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This picture is taken from a Yemeni book on nagsh by Monhamed Hanami. The bride's hand is being painted with a combination of nagsh and henna..
Dancing in Yemen
Part 2 - EL AROUS*
by Jalilah

*"Arous" means the bride but in Yemen it is also the wedding

I had been to many Middle Eastern weddings before, but none were as visually impressive as the ones I attended in Sanaa, Yemen.

This little girl insisted on covering her face for the photograph.She is proud of the Henna on her hands.

Yemeni women's wedding celebrations take place in the "mafraj," a spacious room with large rectangular windows on all sides. Small, jewel-like stained glass windows called "qamariyas" adorn the walls near the ceiling. During the celebration, the room is filled to overflowing with women sitting on cushions atop floor mattresses that border the room. Those who don't find a place to sit perch on the windowsills. The smoke of "bochor", or incense, fills the air. More smoke flows from the "madahs," water pipes measuring over a meter high that made me think of the hookah-smoking caterpillar in "Alice in Wonderland." Standing on a brass tripod, the "madahs" have several hoses attached, enabling a number of women to smoke at the same time. Water-pipe smoking is usually accompanied by "qat," branches of this plant, which has a mildly narcotic effect, are passed around. The leaves are chewed and then stored in a ball on the side of the mouth. Beverages, typically "gishar" (a drink made from coffee), soft drinks, and tea are served throughout the celebration.

As in other Arab countries, the bride sits on a throne-like chair for everyone to admire. Although she doesn't usually leave her place for the duration of the wedding, she is allowed to converse with the guests. All of the attending women are decked out in their finest array. In their long, glittering, multicolored gowns with high waistlines and puffy sleeves, and their crown-like headdresses, they far more resemble medieval European princesses than "I Dream of Jeannie" style harem girls. The women drape basil leaves and flowers over their ears and wear all the gold jewelry they own.

The finely fashioned silver jewelry, for which Yemen was once famous, is unfortunately now considered "baladi," or old-fashioned. Wearing gold is now preferred as a way to display one's wealth.

Traditional Yemeni wedding celebrations last four or five days. The bride wears a different color dress each day, choosing certain colors for the groom's family and others for her own. On Henna Day, which happens before the wedding celebrations, she traditionally wears a green dress. For the biggest celebration on the last day, the bride is usually dressed in a white European-style gown. Because of the enormous cost of a wedding celebrated over many days, most Yemenis now limit themselves to one large celebration day, with a small henna party the day before.

On Henna Day, female family members and close friends accompany the bride to the "hammam," or Turkish bath, where she is scrubbed from head to toe and her body hair is removed with a paste made from lemon and sugar. Afterward, the group returns to the bride's house or wherever the Henna Party is being celebrated. A professional, called "Al Mouzayna" are hired to do henna and "nagsh," for all the ladies, as well as the bride's makeup.Nagsh, which is used for festive occasions, is a plant that Yemeni women make into a blackish paste and use to paint intricate designs on their hands, arms, feet, and legs, and sometimes even on their breasts, stomach, and buttocks. (I was told that Yemeni men find this particularly arousing!) Although henna is used to color the palms of the hands and also sometimes to fill in the designs, the designs themselves are usually done with nagsh.

Westerners often comment on the fact that Yemeni women put so much effort into dressing up for other females. Because the men, who celebrate separately at the groom's home, are strictly banned from the women's celebration, they only see their beautifully adorned mothers, wives, daughters or sisters when they return home. However, Yemeni women find it perfectly normal to dress up for each other and enjoy doing so.

This could, of course, have something to do with the fact that the mothers, not the fathers, choose wives for their sons. Young, unmarried women, hoping to catch the attention of prospective mothers-in-law, want to look their very best!

When I started going to weddings in Yemen, I realized the vital roll that dancing plays in the lives of the women there. There are no professional dancers at a Yemeni wedding, only a small group of exclusively female musicians: usually a singer, an "oud" (lute) player, and a percussionist.

The women attending the wedding are themselves the dancers-they are both the entertainers and the entertained. From the beginning of the wedding to the very end, the women dance without interruption in the center of the room, which is kept clear for that sole purpose.

Men in the village dancing the "bara" or dagger dance at a wedding in the village of Shibam. Yes, those are real Kalashnakovs! They are part of the costume!

It is interesting to note that Yemeni women do not use the literal word for dance, "raks," but instead the word, "laeb," meaning "play." The word raks is used only when referring to dance forms originating outside Yemen, for example: "Raks Masri"(Egyptian dance), "Raks Khaligy" (dance from the Arabian Gulf), or "Raks Gharbi" (Western dance). The men use two different words for dance: "laeb" for recreational, just-for-fun dances, and "bara" for a type of dagger dance that expresses tribal solidarity.

The women dance solo, in pairs, or in small groups, depending on the music and the type of dance associated with it. If a Lahiji song is played, two women dance together; if old Sanaani music is played, two, three, or even more women dance together. As soon as a song is finished, the dancer or dancers leave the floor to allow others an opportunity to dance. When no one wants to dance, the women encourage each other to get up, and someone always does. "Raks Sharqi" and "Raks Masri" are always danced solo. There are usually one or two women who are known for dancing these styles well. Sometimes they dance with their own cassettes and sometimes the musicians attempt to play an Egyptian song for them. The names indicate that these dances are not indigenous to Yemen, but have been "imported." They may have become known through the Egyptian films shown on television, many of which feature dancers. Alternatively, these dance forms could have already been introduced to Yemen in ancient times.

The oldest known Yemeni civilization is the Kingdom of Saba or "Sheba." According to both Biblical and Koranic traditions, this was the home of Bilqis, Queen of Sheba. During her reign, Yemen held the monopoly on frankincense and myrrh, which were very much in demand in Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Jerusalem, and Rome. One can only assume that commercial trade with these diverse civilizations had significant impact upon traditional Yemeni culture, but how the music and dance of 3,000 years ago were affected can only be guessed at.

The influence of foreign cultures on present day Yemen is, however, indisputable. Yemen was completely cut off from the rest of the world until 1963, when cars, electricity, and television were introduced. Western pop culture has now crept into even the most traditional outposts of Yemeni society. At every wedding I attended in Sanaa, two young women would inevitably dance together to a pop song played on cassette. When I was there, the song "La Macarena" was the rage. I would never have guessed that the same young Yemeni women that are covered in black from head to toe when out in public could dance "La Macarena" better than many a girl in the West!

In final event of the wedding, the father of the bride, the father of the groom, and Al Mouzayna (the woman who did the makeup, nagsh, and henna) accompany the bride to her new husband's home. Family members read verses of the Koran. The groom pays the nagsh lady and sends her away, and the bride's father also leaves. Finally, the bride is left alone with the groom and the marriage is consummated. Traditionally, this is the first time that the groom lays eyes on the bride!

My days of attending Yemeni weddings ended far too soon. Although Yemen is a beautiful and fascinating country, my husband and I were finally forced to admit that there was not much potential in tourism, given the current political conditions there. We left our home in Sanaa with sadness in our hearts and tears in our eyes. Our time in Yemen will always remain one of our most precious memories. I now realize what a great treasure my Yemeni girlfriends gave me by welcoming me into their lives so warm-heartedly. I will remain eternally grateful to them.

More photos of the beautiful Yemeni countryside.

I have included this picture just to give you an idea of the countryside.Parts of Yemen are very green due to the Monsoon rains. This is the mosque of Queen Arwa in the town of Jibla.Queen Arwa ruled Yemen for almost 50 years in the 11 hundreds.The Yemenis are very proud of her and often name their daughters after her.Aside from Arwa another common name is Bilqis, who was the Queen of the Ancient Yemeni Kingdom of Saba or Sheba.

Another Yemeni girl in the countryside. The grown up women wear something similar to what she is wearing under their "Sitarahs" or "Sharshafs" See Part 1 of this article for more on veiling

Young girls getting water from a well in the Yemeni countryside

An outdoor market in the city of Taizz. In Taizz the women do not always cover their faces.Some times they decorate their faces Yellow with the spice Tumeric which also protects them from the sun.

Jalilah's Recommended Reading List on Yemen
If my article has made you more curious about Yemen and you would like to read more, I recommend the following books:

1. Motoring with Mohammed by Erik Hanson, Vintage books
A true story about the author who was shipwrecked off the coast of Yemen,and who then returned several times to the country in search of his lost travel journals.It is both fascinating and hilarious.

List Price: $13.00
Our Price: $10.40
You Save: $2.60 (20%)
Order this book Today!
2. Yemen, Travels in Dictionary land by Tim Mackintosh Smith, published by John Murray, University Press,Cambridge
Described in Eric Hansons book as an eccentric young Englishman, Tim Mackintosh Smith lived 13 years in Yemen among the Yemenis.The book is full of interesting history and information about Yemen written in a very witty way.

This title is currently out of print. However, you can order it used now.
Order This Book Today!

3. Arabian Moons, Passages in Time through Yemen by Pascal and Maria Marchaux, published by Concept Media
A beautiful coffee table book with the most
extraordinary pictures of Yemen.Maria Marcaux was able to photograph Yemeni women unveiled so one can see more clearly how they are dressed and made up. Those into the Tribal style would especially appreciate the special esthetic unique to Yemen. The Marchauxs also have other Yemen Photo books out in French. Other books are;

Availability: This title is currently out of print. However, you can order it used now
Order This Book Today!

4. 3000 Years of Art and Culture Of Arabia Felix by Penguin Verlag
A collection of articles and essays on
specific topics in Yemeni History and culture written by various authors.This book also has some good pictures.
unable to find exact matches

5. Yemen Invitations to a Voyage in Arabia Felix by Jacques Hebert, Azal Publishing.
Also has good picture but is only about Northern Yemen.
unable to find exact matches

There is also a web site on Yemen at
There are some articles on Yemeni Music the culture section of this site.

Ready for more?
Living in Yemen, Part I - Tafruta by Jalilah
(Lorraine Zamora Chamas)
A simple question was all they needed to get them into motion!

Raqia Hassan's Dance Festival (Ahlan Wa Sahlan 2000) By Latifa
Then my dance idol, Suhair Zaki, walked in, creating eddies of excitement that ran through the crowd.

Fire and Ice by Yasmela/ Shelley
What makes some of our dance good, what makes some of it bad is puzzling to me...

I Walk In Pain And Beauty by Lucy Lipschitz
I also walk with the Hope that other dancers will read this and know that they don't balance
on this double-edged sword alone.

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