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By Garrett Foster
July 13, 2015
When discussing Yemen, it is oftentimes hard to stray from the topic of violence and the Yemeni social drug of choice, qat (قاط). It would be easy to stick to these talking points, and it would be even easier after having witnessed them firsthand, no matter how limited my experience was. In the summer of 2013 I experienced two major life events. One was that I met the women I would later plan on marrying. The other was that only a week after meeting her I left for my Arabic language immersion program in Sana’a (صنعاء). It was a short stay, limited by a trifecta of costs, safety, and being ordered to return to America by the organization through which I applied for the program (to be fair, I received the email ordering me to return after having returned). Nevertheless, the 6 weeks I spent there were, without a doubt, some of the happiest days of my life.
A key element of Yemeni culture is hospitality. I remember hearing stories of how even kidnappers would be courteous to their “guests.” As a foreigner in Yemen, I was approached on the street and often invited to people’s houses. Of course, accepting any and all invitations would have been dangerous, but accepting none would have been missing out on the true spirit of Yemen. For the few houses I did go to, such as the homes of people who worked at the college I attended, I never saw so much food prepared for so few guests in my life. It was abundantly clear each time that I had to eat all of the food before me; the amount of food eaten would reflect on the culinary skills of the wife who prepared it. Another important aspect of Yemeni culture was the extreme degree of gender segregation among Yemenis. Every time our food was prepared, it was by a wife. Which wife, we never knew. Yemen is, after all, a polygamous culture.
One of the relatively safer invitations to accept in Yemen is a wedding invitation, and as a foreigner, it is almost guaranteed that you will be invited to a wedding if you happen to walk past one. A sure sign of a wedding is a mizmar playing the traditional Yemeni wedding song in the streets as men join hands and dance. Of course, in Yemen, weddings are gender segregated. Thus, there essentially two wedding receptions: the women’s and the men’s. As it turned out, a few of us were lucky enough to attend a wedding during our stay in Yemen.
The women in our program, from what I was told, were treated to an endless banquet of Yemeni food and learned a secret dance that we, as men, would never have the opportunity to see. An abundance of cake was shared and all enjoyed themselves. As a man, I was treated to a separate spectacle. We were directed to a tent where the locals offered us the fine strains of qat and discussed politics. Outside the tent, the men and the boys would link arms as professionals performed the steps of the bara’, or janbiya (جنبية) dance.
Janbiyas are the traditional Yemeni curved daggers conferred to young men as rites of passage. It literally translates to “side,” in the spirit of a side arm. Back in the tent, every man carried a janbiya and a Kalashnikov on him. While the men discussed politics, a hired musician played oud (عود) and sung. Together with guns, knives, oud and political chat, it reminded me more of a campfire outing on a hunting trip than a wedding celebration.
We learned there that weddings are the biggest event in a Yemeni man’s life. And why shouldn’t they be? The groom at our wedding was departed from our tent with two brides-to-be while adorned with gold and wearing what was possibly the coolest sword I have ever seen. Which was also gold.
Events like visiting a person’s house and attending weddings hardly shed light on the daily life in Yemen. I will not lie about the potential for violence in everyday life even before the civil war, but I will try to avoid it. After all, the small details can often be overlooked. For example, as a nervous traveler, I spent a lot of time trying to psychologically prepare myself for the worst case scenarios. I forget, however, to prepare myself for eating without utensils save for a stray soup spoon. Thankfully, I quickly learned that the Yemeni flatbread, lahoh (لحوح), was just as good at scooping up fava beans (فول) if one didn’t mind using a lot of napkins (فُل).
The streets had many vendors who were very friendly and the restaurant owners were also good for conversation. Oftentimes, the conversation would steer towards topics a Midwesterner like myself had been taught to avoid: politics and religion. Yet the religious discussions were some of the most touching conversations I’ve experienced. I was often invited to (attempt to) read passages from the Quran.
One elderly maintenance man working at the college entertained me with stories from Yemeni folklore, many involving various jinn (genies) that everyone’s grandfather had either claimed to (and I quote) “have seen or shot at.” Much of what he said had to be translated by a Yemeni friend of mine and professor at the college, as my vocabulary was lacking and I had trouble with his southern dialect.
When people talk about Yemen, it’s hard not to imagine the man selling prickly pears for pennies down the street, or the falafel stand the next block over. But picturing these people who made me feel at home suffering from dengue fever (Reuters), or trapped in a war between factions that can’t even maintain a ceasefire long enough for humanitarian aid to get through, is no easy task (Al Jazeera).