Yemeni fading bizarre traditions [Archives:2004/727/Opinion]

April 8 2004

By Yahya Al-Olfi
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It is known that Yemen was in the past a cradle of an ancient civilization whose impact was of international. Of course, the boundaries of ancient “Yemen” were not as seen today but at times comprised of all the Arabian Peninsula and extended to eastern Africa, where some tribes are still speaking Semitic dialects such as the Amara, Tigray and Afar tribes in today's Ethiopia as well as the ancient Yemenite Characters which are still being used with slight differences. The main change was the addition by the Ethiopians of the vowel system, according to which the letters change, (Legal official Amharic terminology is sometimes understood by an Arab better than a native Ethiopian). South Arabian dialects used to be written in Musnad Characters without the employment of vowels, just like today's Arabic and Hebrew. Indeed, Yemeni historical literature speaks about an ancient Yemenite invasion of northern Africa led by a commander named Afriqish, from whom the name Africa was coined. If you hear a Berber man speaking in today's Algeria you would think he was an incarnated Himyarite.
Few European historians trace back Phoenician characters to those used by the Mainites. They believe that the Mainites left Southern Arabia and settled in Lebanon where they were later called Phoenicians. Yemenis in the past did embrace many different religions (they were Christian, Jewish and now Muslims, and before their embrace of the three said monotheistic religions they adored the moon and called it “Almaqah”, the Sun etc.). Of course, through time many traditions were discarded, but some persisted until this day. In this article I shall try to touch upon some traditions which are pre-Islamic and due to isolation in the past did not vanish quickly, whilst on the other hand some of them vanished due to religious preaching or at times the compulsory application of penalties against those who refused to comply.
It is known that the region of Asir (now under Saudi Rule) formed part of the Turkish Yemen Vilayet and thus people of Asir at the time of British presence in Aden used to travel south in order to purchase goods because Aden was at that time the most prosperous in the whole Arabian peninsula (i.e. prior to oil discoveries in the Arabian Gulf). They carried goods on camel-back. As one of the routes passed by one of my relatives' farmland, my relative got acquainted with tribesmen from Asir who after some years vowed that he should be their guest. My relative accepted the invitation and traveled with them to their area. Upon arrival they were well received by the locals, who were curious about the goods of those days. By the way, my relative lived for 130 years and passed away in 1977. He told me that the people in Asir and some areas of Yemen gave women certain rights which were strange to other regions of Yemen. For example he knew that the woman in Asir had the right to choose her man by saying Animaidak (i.e. I am yours), or in case of refusal she would say Anilaismaid. I told my relative that this is O.K., women should have the right to choose and that this is quite natural. But I could not believe him, when he told me that while he was asleep at the house of his hosts in Asir, an eighteen year old girl entered the room and told him to let her sleep next to him in order to warm him up. Presumably a pre-Islamic welcome gesture! I think although such a custom was practiced the guest was not supposed to transgress his limits. Not knowing that this was an exaggerated tradition to welcome their guests he told her to go and bring him some water because he felt thirsty. So when the girl went out he jumped out of the window, which was not barred and was not that far from the ground, and ran through night until he felt he was far away. He then took rest and returned after some days of strenuous travel to his area.
This incident, which happened to my relative, was mentioned by many historians including Sir Harry St. John Philby in his book Arabian Highlands and by other British adventurers. Whilst in Tihama girls are still circumcised as in Egypt and some African countries, men there go through a very strange circumcision where their foreskins are rolled back with knives up to their navels and some did die in the process because of terrible pain and much suffering. In fact King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, the founder of today's Saudi Arabia, issued a decision to cut the hand and the opposite leg of the circumcised and the circumciser and thus people under Saudi rule out of fear ceased the practice. But on the Yemeni side of the border I do not know if the custom is still being practiced.
Another circumcision rite used to be carried out prior to marriage and was utilized to check the forbearance of the prospective bridegroom and as an evidence of manhood. So ceremonies and banquets used to be held, particularly when circumcision involved many individuals. This type of circumcision used to be conducted by making the would-be circumcised stand behind wooden plates where there were holes through which organs were inserted for circumcisers to cut the foreskins, whilst onlookers watched the circumcised who was supposed to repeat loudly his lineage (by saying I am so and so the son of o the seventh eight or tenth forefather). If the circumcised twitched from pain or showed pain he would then be disqualified from being a man fit for marriage and family responsibility and no women were supposed to marry him ever.
A tribe in Shabwa province permitted its men to kidnap their cousins for the purpose of marriage. Yemeni Bedouins divorced their wives immediately if they were asked to do so or else they were considered of a lesser grade than normal men. Some tribes of Yemen shake hands and touch each other with their noses when they say hello to each other. While the tribesmen in a region in Saada province still adorn themselves and take better care of their hair than women.
In the past the wealthy Yemenis used to have castrated servants and used to call them “Tawashi” (They castrated them prior to adolescence and thus they looked later soft and hairless). Such castrated servants were permitted to mix with the house harem, obviously because they were harmless.
On the whole with the development of means of transport and the availability of TV, pre-Islamic customs and habits are rarely heard of and are only practiced in limited areas such as Socotra Island.