Part I –
A woman’s handbook to Yemen
Photo: ©2005 Katleen Maes
Yemen is the country of the Queen of Sheba,
impressive desert cities and frankincense. In its sleepy state,
Beyond passing views of the sea and the hills,
my first day in
The attraction of
Photo: ©2005 Katleen Maes
We soaked in the sea for an hour or two waiting for them to get their fill but then we had to give up and get out; to their great pleasure, of course. Once they disappeared, we saw the most wonderful sunset, with just the three of us: sun, sea and mountains. Absolutely breathtaking.
Speaking Arabic in
It is also unlike any other language I know. My
comprehension is slower than with other languages I know. Perhaps there
is an infidel-blocker antispam system built into the language. That
Yemeni’s speak a really funny variety didn’t help either. But thanks to
Egyptian soap series, nearly everyone can understand my funny variety.
I found it very weird to be in a country full of ‘invisible’ women. On the street, you see them walking past like black ghosts and I must admit I didn’t really enjoy it. I wore baggy tops with long sleeves, trousers and a scarf or two to cover up some curves, but still it was no fun. People here even dress some little girls of seven up in these awful black outfits.
And the guys? Well, they wear shorts, chew qat
(a narcotic leaf) and do nothing while the women do most of the work in the
house and on the land. Although people are very friendly, modest and do not
make the remarks or hissing noises you hear in some other Arab countries, every
woman has to fend for herself. During my stay in
I didn’t try qat and I don’t think I ever will either. It is highly addictive, I have heard, and I read once that it is really bitter and bad for your intestines or organs, and it can cause cancer. Here, it is a national pastime. Most men chew it and so do many women at home. I have even seen young children, five- or six-year-olds, chewing the stuff.
Photo: ©2005 Katleen Maes
Next, I headed to Sana’a. There is much more police around once you cross the border from the south to the north – former adversaries until the country was officially unified in 1990. You get stopped every time you go into a new district or province and have to rattle the rhyme, Belgian, HI, mines…
The landscape is pleasant, with hills and hill villages, but nothing as spectacular as I had imagined. (I didn’t know yet that the other mountain roads more than make up for this one). The backdrop is beautiful, but in an untempting sort of way – it is a little cold and desolate. It is also dirty, dirty, dirty. There are fields of plastic bags, piles of tins and cans, as well as boxes and paper everywhere. Plastic bags seem to be the single biggest cash crop, there are plastic fields literally everywhere, especially where they sell qat, which is everywhere...
You see plastic bags floating around with a leaf or two still inside. Along the road, there are quite a few dead dogs, goats and donkeys, all hit and left there. Some people do some horrible things to donkeys. To stop them from getting far, they tie their front legs together and then let them jump or hobble around. I have seldom seen a sadder sight – especially since my number one choice of pet if I had the space is a donkey – than a little donkey, soaked by the rain, standing in the middle of the road, trapped by cars that didn’t stop, in a land full of red plastic bags.
Photo: ©2005 Katleen Maes
As we don’t have an office in Sana’a, my sojourn in the city was something of a solitary experience – particularly the first night without the Ethiopian housekeeper who reputedly makes delicious food. She was nowhere to be found. Perhaps she was on holiday like the rest of the country. That night, the computer was my only friend there. Especially, since the orders of our very responsible director in the field were not to go out at least the first night, since a few people got stabbed a few days before. This caution was not all that necessary in the end. But back to the food issue…
Too bad, I had really been looking forward to some nice Ethiopian food, or any food at all really, because going for dinner on your own here is not the most common or straightforward thing. If you go into a restaurant, you, as a woman, have to take the separate stairs and then you get a curtain or something like that closed around you. It is all for my dignity and good reputation, I guess.
My Labour Day was spent labouring away. I managed to schedule three meetings but only managed to reach two. Considering that 1 May is a big public holiday in
For lunch, we went to eat Sana’a’s traditional
Photo: ©2005 Katleen Maes
The Ethiopian housekeeper’s sister emerged the second evening and explained the reason for her sibling’s absence. As if to make up for the missed night, she cooked enough food for a whole army.
Being a woman alone in
What I did miss was the radio that worked the first night but stopped dead the second. I accidentally unplugged it and couldn’t manage to replug its western plug into the Yemeni mains.
One evening, I’d had enough of all the meat and didn’t feel like being scrutinised by prying eyes in a restaurant, so I decided to make myself a tuna salad. Finding mayonnaise proved to be an adventure. I tried four different shops in the sha’abi (popular or working class) area where I was living before I was sold some mayo by a qat-dazed shopkeeper. I had been briefed that it was difficult for a woman, particularly a foreign one, to walk around alone in the neighbourhood, and next to impossible to go to a restaurant by herself.
In one office, I came across a desk calendar
from Walter Ritter for wari-diclowal pills and procomil spray (long-term spray
for men) and a sexual tonic. I also saw all kinds of pills for vaginal
diseases. I wonder if they actually sell these things here or whether they are
smuggled in to the country. I suppose they must do, since there is Arabic on
the cover. I would have thought that with all the sexual frustration around the
need for aphrodisiacs would be less.
Driven by fundamentalism
My first taxi ride alone in Sana’a was with a
fundi driver chewing qat. Luckily, the guy was the harmless and decent
variety (like a big part of deeply religious people). I guess his tape advising
how doing certain unpleasant things to certain people would save the world was
just decorum. Would it be the same as people listening to death metal or racist
songs the whole time? So, the thought crossed my mind of buying a bin Laden
tape... It would go nicely with the ornamental dagger I bought for Khaled. I
didn’t know where to find them, though. The bin Ladens, who are originally from
I’ve been told that people here don’t single
Osama out as the black sheep of the family, nor does the bin Laden family
itself. I don’t know if that is correct, but that would mean that all the
public displays of disowning the guy are a bit hypocritical, to say the least.
And what should we make about the relations between the Bush and the bin Laden
clans? Do George W and Osama drink tea or gin together? That would be a bit too
The luck of the draw
One afternoon, we went to the raffle and fair
At the raffle, a Yemeni colleague won neither
the plane ticket to
Some women at the fair were dressed a bit more
liberally than the ones you see on the streets. In Sana’a, there are some women
who wear coloured scarves and sometimes, just sometimes, they don’t wear the
standard-issue long black dress – which even foreign women living here tend to
wear. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of Russian women here, and they seem to
have a similar reputation to the one they have in
After the school fair, we went to the shopping centre to buy trousers and to wander around. The shops were not all that bad. Hanging around the mall is a favourite way to pass time. Is this a creeping American influence? Conquest by consumerism? I saw a KFC or a Pizza Hut and
After the shopping mall we went to colleague’s place to eat something and for me to play with her son. He’s a cute kid and his mum speaks French to him so we could both practice. She and her brother also speak a combination of French and Arabic. She is an ambassador’s daughter who was married off the day she turned 18 to some man from an important family here on the criteria of having pale skin, an important father and intelligence. Her eventual husband wanted to be first before anyone else could come and bid for her hand. After a decade of marriage, she finally managed to get a divorce and she is now a single mum raising a five-year-old child.
Luckily, she has managed to work and study at the same time. She’s still finishing off her studies in French but has worked as a kindergarten teacher and a few other things. She looks and behaves much older than her age. She told me that she finds it difficult to find friends, she knows hundreds of people, but doesn’t really have a best friend or close friends because she is ‘weird’, i.e. too liberal, divorced, working, holds modern views, while being religious.
She can’t remarry because then the husband, who doesn’t give a shit about their son, would get him. Her son will probably go to his father anyway when he is seven. Since she got divorced, all the men she thought were friends have turned creepy or ‘sexual’ on her. There are even random guys calling on the mobile every day just because they know that she’s not married. During our last evening, I even answered the phone a few times to unnerve the guy who literally kept ringing every three minutes. Without criticising the good religion Islam undoubtedly is, it shows you things are a long way from being right as well. Some of the injustices committed here and elsewhere make me angry. I don’t mind it if a woman chooses of her own accord to wear a veil or even seven burkas but here it is social pressure.
Besides, in some cases the niqab, by covering the face, defeats its purpose. Under a veil, all women can look beautiful, because not a lot of people have ugly eyes, and blemishes are completely covered. I was actually shocked a few times when a woman removed her face cover (by how ugly she is) especially compared to the piercing eyes. Most women also have the eye cover attached to their outfit, but few seem to wear it.
I have heard horror stories about young girls not allowed to go outside, 16 year-olds taken out of school, hardly ever allowed to leave the house, and only when accompanied by a family member. One girl writes letters all the time to my colleague just out of boredom. Imagine, a 16-year old locked up until the day she can marry her imam (not an old one but an imam, nevertheless). She and the other women in the family are not allowed to watch TV, and their menfolk are fighters or supporters for al-Huti, the sheikh causing trouble in the north. Some of them are in prison.
In any case, my colleague’s mum feels so sorry for the girls that she wants one of her sons to marry the girl instead, but that option does not seem to be working yet.
My colleague told me that guys often force
their girlfriends (even if it is not serious yet) to drop out of school, quit
jobs, cover face and eyes, and stay at home. Most working women are
unmarried or divorced. However, there is a growing demand amongst employers for
women who don’t cover their face. At social events, such as the tombola at the
Photo: ©2005 Katleen Maes
Quaint old town
Sana’a’s old town is quaint, one could say, but since it is UNESCO protected, I imagined something more extravagant. There is supposed to be a big mosque, al-masgid al-kabir, but I couldn’t even find it, the first time round. The second time, I stumbled across it. It was behind all the shops. It reminded me of Jesus in the temple: all the shops were lined along the wall of the mosque. I am not allowed in anyway. Some buildings were rightly impressive though – it is always great to imagine you could live in one of those. Bab al-Yaman is also an impressive gateway to the city. It cuts you off from the busy street outside and then drops you right into the hustle and bustle of the souq.
The souq itself was interesting in a weird way: an endless array of daggers and more daggers, and belts for daggers, and daggers and more daggers and belts. There are also fotas (the traditional cloth men wrap around their waist). Other than that, there is the marvellous underwear and frilly nightgowns. Poor women – oppressed during the day in black sacks and squeezed at night into those things their husbands buy for them. I ran into a couple of tourists in the market, but I definitely was a curiosity: a woman on her own, looking like she knows what she was doing, asking for prices in this funny Egyptian Arabic.
Dealing with Yemeni bureaucracy can be a real challenge. On one occasion, we were unable to get the figures we needed from one government office which referred us to the Ministry of Health. At the ministry, the person we needed to see was not there. My colleague wanted to leave, saying that, without permission from the boss, we wouldn’t get the statistics. That was all very plausible, but I didn’t feel like leaving empty-handed after coming all that way. So, I insisted we go to the statistics office and try anyway. I think he was a bit shocked, but we got the statistics we needed. I think everyone was a little taken aback by my firm behaviour, and they gave me all kinds of booklets and strategies on top.
En route between meetings, we whizzed by kids
who crossed the road with a reckless fatalism – looking left and then right
hasn’t made it here. It seems to be really a case of no one telling the kids
from a very young age onwards that they have to look left, then right and left
again, just to make sure. All of a sudden, there was an explosion of sirens, as
we were overtaken by a police car, a van with darkened windows and an army jeep
carrying a dozen soldiers. My colleague’s face turned a little paler and he
sighed. When I asked him what was going on, he explained that the convoy was of
prisoners who were going to be beheaded. Executions here don’t happen in public
All of a sudden, I was overwhelmed, once again,
by the sense that I was in a strange country. These beheadings are one of the
reasons why I don’t want to go to
To be continued.
©2005 Katleen Maes.
ă2005 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.