Yemen’s cultureCelebrating Yemen by linking past and present [Archives:2003/681/Culture]

October 30 2003

By Ulrike Stohrer
University of Frankfurt
For The Yemen Times

Since the unification of North and South Yemen on May 22, 1990, national integration has been an important aim of governmental policy. The task of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism is to strengthen this process by establishing a homogeneous national culture and creating one single Yemeni national identity. Its efforts are increasingly recognizable after the Yemeni Civil war of 1994, which was a fundamental threat to the integrity of the state and showed that the integration had not yet been successfully realized.
Thus the ministry has taken measures that aim to raise the national consciousness and to demonstrate Yemeni unity to the outside world. Apart from promoting modernization, democratization and integration;, the preservation and the development of the tradition as one of the constituents the new identity is an important demand of its activities.
The performances of the National Orchestra and the National Folklore Ensemble are among the strongest instruments for this task. Even before the unification of the two Yemeni states, national folklore ensembles existed in both parts. It is interesting to note that not only in the South, but also in North Yemen, the national folklore ensemble was established in cooperation with Soviet advisers and built on Soviet models. The present national folklore ensemble was formed by the fusion of these two ensembles. Many of its members, including its present director, have been trained as choreographers, dancers and musicians in the former Soviet Union or the German Democratic Republic.
The performances of the National Folklore Ensemble are taking place regularly at governmental ceremonies national holidays, such as the anniversary of the revolution (Sep. 26 ,1962 in North Yemen and Oct. 14, 1963 in South Yemen) or the day of unification (May 22, 1990). Usually at these occasions stage plays are shown in the cultural center of Sana’a in the presence of the president, numerous government members and members of foreign diplomatic corps. These plays are often of allegorical content glorifying the given occasion and praising the government’s efforts to improve the democratization and modernization of the country. Several folklorist performances such as songs and dances from different regions of the country are integrated into these plays. These events are also broadcast on television.
In this paper I will focus on one specific performance, which was presented on May 22, 2000 in Sana’a celebrating the anniversary of Yemeni unification. This performance differs significantly from the above-mentioned theater plays in the cultural center and shows essential features as well as modified present tendencies of governmental strategies.
During this celebration the folklorist dances were not embedded in a drama. They were not performed on stage in a theater, but in the open air at an urban square which represents and important national symbol, the Bab al-Yaman, the southern gate of the old city of Sana’a. The performers were 1000 students of the military academy, assisted by the members of the national folklore ensemble. The presentation consisted of two parts, each lasted about 45 minutes. The performances of the two parts were identical, but distinguished by place and set. While the first part was performed for the TV camera only, the second one took place in front of the president and official guests of the government. Both parts were broadcast on TV. Some months later the first part was shown daily as a looped video in the Yemeni pavilion during the World Exhibition “Expo 2000” in Hannover, Germany.
The presentation starts with some folklorist scenes at the suq of the old city of Sana’a, showing artisans of traditional goods such as caravans of wooden locks from Hadhrtamaut, weavers of cotton cloths from the Tihamah, daggers of the mountain region, pottery etc. After a trumpet’s signal the protagonists, who were ambling among the artisans, start up a closed group marching out of the gate. While marching they are singing a chorus, which praises Yemeni unity. Two drummers accompany them. Reaching the square outside the gate, they first come together and form several choreographic patterns such as circles, stars, lines and chains. Then they divide into five groups each representing one region of the country: the mountains, the desert, Wadi Hadhramawt, the south coast, and the Tihamah. The member of the different groups are distinguished by costumes of different colors and styles. Within one group all members are dressed in the same costumes; these are not every day clothes but historical uniforms of soldiers. The performers are armed with traditional weapons according to their region, daggers, swords and shields, spears or guns.
Then the groups take turns at performing a dance representing their region, each taking about 5 minutes. While one group is performing at the foreground, the other groups are standing at the back and at the two sides of the stage performing all together synchronously some steps on the spot and singing. When one group has finished, the dancers return to the gate, leaving the place to a new group that moves forward, thus suggesting that the gate pours out more crowds of people.
Most of the dances, though of different musical accompaniment, tempo and dynamic, are based on the same step, consisting of two steps forward and one hop. They are performed mostly within the choreographic pattern of a line or a circle. Sometimes the dancers join their hands or take each other by the shoulder, an expression of unity and brotherhood.
But these performances do not show the traditional shape of the dances. Each regional style is modified musically , choreographically, and contextual to blend in with the others and merge into one homogenized national style. The orchestration as well consisted of a mixture of the different local musical instruments of the country, expanded by a European symphony orchestra. Additionally, a chorus sung by the performers in unison underlies the whole performance.
At the end of the first part of presentation, the participants leave the Bab al-Yemen and march to the Maidan al-Sab’in, where the second part will take place. This march is choreographed also in the basic step, two steps forward and a hop, while waving the daggers. The camera follows this march from the side and from the air showing the crowd walking along the wall as well as the silhouette of the old city, so that the city itself seems to be part of the walking crowd and moving as well. The Maidan al-Sab’in was formerly the airport of Sana’a; it serves here as a parade ground for military and governmental ceremonies. A stand is installed there, from which the president and hid guests of honor watch the performance. Opposite the parade ground, facing the stand, the monument for the Unknown Soldier is situated, composed of imitations of the six columns of the Sabaen Bar’an- temple in Marib on an arch. These columns, as well as the Bab al-Yemen, are a national symbol. The Bab al -Yemen is represented in this part of the performance by a papier-mache model that stands in front of the monument. The performance now coming up is the same as the one described above.
The performance ends with the appearance of a ship, from which twenty women (members the national folklore ensemble) descend and dance around the square, spinning around their own axis around each other while holding garlands of flowers in their hands. Twenty men join them and they start dancing together in the same way, accompanied by a chorus telling about love and happiness.
When analyzing this celebration it is important to take into account the use of space as a symbolical transmitter of political messages. In the above-described presentation the city of Sana’a plays an important role. The suq of the old city and the gate not only form the scenery and stage, but the silhouette of the city is a real actor within this performance. It is permanently present; p, it seems to move with the performers. Again and again during the performance the camera gives a general view, simultaneously overlooking the performers, the gate, and the old city. In order to construct the meaning of this presentation it is important to understand that its character was formed for the camera. One’s gaze on the performance is an artificial one, the camera looks down on the performance from an elevated position and most of the choreographic patterns can be recognized only from the air, but not from the stage level. No citizen of Sana’a is able to see his city this way in daily life.
Furthermore, to create this picture it was necessary to clear traffic and people from the Shariah al-Zubeiri and the square outside the Bab al-Yaman as well as the suq area behind the gate. This meant a strong disruption of the daily life of one of the most important traffic junctions of the capital. Also, the open urban square, with four streets parting from it, was closed by the way the performers made use of the space. The performance, as well as the camera lens, was centered in the direction of the gate. Some of the participants were delimiting the scene by forming a line at the right and left side. Thus the square in front of the Bab al-Yaman was transformed into a theater stage.
The whole scene focused on the city of Sana’a. Apart from the capital, no other city or region of the country is represented in the set. Only the costumes of the performers are reminiscent of some other regions.
Although the silhouette of the city dominates the visual appearance of the presentation, the urban culture of Sana’a is not represented by the performance. The population of the city is completely excluded from the scene. The Sanaanis do not even appear as spectators . The musical tradition of San’a is singing with un-accompaniment and dance. It is practiced by the urban elite only inside their houses, not in public squares. Therefore this performance draws a distorted picture; the silhouette of the city is confronted by performances of mostly rural regions, thus combining urban and rural regions, thus combining urban and rural cultures visually and acoustically.
The dances presented do not so much show the cultural diversity of the country, but rather reduce the characteristics of the different regions to their common characteristics of the different regions to their common gourds. The step, step, hop, base of most of the dances serves as the smallest possible common dominator among them; Additionally, the steadiness of the general accompaniment of the performance by orchestra and chorus constitutes a uniform sound space, within which all the different dances are imbedded.
In this way the cultural differences among the various regions are suppressed and their points in common are accentuated; This homogenized “national style” articulates the “one single Yemeni identity.” As the ministry points out, “our artistic heritage (turathna al-fanniy), though numerous in its genres and forms from region to region and from town to town , merges and unites within the frame of the one single Yemeni identity. It does express the unity of the Yemeni folklore arts.
This performance represents the image the government wishes to present of the contemporary and historical Yemen. It is not a representation of folk and historical Yemen. It is not a representation of folk customs within their traditional environment, but constitutes an artificial, imagined space that symbolizes historical roots, modernization, democratization, and unification. At the same time, however some inconsistencies inherent in the governmental concept become obvious , since that concept does not correspond to the real historical and present situation in Yemen.
The Yemeni people are represented only by the dancers who are all acting collectively and homogeneously. There is no individual movement and character within this performance and no mark of any different social status among the protagonists. The whole group appears and acts as one single body, thus showing its claimed unity and brotherhood. Although the ministry always promotes the participation women in cultural performances, this presentation was performed only by men. The twenty women appearing at the end of the performance seem not to be an integral part of it, but a somewhat artificial and unsuccessful attempt to integrate women in male dominated performance. The women’s visual appearance and their dances neither traditional nor a representation of modern Yemeni women.
In the rhetoric of the ministry of culture , Sana’a is called “the capital of the present, the history and the unity. This statement supposes that it has been the capital during the whole history of Yemen and therefore stands for the continuity of Yemeni nationalism . Although there has been a long continuity of dwelling at this place since antiquity, Sana’a has not always been the capital of the state not in antiquity and not during the Islamic era under the era of the Zaydi Imams, who resided most of the time in Sadah. The Bab al-Yaman itself in its present shape, is not an authentic Yemeni building; it was erected in 1865 by the Ottoman government .
The march of the protagonists from the Bab al-Yaman to Maidan al-Sab’in connects the historical area of the city with its modern quarters and thus also symbolizes the continuity between past and present, as well as the unity of the country, with which together we continue the march of unification. The antique kingdom of Saba , represented by the columns of the monument at the Maidan al-Sab’in, is in the governmental rhetoric the mythical foundation of the Yemeni state, within which the whole of Yemen was united under one single ruler. Thus this monument may be seen as an arch of a bridge. It spans symbolically time and space, linking the present time with the age of antiquity and the root of Yemeni nationalism.
This is the symbolic visualization and celebration of Sana’a as “the capital of the present, the history and the unity as it is seen by the Yemeni government.
This paper was presented at the First World Congress for Middle East studies , University of Mainz; Germany, in September, 2002. The author is working on a Ph.D in Anthropology on performance practices, identity and nationalism in Yemen.