. This time, happily for him and sadly for us, he was too busy receiving his “Man of the Year” Award from Yemen Times to accompany us!
As I sit here struggling to end this article, I cannot help wondering what the future holds for this country… Although the title of my article is Yemen in transition, I mistrust this nebulous word, because it suggests that life is on hold until we get to a particular state and then we are out of transition. That to me is static, and real life is dynamic and if the truth be told, societies are always in a state of transition and constant flux. Each historical phase is important in itself, as well as for what comes after. We always tend to call a phase transitional simply because we feel that it is not it, and we are all poised for the better things to come in order to say we have made it. In the past, it was easier to have ideals and ideals usually gave birth to great social movements, which were at different times considered to be a transitional phase into better times. Today as we live in the “new world order,” ruled purely by economics, within the background of economic insecurity in developing countries; not excepting Yemen, the situation may become overwhelming. As we rush ahead trying to catch up with the world of technology, our minds may become numbed and confused and we stop questioning ourselves as to what we are doing and where we are going… we often end up throwing away the baby with the bath water in our anxiety to keep up!

The Yemen of Bilquis, Arwa and Al-Hamadani is long past, even if we still like to nostalgically look for inspiration from the “Colossus who bestrode” this country. Our memories are beginning to fade, of people like Al-Zubairi, Al-Noman, and many others who sacrificed their lives, in order to create a better Yemen. The future is a combination of the past and the present in the continuum… the cycle of history. It is up to every individual and nation to establish their own parameters of development and progress, (even if it may be within the global framework), to avoid being blown with the wind without guide-posts or getting lost in the desert without a map!
Will Yemen be able to do that as we go towards the 21st century in confidence that we are indeed building a better future for our children, with a happy marriage between the past and the present, and retain what is beautiful and unique to Yemen, even if people like Zubairi have long served their time?