Yemeni Character & Traits [Archives:1998/14/Focus]

April 6 1998

Yemeni Character
Character is a collection of attitudes. A human being thinks, reacts, and changes with time, according to the work he/she does or the society in which he/she lives.
The Yemeni character is changing rather rapidly. It used to be inclined simplicity and pacifism. Life was a lot simpler, in terms of food, clothes, and habitat as well as the rules and regulations. Tribal customs reigned supreme then. But changes and developments are accelerating around the world. The great technology and communication revolution has given precise specification to the attitudes of human beings. The choice of food, clothes, habitat, and behavior are being increasingly dictated by international norms and standards. All these new criteria are limiting the human freedom and distancing human beings from their past simplicity.

All this has made human beings more careful in how they behave. This extra care led to humans making more mistakes. Time has become far more limited than before. During the few hours left of the day, a person needs to finish all the necessary tasks in a hurry.
So one trait of the Yemeni personality is haphazard alacrity which is not harmonious with the nature of the work people do or even with their present social life. People now need to act faster in order to better earn their living. This rashness has resulted in more aggression. Even simple problems are now being solved with force or the threat of force. The absence of law enforcement has encouraged people to take the law into their own hands, or, worse, still violate the rules through sheer power and influence.
Qat Compounds the Problem
The most prevalent social phenomenon in Yemen is chewing qat. A typical Yemeni man goes to work at 8 am, but by noon he starts to think about where to get qat. In the remaining 3 or 4 hours of work, an employee tries to finish his task as quickly as possible in order to go to his regular qat-chewing “majlis,” in which a normal session would last until 8 pm or even later.
When a person has a monthly salary of 5,000-6,000 riyals and has to buy a certain, highly priced commodity, he would haggle with the shopkeeper – a process that sometimes leads to flaring of nerves or the drawing of a jambia or even a gun. Such an illogical behavior is the result of both deteriorating economic conditions and the need to quickly finish the daily tasks.
The cultural structure of the Yemeni society is mainly based on deeply ingrained tribalism and religious beliefs. Trying to hold an objective dialogue on religion, say, with a person with such a cultural structure quickly ends up with you being accused of secularism, heresy, apostasy or worse accusations. Many people here do not have a logical means to deal with differing opinions.
Social Factors
The Yemeni family is usually an extended one, as opposed to a nuclear family. A typical Yemeni household would have a large number of children with lots of demands, creating almost constant anxiety and apprehension. The state does not even provide the most basic of social services, increasing the heavy burden on the family’s breadwinner.
Yemen consists of desert, mountainous, and coastal areas. People living in mountainous regions are usually characterized by extremism, sternness, and even aggressiveness. People living in the plains are more balanced, easy-going, flexible, and tolerant. These differences are likely to remain for a long time to come until more universal values and morals are established.
The state with all its health establishments always look at a human being as a mere body with physical needs only. They forget that a human has a body and a soul. The media in all its forms does not give the psychological aspect of life its due importance. In other words, there is a general lack of psychological awareness.
Sometimes the slightest personal problem leads to a break down and wrong decisions. This phenomenon is grossly exacerbated with the increase in economic pressures that are gradually leading to the diminishing of the spirit of tolerance that once characterized the Yemeni people.
So family, social, economic, and officialdom pressures all combine and come crashing down on the helpless citizen.
Women Also Affected
In addition to the traditional social repression, Yemeni women are also affected by the bad economic situation; even if they are not their families’ breadwinners.
If the husband is more educated and has become wealthier, the wife, especially if she is not educated, would start to worry that he will marry another woman.
Lack of respect for the law and the absence of law enforcement have led people to use various means and methods to gain their rights or infringe upon the rights of others. The kidnappings of foreign tourists and expatriates in Yemen is one such method. Kidnapping diverts the route through which a citizen demands his rights, and makes helpless foreign visitors go away.
Blood Revenge
The absence of law enforcement has also given rise to acts of blood revenge. A citizen would rather take the law into his own hands by killing the man who killed his relative, than wait for years for a court to reach a verdict that may not be the one he is expecting or willing to accept.
Social Maladies
Several socially unacceptable phenomena such as forgery, embezzlement, bribery, and confidence tricks started to appear by the early 1980s. Economic hardships have a lot to do with the spread of such maladies. If an average public employee in Yemen starts to think about his future, and compares his aspirations with what he gets by way of salary, then he would find the situation utterly hopeless. Out of sheer desperation, some people resort to devious means to get what they want.
Society in Yemen has become plagued with consumerism, and the Yemeni people have been branded as lazy. The majority of the people spend the time from 2 pm to 8 pm chewing qat. They produce virtually nothing. The hours of actual work per day do not exceed 3 – from 9 am to 12 noon. These 3 hours include having breakfast, chatting with colleagues, and other trivia. By noon, a public employee would start to think about getting the money needed to buy qat. If unable to buy qat, some men usually vent their anger on their wives or children.
Rural & Urban Character
There are certain character differences between people in the countryside and town dwellers. However, with the increase in migration from rural areas to major towns and cities, the line between the two personalities has become quite blurred. In actual fact, most of the people living in Yemen’s urban centers have their roots in the countryside. Just one look at a deserted Sanaa during Eid, say, gives some indication of the majority of people’s origins. Many people leave the cities and go to visit their relatives in the countryside during Eid.
It is inevitable the rural people settling in towns and cities should lose some of their parochial traits, and start to acquire those of the big city.