An American Tourist in Yemen
Yemen is showing up frequently in the news these days. Have you ever wondered what it is like? To many, Yemen is a land of terrorists. To me, it is a country filled with mystery, living history, and people who humbled me by their graciousness. In the late 1990s, I spent half a year teaching English in Sana'a. I planned to return again but life took me in a different direction. Recently I was asked to talk about my time in Yemen. This is how I described it.
Where is Yemen?
Yemen is on the southwestern tip the Arabian Peninsula, just below Saudi Arabia.
Islam & Women's Dress
What is the main religion in most of the Middle East? Yes, it is Islam. Islam dictates much of the way of life in Yemen and most of the other countries in the Middle East. Islam has quite a bit to say about what women can and cannot do. Girls have to stay separate from boys and should not interact with them unless they are related to each other. When I was in Yemen and walking along on the sidewalk, I wasn't allowed to make eye contact with a male. Girls are supposed to cover themselves: their hair, elbows, hips, and legs. In some countries, the women just wear pants to cover their legs, larger shirts to cover their arms and hips, and then a scarf to cover their hair. In countries like Yemen and Saudi Arabia, women cover as much as they can, usually just showing their eyes and sometimes their hands.
In America I know some families who believe that women should only wear skirts and should never wear pants, so it might seem strange that women in the Middle East must wear pants. What's even more unusual is that it's the men who wear the dresses. Most men actually wear the same type of clothing you would wear: khaki pants and a button down dress shirt. Another frequent outfit you'll find for a man in Yemen is either a wrap-around skirt with a dress shirt or a dress that kind of looks like a cotton nightgown from the late 1800's. He'll then wear a coat jacket over that. He'll wrap a scarf around his head or place it on his shoulders. Around his waist he'll carry his "pocket knife" called a jambiya. When he gets hot, he'll pull his skirt over the blade of the jambiya. Rhinoceros tusk was the traditional material used to make the handle of the knife, and you can still find jambiyas with rhinoceros tusk handles today. Something else that is kind of different about men in Yemen is that they hold hands. When two men friends are walking down the street talking with each other, they'll hold hands. It's not a sign that they're romantic with each other. It's just something that's part of their culture.
Most of the men in Yemen chew a plant called khat/gat. Everywhere you go, you'll find men with a bulge in one side of his cheek, as he's sucking away on the gat leaves. Every afternoon after the children get out of school, all the shops close down and friends get together to chat. The way houses are set up is that they have a long sitting room called a mafraj. Along the edge of the walls will be what is kind of like sofa cushions and pillows minus the sofa. Everyone sits on the floor on top of the pillows. They also always have a long Persian rug in the middle of the room. The men get together in someone's mafraj. They chew gat. Gat is kind of like chewing tobacco but it makes them hallucinate a little bit as well. They think they become extremely smart when they chew it and as soon as they stop chewing it, they forget all the amazing things they figured out while chewing the gat.
This is a mafraj, or sitting room.
The men might also get together to smoke. They don’t smoke cigarettes during this social afternoon time. They smoke using water pipes or hookahs. They put flavored tobacco which looks like charcoal on the top and put boiling hot water down here. The tobacco smoke flows through the water vapor and supposedly filters the smoke.
Women's Tea Time
Women might get together and chat. They love to catch up on the latest gossip. They might smoke the water pipes. They also might have a tea time. They like to drink hot tea that's been sweetened by sweetened condensed milk and flavored with cardamom or mint. They serve hot tea or coffee and then a sweet dessert and a savory appetizer.
Children's Play Time
Children love to play with toys and games just like American children. They usually just play with their siblings, cousins, and other relatives. When girls get a little older, they will get together and chat and dance. They'll turn on MTV Lebanon, which is a special version of MTV for the Middle East, and they're try to learn the latest dance moves. Boys like to get together and play sports. Soccer is especially popular there. Sometimes they also get together and dance with each other.
Something that is a little different from America is that a girl as young as the age of 9 can be married, though age 15 or 16 is the normal age for a girl to get married there. They have arranged marriages over there. That means the parents pick out the bride for the groom. Frequently a bride and groom will meet for the first time on the last night of their wedding ceremony. The groom's mother spent the last few years checking out the young girls during her afternoon social times. When her son is about 16-18 years old, she'll decide which girl she would like for her son. She'll ask her husband, and he'll agree or disagree depending on his views on the men in that family. If they agree, the mother of the groom will meet with the women in the bride's family. They'll exchange gifts/dowries, usually gold jewelry.
Weddings are ceremonies that normally take place over a few weeks. The women have parties together. The men have parties together. Then on the last night, the groom drives over with his father, brothers, male cousins, and other male relatives. The carry decorative sabers. All the women at the women's party cover up as the men march in and whisk away the bride from the girls' party. They drive away to their new home at the groom's house, honking continuously as they drive. For the ceremony, the girl gets decorated with something called henna. It's almost like a temporary tattoo. They place a stencil type thing over her hands and arms and then dab red powder over it and it let it dry. It usually lasts a few weeks. A bride who gets married doesn't have to cook or clean until her henna wears off.
Yemeni Homes & Multiple Wives
What will your new house look like? There will probably be multiple floors. You'll have the grandparents live on the first level, the father living on the next level, and each of his sons with their wives and children living on the next levels. You might also have your husband's other wives living in the home with you as well. In Islam, a man is allowed to have 4 wives. Many of the very wealthy men do have 4 wives. Many of the less wealthy men have 2 wives. Yemen, just like many of the other Middle Eastern countries, is tribal. If you're a male, you might live in the city, but you know what small village your father or grandfather came from. Your parents will arrange one marriage for you with a girl from the village where they originally came from. You won't see that wife very frequently but you'll occasionally mail her some money. You parents will then arrange for you to have a wife in the city where you live. You'll see that wife more often. Sometimes those 2 wives don't even know about each other until the husband dies and you have to divide up his inheritance. It's kind of like if you moved to New York City when you grew up. Your parents selected a girl living in the small town you grew up in for you to marry because the small town is your tribal village. They also selected a wife for you in New York City since that's where you live now.
Buildings & the Bible
Let's get back to the buildings. The architecture reminded me time and time again of Bible stories. According to Yemen history books, Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, was founded by Shem, the oldest son of Noah. The old city is surrounded by a wall just like what was common back in those days, just like the walls of Jericho that fell.
Inside the old city walls are lots and lots of homes that also look like tall gingerbread houses. They're made of mud and clay. That of course reminded me of the Israelites when they were slaves in Egypt and had to make the mud and clay bricks. The homes are reddish brown except for the beautiful stained glass alabaster windows. You'll also notice rectangular wooden boxes on the sides of the homes. These are widows that allow for women to look out but prevent people from being able to see them.
An up close view of a stained-glass window.
The really neat thing about traveling around in the Middle East is that you not only see buildings that remind you of Bible stories, but you actually get to see places that are mentioned in the Bible. When I was in Yemen, I visited Ma'rib, the capital city of the Sabeans. They were the ones who stole Job's cattle and killed his servants.
I also visited the palace/temple at Ma'rib, from which the Queen of Sheba was supposed to come. The original location of the Queen of Sheba's kingdom is just one of many historical disagreements that Yemen has with Ethiopia.
Earlier we discussed what men usually wear. Now let’s talk about what women normally wear. Girls wear the same type of clothing that you wear…and then they cover it with a balta. Schoolgirls usually wear light blue baltas and white scarves, or hijabs, over their heads. When they become teenagers, they switch to black baltas and hijabs. It’s up to their dads to decide when or if they should begin covering their face with a veil, which is called a niqab or lithima. One thing that people often wonder is how you can tell women apart. In general this outfit is supposed to make people not notice the woman at all, but let’s say you’re going to the sauk, which is the market, and you’re going to meet your friend there. People insist you can tell women apart by the way they walk. I was actually amazed at how easily I could tell my female students apart simply by their eyes' shapes and how far apart they were. Another question people have is how in the world you eat this way. When you’re home, you take it off and wear your normal clothing. Many of the girls and women are wearing jeans and t-shirts under their baltas. When you’re in public, there are some restaurants that have special rooms petitioned off so that women can eat in that room without being seen by men, so they can remove their niqab/lithima. Some women also eat or drink by simply holding the food or drink item up under their niqab/lithima.
Food & Eating
Let’s talk a little bit more about eating. The way that people eat over there is pretty different from the way we eat in America. They don’t use utensils. The only place you’ll find forks is at the few hotels and restaurants that cater to foreign tourists. The way they eat is by scooping up items using bread. They use a kind of flat bread. Another thing is that you don’t usually have your own plate. Everyone eats from a communal dish. A typical meal might be a big round platter of lettuce and tomatoes, a big round platter of rice and a big bowl of saltah, which is kind of like beef stew (but made with lamb). You then grab up the saltah with the bread and grab up the rice as well. Depending on the dish, it might be okay to use a spoon, but that’s it. When you’re eating at a house, you’ll frequently eat on the floor, with newspapers spread out to catch the mess or you’ll sit around a circular table that is low to the ground, so you’re kneeling during the meal. Restaurants usually have normal tables and chairs. Men will eat first and then the women will eat after them. One other thing to note is that you should only use your right hand when eating. Supposedly you’re supposed to wipe yourself after going to the bathroom with your left hand, so you only eat with your right hand.
Speaking of bathrooms, those are different too. In Yemen (and actually and in many other countries around the world), they don't have toilets. Their bathroom is a room made of tile with a shower head that you use for showers or for spraying down the bathroom, a sink, and a hole in the ground. You squat over the hole to go to the bathroom. They think the idea of multiple people sitting on the same toilet seat is disgusting.
Why did I go to Yemen?
Why did I go to Yemen? Legally I went to Yemen to teach English. I also went there to speak about Christianity to the people I met. Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and many other Muslim countries welcome English teachers but they forbid Christian missionaries from coming to their countries. In Yemen I was allowed to have my own Bible but I was not supposed to share Bibles with Yemeni people nor was I supposed to talk about Christianity with them. Many of the people I met in Yemen didn’t know that there was any other language than Arabic. They thought the entire world spoke Arabic. They also didn’t know there was any other religion other than Islam.
Islam & Prayers
In Islam Muslims just try to do the right things and hope that they’ll have done enough for their god, who they call Allah. They’re supposed to pray 5 times a day. Throughout the city are mosques, which are their places of worship. Each mosque has a high tower. 5 times a day at the same time a caller will call out the prayer that you’re supposed to pray at that time. It’s just a prayer that you memorize and recite. They have little carpets that they spread out on the ground. They face their holy city, Mecca, when they pray. You face Mecca, you bow and sit up and bow again and recite whatever prayer you’re supposed to pray. The first prayer is usually around 4:30AM. Then there’s around 6AM, 12PM, 3PM, 5:30PM, & 7 PM. The time changes depending on when the sun rises and sets. My students assured me that if you miss a prayer, or any of the other prayers, it’s okay to do them all together at the end of the day at the last prayer.
Islam's 5 Pillars
Praying is one of the 5 pillars of Islam. "Pillars" are the works a Muslim is supposed to do to get saved. The first pillar is a confession of faith that Allah is god. They call that Shahada. The prayers are called Salat. They are supposed to give alms (money) to the poor, which is called Zakat. They are supposed to fast, which is called Sawm. Which holiday do you think is the most important holiday to Christians? Probably Christmas or Easter, right? For Muslims, it’s Ramadan, which is a month of fasting. They fast all day and then have a huge feast as soon as the sun goes down. They believe that on the last day of Ramadan their god, Allah, decides what he’s going to do for the upcoming year. They fast to try to please him. They also try to become more religious that month too. Finally, they are supposed to make a Hajj or a pilgrimage to Mecca. They’re supposed to travel to Mecca at least once in their life.
Muslims and Jesus
Nowhere in the Koran/Qua'ran, the holy book of Islam, does it speak of Allah loving his people or having a relationship with people. Muslims believe in Jesus, but they they think he was just a great prophet and a wise man, not Christ the Son of God. Most people in Yemen hear about the Christ of the Bible through radio broadcasts. Christian missionaries can follow up with people who respond to the radio broadcasts. There aren't enough missionaries to meet with all the Yemeni people who make inquiries, though. It is definitely a difficult harvest field. Even after meeting secretly with someone for years, a person still might not become a Christian because there is so much to lose. It's against the law to become a Christian. If you do become a Christian, your family can legally kill you. They can put you in jail where you could be beaten every day until your renounce your faith or you die. You could be kidnapped by your family members and whisked away in the middle of the night to a tiny village far away from anyone you know and they would burn your Bible so you couldn't get another one. You could be kicked out of your house to live on the streets. You parents, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, friends, everyone who knows you would never speak to you again. Those things aren't simply hypothetical. They really do occur. The cost of a Yemeni person becoming a Christian is huge, but it is definitely worth it! Yemen needs our prayers. Yemen needs people to go there and share God's word with those who need to know about Jesus Christ.
Pray that God will open doors and spread His word through this land.
See Yemen on YouTube
Would you like to see more?
This is a beautiful book full of photographs of the landscape, people, and culture of Yemen. It was produced by the General Manager of Universal Touring Company who has traveled across the country of Yemen, including all the small tribal lands and quaint towns, during his 26 years as a tour guide.