Of Men in Skirts

Zainab Syed (Yemen, AC 08-10)

Apart from its geographical location I did not know anything about Yemen when I moved there last year. Nor did I have any idea that the next twelve months of my life would be so rich in experiences. Once you get over the initial shock of seeing piles of trash littering the streets or the reckless driving, you begin to appreciate all that Yemen has to offer.

There is something  magical about the land that boasts one of the first high-rises of the world, built some 1500 years ago in Wadi Hadramaunt- home to (if I may add) the Bin Laden family. These mud buildings are often referred to as the Manhattan of the east. Bottom heavy, they taper upwards, casting an alluring, magical scene against the backdrop of the setting sun.

Marib, in northern Yemen, was also the home of the queen of Sheba. Her throne, as well as the relics from the tribe of Saba (ancient name of Yemen), still stands as proof of Yemen’s rich heritage.

It does not end there. Sana’a, the capital city of Yemen, is one of the oldest surviving cities in the world. A UNESCO world heritage site, it is home to a culture deeply embedded in a society that refuses to advance with time. It is 6 o’clock and I stand in front of a burning flame, with a man who could well be as old as my great grandfather, waiting for him to hand me my tea. He takes his time; each cup is made individually with perfect care to the amount of condensed milk and sugar that is added. It is a perfect muddy brown color but very hot. So you have to set it down on the sidewalk of the saila (main road in the old city) as you sit there, carefully sipping the tea so that it doesn’t burn your tongue as you take in your surroundings.  This is Sana’a gadima (old Sana’a) where the souk of spices, incense, jambia’s and silver jewelry is timeless and thriving. It is easy to get lost in this maze of unique architecture, bustling with men nagging you to buy what they have to offer. And true to the Arab style, no deal is struck without some bargaining.

It is a man’s world, where women hide behind black veils. However, this isn’t to say that purdah has utterly destroyed the power that women have. The home is still their terrain and they are very much in command. The people of Yemen are very mild, and contrary to popular belief- unaggressive. Their generosity knows no bounds, and as a foreigner walking on the street you would likely be approached by a stranger just wanting to welcome you to his country. In this country, language is not a barrier. Despite their poverty, they are a proud people who are not bothered by anything. Come noon, a bag of qat (a plant that is chewed in social gatherings) coupled with a bottle of water is seen in the hand of almost every Yemeni man. Cheeks stuffed with leaves do not provide a pleasant sight but it is a must in their society. Its disadvantages are serious and though not additive, it is a habit that is costing the nation immensely.

Since chewing qat kills your appetite, lunch is a heavy meal. The locals love meat which is expensive, though seafood is plenty and cheap. Be it fahsa (meat cooked in a stone pot) or even kebabs on the street, the food is delicious.

Yemen is home to me, not only because I have lived there for a year but because my family is originally from there. Although, I don’t look like the people and don’t follow the same traditions, their warmth and love has won me over. Being in Yemen, one is transported back in time to a period when life was simpler. It is strange that in a place labeled dangerous by the West, I feel safer walking the streets as a woman than anywhere else. From its rich heritage, vibrant culture and magical feel to its delicious food and generous people, Yemen is probably one of the most misunderstood countries of the world.

– United World College Student Magazine –

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