We approach Yemen on a 3 story cattle boat, the bulk of it pulled below the waves by its heavy cargo. There are four women on the boat, maybe 20 men and 345 cattle. One woman is covered in black almost from head to toe. She even wears fitted black gloves along with a loose, black abeya, waist-length cape, head scarf and veil. Judging from her eyes she is probably in her late 20s. After a few weeks in Yemen, I will become attuned to the subtle details of a woman in an abeya. I start to notice the expression of a woman’s eyes, the way she walks and the texture of her voice, adding dimension to someone I meet on the bus or pass by on the street. For now, my unaccustomed eyes pick up on very little and in my shyness and ignorance I struggle not to stare. I do glance down at her feet though and I am relieved to find that she is wearing sandals; her bare toes idle under the hot sun.
The other two women are a hilarious pair. They are Somali and one has been living in Tuscon for ten years with her sons. “Bring me food!” she booms to the crew or “Where’s my tea?” No one else expects these busy men to wait on them but she is impossible to ignore. She blames American culture for making her fat, “All you do is work, eat and sleep. Work, eat and sleep.” “But,” she concedes with a nod, “you’re a good people.”
Packed tightly into small compartments, the cows fall all over each other. They endured a long trip from Tanzania and will soon reach the end of their journey in Yemen. If one decides to lie down and rest the others around it will either stomp all over it or join suit. If too many lie down at once one of the crew is forced to go down and drag them back onto their feet. This is achieved by grabbing hold of the septum, the piece of flesh between the cow’s nostrils, and pulling hard.
We sleep on the top deck under an ocean of stars. All night the sea moves heavily beneath us and even from the cows there is a respectful silence. The next morning I spend an hour or so sipping tea and steering the ship. The crew is carefree and almost jolly, taking pictures of Shane and I at the wheel, with the cows, under the blue sky. Asking us to pose with them and smile like models. The Gulf of Aden soon begins to narrow and we sail through Bab Al- Mandab into the Red Sea. Yemeni soil is visible in the distance. My first look at the Middle East, marking the beginning of the next year or so of my life, barely registers in my mind.
The crew catches a spectacular fish, about 3 feet long with prehistoric fins and scales that conduct all the colors of the rainbow at once. The cook prepares it on the spot with white rice and curry and we devour it greedily. I ask the wild woman from Tuscon to show me how to tie my hijab, or head scarf. She says mine is too small and gives me a bright, gaudy red and black one to wear. My first attempt to conform to Yemeni dress leaves me looking like a carnival side-show, with three or four dissonant, clashing garments pieced together like an old quilt. It’s a far cry from the modest, black elegance I would soon encounter on nearly every woman in a public place for the next month and a half.
We leave Al-Makha, a small, port town and enter a vast, uninhabited stretch of desert. The Tihama is dotted with dry shrubs and the occasional wide, flat trees. Plastic bags bloom on branches, torn and tattered by the wind, as we fly past small villages and oddly-shaped, craggy mountains in the distance which grow larger and larger as we approach.
Through the window I see men on rustic motorcycles, most with unnaturally large bulges in their cheeks that look painful and tumorous to me at first. Six men are crammed into the back seats of the cab and Shane and I are up front with the driver. He welcomes us to Yemen and hands us each little bundles of qat, an herb with mild methamphetamine qualities that is chewed voraciously in Yemen, Djibouti and Ethiopia. The tender leaves and stem of the qat plant is chewed and then stored in the cheek, causing a large bulge, where its chemical properties can flow directly into the blood-vessels of the soft, permeable lining of the mouth.
Shane asks the driver if it’s strange for me to be chewing in public. “No problem,” he says, “Women chew everywhere, you just can’t see under the veil, ” he thinks for a minute, “We have democracy in Yemen, no problem.”
There are women walking along the road, covered in black, balancing yellow plastic jugs on their heads. The black looks pure against the dusty landscape. My eyes sink eagerly into its depth, searching for definition but getting nowhere. The women have a strong effect on me. They are there but they are not there, seen but not seen. I am drawn to them, but feel oddly intimidated at the same time. They have an aura of religiosity, walking in groups of 5 or 6, they appear to occupy a spiritual or cultural dimension that I know nothing of.
We come to a small town and stop at a gas station that looks centuries old. I fiddle with my hijab in the mirror, tucking in wisps of hair that escape like small, slippery fish from a net. There are packs of young boys hanging around by the road, men in wrap-a-round skirts, colorfully painted buses and a group of people hacking at gnarled, old logs. To our right we are flanked by a wide forest of palm trees; to our left tall, stone houses with brightly painted doors and stained-glass windows shaped like half-moons are stacked closely against and up cliff sides. Apart these splashes of color the houses blend perfectly into their surroundings, made of the same earth and stone that they stand on.
Farther down the road there is an open market with landslides of tomatoes, onions and potatoes cascading from trucks into carts. There are mountains of ground spices, dried sardines and raisins crowned with tin cans for measuring and divvying up. There is a huge, oblong vegetable I’ve never seen before that looks like a squash but I later find out it tastes like a cucumber. A woman passes by without a veil, her face open and intent on what she is doing or thinking. She is clearly chewing qat and, emboldened, I stuff more leaves into my own cheek. Just outside the town there are piles of rocks erected to showcase dark, brown jugs of honey for sale, with hives not far behind.
Funny how I don’t mind the taste of qat anymore. Only weeks ago I felt the need to dilute its bitter taste with a constant flow of sweet apple soda. It has a mild, euphoric effect along with a heightened sense of awareness and focus. Most people feel very talkative and social for the first 3 hours of a chew, then some get introspective for a bit and others get horny. The only side effect is the occasional night of fitful sleep and stressful dreams. The worst that’s happened to me is once I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning studying Arabic. Bring in the law! The use of qat is so widespread in Yemen that the streets and markets clear out around 3 o’clock and pick up again at 7. People usually chew with their friends, sometimes once a week and for many it’s a daily habit.
A lot of the criticism around qat use has to do with Yemen’s shrinking water supply. Yemen is using water a lot faster then nature can replenish it and 40% of this water goes to irrigate qat crops. Farmers grow qat because it is far more profitable than food, you can make 20x the profit you’d make selling potatoes. As a result Yemen is forced to import most of its food and is dependent on the international market to feed itself. Last March there were food riots in the city of Aden in S.Yemen. This happened when global oil crisis caused food prices to shoot through the roof. In Yemen rice and vegetables went up 20% and wheat doubled overnight. The rioting went on for 5 days and military tanks were deployed to stop it after 2 police stations were burned. The thousands of protesters in Yemen were not alone, people around the world were protesting in Mexico, Uzbekistan, Morocco and Haiti (just to name a few) at the same time for the same reason; they could no longer afford enough food for themselves and their families.
The next taxi driver, from Ta’izz to Sana’a, makes the first one look like driver’s Ed. He drives like he has utter faith in a higher power to protect us. Shane and I squeeze hands secretly in the back seat as he barrels through mountainous terrain, passing trucks and lines of cars in the pitch-black for five, relentless hours.
People take risks in Yemen, but they also have tremendous skill. I wonder how much being socialized in a heavily religious environment factors into that. So much of life is unregulated; motorcycles whiz by with three, unhelmeted passengers, kids crawl around inside of cars with no belts let alone car seats, exhaust pours from cars like smoke from a fire. Most of these things are “bad” but there’s also something that I like about it. People grow up strong and sturdy in this environment, they court danger from an early age and they come out carefree and capable. I’m not saying we should do away with all our precautions but there’s something to be said for a society where you can work on your car on the side of the road without hassle or yell at the top of your lungs in front of your friend’s apartment instead of ringing a doorbell. In the streets of Sana’a children play outside all day long in the dirt and chaos, cars honk without refrain and it is common to see people sitting in groups of 5 or 6 sharing a steaming bowl of beans on a busy sidewalk.
A part of Yemeni society that may be easier to appreciate is that absolutely everything, everything is carefully decorated and beautifully arranged. From fresh fruit at a juice stand strung together and hung from the ceiling like chandeliers to stray bricks at a construction site stacked high with architectural design, everywhere you look there is attention to detail. Motorcycles are dressed in fur with feathers dangling from their antennae, reams of cloth flowers spill out of barbershop doors and bare candles are placed inside sacks of dates so they glow like lanterns in the night. Even the walls of mini-buses are lined with soft, velvety cloth and tassels put the final touch on just about anything you can think of. Yemen is the kind of place where if you order a bowl of hummus you can expect the cucumber on your plate to be cut into the shape of a heart.
The old city is a teeming stew of color, life and beauty. It is surrounded by a 30 foot wall that used to mark its borders but now the walled section, over 2500 years old, is only a fraction of larger Sana’a. Yemen has one of the fastest population growth rates in the world and in the past 50 years its capital city has exploded outside its original boundaries. In Old Sana’s cobblestone streets circle through a maze of stone buildings, many still held together with mud, that tower five stories high. Each one is a home made up of winding stone steps, unbelievably small doors you have to duck under to enter, soft white rooms of all shapes and sizes, stained-glass windows, mysterious cubby-holes and roof-top views that span for miles and miles.
Life in Yemen is largely segregated along gender lines. Men are in charge of the pubic and women the private sphere. Men work in the small shops and restaurants; they drive the buses and cabs and are the mechanics and delivery men. Of course many women work too; I’ve seen women working as teachers, nurses and travel agents. I’ve also heard of judges, activists and all manner of things. Women participate in public life but their identity and individuality is at least partially disguised. The abeya and veil, along with projecting modesty and upholding religious beliefs, create a kind of visual anonymity. Even after a month in Yemen I have only been inside a few homes and I still don’t really know how most women dress or look under the abeya. From what I’ve heard when women are at home all bets are off and they wear whatever they like.
The streets of Old Sana’a respond to my curiosity with lace, sequence and taffeta. Shop after shop overflows with human-sized Barbie-doll clothes. I asked my teacher if women actually wear these clothes at home and she doesn’t give me a clear answer. She says these are “specialty clothes” and leaves it at that. Personally, I think the princess dresses and scantily-clad mannequins you see in the street shops have an unintended effect. Besides simply being clothes for sale, they also project an exaggerated and sexualized version of femininity that is otherwise absent in the streets. When you see lingerie, tight jeans, go-go boots and mini-dresses it’s like a glimpse into the secret lives of women, or the fantasy worlds of men. Even Barbies for sale in the toy shops wear hijabs when they’re on display, but the rules change at home.
Men wear phallic daggers in their belts with large, ornate handles protruding up from their bellies. The daggers couldn’t slice a melon but they are a symbol of pride and masculinity. Many wear sport coats with soft, silky dress-length shirts underneath. Most don’t appear to have a shy bone in their bodies. They use every tool at their disposal to get a point across: yelling, gesticulating, banging on tables and frequently calling on God as a witness. Young men are often suave and well-dressed, with their hair slicked back, their skirts hiked up and their bare legs thrown absentmindedly over motorcycles. That’s one thing that I’ll never understand, they are young and juicy, why do they get to be on full display?
Children work hard and play hard and seem to enjoy everything they do. Boys wrestling in the street stop suddenly when I walk by to try and sell me perfume or cooking oil. They seem to be in constant training to become adults. Stone plazas are covered with tarps on which people carefully arrange their goods for sale, diligently beating off the dust before it can settle with squares of cloth tied to sticks. Sometimes the police show up and randomly seize someone’s goods. In the midst of a raid everyone instantly scatters to the wind, dragging their tarps or wheeling their carts wildly away.
Gender and the Veil
My second day in Yemen, I ask Shane to come with me to the market and help me pick out an abeya and hijab. Though plain and identical in every other regard, each abeya has an embroidered flower or pattern on the cuff of the sleeve and at the corner of the headscarf. I spend 20 minutes tearing through rack after rack for one that screams “take me!” I finally settle for one but have a hard time getting excited about it. I don’t wear it everyday, and I certainly don’t have to wear it, many foreign women choose not to. As a matter of fact, there are no laws in Yemen that pertain to gender segregation or dress of any kind. These are all social and religious norms that are widely accepted but not officially enforced.
When I wear the abeya and cover my head with a scarf I still stand out in a crowd because my face is bare but I don’t stop as many men in their tracks. I’m not the only woman without a veil, though I’d say a rough estimate of 85-90% of women over the age of 13-14 wear it in public. I wear it because sometimes greater anonymity means more freedom. I don’t want to get too deep into a discussion of the veil here, partially because it is so controversial and loaded and partially because millions of women could speak to it far better than I can. It’s impossible for me to grasp the cultural complexities of this very wide-spread tradition. Right now I’m reading Fatima Mernissi’s “Beyond the Veil,” if you’re interested drop me a line in a few weeks and I’ll tell you how it is. She and a lot of other Arab feminists think the dialogue about women in the Middle East in the west is far too narrow and too often centers on the veil and hijab. Check her out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fatema_Mernissi
The feminist groups that I’ve looked into, the Yemen Women’s Union and the Women’s National Committee, are struggling for more representation in the government. They use quotes from the Koran to point out that there’s nothing in Islam that forbids women to participate in politics. They are trying to get the government to uphold a UN convention that was ratified in Yemen in 1984 on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Article 4 recommends affirmative action for women “until actual gender equality is achieved.” Right now they are trying to get a measure passed that would raise the number of women required in parliament and all elected councils to 15%. Yemen’s track record on gender is more progressive than other countries in the Arabian Peninsula (which includes Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and Bahrain). It was the first of these countries to appoint a female judge to the Supreme Court and has more women participating in political parties. More and more women pursue higher education and have joined the workforce, but education in rural areas is still lagging drastically behind with 62 girls to 100 boys in primary school.
There is one blatant misconception that I do want to challenge though, it is that women wear these clothes or that society is organized this way because men have total power and force it upon them. That is not at all the impression I’ve gotten in Yemen. In the highly traditional cultures I’ve observed women are often central in maintaining and preserving culture through clothes, food and art and I don’t believe that they are forced into this role. In Sana’a, every time a new person gets on a mini-bus there is a shuffle that happens so that no woman has to sit by a man she doesn’t know. If a man hesitates to move, or the new seat arrangement doesn’t live up to her moral standards, it is always the woman who speaks up and demands that these lazy men either move or get off the bus.
Many women do seem to view the desegregation of social life as an affront on their honor, and others I’ve talked to feel quite differently. A nurse in the hospital told me she didn’t want to wear the veil, it interfered with her work, but she would have “problems” if she took it off. My teacher would put her veil back on every time there was a knock at the door, just in case it was a man. Restaurants have special “family sections” with curtains or wall partitions so that women can remove the veil and eat at ease. Once, I motioned to an middle-aged woman to move and sit beside me on a mini-bus and she instantly threw her arms around me and kissed my face and shoulders, “We women need to stay together!” she said exuberantly, “It is forbidden to mix with men!”
Yemen is an intensely religious place. Devotion to God permeates every aspect of life, from bargaining to sitting in an internet cafe. In the little time I’ve spend here I’ve observed people to be informed by a moral compass that I can’t help but respect and admire. Once, while bargaining over the price of a movie, my partner said to the shop owner “Swear to God that’s an honest price.” The guy looked at him, took a deep breath and lowered the price. There’s a problem with men watching porn in internet cafes and a sign on the wall reads, “Before you know that we are watching you, know that God is watching you.” Women covering is motivated by a deep urge to love and respect God, which makes sense to a lot of people in this religious and moral framework. Praying 5 times a day is a manifestation of that urge. The separation of the sexes outside of the family is widely understood as an attempt to make the world safer and more amicable for everyone.
And the streets do feel safe. I admit it, in some ways it’s less of a hassle being a woman here than anywhere I’ve been. There’s very little crime and relatively few homeless. Men are respectful and I don’t feel worried about walking around at night. Sometimes Yemeni culture feels like a peaceful separation of the sexes, other times it feels isolating to be in a world where men are kind but distant and often even avoid eye contact with me. Women I meet in the street are sweet and welcoming, sometimes when I am talking with a woman if there are no men immediately around she will suddenly throw back her veil and go on talking as if nothing has happened. Once, a woman approached me in the street and said she knew me. On top of the language barrier she was wearing a veil so I was a little confused about who she was. I talked with her for ten minutes before I realized that she wasn’t my teacher but someone I met at a bathhouse. The next day my teacher exploded with laughter and said, “In Yemen you must learn to recognize the eyes first.”
Sometimes, just when I start to feel that I have a handle on this new reality, someone will say something or do something that totally snaps me back into a state of wonder and incomprehension. I’ll end with a story like that. I was chewing with 6 guys that my partner knew when he lived here in 2005. They were explaining to me how arranged marriage is changing and they don’t think the custom will survive much longer in Yemen. As of now the vast majority of marriage partners are carefully selected by the parents and, though it is fairly common to marry someone you played with as a child, you often only meet as adults on the night of your wedding. These men were explaining to me that now parents are giving the young woman a chance to meet an interested contender for a few minutes and if she doesn’t like him she tells her parents and they will usually call it off. Most of the guys in the room are unmarried and are critical and uncomfortable with the custom as it stands, partly because marriage is arranged and partly due to the large dowry that they are required to pay, which most of them can’t afford.
The guy next to me, Sammy, started to tell me a story. At first it didn’t seem like much of a story, one day he received a random text message and returned the call a few weeks later. It was a woman and, jokingly, she scolds him for not returning her phone call promptly (even though it was a wrong number). At the end of the call he tells her she has a nice voice and she calls him again a few days later. They strike-up a kind of sweet, innocent phoneship until one day they realize by accident that they live in the same neighborhood. Luckily, they still haven’t exchanged names and both agree that it is necessary to stop talking, erase each others phone numbers and pretend like the whole thing never happened. It is at this point that I realize the intensity of this story for Sammy, “Before we hung up we both thanked each other for our kindness. I’ll never know who she is, she could live next door to me and I’ll never know.”
Whoa. A friend of mine in New York asked me to describe my first impressions of Yemen over email and I said that the people are joyful and most parts of life are segregated along gender lines. She said that she couldn’t imagine a world where those two things could exist side-by-side. I can’t even begin to analyze gender oppression in Yemen, let alone compare it to the U.S. I will say that I believe both are systems of inequality that give men an advantage over women, albeit in different ways. I could fill volumes about Yemen and probably never get across the singularity of this culture. In a short period of time it has already stretched my mind in ways that it’s never been stretched before and shown me ways that humans organize themselves and their societies that I never could have dreamed up. And it’s only just begun. The only thing better than waking up from a wild, mind-blowing dream is realizing it’s real life.