The Sana’ani Sitarah: a Traditional Story Struggling between Continuity and Extinction
Origin of the Story
Yemen as an ancient country with thousands of years rooted back in the history has special traditions and customs. Many of these customs are related to fashions and costumes used and worn by people living in different parts of the country. Sana’a city—the capital city of Yemen—as one of the oldest cities in the Middle East has its own peculiarity concerning its residents’ traditional costumes and garments. Among these renowned costumes is the Sana’ani Sitarah which is used by women residing in this city, its outskirts, and other adjacent villages. In Yemeni dialect, the word ‘Sana’ani’ is used as a noun or as an adjective which stands for somebody who comes from Sana’a city. The Sana’ani Sitarah is simply a loose mantle or robe and it represents a traditional way used by adult females in the city to cover their whole bodies and heads when going out from their houses to the public streets. It has a rectangular shape and it is made of ornamented colorful fabric. The Sana’ani Sitarah has a separated small rectangular rag known as the Mughmug. It does not touch the woman’s face but it is used instead for covering only the space of woman’s face and eyes. Another small black rag—known as the Lithmah—is optionally used for covering the woman’s face under the Mughmug.
According to the narrations of many Yemenis living in Sana’a, there is no specific time in recent history that documents the exact beginning for using and wearing the Sana’ani Sitarah. It was only until the 10th century when some stories documented the origin of using such costume in Sana’a city. These historical stories relate the beginning of using the Sana’ani Sitarah to the Yemeni first imam dubbed ‘Al-Hadi ila’l-Haqq Yahya bin al-Husayn bin al-Qasim al-Rassi’ (859 – 911) who belonged to the ancestor of the Rassid Dynasty. During his reign as a ruler of Sana’a city, he issued an order in 901 which obliged every woman to wear a Sitarah for covering her body while walking in the public streets and quarters of the city.
Other stories mention that the Sana’ani Sitarah—with its current shape and ornamented design—was first used after the outbreak of the Yemeni revolution in the early 1960s which erupted and toppled the thousand-year-old Rassid Dynasty in the country.
Description and Peculiarities
There are many types of robes and mantles used in different parts of Yemen for entirely covering the woman’s body including the head and the face. These mantles vary in shapes, decorations, patterns, colors, and designs. Some of them are woven only by hands and others are manufactured by modern textile machines. The modern Sana’ani Sitarah is manufactured now by machines. It has a very peculiar and distinguished design and shape. When it was appeared centuries ago, it was made of cotton and it had a rectangular shape with only a white plain background. Later on, thin colorful stripes were decorated its edge and center. The current Sana’ani Sitarah used by women in Sana’a now was first woven in a textile factory and bought in local markets of the city. Then, it was imported from India with its current shape and fabric.
The present-day Sana’ani Sitarah is made of mixture of cotton and polyester. It consists of three separated parts could not be worn at once. It is an optional issue for a woman to do. These main parts are the Sana'ani Sitarah, the Mughmug, and the Lithmah.
1- The Sana'ani Sitarah
It has a rectangular shape that measures about 210 cm in length by 175 cm in width. It has vivid colors comprising blue, red, yellow, white, black, and green. The colors are consistently mixed while filling geometric and botanical shapes and ornaments. Among these shapes are flowers, trees, leaves, squares, octagons, ovals, rectangles, triangles, circles, dots, and also stripes. In general, the colors of these shapes are distributed in eccentric rectangles starting with a big blue square in the center of the Sana’ani Sitarah. This main and large square is followed by other layers of thin interlaced rectangles with red, green, yellow, green, red, and then green colors respectively. A series of successive botanical trees, leaves, or flowers fills the interlaced layers of the colorful rectangles edged by white stripes. Two concentric shapes decorate the center of the blue big square of the Sana’ani Sitarah. The first geometric shape consists of a small yellow octagon whereas the second shape is a red hexadecagon filled with many floral and geometrical tiny and sophisticated shapes. White stripes separate each rectangles from the other which gives more distinction to the patterns comprising these adjacent rectangles and their multicolored contents.
2- The Mughmug
It is a rag that is used for covering the front space of the woman’s face and eyes—known as the Mughmug—is totally separated from the Sana’ani Sitarah and it can be sold severally. It has a rectangular shape that measures about 80 cm in length by 50 cm in width. It has a black background with random red and white ornamented oval patterns which resemble several magic big and widely open eyes. The Mughmug is translucent and it is not used for covering the lineaments. It can be freely raised and lowered at any time by the woman herself. While wearing this Mughmug, the woman can see everything easily through it while no one can see her face or even her expressions at all. It is intentionally made that way to make the vision clear and hidden just from only one side; the woman’s side.
3- The Lithmah
It is simply a black, opaque, and light rag worn just behind the Mughmug. It is tightly tied to the head and neck for covering the hair and the lower part of the woman’s face from the chin and up to the nose while leaving the eyes uncovered. It has varied sizes and qualities according to its local and foreign manufacturers.
Current Diverse Usage
Many Yemeni plastic and fine arts artists and also photographers usually use the Sana’ani Sitarah as a dominant theme in their artistic works, paintings, and photographs. They use it as a symbol that reflects the originality and authenticity of Sana’a city. This could be attributed to the peculiarity that Sana’a city has in its unique style of architecture especially in the location that the old city exists which is known as the Old City of Sana’a. The geometric decorations of buildings’ backed bricks and the intensive usage of red and white colors in the other architectures of the old city seem similar to the decorations and colors that the Sana’ani Sitarah possesses. This similarity sheds its apparent shadows on the artists’ imagination all over the country and this could be a strong reason for having such impression and influence on their artistic works. Therefore, it is remarkable to know that the originality and peculiarity of Sana’a City is increased in the whole Yemen and maybe outside the country due to the underlying relationship existing between the style of the city’s architecture and the Sana’ani Sitarah itself.
Not far from this description, a visitor to the Old City of Sana’a notices the Sana’ani Sitarah not only covering the bodies of women walking or wandering in the city’s narrow alleys but also in many other different places within the city itself. This is noticeable in the local renowned souk of the city known as ‘The Salt Souk’ where a visitor can spot many female sellers wearing the Sana’ani Sitarah with its Mughmug while offering and presenting their goods on the sidewalks. Others who sell different traditional goods and foods on their small shops scattered in the city use also the Sana’ani Sitarah as a way for internally decorating their shops and for attracting residents and foreign tourists to come and buy from them. Those sellers use the Sana’ani Sitarah as a unique way for adding more originality and more innovation to their shops. Moreover, many houses’ owners in Sana’a city—especially those who reside in the Old City of Sana’a—use the Sana’ani Sitarah in decorative purposes. They decorate their largest room in the house—known as the divan which is often used for relaxation and having the Qat or Khat sessions—using Yemeni original and traditional diverse stuff. Among these used stuff is the Sana’ani Sitarah with its intricate geometrics and colorful botanical shapes that attract viewers’ sights and motivate them to muse thoroughly and endlessly.
Do you think that the traditional Sana'ani Sitarah will be extincted in the coming years in Sana'a city?
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Modern Surrogates and the Obsession of Extinction
Nowadays, it is noticeable to say that a large percentage of the old generations of women in Sana’a city still use the Sana’ani Sitarah with its distinctive Mughmug. Conversely, there is only a small percentage among younger generations who have less interest in wearing such traditional costume. One of the most famous types of female mantles and robes used for covering while going out is the Balto which is majorly used by the young generations of women in Sana’a city and also in other Yemeni cities. The Balto is a one-piece plain dress worn once from its bottom with its long sleeves. It is a loose black mantle and it has no zippers or buttons to be fastened. It is used amid new generations of Yemeni women while going to their schools, universities, works, outings, and to other places and in other familial occasions. It represents a competitive and modern surrogate for the Sana’ani Sitarah which is majorly used in only short walks and roams within the city.
Wearing the Sana’ani Sitarah is only noticed now among old generations of women and those females who live in the Old City of Sana’a. This fact forms a threat for the continuity of such traditional and historical costume in the city. This issue was similarly noticed in the recent past when wearing the Ottoman Sharshaf—a two-piece tailored black mantle used also for covering the whole body of a Yemeni woman—was decayed over time and nearly disappeared now. This outdated Ottoman covering garment made room for the new Balto in the Yemeni society which has modern and varied designs and styles. Shifting more and more towards modernity in the Yemeni society and in the Yemeni cities in general including the Capital City of Sana’a has also its palpable impact on the changing of fashions trends over time. New media tools such as the Internet and the television also have their effective role on changing people’s mentalities and views.
It can be said that the Yemeni females—especially the young generations—see the Sana’ani Sitarah and its traditional Mughmug as a very traditional, conservative, and obsolete trend of fashion that fits only for aged or uneducated women in the city. This could largely contribute in the process of decaying the traditional Sana’ani Sitarah as a garment used by Sana’ani women in the recent future which could lead to its total extinction. It is also a fact to say that maybe a visitor to Sana’a City in the coming decades will not be able at all to spot more women using or wearing the original Sana’ani Sitarah with its magic rag; the colorful Mughmug. Frequent and mandatory waves of fashion trends could contribute in such thing and this could have its effect on concealing the Yemeni women’s distinctive facial features and maybe forever.