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Volume 32, Number 3May/June 1981

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Impressions from a writer’s notebook

At Home in Yemen

"Brother, how can I help you?" "Take this taxi, my sisters, I'll find another." "My mother, it's the best that I can do" "You're right, uncle"

Written by Susan Mandel
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

You can tell a people by their words to strangers. In other parts of the Arab world those phrases might be, "How can I help you, my lord?" or,"... excellency?" - the reflection of a deep-rooted cultural habit of distance in address, an unconscious pattern of labeled differences in social ranking. A cultural style, in short, built on generation after generation of bureaucracy.

In Yemen and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula, there is a different habit. On the one hand, it reflects the grassroots egalitarianism of Islam. On the other, born of the uncertainties of fortune in a harsh and rugged world, it reflects the forthright assumption of equality until proven otherwise, of respect given deeds alone, not titles. These personal terms of address, "brother," "sister," "mother," "uncle," are the ultimate levelers. They are of the family, and the family is the foundation of everything in Yemen.

It is a large family. Grandparents, parents, sons and their wives and children, unmarried sisters, perhaps an uncle, they all live together in one large building, or set of buildings pulled together by a wall or common well or field. The whole hourglass of life finishes its turn and is turned again beneath one roof.

You know the falling of its sands by the sounds. You are awakened in the time of stillness between night and morning — before the cocks crow, before the first call to prayer - by the unnatural hubbub of distant voices and the sudden, rising cry of a woman's anguish. Someone has died.

When you leave for work that morning, the wooden pallet on which to wash and wrap the body is already out and leaning against the wall. Only a little subdued, small children play around it, while neighbors gather in knots of conversation. He lived a long life, they say quietly; he was a good man. "And when misfortune strikes, they say: 'We belong to God, and to God we return'." (The Koran, Chapter of the Cow, 156.) They will help carry the wooden box to the grave tomorrow.

Then again, coming home one evening you hear the high warbling ululation of the neighborhood women at a distance. Rounding the corner, you see a house draped with lights, strings of them running across the street. There out in front in a large square of light a crowd of men stands in a circle singing choruses to the songs called out from one side by a professional singer and his drummer. The men take their turns, leaping into the center to dance with their knives. Someone is marrying.

The marriage contract was devised, signed, and registered at court days earlier, after months of negotiations between the families. No simple certificate, this. The properties of two families are involved, carefully accumulated over the generations. Too many others are affected by a mismatched marriage; the choice and contract must be sound. Special attention was paid to the dowry due from the groom to the bride; how much is it to be, how paid, and when? Out of that dowry come furnishings for the newlyweds' rooms; perhaps half is held back for support should she be prematurely widowed, or for partial alimony (with additional support payments) should divorce occur.

The men dance before the family house of the groom, where the couple will live. The bride was moved there with great ceremony earlier; now she sits upstairs on a home-made throne in the main reception hall at her own party. She must be a model of demureness and innocence, with little talk and only rare, shy smiles. All of the ladies in the room are watching, thinking of their own weddings with nostalgic tenderness or anticipation. If s a solemn moment; only the occasional laughing glance of the bride's eyes betrays her excitement.

After half an hour has passed, the women usher the bride down from the throne and out to her new rooms. The signal is given; the rhythm of the dance changes. Men on both sides crowd forward; the oval becomes a corridor. The groom, led by the dancers, moves slowly towards the door, encouraged onward by a rapidly chanted cheerful song with the chorus half sung, half shouted; "God bless the Prophet and all of his kin; God bless this house and all within... welcome!"

In that same house the children are born, helped along by the women of the house and the neighborhood midwife. Like the other great transitions, it has its own sound, its own way of announcing itself to family and neighborhood. So the life of the family passes.

They see and hear and share in it all, the children of Yemen. Seven or eight-year-old boys sit silently with the men in the family council while business decisions are made. They sit through negotiated land and water disputes with other families, assimilating bargaining postures, the diplomacy of negotiations, preparing for their turn. They learn the usefulness of mediation.

Mediation is critical. In this land, family honor and personal pride can easily drive one and one's family into a struggle which reason knows is foolish. The Prophet Muhammad himself first went out to Medina - then called Yathrib - as a mediator to stop a war long under way there. Many a town has been founded in Yemen as a hujra, a place where the mediator, called in from outside, first settled then stayed to guarantee the peace. Watching their fathers, the boys learn this duty early. It is not uncommon to see a passing boy place himself between two angry children, talk their anger down and turn them away from fighting. it's no more than adults do; an argument out of hand demands mediation from the first passerby. Every member of the community must help keep the peace; peace is too fragile to have it otherwise.

It has been estimated that as much as 90 percent of all civil disputes in Yemen are settled by mediation outside the courts. No backlog on the trial docket there. Mediation - and a strong sense of self-reliance - takes care of that.

Along with their place in family councils, the boys learn early their roles in the world beyond the family. In towns they might tend the shop for an hour or two each day, with father and grandfather and then alone. On the farm they learn with the men the use of the equipment: the plow and oxen or camel, pickup or tractor; building and terrace construction, water lines and wells.

A girl in the city at about the same age is watching the children or sewing with friends. In the country, where every hand is needed for the farm, her schedule is more demanding.

Early mornings and late afternoons, the girls carry water up from the cistern. House water and food, care of the family cow, goats, sheep, and chickens, clothes, furnishings; these are household matters and women's business. Carrying her share, she learns from her mother, grandmother and aunts how to manage this complicated world of family and its budget. Above and beyond it, she learns to share in part of the crop work: planting and weeding and some of the harvesting. In parts of the country she will also learn about tending a store and trading goods.

Yemeni children grow up in the family with first-hand knowledge of birth and death; they assume adulthood in society and work with scarcely a pause to survey the world.

But it's changing. After roads, nowhere has change come so quickly in Yemen as in education. New elementary schools have appeared across the countryside in villages and towns, more often than not built by locally raised funds and volunteer labor and then staffed by the Ministry of Education. High schools are also opening rapidly, staffed and funded by the government, but with some teachers from abroad.

Yemen has been known throughout Islamic history as a region of excellent education and scholarship. A few of the schools that have made it so are still at work; the 'Asha'ir Mosque School at Zabid, for example, holds crowded Koranic study classes today and advanced seminars on scripture and the Traditions.

The new schools, however are something different; though religious studies are part of the curriculum, now mathematics, geography, life sciences, physical education and other new subjects have been added to them. They are, moreover, like America's system, co-educational at the elementary level. High schools are separate for young men and women, but as adults they attend, again, co-educational training colleges and university. A new world of youth is in the making in Yemen, a world in which for four hours a day or more, the children are away from home in classes, bringing school work home to study in the evenings. That’s four hours and more away from family work, away from the shop and field in a world of their own. For the farming family especially, the loss of their labor is a real hardship. And because these children are moving into a new world of thought and action, it may prove to be a permanent loss. it's not so easy after eight years of school to stay on the farm.

It takes real courage for the fathers and grandfathers, knowing this, to build those schools, to realize that the new skills and knowledge and approach to life - though they themselves don't entirely understand or even like them - are the only hope, ultimately, for their children's future in modern Yemen.

Though the children are gone now for part of the day, the daily cycle of family life is still very much as it was before. At dawn, awakened by the call to prayer, men and women are up to wash, pray and breakfast - a light meal of bread, hot broth and tea. With the children off to school, it's everyone to work, which continues without respite until noon prayer or 1:00 p.m.

After the noon meal - the largest of the day—two or three afternoons of the week will be spent with friends and farming or business acquaintances at home in the mafraj, a term and architectural feature special to Yemen. It is a room lined with carpets and cushions - a water pipe in one corner- intended, as the word implies, for ease and relaxation.

The crux of the gathering is relaxation and socializing, gathering community news and views, airing ideas. With businessmen and government officials it is the opportunity to test the water with potential contracts or legislation, the chance to find informal answers to problems insoluble in a formal office setting.

Work goes on until sundown prayers. After prayers, supper is taken. Shopkeepers return to their shops until 7:30 in the evenings; but after that, the family relaxes together before bed.

The yearly family cycle has changed little, too. In the countryside especially, it's built on the seasons, though the calendar is Muslim and geared to the moon - any given month rotating backwards slowly through the seasons. Yemeni farmers still plant by the stars as they did before Islam. These days, locally printed farmer's almanacs help them find the constellations and at the same time offer tantalizing hints of future weather.

Muslim holidays and obligations pattern the family year in both the country and the city. You ready yourself, both physically and spiritually, long before the month's fast of Ramadan; once it begins, there's little time, thought or energy for anything but prayer and fasting.

The nights are short during Ramadan. At sunset prayers, the streets and fields of Yemen are deserted, and remain so through the large evening meal that follows. By 8:00 the shops re-open and the cities and towns come back to life; in three or four hours of hectic rush all the purchases of the day are pressed through. Then home again; extra prayers are said and it's to bed—only to rise again two hours before dawn for a large breakfast before sunrise prayers. There's little time spent away from home that month.

The seven-day holiday of 'Id al-Fitr, at the end of the fast, is family too; every evening they all go out, from baby to grandfather, dressed in new clothes to visit relatives. It is also the time to reaffirm your family roots—a time when tens of thousands of city sons and cousins pack up the car with gifts, wife, and children and drive out to visit parents or relatives at the old homestead in the country.

After 'Id al-Fitr comes 'Id al-Adha, on the 10th day of the Month of Pilgrimage. It is the commemoration of Abraham's sacrifice. While pilgrims at Mecca re-enact the event, down in Yemen (and everywhere else in the Muslim world) families do the same thing in their own homes, grandfathers, fathers, and sons together formally sacrificing a sheep.

Leisure time is also a family affair.

In traditional Yemen, what leisure time there is, is spent in family visits to friends and relatives. The whole family sometimes visits some favorite river or orchard for a picnic.

On occasion, the family travels to the nearest hot springs (there are more than 26 of them scattered evenly over the country) for medicinal purposes — grandfather's arthritis - or simply for a change of scenery.

All of these outlets from the workaday world still flourish, in fact are more popular than ever before. But new activities are moving in. Sports clubs have been formed in nearly every town and city, affiliated with nation-wide leagues and playing cross-country games regularly. Soccer is the major sport; foosball tables have sprung up in city cafes around the country and television covers nearly the entire country.

Repeater television stations on mountain tops transmit the programs into every isolated mountain hamlet. These programs, transmitted in color since 1979, are carefully selected by the Ministry of Information; policy makers are well aware of both the promise and the danger of this powerful technology. Agriculture documentaries are offered to the farmers; the children receive "Simsim," the Arabic version of "Sesame Street" (see Aramco World, August-September 1979). There are situation comedies from Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia for evening viewers, and one or more soap operas from the same countries run in the afternoon for the ladies. Throughout, the station breaks at prayer times and signs off with Koranic readings. it's balanced programming, weighted towards education about Yemen and the world.

But balance is another word for tension. Programming in Yemen is a nerve-racking business. Even public health material has its controversy. For example:

In the world of tight budgeting in developing Yemen, television production is trying to pay its way. To do so, it has begun accepting advertising, which it shows in blocks between programs. From the beginnings of this policy two years ago, one of its biggest accounts had been a firm promoting powdered milk formula for babies.

A number of Yemeni Public Health nurses are incensed by these advertisements; they are running a grassroots campaign to encourage mothers to avoid the bottle, which is easily contaminated, and to breast feed. They complain that the ads undermine their work. Firm representatives reply that the encouragement of good nutrition can only help the country.

Television administrators have compromised. They have helped the nurses produce shows to present their viewpoint; and they continued the advertisements.

Worries about television voiced in newspaper columns and magazines have dealt less with programming than with social intangibles. What, for example, of the raised expectations from imported programs? What - and this point everyone argues over - what are the effects of television on family life and neighborhood life, when families are watching the television set while eating dinner and after, when the ladies' sewing circle sews silently - watching the soap operas, while the men stare at the news or a movie with scarcely a word to each other?

It’s a legitimate concern, but almost beside the point in Yemen today. The information which television brings to every household in the land is an important tool for national learning, plays its part in the crucial design for development in health, economics and government. Like the fathers who build the new schools in the villages, taking the chance that they might thereby lose their children, Yemen is taking a chance on knowledge.

It’s a piece of bare ground 12 by 30 meters (40 by 100 feet), cut out of a farm field three miles from city center. Traces of weathered furrows from last year's plowing run through the soil. Looking hard, you can see the outlines of other lots on the field; a street has been surveyed and scraped by a bulldozer on the diagonal, its high side eroded by rain.

It’s a subdivision; sure. But for Taha, it's the beginning of a manor, a mansion.

"Over here," he shouts from the far corner, "we'll put the car. And over here," he runs across to the far end, "we'll put in grapevines and a small garden."

"Of course," he adds, walking back towards you, "in the beginning, the house won't be very large. I want it to be built of stone, and stone costs a lot. But anyhow, we won't need all that much space the first few years."

Taha is the result of the new style schools and knowledge. Bright and ambitious, he began as a farmer's son. He knows animals and crops; he knows the land. He also knows literature, and teaches as an instructor at the new University of Sanaa. Back on the farm, his older brother is managing the operation. Taha's father Wanted him to come home, but the call of language and literature led him to refuse. He wants to learn more, research, teach.

It’s not that his love for his parents, the land and the village is less. He visits when he can, in breaks between classes and during holidays. Recently he spent three weeks away from the library contracting with a drilling crew to put in a well at the farm. He sits when he can with the family, helping in land dispute matters. I visited the farm with him once, and could see the love shared between him and his parents. I could also see, as the visit progressed, the small signs of growing estrangement.

Two years ago his father in desperation played his last card; he arranged a marriage for Taha with a local village girl.

"My mother says that she's pretty and bright," said Taha. "I'm sure she is. But the point is, she'll never agree to leave the village and father knows this."

The real point was, Taha had already chosen his wife-to-be. This girl, 'Aisha, grew up in the same area as Taha. But like him, she worked her way through the new school system and is in the process of finishing her B. A. in biology at the university. Over this past year Taha has, on his own, negotiated the marriage with her family, negotiations complete with long, serious talks with her father about his future plans. They will be married in June, after she graduates. The house will be finished by then, and waiting.

So the old Yemeni family branches off with a new house in a new region, occupied by a new generation with a new approach and language for the same age-old problems. And father and son, mother and daughter, know that, when all is said and done, the family is stronger for it.

This article appeared on pages 30-33 of the May/June 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: YEMEN

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1981 images.