Yemeni Houses Keep Up Traditions [Archives:1997/46/Culture]
By: Doaa Taha Abdulqader
The Yemeni household is distinguished by its unique characteristics which put it in the forefront of architectural design and good taste in the Arab world. In spite of the fact that modern furniture has entered the Yemeni households, traditional and perhaps more practical items are still used. To get more insight into the Yemeni architecture and interior decoration, I met Ms. Nadiya Yahya Al-Kawkabani who is an architectural engineer.
Q: How would you describe the inside of a traditional Yemeni house? A: Well, there is the ‘diwan’ where guests are received. It is usually fu rnished with floor mattresses. The ‘salon’ is the living room. Generally speaking, there used to be no bedrooms as such, but they are now being introduced as part of the modernization of the Yemeni household and the many developments in our daily lives. Modern sofas and chairs are gradually invading Yemeni houses all over the country, especially among the middle classes. The dinner table is also gradually replacing the traditional 20-cm high round table on which people eat while sitting on the floor. The increase in such changes, however, depends on the social background and income of the householders. It has become a sign of prestige or a status symbol to have modern European furniture in the house. But some of the traditional furnishings such as the ‘diwan’ still prevail. Many people don’t feel comfortable sitting on a high chair or a sofa. The mild all-year-round weather has encouraged many people to lay wall-to-wall carpets, which are also being increasingly used nowadays.
Q: How do the prices of the two types of furniture compare? A: Due to the use of modern fabrics, the prices of traditional and modern furnishings are almost similar. The traditional mattress, for instance, is now made by modern methods. It has become thicker, raising the sitting person slightly above ground, and is easier to clean.
Q: What about plants and greenery in general? A: Plants are usually grown on window sills, especially herbs such as mint and basil which Yemeni women are used to perfume their hair. An increasing number of people are planting shade trees inside their houses. However, it is quite dangerous to put plants inside bedrooms as some people do, as they use up the room’s oxygen and emit carbon dioxide.
Q: Do Yemeni people hang oil paintings and other ornaments on their walls? A: Actually, they usually hang enlarged photographs of themselves or their most beloved relatives. Hanging decorative paintings on the walls is not a common thing among Yemeni people.
Q: Many foreigners are puzzled why we take off our shoes upon entering the house. Is this a traditional thing? A: It is the custom not only among Yemenis, but all Muslims in general to take off their shoes at the front door . This is done to keep the streets’ dirt away and keep the house’s floor clean for people to be able to pray on.
Q: What sort of paint or wall covering is used in Yemeni houses? A: In old houses, the walls of the bedrooms, living and guest rooms are whitewashed with gypsum. The kitchen and bathroom walls are covered with lime wash to make them waterproof. Nowadays, of course, modern oil or water-based paints are commonly used. Matte color paints are also used because they are easy to clean. Stucco ceiling and cornice decorations which are usually light blue, green, or pink are also the preference of many householders.
Q: What about the windows of the traditional house? A: Arches above windows and doors are commonly favored. “Shakoos” – the little window high up the wall next to the arch – is used for ventilation during qat chewing sessions and hubble bubble smoking. Some people currently use electric fans for this purpose. Windows in Yemeni houses are not usually high so as to allow people sitting on the floor the advantage of looking out into the courtyard where there is usually a small fountain, a small green patch and flowers.