house from the outside in Sanna.
Yemani architecture is world famous.
The pictures are taken by my husband,
Part I - Tafruta
(Lorraine Zamora Chamas)
10-4-01 New pictures added
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
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
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
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
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
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
The children of Yemen never mind being photographed! The photo of
this little girl was taken in the city of Jibla.The dress is
style that the women often wear under their" Sharshafs" or "Sitarahs"
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