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..
2 - EL AROUS*
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
photos of the beautiful Yemeni countryside.
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.
girls getting water from a well in the Yemeni countryside
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
Recommended Reading List on Yemen
my article has made you more curious about Yemen and you would
like to read more, I recommend the following books:
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.
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.
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;
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.
to find exact matches
Yemen Invitations to a Voyage in Arabia Felix by Jacques Hebert,
Also has good picture but is only about Northern Yemen.
unable to find exact matches
is also a web site on Yemen at www.albab.com/Yemen/
There are some articles on Yemeni Music the culture section of this site.
Living in Yemen, Part
I - Tafruta by Jalilah (Lorraine
A simple question
was all they needed to get them into motion!
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
and Ice by Yasmela/ Shelley
What makes some of our dance good, what makes some of it bad is puzzling to
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
on this double-edged sword alone.