Saudi Arabia/Yemen/USA: Yemen from the view of an American

Intro: My name is Katherine Abu Hadal and I am an American who has been married to a Yemeni man for nearly 4 years. We lived in Yemen for three years and now we live in the US, and this is a snippet of what life is like in Yemen from my perspective. I really do love Yemen, and I enjoyed life there very much. However, I also want to give you a well-rounded picture of what the advantages and disadvantages are of living there. You can find more about me at http://www.shebayemenifood.com, where I show people how to make Yemeni food in English and Arabic.

yemen 1

http://stevemccurry.com

 

Yemen’s beauty derives from its antiquity and the charm and grace of the people. Old Sana’a, Wadi Hadramout, and Jibla are just a few of the ancient cities which seem to be preserved perfectly in time. The odd-sized steps and the tiny doorways in many of these old homes are details which instantly transport one to another place and time. Yemenis recognize the value of the ancient heritage and these old homes are among the most prized and desirable. Sana’a is also known as Shem (Sam) city; Shem is the son of Noah and he supposedly founded the old city. As often happens, architecture mirrors its people, and the Yemeni people reflect a set of traditional and decorated values. Honor and generosity to guests are some of the highest esteemed values.  This generosity extends not only to fellow Yemenis or Arabs, but is often magnified for those deemed as “foreigners,” usually synonymous with “non-arabs.”

I first traveled to Yemen in 2009 as a student studying Arabic. I can’t say exactly why I wanted to travel to Yemen, other than I wanted to travel off the beaten path of the usual westerner travel agenda. Plus I wanted to learn Arabic and Yemen is (or at least it was at the time) supposedly one of the better countries to go to learn Arabic. Not long after I arrived, I met the man who would later become my husband. We would hang out with friends and slowly we got to know each other. It’s not the usual way for relationships to develop in Yemen, but Esam didn’t (and still doesn’t) care much for rules or societal pressures.

After some time, I just knew Esam was the man for me. He had known from the beginning and he was ecstatic that I had finally realized that too. It took a bit of work convincing each of our families, but I am proud and happy to say that my Mom absolutely adores Esam and his family also loves and respects me a lot.

Yemen is most often in the news for the drone strikes and occasional high-profile terrorist incidents. It’s often portrayed as tribal and lawless, not only by the west but also its gulf neighbors. The word tribe carries a different connotation when translated into Arabic, however, and I will attempt to explain to you a little bit about its meaning as I understand it. Tribes (qabail) are organized political structures in Yemen. They exist alongside and at the same time integrated with the official government which is a Republic. People in Yemen often associate tribal lineage with pride and a high social status. Tribes are very powerful because they have the ability to mobilize many people quickly and they also control financial or other resources. They have certain powers and rules outside the scope of the government. Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh exercised much of his power through tribal lines.   yemeni tribes

As far as how tribal power is exercised, it is neither through dictatorship nor coercion. Instead, it is a mutually beneficial relationship which is subject to change by either party. Tribe members have the responsibility to mobilize for a cause when required by the higher-ups. Tribal leaders, or shaykhs, have the responsibility to mediate between disagreements between tribe members as well as to be generous in hosting social events and feeding the less fortunate. Despite a shaykh’s higher social status, they cannot force tribal members into action if what they are requesting seems unreasonable, and Yemenis, like anyone else, maintain their independence. A north Yemeni who spent many years in Al-Jawf described tribal figures’ limitations in this way, “No shaykh can even tell a child what to do.” (North Yemeni as cited in Koehler-Derrick, 2011)

Not every Yemeni has a favorable opinion of tribes. There are those that associate them with the uneducated and oppressive social structures which keep the powerful in power and others down. They are opposed to these structures which favor social ties, bloodlines, and loyalty over formal education and merit-based rule. A Yemeni in Aden, a former British colony, was quoted in 2009 saying,

“Most of what we have is what the British built when they were here. We haven’t gained anything from unification,” says a former colonel in the PDRY army, voicing a common sentiment as he waves his hand towards a row of bleak buildings. “I would rather have had the British here for 400 years than be ruled by Saleh and the Sanhan [President Saleh’s tribe]…Now everyone who has any power is a northerner,” he says. “The young people here have no chance to find decent jobs because they don’t have the tribal connections required to get them.”  (Horton 2009).

Unemployment and economic strife are major problems in Yemen. My husband was from I guess what you might call a middle-class Yemeni family. They were not the richest or the poorest in the neighborhood and they lived comfortably. But middle-class in Yemen also translates to what would be below the poverty level in the US. If we lived in Yemen, there would be no way to really save and get ahead and also be able to travel on that kind of salary. As a foreigner with a degree and who spoke English and Arabic, there are more opportunities for me to find work, but there are still not a lot of jobs which would pay a salary comparable to what I would make in the US.

We know many Yemenis that travel to the gulf countries for work, especially Saudi Arabia. That arrangement has been threatened over the years, however, (the first was after the first gulf war) and now “Saudi Arabia, home to about nine million foreign workers, began the crackdown this year to boost the proportion of Saudi citizens in private sector jobs from the current 10 per cent.” (Gulf news, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/yemen/yemenis-protest-saudi-deportations-1.1170624). Yemen does not possess the large oil reserves that its neighbors have. The bleak economic outlook combined with an explosive population growth and other factors such as lack of water has many analysts predicting an impending economic disaster for this country of nearly 25 million.

For all the troubles of Yemen, there are still things about it which makes it an easier county to reside in compared to the other gulf countries. I have traveled to Oman and Dubai and I have observed the hierarchy among the people, with westerners, Indians, Asians, foreign Arabs, and local gulf Arabs each in their own class with different rules which apply to them. Interaction between locals and guest workers is limited and can often be prejudiced. I have also read stories of foreigners married to Saudis who face discrimination and are not able to fit into Saudi society. In Yemen, I never once experienced this feeling as a foreigner. I was always welcomed into people’s homes as one of them. I also know many other foreigners (both arabs and non-arabs) who were also treated as such. To my disbelief, some people even mistook me for Yemeni. (Although I think it was a actually a way of being polite and giving a compliment)

yemen woman driving     Secondly, although Yemen is a conservative Muslim country like Saudi Arabia, it does not have the kind of religious policing which is present in Saudi Arabia. Women are allowed to drive in Yemen and many do. There is a social pressure to dress modestly, but I know many western women that don’t cover their hair or wear an abaya when they go out. Yemen is technically a republic which means that it has elections and is a democracy. Although it doesn’t seem to be a fully functioning democracy quite yet, it is one step ahead of the gulf monarchies in achieving a full democracy. People are not afraid to criticize the government or political leaders and there are several active political movements and parties.

Yemen has a sense of fierce independence and a long history which gives the country a kind of security, despite the signs of impending doom which are knocking at its gate. After all, Sana’a is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world. If it has made it through the floods of Noah, I suppose it will make it through today’s challenges.

Below is a recipe for Yemeni shakshuka, which is a popular egg and tomato dish in the Middle East and North Africa. In North Africa, it is usually eaten with poached eggs but in Yemen, it usually has scrambled eggs and is made with green chilis so it is spicy. They also eat a similar shaksuka in Saudi and the gulf countries, but I am not sure exactly how it is different. Served with milk tea and malawah bread or Yemeni roti, it makes the prefect breakfast or quick dinner.

Ingredients

5 eggs

3 plum tomatoes, chopped (or uncooked canned tomato sauce)

1 chopped onion

1 green chili (more or less to taste)

½ tsp. hawaij

2 tablespoons oil

Salt to taste (about ¾ tsp.)

Ground black pepper

 

Directions

1.      Heat oil, onions, chilis, and salt in a pan and cook the onions until they are slightly brown.

2.      Add the chopped tomatoes, hawaij and black pepper and cook until the tomatoes are soft, about 5 minutes.

3.      Lightly beat the eggs and add to the tomatoes. Let the mixture cook until half-way set, about 3 minutes, then stir the mixture slightly to ensure even cooking.

4.      Serve with bread and tea!

 

 

Horton, Michael. (2009). The Christian Science Monitor.  Why Southern Yemen is pushing for secession.  Retrieved November 9 2011 from http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2009/1215/Why-southern-Yemen-is-pushing-for-secession.

 

Koehler-Derrick, Gabriel. (2011). A False Foundation? Tribes and Ungoverned Spaces in Yemen. West Point: Combating Terrorism Center

 

images:

yemeni tribes symbol:  yemenfox.net

 yemen woman driving:  yobserver.com

 

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10 Responses

  1. The question is, which variety of hawaij does Katherine use? In some ways, it’s like a curry, which is also regionally variable in the ingredients used.

  2. With the exception of a very few families and heads of tribes, life in Yemen is second to none in misery.

  3. I enjoyed this, thanks!

  4. Glad you enjoyed, Susanne!!

    On Wed, Apr 24, 2013 at 5:20 PM, American Bedu

  5. Carol, can you ask Katherine for the ingredients of the hawaij that she uses? It’d make trying the recipe much simpler.

  6. I have friends who, in the 70’s spent a couple of years in Yemen. The husband was a geologist from France. They fell in love with Yemen and told me many, many wonderful stories of the country and especially the wonderful people. Of course I imagine things are much different now but it has always been a country I’d love to see.

  7. However well the tribal system works, it is completely paternalistic and assumes the men know best for women. Given the stories we have heard about young girls and forced marriages, it is clear that system doesn’t work well for all.

  8. Hi everyone and thanks for your comments…

    To those who are asking about the ingredients for hawaij, they are cumin, coriander, cardamom, cloves, turmeric, ground black pepper, cinnamon. You can buy a hawaij mix already prepared in Yemen and I have also seen it in Arab markets in the states. It’s not absolutely necessary so you can leave it out if you don’t find it. There is more detailed info in the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkqZ3IpTtHo

  9. Thanks a million, Katherine! I may well make that tomorrow morning while awaiting my grandchildren to awaken (babysitting while our daughter is on her nursing orientation for her new job).

  10. This article was a good read and I learned even more from reading, but there were clearly many mistakes here. I am an American, married to a Yemeni from Taiz and I lived here for 2+ years now. One thing, I dont attempt to explain the problems and cultural life here only because it is very archiac, patriarchal and traditional. There are just many things I wont understand (e.g. honor, even if I live here for 20 years. I just have to accept.

    One thing you said was that “Yemen is technically a republic which means that it has elections and is a democracy.” It is a republic where the people elect their own leaders, however anything but a democracy. A democracy is where everyone is equally represented. Whites, blacks, religious minorities, orphans, women, children, income level , basically every member of society is treated the same. Im sure you noticed racial and gender disparity during your time in Yemen.

    Then you said, “There is a social pressure to dress modestly, but I know many western women that don’t cover their hair or wear”. I did see women not wearing their abaya or hijab but they were frm the east (India and many Russian nurses). If you traveled to the toursit city of Aden you would have saw more local women behaving out of conduct (lots of makeup/”camel ponytails”, talking loud, outside at night, outside alone with no guardian). Wearing the abaya is not just about clothing but an attitude of modest.

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