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A typical house from the outside in Sanna.
Yemani architecture is world famous.
The pictures are taken by my husband,
Adib Chamas

Living in Yemen
Part I - Tafruta

By Jalilah
(Lorraine Zamora Chamas)

10-4-01 New pictures added below!
From April 1996 to March 1999 I lived in Yemen. I was there with my husband who was working to promote the country as a tourist destination. It was wonderful. Many are surprised to hear this, imagining me locked up, veiled and bored out of my mind. I was anything but that; I loved living in Yemen.

Although Yemen is a very conservative Moslem country, Yemeni women are allowed to drive and vote. Many women are in the Yemeni work force as teachers, nurses, doctors and even as businesswomen and television announcers. At the time we were living there, 13 women were in the Yemeni Parliament.

The veiling of women is not law in Yemen as it is in Saudi Arabia. Many younger, educated women merely cover their heads, but not their faces, and some do not veil at all. Those who do, do so in deference to tradition, not to law. Foreign women are not expected to veil and I myself never did. Veiling provides women with a kind of anonymity, which, I was to learn, has certain advantages.

However, in the beginning, veiling posed a distinct problem for me. I kept getting separated from my friends when in the crowded "Suq" or marketplace because I was unable to tell the veiled women apart. They all looked alike to me!

The most common cover-ups are the black "Abaya", also worn by women in many other Arab countries, and the "Sharshaf", the traditional Yemeni women's outer garment, also black. The "Sharshaf" was brought to Yemen by the Ottoman Turks who occupied Yemen in the 16th century and again in the 19th century. Upper class Yemeni women first started wearing the "Sharshaf" because they considered it fashionable.

The original cover up is the colorful "Sitarah". It is still worn by the more traditional women in the old city of Sanaa or by those who need a quick cover up. The "Sitarah", with its bright red and blue patterns, resembles a tablecloth. Many foreigners, including us, actually used it for one. This, of course, evoked giggles and loud shrieks of laughter from my Yemeni friends the first time they came to visit my home.

Traditional Yemeni women get up early in the morning, bake their own bread, prepare breakfast, do housework, and then prepare lunch, the main meal in Yemen. Afterwards, they are usually free to get together with their women friends, often at gatherings called "Tafrutas".

A "Qamariya" a stain glass window which one finds in ALL the rooms in Yemeni homes. From the outside at night, it looks very magical to see all the colored windows lit up.

On the second day after my arrival I met my neighbor, Arwa, a traditional veiled Yemeni woman, who invited me to visit her the following afternoon. A friendship developed between us. Arwa could always understand my less than perfect Egyptian Arabic, even when the other women couldn't, and I could always understand her.

Yemeni Arabic is quite different from other Arabic dialects and the women additionally speak a dialect all their own. I later learned that this was to insure more privacy and to avoid being understood by the men!

Arwa introduced me to all her friends and I started accompanying her to the "Tafrutas".

The women sat around exchanging gossip, drinking tea steeped with cardamom and flavored with sugar and milk. They primarily gossip when they get together, taking about all of the neighbors' lives, the husbands, and the children. They also discuss, their and their families concerns and
problems. At my first afternoon gathering I discovered that the women knew everything about the men's lives, although the men know nothing of theirs! They knew all about my husband, what he looked like, where he went every day. One of the advantages of veiling is that the women can see every thing while remaining unseen!

Some of the woman chewed Qat, a plant with a mildly narcotic effect, which is very popular in Yemen. The leaves of the Qat plant are put in the side of the mouth until a ball is formed. Swallowing the juice of the leaves leads to a state of mild stimulation. In general, women chew much less Qat than men, often chewing only on Thursdays and Fridays, the days when weddings are celebrated. (Many men chew Qat everyday.)

It was not until my fourth afternoon gathering that I finally got my first impression of dance in Yemen. The women were talking about a wedding that would soon be taking place. I thought it would be an appropriate time to ask about what went on at the weddings and if there was any music or dancing. Due to the conservative nature of Yemeni society, I had not yet ventured upon this subject. Because my husband and I planned to live in Yemen for many years, and I in no way wanted to jeopardize our position there, I did not want word to get out that I was a professional dancer, nor did I want to say or do anything that would cause my morals to be questioned.

The response to my question as to whether there was any music or dance was an enthusiastic, "Oh, yes!" I explained that I'd been to Lebanese weddings and seen Lebanese dance and to Egyptian weddings and seen Egyptian dance. It was then quite natural to ask about dance at Yemeni weddings.

A simple question was all they needed to get them into motion!

Anissa, a young woman in her late teens jumped up and began demonstrating a few steps. Rugaya, Anissa's mother, who was hosting the gathering that day, put on a cassette. Hoda, another young woman who lived in the neighborhood, also got up and the two young women performed a dance that is danced in pairs. It was called "Laheji", named after the region of Lahj, where the dance originates. When I asked why a dance from Lahj was done in Sanaa, I was told that, because it was easy to do and pretty to watch, it had become very popular in Sanaa. The basic footwork is a type of "1-2-3" step, somewhat like the "cha cha" step in the States.

I inquired if there were a dance from Sanaa. The two younger women began to show me some other steps only to be interrupted by Khadija, Hoda's mother-in-law. Khadija began demonstrating a dance that at first looked deceivingly simple. Upon closer observation, however, I saw the steps were highly intricate, changing according to the rhythm.

I later learned that this "Sanaani" style of dance is usually done by older women, sometimes 2, 3 or more, all dancing in a line. Because it is more complicated, many of the younger women cannot dance the" Sanaani" style properly.

Knowing that the hostess, Rugaya, was from Hadhramawt Valley in the southern part of Yemen, I could not resist asking her about dance in Hadhramawt. Anissa started with the basic "1-2-3" step but then began to throw her hair from side to side in a way similar to "Khaligy" or Arabian Gulf style. This similarity in styles is not surprising when one considers the strong historical and cultural ties between the Hadhramawt valley and both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Many of the well-known "Saudi" or "Khaligy" singers are, in fact, of Yemeni origins. Abu Bakr Salim Belfaqeeh and Badwi Zubahr are from Hadhramawt and both Mohamed Abdu and Ahmed Fat'hi are from Hodeida, on the Red Sea coast. I later found out that Anissa and many other Yemeni women could also dance the Khaligy style superbly.

Another woman who lived in the area, Hanan, had been quietly observing what was going on. Finally, she got up to demonstrate the dance of her homeland, Marib, once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Saba or Sheba. Although there was no cassette of appropriate music, she did her best. The dance looked like no other I've seen before. Unfortunately, I never got to see Hanan dance again nor did I ever get to travel to Marib to see the dancing first hand.

Up to this point none of the dances had born any resemblance to Oriental dance. I now felt comfortable about asking if they were familiar with "Raks Sharki".

"Oh, you mean "Raks Masri" (Egyptian dance)," they replied. Again Anissa leapt up, put on a cassette of the Lebanese singer Ragib Alleme and danced a home-style version of Raks Sharki that was not bad at all. Actually more in the style of "Raks Baladi",

Anissa used only hip and torso movements and stayed primarily on the same spot.

Now that I'd had my first experience of dancing in Yemen, I was really looking forward to my first Yemeni wedding!……

Here you can see from far away a Yemani women wearing the black "Sharshaf".Which was brought to Yemen by the ottoman Turks.

Women sitting in the "Souk" or Market in the old city of Sanna. They are wearing the traditional Yemni cover up: the colorful "Sitarah"

Another women wearing the "Sitarah" outside the village of Kaukaban.

The children of Yemen never mind being photographed! The photo of this little girl was taken in the city of Jibla.The dress is the same style that the women often wear under their" Sharshafs" or "Sitarahs"

Part 2 El Arous

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