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Yemen will Put You on its Head

August 15, 2000

“Welcome! I will put you on my head!” yelled the jambia clad Yemeni man seated on the floor amongst a dozen or so other jambia clad Yemeni men. They were huddled around a spread of foods – foods and breads of many different types: selta, a bubbling bean, lentil, okra, whatever’s-left-over-from-yesterday dish; a salsa-egg dish; a sort of curried vegetable dish, just to name a few. When the door swung open I was unlacing my shoes, preparing to enter the diwan, the sitting room. The heat floated through the doorway and nearly tipped me over. The smell of food and men was strong on that fourth-floor mud house.

I can’t tell you if I was more concerned about being the only woman in the large diwan or the welcome that my friend Ahmet translated: “It’s the type of saying you yell to someone in a very crowded place,” said Ahmet. “He’s saying, ‘If you can’t find a place to sit I will hold you on the top of my head.’”

But, grasping the meaning, I relaxed and leaned over to yell a hearty “Salaama al-leikum! Shokran jezeelan! Peace upon you! Thank you very much!” The man smiled back, nodded with his chin and turned back to his eating. Yemeni men, as I’ve noticed, attack their food. For a people who are so talkative they seem to concentrate on nothing more than finishing the meal as soon as possible so they can get back to their conversations. It’s quite a sight, made even more impressive by the jambias, the 10-inch-long, highly decorated daggers worn on a thick belt around the waist.

I have been in Yemen long enough now - exactly eight days - that the jambias no longer disturb me; although the huge rifle that normally accompanies the jambia might take another week or so. Yemenis like their weapons; that’s an understatement. When I first arrived in Sana’a, Yemen’s northern capital city, I wasn’t expecting to see too many weapons. I thought they were outside in the tribal valleys and mountains. Wrong. Most males, from when they first start walking, wear the jambia belted over a futah, a colorful wrap-around skirt, or a full-length zanna, a long-sleeved dress. In the cities this clothing outnumbers the standard button-up and belted pants five to one. You will see a few men slinging a rifle over their shoulder or tucking a pistol into their belts as well, and the only difference in the city is that it won’t be until the quiet of dusk that you’ll begin to notice the sounds they make.

Yemen is still very much a tribal country, the “Wild West of the Middle East” one Yemeni called it. If you follow Yemeni politics even a little, chances are you’ve heard something about the Yemeni affinity for kidnapping. Many tribes “borrow” foreign travelers to get the attention of the government. Since the unification of South and North Yemen in 1990, this seems to be the only way to get any recognition from a government criticized for being too lax or not lax enough, and trying to please everyone and itself all at the same time. I, of course, was being well informed of this matter while riding in the front seat of a Land Cruiser in the middle of the hottest spot for tribal kidnapping. With three armed guards in the backseat my driver told me there would be no problems. “Lots of people used to come to Yemen to get kidnapped before four hostages were shot in ’96.” That makes me feel much better. Thank you, I thought. But as it turned out, it was the police who shot the hostages when the kidnappers ran a red light. “You just don’t want the government coming after you.” With this in mind I looked at the three guards and decided that they were probably more faithful to their own tribes than to the government that each Yemeni man is forced to serve for a part of his lifetime.

After seeing a bit of Ma’rib, the old Sabaean Kingdom, the home of the famous Queen of Sheba, we stopped for some lunch (inhaled quickly of course) and to stock up on some qat for the long three-hour ride back to Sana’a.

Qat, the unofficial symbol of Yemen, is a mildly stimulating green shrub that, if you’re one of 80% of the Yemeni population, you masticate for at least three hours, at least once a week. Several studies have shown qat to be “non-narcotic and non-addictive.” When I asked my friend Ahmet about this a few days later he contradicted this by saying that people are addicted to it and if they stop chewing they go through withdrawal, usually in the form of horrible nightmares. “I always seem to dream of being shaved by a monkey,” said Abdulla, the driver. Ahmet screwed up his eyes and shook his head.

There’s a rich tradition in Yemen of the qat chews. Most of the population spends 60% or more of their income on it. The society revolves around it. And the women chew it almost as often as the men do.

The return drive from Ma’rib was not the first time I’d chewed the qat. The previous day I’d found myself mouthing a shrub in the middle of a “Harem”, or The Women, as general groupings of women are called. Being a Western woman I have the great fortune of being part of the “Third Sex” in Arab society, allowing me to visit with both the men and the women as a sort of novel onlooker, or guinea pig in this circumstance.

I had been observing with great interest and fascination the morning’s wedding ceremony – just one part of the three-day affair – at a valley’s edge. The men were dancing, waving their jambias and chasing each other about in dance inside small circles clustered against the valley wall. Amid gunfire and joyous screams I took photos of the Yemenis and they in turn took photos of me. At one point a small boy, more jambia than boy, grabbed my hand and took me to his mother and sisters sitting in a crowd at the edge of the setting. Before I knew it I was transported by pickup to the family house. Even in the privacy of their own homes the Yemeni women were careful not to show the wrong male their face, although, in true Yemeni style, they had an easy sense of humor and were quick to laugh it off if a peek or two was dropped or stolen.

After lunch the qat began. The family found it quite amusing that I had never tried the leaf before. “You’ll be up all night,” I gleaned from the pulling-the-eyelids-back motion the father of the house made. I smiled and stuffed in another branch into my mouth. The women soon brought me to their part of the house and started placing leaves in my hands. When they were satisfied with the baseball I had in my cheek they signaled me to move; we were going to the Harem.

I was beginning to feel the qat and, mixed with the overall excitement of the situation, I contemplated kidnapping as the pickup once again rolled and bumped along the Sana’ani streets. Because of the qat I wanted to ask my hosts hundreds of questions at once but because of my deficient Arabic the only thing I could ask was “Tamum? Quece? Good? Nice?” over and over again. The ladies turned to each other and with only their eyes showing I knew they were smiling at me.

Qat tamum?” asked Fatma, the oldest of the sisters. And I nodded. After we had hopped from our ride and poured into the steamy diwan of their friend’s home Fatma elaborated. The ladies had stripped off their veils and quickly dropped into conversation, qat and water-pipe puffing. I was in the middle of explaining that Washington state was a different place than Washington,DC and that yes, it rains there just like it was raining outside. Fatma stood up and pulled a few other women to their feet. They danced around awhile, doing things with their bodies I could only hope to do with mine, when she looked at me. “Qat,” she said and proceeded to dance a little racy number with her younger sister much to the group’s laughter. Not only will qat prevent you from sleeping but it will also heighten your sense of, well, arousal and endurance, if I interpreted the dance right. With one last bump of the hip Fatma sat down and motioned to the room. “Yemen.” She smiled.

So qat quite simply rules the country. A few ex-pats that I met bemoaned the three-hour workday; the Yemenis smile and shrug it off. It’s interesting to note that only 35 years ago Yemen had one telephone for the whole country and qat was seen as an upper-class recreation. Now, even the smallest mud huts have a television and the 10-year-old who lives in it will have a fist of qat at his jaw.

It’s a lot to digest, the qat as well as the whole of Yemen. As I crawled my way out of the hot diwan with the Yemeni men, well finished with their meals, having prayed, gabbing away with green leaves sticking out of their mouths I thought about actually having had to sit on someone’s head due to the limited space in a packed diwan.

“I love you,” called out one of the men in English — no doubt there is a whole slew of English teachers in Yemen teaching this phrase to the entire population. I returned a quiet “al heb’bec. I love you.” And as I walked away with Ahmet and Abdulla one of the men leaned out the window, yelled and shot off a round from his semi-automatic rifle into the air.

“What did he say?” I asked, exasperated.

“He said, ‘Go slowly and go well, my friend.’” I stopped and waved. One thing’s for sure, Yemen is definitely going slowly but with their hospitality I hope that they can go well as well.


-Sarah Reed Bargren
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