Tribal, ethnic, volatile and deeply conservative are the best words that describe Yemen.
Tackled by separatist factions, Al-Qaeda operatives, increasing number of refugees, unpredictable revolts, critical poverty and rising unemployment, the future of this Arab nation seems doomed.
Located in the Arabian Peninsula bordering Oman and Saudi Arabia, this country of 24 million people is also the oldest centers of civilization in the Near East.
Walking in the streets of Sana’a, its capital, is like going back in time. The moment I stepped out of the hotel, I felt as if I was in a scene of the famous film “Lawrence of Arabia,” immersing myself in a Arabian desert town where old tribes still rule.
Seconds later, I was lost in narrow cobbled streets crammed with mosques, hammams and hundreds of five storeyed tower-houses, built of stone and baked brick with alabaster ceilings and marble and ebony windows.
Inhabited for more than 2,500 years, it is said that the oldest son of Noah founded the Old Town. This is, perhaps, the most conservative and well-preserved ancient city I have visited in the Middle East. Most buildings were constructed before the 11th century.
But what impressed the most of Sana’a is not its architectural beauty, but its residents, who proudly showed how deeply attached they were to their traditions.
Most men wore the thob, a long white or grey robe with a decorative golden belt that held a jambiya (a traditional curvy knife) and also the cover of a cell phone- mostly IPhones!
As I walked by, all the armed men smiled and shouted warmly “Welcome to Yemen!”
That friendliness was unexpected especially from those wearing an AK-47 on their arms as if it was just another accessory.
Although the first thought that may come to mind is “terrorist on sight” or “run fast for your life,” the reality is that most men in Yemen owe a gun. After United States, Yemen is the second most armed country in the world. There is an estimate of 8,000,000 to 11,000,000 million arms in the hands of civilians. It is part of the culture of Yemen’s tribal society, and not necessarily means that the person is affiliated to a separatist or a terrorist organization.
Ironically, what intimidated me the most at first were not the riffles and the curvy knives displayed so casually on the streets.
Reveling only their eyes, all women dressed black from head to toe, covering their bodies with an abaya (a black robe) and their faces with a piece of cloth called niqab.
Like black ghosts wandering on the ancient pathways, Yemeni women stared at me with their piercing and inquiring eyes.
As a foreign female, I was not required to wear the niqab, but I was expected to respect the conservative Islamic dress code. I covered my hair with a veil and wore loose clothing.
“Oh Daniela! Why would you want to go to a place where women wear burkas? That is scary!” I remembered my mom said to me.
Having visited Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and U.A.E. among other Islamic nations in previous trips, I was familiar to seeing some women wearing different versions of the Islamic dress code, including hijab, burkas and niqab. However, this was the first country I have been where ALL women shielded entirely under their garments.
The idea of a woman fully hidden under a veil is so alien to the western eye. Mine wasn’t the exception.
As I roamed the streets of this old mystical Arabian city, mixed feelings took over me. I was fascinated, intrigued, daunted, overwhelmed and excited. I wanted to know the stories of those women. What was the woman like under that black shadow?
I could only tell very little about these women. Those with children were probably mothers and grandmas taking the kids to school. Those wearing sneakers, covering their headscarves with baseball hats, texting on the cell phones and carrying a mountain of books in their arms were probably young girls who attended high school or college.
As the day progressed, the weather got warmer and warmer. The dark color of the garment just made it feel hotter as the black absorbed the heat, turning your clothes into a moving sauna.
But how do these Arab women truly feel about the niqab? Do they want to take it off or do they feel OK with it?
With the heat of over 100 degrees at midday, I felt as if I was suffocating and so desperately wanted to rip off my abaya and headscarf to let some of the dried breeze cool off my scorched body.
Among Arab countries, Saudi Arabia is perhaps the worst on women’s rights. Although women gained their right to vote in 1967, Yemen is not far behind Saudi Arabia.
The deepest changes came after 1990 when communist South Yemen re-unified with traditional North Yemen. During the influence of soviets, the south was more liberal and women were unveiled. Back then, women and men mingled together. Nowadays though, women and men must be in separated spaces. With the unification, a stricter dress code was brought and imposed on everyone, who seemed to quickly adapt to the new and more conservative customs.
But times are changing even this tribal and patriarchal society. Some women have taken the chance to confront the status quo to pursue of their dreams… and even true love.
By choosing to work, Doa’a al-Yemeni, the first female tourist guide in Yemen, had not only gone against their parents’ will but also broke a huge stigma in the tourism industry.
I found out about Doa’a by chance. I was researching for my trip to Yemen when I came across with an online article titled “Doa’a al-Yemeni tailors tours for female tourists.” I was immediately intrigued. I emailed one of the local journalists who had written a piece about her to see if I could get an email or a phone number to contact her.
“Once you are in Old Sana’a city hotels you might ask for a female guide. They know,” read the response of the journalist, giving me the impression that it was going to be easy to find Doa’a.
It actually made sense because Doa’a was the first female guide. She was a pioneer in her country. Of course, everyone must know her! Well, that’s what I thought. So I printed the article, which displayed a photo of her face and once in Sana’a I started asking for Doa’a. First, at my hotel, but no one seemed to recognize her name or the face in the photo. Other hotels didn’t seem to know who she was either.
It took me an entire day to find someone who was able to lead me to Doa’a. It was a female receptionist at one of the most luxurious hotel in Sana’a.
It seemed that my pronunciation of her name was not correct, which may have confused those I asked. No one recognized her photo because she was always covered when she gave the tour, so most people didn’t know how the female tour guide looked like.
At that moment, I felt that covering the body and face of these women was sort of an attempt to erase these women’s identity. They were just shapeless dark silhouettes on the street.
“Of course. I have a two-year-old girl so it is hard these days to work, but I will meet you. What kind of tour are you interested in?” asked Doa’a over the phone with perfect English.
“I would like to take the tour you customized for female travelers,” I said.
I wanted to tell Doa’a that besides a world traveler, I was also a journalist, but I didn’t want this information to intimate her or affect our conversation. I wanted to have an authentic and intimate chat with her to learn about the challenges and dreams of the new generation of Yemeni women. I wanted this to be an honest conversation from woman to woman, instead of between a journalist and a woman.
At 8 a.m., I waited eagerly at the lobby of the hotel. Half and hour later, and there was no news of Doa’a. Then, quarter to 9 a.m. and no signs of her. I started wondering if she would come at all.
When Mohammed (the receptionist of the hotel) was doing a Yemeni fashion makeover on me (converting my headscarf into a niqab), a young woman entered into the lobby completely out of breath.
“Danielle?” asked the woman, taking off the niqab in front of Mohammed. That surprised me. I thought women wouldn’t take off their niqabs in front of strange men.
“Yes,” I smiled. Doa’a made it!
She looked slightly different from the article’s photo. She was about 5’5’’ and looked as if she was in her early 30s. She didn’t wear make up, revealing some break outs in her jawlines and chin. Her smile and eyes were candid.
Sweeping some sweat from her forehead, Doa’a looked at Mohammed and spoke in Arabic. He seemed to know her.
“I have been here, taking other tourists from the hotel in the city tour,” she explained.
I wondered why these same men didn’t know whom I was talking about when I asked for Doa’a the day before. It didn’t matter at that point though. Doa’a was here.
“Daniela, I am so sorry. I took the bus to come here and it was slow. And my baby girl you know. It is challenging to be a working mom,” she said.
“Should we go?” I asked.
Before stepping out of the hotel, Doa’a accommodated her niqab, going again anonymous.
On the streets, she walked confidently on my side. At first, people looked at us with surprise. They may be wondering “why is that Yemeni woman with a tourist?” But when she spoke to them, they smiled, said hello and recognized who she was.
“People seem to have esteem for you, “ I said.
“I have earned the respect of people here, but it has been really tough. Especially, at the beginning. Now they understand,” she said.
I also noticed that women were more relaxed about my cameras when I was with Doa’a than when I was alone. Women didn’t cover their eyes with their hands or seem afraid of the cameras. Instead of looking at me with suspicion, they smiled with their eyes. It was a new way to experience Old city.
“I pursued my job as tourist guide despite the fact that my parents were against it and the society didn’t approve it. I am trying to promote Yemen tourism, to make a living. But my reputation is important,” Doa’a’s eyes got watery.
Doa’a got a degree in management at the university. Although more women are going to the colleges now than a decade ago, illiteracy for women in Yemen is a big issue, reaching about 70%.
She decided to get into tourism to polish her English, but soon she fell in love with it because it allowed her to meet people from different nationalities, expanding her view of the world. Unfortunately, for the past two years –due to the Arab Spring and the increase of terrorist presence in the Arabian peninsula- there hadn’t been so many tourists in Yemen.
“My husband and I didn’t have work for two years. With the political unrest, it was hard to even get water. It was expensive. Back then, US$70 for water! Now water is OK. Work is picking up again, thanks Allah,” said Doa’a, looking up to the sky.
Doa’a was among that only eight perfect of Yemeni women whom earn a salary. Most stay at home, raising their kids and living like black shadows with no voice.
“I work but I am respectful. I don’t like to cover my entire face, I wish I could only cover my hair, but I don’t want to cause shame to anyone, so I cover for respect and dignity to my people and my family. My job is a respectful one because I promote our country,” Doa’a said with pride. “Please come in,” she invited me to come inside a traditional Yemeni house converted into a museum. There was no other tourist but me. As all other storey buildings in old city, this one had several floors exquisitely decorated. Doa’a explained the usage of each room.
While visiting the traditional house, Doa’a made another confession. Working as a guide wasn’t the only society code she had broken, she also married the man she loved instead of the one chosen by her parents. In a culture in which a woman cannot marry without the permission of her father, what Doa’a had done was extremely courageous. She paid a high price for her decisions.
“It’s a hard to be a tourist guide and to be a working mom under the shadow of tradition Daniela. I don’t talk to my father anymore, I am separated from my family because of my choice to be a guide and because I married a man my dad didn’t approve. But I loved him and we have a beautiful girl. We loved each other and he is a good man,” she said.
Most marriages are still arranged. Actually, girls are still given to marriage before reaching puberty, even 10 years old. An average of eight women die every day, many giving birth. Due to the strict social code, some women preferred to die bleeding than letting a male doctor see them to treat them.
We left the traditional house to immerse ourselves in the world of colors and exotic smells of
the spices market. It was chaotic, yet magical. It was like walking in medieval Arabia surrounded by famous mesquites and old brick houses. We ended up at the Women’s Center for Handicraf.
As we strolled around the Old town, my admiration for Doa’a grew. Her passion for life and her conviction about women’s right were inspiring. By not letting the rules of society refrained her from pursing her dreams, a career and the love of her life, she stood up for herself and for what she believed in.
Doa’a’s story made me think of Tawakul Karman, a Yemeni journalist and a politician who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Called by locals the “Iron Woman”, Tawakul was a key figure in the “Arab Spring” leading pacific protest to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh. During these demonstrations, women came out to demand equal rights. Tawakul has also been a strong advocate for freedom of press in the country.
“Danielle, I believe modernity and tradition could work all together,” Doa’a state.
On the streets of Old Town, improvised tents were placed to display fake Louis Vuitton pursues, girl’s toys, clothing and jewelry. Doa’a –who lived in the city’s outskirts- took advantage of her visit to downtown to do some shopping.
“Do you like it?” she asked me while trying a fake LV.
Instead of buying the bag, she bought a doll.
“For my little girl,” she placed the toy in her heart.
“Danielle, I am sorry. I have to be at home at 2pm. You are welcome to come with me and meet my
girl,” invited Doa’a.
Being a working mom with no family help was a struggle Doa’a had to deal with. Today her husband was able to look after her kid until early afternoon. Other days, when she could work full day, she couldn’t stay out of home late or travel alone due to the codes of this society, which made her job as a tourist guide even more challenging.
Although I wanted to stay more time with her, I didn’t have so much time left in Sana’a so I continued to explore the city, whose ancient charm had thrown a spell on me.
Traffic to Old Sana’a was heavy. Saleh Mosque was the largest one in Sana’a and I still hadn’t visited it.
It was located in the southern outskirts of the city, and there was no way I could make it there by foot. I took a taxi.
As the driver approached, the mosque looked imposing with six large minarets of about 100 meters high.
When we passed the security gate with the car, a slim veiled woman demanded the driver to stop and asked me where I was from.
“My name is Kafarg. I work in the tourism section of the mosque. Let me show you,” she said in fluent English.
She was 22-years-old and had learned English at the university.
From the outside, the mosque looked majestic. It was name after the ousted Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Its construction raised a lot controversy as it cost about 60 million US dollars. Such spending seemed outrageous and unnecessary in a country where 40% of the population lives in poverty.
“Do you believe in one God,” asked Kafarg when we entered the mosque. “Do you believe in Mohammed?”
I was shocked by her question and straightforwardness.
“I do believe in one God. I do believe in Mohammed, in Jesus, in Buddha, in Krishna, in all prophets,” I replied, trying to be respectful and religious neutral.
“We also believe in Jesus as one of the prophets,“ she said, probably suspecting I was raised Christian, but then she made a new statement that got me off guard.
“If you believe in One God, you are a Muslim Daniela!” she shouted with excitement, rising her hands to the sky.
I was mute, trying to figure it out how to approach the situation without offending her. I do like the sound of the Koran but I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself a Muslim!
I decided to go along with what she believed I was.
As we walked inside the mosque, Kafarg gave me a long speech about the beauty of Islam and why Allah was everything to her.
“I pray to Allah to help me be a good Muslim, to keep me strong in my faith Daniela. I will pray for you too. What do you want Daniela? What is your wish?” she asked eagerly while we stood inside the giant mosque.
Again caught by surprise, I mumbled at the beginning.
“Well, I want my loved ones and me to be healthy, I want to have a good job I love and I would love to fall in love, to have a good husband,” I said.
“And be a good Muslim, remember you are a Muslim now!” she clarified, pointing her finger at me as a teacher corrects his little student.
“Are you married?” I asked Kafarg.
“No, I also pray Allah for husband. A rich, handsome and religious man. I don’t want him to be only rich and handsome. I want him to be a religious man because if he is religious, he would be good to me,” she assured me.
Although this mosque can hold up to 44,000 worshippers, Kafarg and I were some of the few people there at that time. The interior was fully carpeted with intricate patterns. It had high and elaborated ceiling, huge chandeliers, windows with stained glass and paintings with Quranic verses. It was softly lighted.
“Let me introduce you someone who will pray for you,” Kafarg took my hand. We approached two men sitting in one of the corners of the mosque.
“He is teaching the student how to recite the Koran,” explained Kafarg while we sat near them.
There is something indeed soothing in the sound of the Koran. I have never understood a word of it, but I have always felt it like an exquisite melody.
The student was interrupted several times for corrections.
“I will ask him to give you blessings and pray for your wishes,” said Kafarg.
I didn’t know what she said but the man invited me to get closer. He started praying.
I put my head down and closed my eyes. Blessings are blessings and they are always well received not matter from which religion they come from. If I had received blessings from a Buddhist monk in northern Thailand and from a Sadhu (holy man) in India, why not from a Yemeni Muslim scholar?
“Amen,” Karfarg, the student and I repeated during the pauses made by the scholar.
“Shokran,” I said when he finished.
When we went outside the prayers room, I felt comfortable to ask Kafarg some personal questions.
She was without any doubt deeply religious, but perhaps at 22, she shared with Doa’a the wish of ripping off the niqab.
“Daniela it is what Allah wants!” Kafarg shocked me again and started reciting the Koran in Arabic with devotion, looking up to the sky.
When she finished, she turned back to me.
“The woman body is a gift from Allah. It is beautiful and precious. If we have a bubble gum covered to protect it, how can we don’t cover women who are the most precious?” her comparison seemed irrational to me, but it seemed that it made total sense to her so I listened carefully.
“If you find a candy that hasn’t been opened, and another that has been opened. Which one would you eat? The unopened one, right?”
“Plus women need to protect themselves. They need to cover not to attract men. Come with me. I am going to give you a Koran and some CDs so you can further your Islamic studies,” she grabbed my hand and dragged me with enthusiasm to the mosque’s administrative office.
To get to her office, we had to take an elevator. It was full of veiled women who seemed shock to see a foreigner there.
“Muslim,” said Kafarg to the women surrounding us.
The women smiled and nodded in approval.
“I just told them that you were a Muslim,” she winked.
At this point, my best bet was to just go with the flow.
She unlocked one of the offices and invited me to come in.
“I work here,” she closed the door while looking for the Koran and the CDs she wanted to give me.
In the privacy of her office, she pulled back her veil, revealing her face. It was thin and long. Her young brown eyes were wrinkle free but had dark circles. She had a long nose and full lips. Perfect smile. She was a young attractive girl.
“Here it is, all what you need is here,” she gave me a pre-packaged kit with CDs, guides and prayers in English. “Ah take these two also, so you can change when one is cleaning,” she handed me two black robes with a hoodie that looked more like a wizard cape than an Islamic outfit.
“Do you may if I record a video of you,” Kafarg was already setting up the camera.
Oh holy crap. Now there is going to be even a video of “my conversion”. I tried to think quickly of what to say that wasn’t so compromising.
“So how do you feel now that you have learned about Allah? Now that you are a Muslim?”
“Well, I am very thankful to have met you Kafarg because you have been very kind and have taught me about Islam. And I will continue to study and learn more about it,” I avoided to say I was converted as I didn’t know what this video was going to be used for.
Maybe the conversion of an infidel gave her extra credits? Maybe it would help her to get a better position at the Islamic college? I had no idea, but I hope that my statement helped her somehow.
Kafarg seemed to me the equivalent of the Evangelists who used to knock the door of my house when I was a kid to talk about religion with the objective to convert people.
But somehow I was actually moved by Kafarg’s devotion and her excitement to see an infidel turn into a believer.
“A new Muslim,” she hugged me after I gave the statement. “It is time to pray,” she ordered as we heard the call to prayer from the muezzin.
Dozens of women walked barefoot into a large hall just for females. They all stood in line with their long robes. They didn’t cover their faces here because men were in a separate area; the main room of the mosque actually that Kafarg and I visited earlier.
“Come here,” Kafarg stood in the second row next to other women. I stood on her left. “Follow my moves,” she murmured.
A huge plasma TV was placed in front of the female room. We could see on the screen hundreds of men praying in the main hall of the mosque. The prayer was actually broadcast on national television.
“Allah Akbar,” we all repeated at the same time, standing up and kneeling down praising One God and only One God.
I didn’t know what it was, but I was overwhelmed with emotions. It was surreal to be there among all these worshippers, sharing and feeling their devotion.
The strong energy broke me into tears. I was not a Muslim, yet I could feel God’s presence in there.
I closed my eyes and let the tears came out as I followed the fervent crowd.
When the prayer finished, Kafarg held my hand up in the air and shouted something to all the women in the room.
Dozens of women came to me smiling, and hugged me. Young, old, middle aged, they all lined up to welcome me into their faith. Some even cried.
It started to rain outside. Kafarg looked up in the clouded sky.
“You see, this is a new beginning Daniela,” said Kafarg as we walked in under the light rain.
The next day, I met by chance Ushra, a beautiful 19-years-old Yemeni girl with big eyes and long eyelashes.
Her English was impressive. She was still at the university, but she also worked as a guide and sales woman in a traditional house.
I was surprised she didn’t cover her face, especially being so beautiful.
“Do you cover your face when you go on the streets?” I asked.
“I do,” she said.
“Would you like not to have to do that?” I was really curious. She seemed like a confident open-minded girl.
“I don’t mind it, but I prefer not to do it while working. It is important to face the visitors and the clients of the store. My parents are OK with that. They understand,” she said.
Her mom and her sister also worked.
“Now things are changing you know. Some women work, but it has to be a respectful job you know,” she said.
Ushra took me to a room upstairs the traditional house to explain the different Islamic dress codes.
The khymar is an all-black loose outfit that covers the body, the head and the eyes, which are
behind a semi-translucent cloth. The niqab, which is what most Yemeni women wear, was “considered more moderate” because it has a slit that exposes the eyes.
When Ushra started putting the Khymar on me, I felt so strange to see the world through that piece of semi-translucent cloth. I didn’t think I would be able to walk because I couldn’t see clearly.
When Ushra took the cloth that covered my eyes. I felt the cloth that covered my face touched slightly the inside of my eyes as a move, causing pain and discomfort.
“You look so beautiful!” she decreed with such sweetness.
“Oh Ushra, I really admire you guys. I wouldn’t survive one day with it,” I confessed.
“You get used to it. It is not so bad,” she replied smiling.
“Do you have Facebook?” asked Ushra, with an open laptop in her lap. “Let’s keep in touch,” she sent me a friend request.
As any girl of her age, she had dreams of finishing school, traveling, seeing the world, falling in love…
Although Yemeni women were hidden under those garments that made them undistinguished and shadowy, the reality was that they were no different from their counterparts in the West.
As I explored the country, I got to know dozens of women like Doa’a, Kafarg and Ushra, who took their veils off in front of me and opened their hearts.
I soon discovered that under those dark garments, there were hidden a lot of bright colors, elaborated make-ups and hair-dos, flamboyant dresses with a lot of sparks and laces but mostly women with big hearts and big dreams.
What I initially interpreted as hostile stares were in reality fascination. Far from the public eye, these women were all about curiosity and kindness that manifested with invitations to stay in their homes, lively dances, laughs, long conversations, humble gifts, hugs, kisses and blessings.
At the end of my trip, I realized how wrong I was about those veiled women. They dress differently, but their dreams and struggles are similar to ours… with one difference, they have a bigger and more difficult battle to fight in terms of reaching equal rights and finding a place in a strongly conservative and tribal society.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain.