LOCATION: Republic of Yemen
POPULATION: 22.3 million (2007)
RELIGION: Islam; Judaism
Ancient Yemen was known as "Arabia Felix," or "Happy (or Fortunate) Arabia," because of its great wealth from its location on the most important trade routes of the time—both over land and sea—and its lucrative trade in frankincense and myrrh. Made from resins derived from trees growing only in that area, frankincense and myrrh were greatly desired throughout the ancient world to make perfumes and incense used for religious purposes. Today, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world. When the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in ad 323 and banned the use of "pagan" incense in Christian rituals, the demand for frankincense and myrrh dropped off sharply. Improvements in sea travel eliminated much of the need for the overland trade route across the Arabian Peninsula. Later innovations (such as air travel) and changes in trading patterns around the world led to Yemen's economic decline and the poverty it experiences today.
Inhabited for at least 40,000 years, Yemen has seen many rulers come and go. The first-known advanced civilization in the region was that of the Sabeans, who called their land Saba (or Sheba). They occupied the land in the centuries around 1000 bc. The famed Queen of Sheba was a legendary Sabean ruler. The Sabeans were large-scale farmers who lived in close-knit family clans who fiercely protected their lands from other clans. This protective clannish attitude still prevails among Yemenis today. Around ad 300, a series of battles with invaders from Ethiopia, Egypt, and Turkey began that continued on and off for the next 1,300 years. During this time, the Islamic revolution also swept through the Middle East, and the Yemenis converted in large numbers in the early days of the movement, during Muhammad's lifetime (ad 570–632). Jewish and Christian missionaries had won many southern Arabians to their respective faiths during the 4th and 5th centuries ad, but when the Persian governor of Yemen converted to Islam in 628, most other Yemenis followed suit. This began an era of conflicts between different Islamic caliphates and imamates (religious dynasties) that lasted for several hundred years. The Ottoman Turks eventually took over Egypt in 1517, and had most of Yemen under their control by 1548. Yemen remained under Ottoman rule for more than a century, during which time the Turks developed an extensive trade of superior coffee beans from the Red Sea port of Mocha in Yemen. Although the trade has since suffered from international competition, the arabica coffee beans are still considered among the best in the world.
The Zaydi imams overthrew the Turks in 1636, but the Turks regained control of northwestern Yemen by the mid-1800s. Britain had taken over southern Yemen in the early 1800s. The Ottoman Turks and the British drew a borderline between north and south Yemen by 1905, and the region remained divided into North Yemen and South Yemen throughout most of the 20th century. After the Turks were defeated in World War I (1914-18) the Zaydi imamate once again took control of North Yemen, under the rulership of Imam Yahya. The British retained control of South Yemen. In 1962, a military coup in North Yemen led to the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). Five years later, in 1967, nationalist fighters ousted the British from South Yemen and established the communist People's Republic of South Yemen, or as it came to be called two years later, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). Finally, after two more decades of skirmishes and near-unifications, North and South Yemen united on 22 May 1990 to become the Republic of Yemen, a constitutional democracy. The motivating factor for unification was the discovery of oil along their mutual border in 1988. Rather than fight for exclusive rights to the oil, or split the desperately needed income, the two countries decide to join forces, once and for all.
The Republic of Yemen was threatened by secessionists in the south who triggered a brief civil war in 1994. The secessionists were defeated, however, and all but a small number of instigators were given amnesty. The country has been led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh since reunification in 1990. He was reelected to the post in 2006.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
Yemen is located in the Middle East, on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by Oman to the northeast and Saudi Arabia to the north. The boundary with Saudi Arabia has never been clearly defined, but the countries have been negotiating a final marking since 2002. Much of the border lies in the Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert—a land of shifting sands where it is difficult to mark definitive borders. The Gulf of Aden (part of the Indian Ocean) lies to the south of Yemen, and the Red Sea to the west. The strait of Bab al-Mandab connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, and separates Yemen from the African continent. Across this narrow strait are the African countries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Since there is no definite boundary with Saudi Arabia, it is impossible to get a definite total area measurement for Yemen. The Yemeni government claims about 80,000 sq km (207,000 sq mi), just slightly less than the area of the U.S. state of Texas. Yemen's territory also includes the Hanish Islands and the islands of Kamaran and Perim in the Red Sea, and the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean.
Yemen's terrain is made up of mountains and highlands, deserts, and plains. It is cut off from the northern countries of the Arabian Peninsula by vast stretches of desert (the Empty Quarter), so it has always been somewhat isolated. (With the advent of modern communications and transportation, this is beginning to change, but Yemen has centuries of isolated independence to overcome.) Western Yemen has flat coastal plains extending from the south and west coasts inward to fertile highlands surrounded by mountains. Eastern Yemen is a hilly plateau in the south and desert in the north (the southern edge of the Empty Quarter). Some of Yemen's mountains are volcanically active, and earthquakes occur on occasion. The climate varies with the terrain, from hot and dry in the desert, to hot and humid on the coasts, to mild in the highlands. Rainfall amounts also vary with the terrain, from monsoons (heavy downpours) in the western highlands, to none at all in the desert. Plant life ranges from desert cacti to tropical palms, depending on the region. The highland forests have nearly all been cut down, and the government cannot currently afford a wide-scale reforestation program. With the lack of forests, wildlife is reduced to small animals, some baboons in the mountains, and a variety of birds.
Traditionally, most Yemenis have lived on farms and in small villages. Urbanization—driven by a long drought, high population growth (Yemen has one of highest rates of population growth in the world, 3.2% annually in 2007), and lack of employment opportunities—began increasing in the 1990s. The largest cities are Sanaa, the political capital, with about 1,750,000 people; Aden, the economic capital, with 600,000 people; Taizz, with over 400,000 people; and Hodeida, with just around 340,000 people. The modern city of Marib is built on the ruins of the famous ancient Sabean city of Marib, dating to 1000 bc. The ruins are still visible, existing right alongside the modern city structures. Yemen's rapidly increasing population is causing significant economic, environmental and social strains. UN projections anticipate Yemen's population to reach 55 million by 2050. Currently, 47% of the population is under the age of 15.
The official language of Yemen is Arabic. Some Yemenis learn English, and links with the former Soviet Union during the days of the PDRY prompted some Yemenis to learn Russian.
Arabic, spoken by 100 million people worldwide, has many dialects that are very distinctive, so that people living as little as 500 km (300 mi) apart may not be able to understand one another. Even in the small country of Yemen, different dialects are spoken. The written form of Arabic is called Classical Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic. It is the same for all literate Arabs, regardless of how different their spoken forms are. Arabic is written from right to left in a unique alphabet that has no distinction between upper and lower cases. It is not necessary for the letters to be written on a straight line, as English letters must be. Punctuation conventions are also quite different from English.
Arabic speakers are very interested in the poetry of the language. "Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum, "Peace be with you," with the reply of Walaykum as-salam, "and to you peace." Ma'assalama means "Goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is Afwan. "Yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are wahad, itnin, talata, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, tamania, tisa'a, and ashara.
Arabs traditionally have long names, consisting of their given name, their father's name, their paternal grandfather's name, and finally their family name. Women do not take their husband's name when they marry, but rather keep their mother's family name as a show of respect for their family of origin. Given names usually indicate an Arab's religious affiliation. Muslims use names with Islamic religious significance, such as Muhammad and Fatima.
Yemeni tradition is that Shem, the son of the biblical character Noah, founded the city of Sanaa. Another legendary figure of the land of Yemen is the Sabean queen Bilqis, better known as the Queen of Sheba. Legend has it that she visited King Solomon of Israel (who ruled from 965–925 bc) to establish friendly relations, since she and Solomon controlled either end of the trans-Arabian trade route. Her visit with Solomon is mentioned in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (the Old and New Testaments), and in the Islamic holy book, the Koran. According to some traditions, the Queen of Sheba is the subject of the love poem the Song of Solomon, supposedly written by King Solomon. Ethiopians believe themselves to be descended from a child born to King Solomon and Queen Bilqis. It is unknown whether or not the Queen of Sheba of legendary fame was actually an historical figure, but queens did rule in Arabia at that time. The Queen of Sheba as a character of legend has taken on many of the attributes and story lines of pre-Islamic pagan folk tales. She has also become a symbol of Yemen for the poets of Islamic Yemen, particularly those of the 20th century, representing a former highly developed civilization that once existed in the much poorer land of today.
The ancient Yemenis were polytheistic, worshipping many different goddesses and gods. During the 4th and 5th centuries ad, Jewish and Christian missionaries converted numbers of Yemenis to their respective faiths. Then, in the 7th century ad, the Islamic revolution swept through the Middle East. The Persian governor of Yemen at that time converted to Islam, while the Prophet Muhammad (570–632) was still alive. Most Yemenis followed suit. About 50% of the population now belongs to the Shafai sect of Sunni Islam. Some 33% belong to the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam. The Zaydis once ruled the country (during the 17th and 18th centuries ad). Although they are now a minority numerically, they still have a great deal of influence in the country. The Zaydis have since reunification occasionally staged revolts in the country's north, seeking autonomy and a more religious government. The revolts have all been successfully put down. Some 2% of the population belongs to the Ismaili Shia sect, a sect that is similar to the Zaydis. The largest non-Muslim group in Yemen today is Jewish, although the majority of Yemeni Jews moved to Israel when it became an independent Jewish state in 1948 (see "Israelis"). There are small Christian and Hindu communities in southern Yemen.
Shafai Sunnis believe the Quran is the word of God as dictated directly by God to the Prophet Muhammad. Zaydi Shias, on the other hand, believe the Koran was created by Muhammad himself; it is his interpretation, or translation, of the word of God.
Since the majority of Yemenis are Muslim, Muslim holidays are the official ones. Perhaps the most significant holiday is Eid al-Fitr, which comes at the end of the month of fasting, Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, or having sex during daylight hours, in order to reflect on God and on the plight of the unfortunate who do not have enough food. At the end of the month, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr for three days. The other major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the willingness of the Prophet Abraham, as well as his son, to obey God's command in all things, even when Abraham was told to sacrifice his son.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Weddings are occasions for much celebrating. First, there is the betrothal feast, usually held on a Thursday or Friday (Friday is the Islamic holy day), when the future groom and his father visit the bride's father to settle on a wedding date and bride-price. The groom and his father give the bride's father the engagement ring, as well as other gifts (such as clothes and jewelry for the bride and her mother). The bride-price is used to buy fine clothes and jewelry and other valuable items for the bride. These things are hers for the rest of her life, so that if anything happens, such as divorce or the death of her husband, she has some property that is definitely hers.
The wedding itself lasts for three days, usually from Wednesday through Friday. The most public part of the wedding takes place on Friday and is called the laylat az-Zaffa. Butchers arrive early in the morning to prepare the meat for the feast, where up to 100 or more guests will be fed. Men have a qat party in the afternoon, where they sit together and chew qat leaves (a mild narcotic) and smoke the narghile, or water-pipe. The women help prepare the food. In the evening, the men go to the mosque, and then return for dancing and singing around the groom, who is carrying a golden sword. Drummers keep the beat. The feast is eaten, more qat is chewed, the narghile is smoked once again, incense is passed around with blessings, poems are recited, a lute is played, and songs are sung. Some of the women go to the bride's home to help her dress. A special make-up artist paints delicate designs on her hands and feet, and the palms of her hands and soles of her feet are reddened with henna. Eventually, the men line up outside the groom's house, and he walks with them toward the door, leaping over the threshold when he reaches it. The men are singing all the while, and the women have climbed up on the roofs and started making a high-pitched trilling sound called the zaghrada. The bride will come to the house later; the guests may or may not wait for her arrival. Once the bride enters the groom's house, she becomes part of his family.
Arab hospitality reigns in Yemen. An Arab will never ask personal questions, as that is considered rude. It is expected that a person will say what he or she wishes, without being asked. Food and drink are always taken with the right hand because the left hand is used for "unclean" purposes, such as cleaning oneself. When speaking, Arabs touch each other much more often and stand much closer together than Westerners do. People of the same sex will often hold hands while talking, even if they are virtual strangers. (Members of the opposite sex, even married couples, never touch in public.) Arabs talk a lot, talk loudly, repeat themselves often, and interrupt each other constantly. Conversations are highly emotional and full of gestures. In Yemen, the Western "o.k." sign—touching the thumb to the tip of the forefinger in a circle—is considered obscene. Common acceptable Yemeni gestures are the thumbs-up "victory" sign (as in the West); raised eyebrows indicating "no"; and both eyes closed at once, indicating "yes." It is also common in Yemen, and many Arab cultures, to indicate "no" by making a clicking noise with the mouth.
The Arab sense of time is also quite different from that of the West. Schedules are loose and fluid, with the day divided not into hours and minutes but into "morning," "lunchtime," and "evening." There are no clocks in public places. The Western obsession with punctuality does not exist in Yemen.
Yemeni society is strictly structured according to certain divisions of people. Sayyids are direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and members of the formerly ruling Zaydi sect—a privileged and influential wealthy class. The qadhis are descendants of pre-Islamic Yemeni rulers who are traditionally scholars and judges. They are considered wise—a well-educated and well-respected class. The sheikhs (leaders) of each clan or tribe are also quite influential. Craftspeople and merchants are divided into guilds: the manasib are skilled artisans, such as goldsmiths; muzayyin are less-skilled workers, such as bricklayers; and the akhdam are unskilled laborers, such as street-cleaners. In recent times, as the economic situation of the country changes, the social structure is changing as well. Previously low-status jobs that now pay well are becoming more respectable.
Since unification, Yemen has been attempting to improve living conditions for its people. However, as one of the poorest countries in the world, it lacks the resources to make many improvements very quickly. Therefore, living conditions remain fairly difficult in most areas of the country. In rural areas, where most of the population continues to live, running water has been made available but sewer systems have yet to be installed. The water is often polluted, and diseases such as dysentery are common. Medical care is limited, if available at all, although the government has begun to establish some rural medical clinics. Few children are vaccinated, thus diseases like measles and tuberculosis spread quickly. Malnutrition is widespread. Buses and cars only recently replaced camels and donkeys as the primary mode of transportation, and few paved roads exist outside cities and large towns. The government has made new road construction a priority. Telephone services are very rare in rural villages, and there is no door-to-door postal delivery anywhere in the country. Yemenis must pick up their mail from post office boxes.
Although life in the cities and larger towns is better than in the rural areas, conditions are still far below modern Western standards. The average life expectancy for Yemenis in 2004 was 59 years for men and 62 years for women. The infant mortality rate in the same year was 75 per 1,000 births. In an attempt to improve health care, the government has built new hospitals in the cities (as well as the rural medical clinics), and has opened a new school of medicine at the University of Sanaa.
In 2007 there were 2.8 million houses in Yemen, 16% of which had access to some kind of sewage network. Homes in Yemen differ by region. In eastern Yemen, they are made of sun-dried clay bricks. People of the Tihama (the western coastal plain) live in round or rectangular huts made of mud-covered reeds and sticks. Each one-room hut serves a specific purpose, such as the cooking hut, sleeping hut, storage hut, the hut where guests are received, etc. The interior walls of the reed huts have colorful scenes painted on them. In the highlands, houses are six to seven stories high. Stables and storage rooms are on the lower floors, while several generations of a family share the living quarters upstairs, with kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, and other rooms. Every house has one large room called a diwan, used for celebrations, and an attic room called a mafraj where guests are entertained. In the capital city of Sanaa, many of the houses are more than 400 years old. The original walled city built in the 1st century ad still stands. The old houses are six to seven stories high, made of stone, brick, and mud. The exterior walls are ornately decorated with white plaster. Ancient Yemenis used colored alabaster, a soft stone, for windows. Modern Yemenis use stained glass to achieve the ancient look. The old city homes are being divided up for rent-ers, as wealthier Yemenis move to the suburbs. The rental units are poorly maintained, and many of these historic homes have suffered water damage from leaky pipes. The UN has funded restoration and preservation projects in the old city to protect these fine examples of a unique architecture. As tourism increased in Yemen in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many of these old buildings were converted into hotels.
The nuclear family, called 'ayla in Arabic, is the basic social unit of Yemeni society. Most families are large, with 8 to 10 members not uncommon. A Yemeni woman gives birth to an average of 7.7 children in her lifetime—many women bear more than 10. The average age for marriage is 22 for men and 18 for women, although it is not unknown for girls younger than 14 years old to marry. (In rural areas, girls as young as 12 or even 10 may marry.) Parents usually arrange marriages for their children. The groom's family pays a bride-price to the bride's family, which is then used to buy fine clothes and jewelry that the bride will own outright for the rest of her life. These valuables serve as insurance in case of divorce or widowhood. Divorce is fairly simple for both men and women and happens relatively often. Some 15–20% of Yemeni women have been divorced and remarried at least once in their lifetimes.
Several generations of an extended family, or bayt (meaning "house") in Arabic, live together in one home. Several bayts together make up a clan, or tribe. Each tribe elects a sheikh (a leader) within the community to solve local disputes. Men and women are segregated in public, and women keep themselves veiled and fully covered when anyone but family is present. Most Yemeni women will not eat in public restaurants. More women are going to school and getting jobs outside the home today, but Islamic traditions of segregation for women make this difficult. Yemeni universities now accept women as students, but men are still given priority for admission.
Clothing styles in Yemen, particularly for women, vary greatly by region. Men generally wear one of two styles. In hot coastal regions, men wear a lightweight shirt with an embroidered skirt called a futa, with a straw hat or other head covering. In the cooler highlands, they wear a calf-length shirt called a zanna, with a jacket. Many men wear a belt with a jambiyya, or ceremonial dagger, thrust beneath it. A man's jambiyya identifies his clan and is a symbol of manhood. Boys start wearing them at about the age of 14.
Women's styles are much harder to classify, as they are so varied. Yemeni women like bright colors and lots of jewelry, particularly silver. In Sanaa, many women wrap themselves in brilliant cloths imported from India called sitaras. In the highlands, they wear baggy embroidered trousers called sirwals under their dresses. Women wear black robes and pointed straw hats to work in the fields in eastern Yemen. Many Yemeni women across the country wear the traditional Islamic covering, the abaya— a loose black robe that covers the woman from head to toe—when in public. The sharshaf— a black skirt, cape, veil, and head covering—is also worn by women throughout Yemen. In line with much of the Islamic world, women's clothing has become much more conservative and traditional in Yemen toward the end of the 20th and into the 21st century. In cities and towns across the country, virtually all women cover their faces either completely or with a scarf that reveals only their eyes. Most women also wear gloves in public so that no part of their body can be seen. In rural areas, women working in fields will often go without face coverings.
The Yemeni diet is quite simple. Staple foods are rice, bread, vegetables, and lamb, with fish in the coastal regions. Breakfast is a light meal consisting of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, or a bean dish called ful, served with flatbread. Supper in the evening is very similar. Lunch is the heavy meal for Yemenis. Eaten at midday, it generally consists of chicken, lamb, or beef, with cooked vegetables, and rice mixed with raisins and almonds. Flatbread soaked in buttermilk and covered with tomatoes, onions, and spices is served at almost every meal, as is a spicy green stew called salta. Salta could perhaps be called the national dish of Yemen. It is made with meat broth, onions, tomatoes, mincemeat, eggs, and hulba—a mixture of fenu-greek and grated leeks. Sweet custards with either tea or coffee are usually served for dessert.
Coffee originated in Mocha, a port town on the Red Sea in Yemen, and made its way to Europe on trading vessels during the 16th and 17th centuries. By the end of the 17th century, the Dutch had smuggled some young coffee plants out of Yemen and planted them in Ceylon and Java. Other European countries soon followed suit, planting the smuggled coffee in their colonial territories where the climate was suitable for growing. Until the end of the 18th century, Yemen continued to export some 22,000 tons of coffee each year. But during the 19th century, trade declined sharply due to competition from cheaper coffee sources, and the population of Mocha fell from 20,000 people to 400. Yemeni coffee is still exported and is still considered one of the finest coffees of the world. It is known as coffee arabica. In Yemen, both the husks and beans are used to make drinks, as opposed to just the beans (as in Western countries). Traditional Arab coffee, called bun in Yemen, is made from the beans. A drink called qishr is made from steeping the husks in hot water, then adding ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom for flavor. Qishr is milder than bean-coffee and is actually preferred in Yemen. The price of husks is higher than the price of beans in Yemen.
Meals are served on a cloth or plastic sheet spread on the floor. Yemenis eat with their fingers, not utensils. A soup that is popular in Yemen is shourba bilsen, made with lentils.
(Thick Lentil Soup)
1 pound soup bones, beef or lamb
8 cups water
2 cups brown lentils
2 onions, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups stewed tomatoes
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro, or 3 tablespoons dried cilantro
salt and pepper to taste
Rinse soup bones and put in large saucepan with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to simmer. Add lentils, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook for 1½ hours, stirring every few minutes to prevent sticking. Makes 6 servings.
(adapted from Albyn and Webb, p. 72)
For much of Yemen's history, education was only available to the wealthy. The constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to education, and the government has opened a number of public schools in large cities and towns. Rural areas are still limited to Muslim religious schools. In 2004 it was estimated that 80% of boys and 50% of girls attended primary school. At the secondary level, 55% of boys and 22% of girls attend school. The literacy rate has doubled since the mid-1990s; in 2004, it was about 50%. That year, among men literacy was 70%; among women, 30%.
There is a strong rural tradition in Yemen of oral literature, poetry, and song. Arab music is much like the Arab language- rich, repetitive, and exaggerated. The oud, or kabanj, is a popular instrument; it is an ancient stringed instrument that is the ancestor of the European lute. Another traditional instrument is the rebaba, a one-stringed instrument. A traditional Arab dance is the ardha, or men's sword dance. Men carrying swords stand shoulder to shoulder and dance, and from among them a poet sings verses while drummers beat out a rhythm. A popular Yemeni singer, Badwi Zubayr, is known all over the Arabian Peninsula. Iskandar Thabit (b. 1924) wrote popular songs for the Yemeni revolutions during the 1960s. The most-respected living Yemeni writer is 'Abdallah al-Baraduni, a poet.
Islam forbids the depiction of the human form, so Yemeni art focuses on geometric and abstract shapes. Yemen is famous for its silver jewelry. Stained glass and pottery are also popular art forms. Calligraphy is a sacred art, with the Quran being the primary subject matter. Muslim art finds its greatest expression in mosques.
More than half of all Yemenis are small farmers. In cities and towns, there is a staggeringly high unemployment rate. This was made worse in 1990 when Saudi Arabia expelled all Yemeni workers there, after Yemen refused to support the stationing of foreign troops in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War (1990-91). Over 700,000 workers lost their jobs in Saudi Arabia and returned home to Yemen, looking for work. In 1992, thousands of refugees from Somalia arrived in Yemen, also looking for work. Yemen is attempting to expand its industrial base, but poor transportation systems make that difficult.
The industry that exists consists of oil and oil processing; natural gas; salt, limestone, and marble mining; fishing and fish-processing plants; and coffee. The oil and gas sectors are the most profitable sectors of the Yemeni economy. In 2005 the country exported oil worth $3.1 billion. The government derives 70% of its earnings from the oil sector.
Rural women have very heavy workloads. Not only do they do 70–75% of the work in the fields, but they are also responsible for fetching all the wood and water (which means carrying 20- to 25-kg or 44- to 55-lb loads on their heads for long distances, often uphill); cutting alfalfa to feed the cow (one cow requires six to eight hours per day of labor to care for it); all the cooking and housekeeping; and caring for the children. In addition to this, many women also sell dairy produce, dried cow or sheep dung, animal products, and/or crafts for extra family income. Only 1.5% of Yemeni women are employed in wage-earning jobs.
Football (or soccer, as it is known in the United States) is the national pastime of Yemenis. Organized sports are rare, and Yemen has few athletes who are skilled enough to compete at an international level. In 2008 the Yemen national football team was ranked 141st by FIFA (International Federation of Association Football), the world governing body of international football. Yemen has sent athletes to the Olympic Games since 1992, but the country has yet to win a medal. The Yemeni Cricket League finished its first season in 1995 and cricket is played primarily by expatriate workers from South Asia.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
The favorite form of entertainment in Yemen is chewing qat leaves, a mild narcotic. Men gather every afternoon for qat parties that last until sunset. Women chew qat as well, but not nearly as much as men. Women's afternoon gatherings are known as tafritas; here, marriages are arranged, goods sold, and information and experiences shared.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Silver jewelry is one of the most important forms of art in Yemen, and also a traditional folk art. Other crafts include textiles, leather, baskets, and stained glass. Because the jambiya men wear is so significant a social marker, many craftspeople specialize in making elaborately decorated knives, leather belts, and jeweled knife covers.
The use of the narcotic qat is a significant problem in Yemen, although most Yemenis would disagree. Farmers are growing qat on land where they used to grow food crops, because qat brings in a much higher price. But then they spend their profits on qat to chew, so they cannot buy food to replace what they did not grow in the fields. Malnutrition is an increasing problem in Yemen. Also, men spend so much time chewing qat that the women are left to do most of the work to provide for their families. This creates much stress for the women and, consequently, for their families. Qat is legal in Yemen, but it is considered an illegal drug in international markets so it cannot be exported for profit. The national addiction to this drug has also caused severe environmental problems. Yemen is fairly arid and a significant portion of the country's supply of water is being used in inefficient irrigation of qat plantations.
The extremely high rate of unemployment is a tremendous problem in Yemen. The sluggish economy is improving very slowly, so it does not appear there will be any significant increase in jobs in the near future. Population growth is so rapid and economic growth so low that many economists predict a bleak future for the country. Oil revenues, while increasing, are not significant enough to help in a substantive way, as they do in all the other countries that make up the Arabian peninsula.
Since 2004 there has been violence in the north of Yemen, where the Zaydi sect has been fighting the government for autonomy and to establish a religious state. Violence has been intermittent with long periods of relative peace followed by uprisings, which the government is generally successful at putting down. Gun ownership is widespread, particularly in the countryside where even boys as young as 11 and 12 are armed. They can be seeing carrying military assault rifles as well as the ubiquitous jambiya. Because of Yemen's tribal tradition and weak government, many disputes are settled with violence. Small armed skirmishes are relatively common in the countryside.
Yemen is a close military and political ally of the United States, particularly in its War on Terror. Al Qaeda has a fairly strong presence in Yemen and in the early 2000s there were several violent terrorist incidents, mainly targeting western tourists. In early 2008 there were frequent bombings of Western and particularly U.S. housing compounds and embassies.
Women in Yemen face many difficulties, including lack of educational opportunities, forced early marriages, water shortages, and qat addiction among male members of the family, which often leaves the women as the only workers in a family. In fact, in 2007 the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Report ranked Yemen last (128th out of 128 countries surveyed) in terms of political and economic empowerment of women. In the same year, the international charity organization Save the Children ranked Yemen 138th out of 140 countries studied in its annual Mothers Index, which considers the best and worst countries for mothers and children (1 being the best, 140 the worst) when taking into account maternal mortality, access to contraception, and the percentage of women in national government, among other factors. Yemen has been near the bottom of the list in other years as well.
Although women have the right to vote in Yemen and also have equal access to education by law, the reality is that women in Yemen generally lead difficult lives. The nation is deeply religious, tribal, and traditional. Islamic and Arab customs dictate that women should be covered in public, and in Yemen women are generally completely covered, often simply wearing a traditional sheet pulled over themselves rather than a fitted abaya as women do in most other countries on the Arabian peninsula. In the larger cities, younger Yemeni women will sometimes wear the traditional black abaya with gloves and a niqab, a veil that completely covers their face.
Virtually all marriages in Yemen are arranged by family members. There is a strong historical and cultural preference for marriages within the clan or tribe, and often between first cousins. Yemeni men are allowed to have as many as four wives at any one time, but because of Islamic rules requiring that all wives be treated equally, few men in Yemen can afford to have more than one wife. Female genital mutilation was outlawed in 2001, but the effectiveness of the law on the practice in Yemeni society is not known.
About 25% of Yemeni women work outside the home, primarily in crafts industries and as domestic help. Although Yemen is culturally very traditional, the government does promote the idea of equality between the genders and there are usually a few women serving in parliament.
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Hansen, Eric. Motoring with Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea. New York. Vintage, 1992.
Macintosh-Smith, Tim. Yemen: The Unknown Arabia. New York. Overlook TP, 2001.
Schwedler, Jillian. Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Vom Bruck, Gabriele. Islam, Memory, and Morality in Yemen: Ruling Families in Transition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
—revised by J. Henry
LOCATION: Republic of Yemen
POPULATION: 15.8 million
1 • INTRODUCTION
Ancient Yemen was known as "Happy (or Fortunate) Arabia" because of its great wealth. Its riches were the result of both its location on the most important trade routes of the time—over land and sea—and its profitable trade in frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh are made from resins from trees growing only in that area. They are used to make perfumes and incense used for religious purposes. They were rare and hard to obtain, and much sought after in the ancient world. Today, however, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Yemen has seen many rulers come and go. The earliest-known advanced civilization in the region was that of the Sabeans, who called their land Saba (or Sheba ). They occupied the land around 1000 bc. The famed Queen of Sheba was a legendary Sabean ruler.
In modern times, Yemen has been ruled by Ottoman Turks and by Britain. These two powers drew a border between the north and south regions in 1905. The land remained divided into North Yemen and South Yemen throughout most of the twentieth century. After decades of wars and attempts at unification, North Yemen and South Yemen were united on May 22, 1990, becoming the Republic of Yemen. The main reason for unification was the discovery of oil along their common border in 1988. Rather than fight for rights to the oil, or split the badly needed income, the two countries decide to join and cooperate.
2 • LOCATION
Yemen is located in southwestern Asia, on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by Oman to the northeast and Saudi Arabia to the north. The Gulf of Aden (part of the Indian Ocean) lies to the south of Yemen, and the Red Sea lies to the west.
Yemen's landscape is made up of mountains and highlands, deserts, and plains. Yemen is cut off from the northern countries of the Arabian Peninsula by vast stretches of desert, called the Empty Quarter. The 1994 census counted 15.8 million people. Less than 25 percent of the population lives in cities and towns.
The population of Yemen is increasing rapidly; it is expected to double within twenty years. More than half (52 percent) of the population is under the age of fifteen.
3 • LANGUAGE
The official language of Yemen is Arabic. "Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum (Peace be with you) with the reply of Walaykum as-salam (And to you peace). Ma'assalama means "Goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is Afwan. "Yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a.
The numbers one to ten in Arabic are wahad, itnin, talata, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, tamania, tisa'a, and ashara.
4 • FOLKLORE
Yemeni tradition says that Shem, the son of the biblical figure Noah, founded the city of Sana.
Another legendary figure is the Sabean queen Bilqis, better known as the Queen of Sheba. Legend says that she visited King Solomon of Israel (who ruled from 965 to 925 bc) to establish friendly relations, since she and Solomon controlled the two ends of an important trade route. Her visit with Solomon is mentioned in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (the Old Testament and New Testament), as well as the Koran (the sacred text of Islam).
The Ethiopians believe that they are descended from a child born to King Solomon and Queen Bilqis. No one knows whether the Queen of Sheba actually existed. Queens did rule in Arabia at that time, so it is possible that she existed.
5 • RELIGION
The ancient Yemenis were polytheistic—they worshiped many different goddesses and gods. In the seventh century ad, the Islamic revolution swept through the Middle East. The Persian ruler of Yemen at that time converted to Islam while the Prophet Muhammad (570–632) was still alive. Most Yemenis followed him and converted, too.
About 50 percent of the people of Yemen now belong to the Shafai sect of Sunni Islam. Some 33 percent belong to the Zaydi sect of Shi'ah Islam.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
Muslim holidays follow the lunar calendar, moving back by eleven days each year, so their dates are not fixed. The main Muslim holidays are Ramadan, the month of complete fasting from dawn until dusk; Eid al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; Eid al-Adha, a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the hajj ); the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; Mawoulid An-Nabawi, the Prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Eid al-Isra wa Al-Miraj , a feast celebrating Muhammad's nighttime visit to heaven.
Friday is the Islamic day of rest, so all government offices are closed on that day. In Yemen, unlike in some of the neighboring Islamic countries, many shops stay open on Fridays.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
Weddings are occasions for much celebrating. First, there is the betrothal (engagement) feast, usually held on a Thursday or Friday. This is when the future groom and his father visit the bride's father to settle on a wedding date and bride-price. The wedding itself lasts for three days, usually from Wednesday through Friday.
The most public part takes place on Friday and is called the laylat az-Zaffa. Men have a qat party in the afternoon. They sit together and chew qat leaves (a mild narcotic) and smoke the narghile, or water-pipe. Women help to prepare the food.
In the evening, the men go to the mosque (the building in which Muslims worship). They return dancing and singing around the groom, who carries a golden sword. Then they feast on the wedding food, chew more qat, and smoke the narghile once again. Incense is passed around with blessings, poems are recited, a lute is played, and songs are sung.
Some of the women go to the bride's home to help her dress. A special make-up artist paints delicate designs on her hands and feet. Eventually, the men line up outside the groom's house. He walks with them toward the door, leaping over the threshold.
The men sing the whole time. The women climb up on the roof and begin making a high-pitched sound, called the zaghrada. The bride arrives at the groom's house later. The guests may or may not wait for her to arrive. Once the bride enters the groom's house, she becomes part of his family.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
Arab hospitality reigns in Yemen. As they talk to each other, Arabs touch each other much more often, and stand much closer together, than Westerners do. Arabs talk a long time, talk loudly, repeat themselves often, and interrupt each other constantly.
The Arab sense of time is also quite different from that of the West. Schedules are loose and flexible, with the day divided not into hours and minutes but into "morning," "lunchtime," and "evening." There are no clocks in public places.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
Yemen has been trying to improve living conditions for its people. In rural areas, where 75 percent of the population live, running water has been made available in most villages. Sewer systems have yet to be installed, however. The water is often polluted, and diseases such as dysentery are common.
Medical care is limited, if it is available at all. The government has begun to establish some rural medical clinics. Few children are vaccinated, so diseases such as measles and tuberculosis spread quickly. Malnutrition is widespread.
Buses and cars have only recently replaced camels and donkeys for transportation in the country. Although life in the cities and larger towns is better, conditions are still far below modern Western standards.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
The nuclear family (parents and children), called 'ayla in Arabic, is the basic social unit of Yemeni society. Most families are large, with eight to ten members. Several generations of an extended family may live together in one home.
Men and women are separated in public. Women keep themselves veiled and fully covered when anyone but family is present. Most Yemeni women will not eat in public restaurants. More women are going to school and getting jobs outside the home today. However, the Islamic tradition of separating men and women makes this difficult.
The average age for marriage is twenty-two for men and eighteen for women. Sometimes girls marry as early as fourteen years of age. Parents usually arrange marriages for their children.
Divorce is fairly simple for both men and women. It carries no sense of shame, and it happens relatively often. Some 15 to 20 percent of Yemeni women have been divorced and remarried at least once in their lifes.
In rural areas, only one girl attends school for every ten boys. Yemeni universities now accept women as students, but men are still chosen first for admission.
11 • CLOTHING
Clothing styles in Yemen vary by region. In hot coastal regions, men wear a lightweight shirt with an embroidered skirt called a futa and a straw hat or other head covering. In the cooler highlands, they wear a calf-length shirt called a zanna with a jacket. Many men wear a belt with a jambiyya, or ceremonial dagger, tucked in at the waist. A man's jambiyya identifies his clan and is a symbol of manhood. Boys start wearing it at about the age of fourteen.
Women's styles are much harder to classify. Yemeni women like bright colors and lots of jewelry, especially silver. In Sana, many women wrap themselves in brilliant cloth imported from India, called sitaras. In the highlands, they wear baggy embroidered trousers called sirwals under their dresses. In eastern Yemen, women wear black robes and pointed straw hats to work in the fields.
Many Yemeni women throughout the country wear the traditional Islamic covering, the abaya— a loose black robe that covers the woman from head to toe—when they go out in public. The sharshaf— a black skirt, cape, veil, and head covering—is also worn by women throughout Yemen.
(Thick Lentil Soup)
- 1 pound soup bones (beef or lamb)
- 8 cups water
- 2 cups brown lentils
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 2 cups stewed tomatoes
- ¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro (the green leaves of an herb also known as coriander ), OR 3 tablespoons dried cilantro
- salt and pepper to taste
Rinse soup bones and put into a large saucepan with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer. Add lentils, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook for 1½ hours, stirring every few minutes to prevent sticking. Makes 6 servings.
Adapted from Albyn, Carole Lisa, and Lois Sinaiko Webb. The Multicultural Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1993, p. 72.
12 • FOOD
The Yemeni diet is quite simple. Staples are rice, bread, vegetables, and lamb, with fish in the coastal regions. Breakfast is a light meal consisting of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, or a bean dish called ful, served with flat bread. Supper in the evening is similar.
Lunch is the largest meal. It generally consists of chicken, lamb, or beef, with cooked vegetables, and rice mixed with raisins and almonds. Flat bread soaked in buttermilk and covered with tomatoes, onions, and spices is served at almost every meal, as well as a spicy green stew called salta. Salta probably can be called the national dish of Yemen. It is made with meat broth, onions, tomatoes, mince meat, eggs, and hulba— a mixture of fenugreek (an herb) and grated leeks (which look like large scallions, or green onions). Sweet custards are usually served for dessert, with either tea or coffee.
Coffee originated in Mocha, a port town on the Red Sea in Yemen. It made its way to Europe on trading ships during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In Yemen, both the husks and the beans are used to make beverages.
Yemenis make a drink called qishr by steeping coffee husks in hot water, then adding ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom for flavor. Qishr is milder than bean coffee and is actually preferred in Yemen.
A soup that is popular in Yemen is shourba bilsen, made with lentils.
13 • EDUCATION
For much of Yemen's history, education was available only to the wealthy. The new constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to an education. The government has opened a number of public schools in large cities and towns. Rural areas still have only Muslim religious schools.
The literacy rate (proportion of the population that can read and write) continues to be very low. In the early 1990s, under 27 percent of Yemenis were literate. That average breaks down to about 46 percent of men and 7 percent of women.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Arab music can be rich, repetitive, and dramatic. The oud, or kabanj, is a popular traditional instrument. It is an ancient stringed instrument that is the ancestor of the European lute. Another traditional instrument is the rebaba, which has only one string.
A traditional Arab dance is the ardha, or men's sword dance. Men carrying swords stand shoulder-to-shoulder and dance. Within the group, a poet sings verses and drummers play the rhythm.
Islam forbids making pictures of the human form, so Arab art concentrates on geometric and abstract shapes. Yemen is famous for its silver jewelry. Stained glass and pottery are also important art forms. Calligraphy (ornamental writing) is a sacred art; texts from the Koran are the main subject matter.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
More than half of all Yemenis are small farmers. In cities and towns, there is a very high unemployment rate. This was made worse in 1990, when Saudi Arabia threw out all of its Yemeni workers. Over 700,000 people lost their jobs and returned home. In 1992, thousands of refugees from Somalia arrived in Yemen, also looking for work.
Rural women have very heavy workloads. They do as much as three-quarters of the work in the fields. They are also responsible for fetching all the wood and water—which means carrying loads weighing fortyfour to fifty-five pounds (twenty to twenty-five kilograms) on their heads for long distances, often uphill. They also must cut alfalfa to feed the cow (it takes six to eight hours of work per day to care for one cow), do all the cooking and housework, and care for the children.
16 • SPORTS
Soccer is the national pastime of Yemenis. Organized sports are rare, and Yemen has few athletes with enough skill to compete at an international level. Yemen has sent athletes to recent Olympic Games, but as of 1998 they had yet to win a medal. The Yemeni Cricket League finished its first season in 1995.
17 • RECREATION
The favorite form of entertainment in Yemen is chewing qat leaves, a mild narcotic. Men gather every afternoon for qat parties that last until sunset. Women chew qat as well, but not nearly so much as men.
Women's afternoon gatherings are known as tafritas. At these, marriages are arranged, goods are sold, and information and experiences are shared.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Silver jewelry is one of the most important forms of art in Yemen. Other crafts include textiles, leatherwork, basketry, and stained glass.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
The use of the narcotic qat is a problem in Yemen, although most Yemenis would disagree. Farmers are growing qat on land where they used to grow food because qat brings a much higher price. Once cultivated, qat leaves only retain their narcotic quality for a couple days. In addition, men spend so much time chewing qat that the women are left to do most of the work to provide for their families. Qat is legal in Yemen. However, it is considered an illegal drug in international markets, so it can not be sold outside the country.
The extremely high rate of unemployment is a tremendous problem. The economy is improving only very slowly, so it does not appear that there will be any significant growth in jobs in the near future.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
Albyn, Carole Lisa, and Lois Sinaiko Webb. The Multicultural Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1993.
Chwaszcza, Joachim, ed. Insight Guides: Yemen. Singapore: APA Publications (HK) Ltd., 1992.
Crouch, Michael. An Element of Luck: To South Arabia and Beyond. New York: Radcliffe Press, 1993.
Hämäläinen, Pertii. Yemen: A Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit. Hawthorn, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1996.
Wenner, Manfred W. The Yemen Arab Republic: Development and Change in an Ancient Land. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.
ArabNet. [Online] Available http://www.arab.net/yemen/yemen_contents.html, 1998.
World Travel Guide, Yemen. [Online] Available http://travelguide.attistel.co.uk/country/ye/gen.html, 1998.
Identification. The Yemenis are a Muslim and Arabic-speaking people who are mainly Arabs, although a small percentage of the population has African and Asian ancestry. Yemeni values have traditionally relied on a hierarchical, tribally organized, and sex-segregated society. In 1962, following the overthrow of a conservative monarchy that had been supported by members of the Zaydi Islamic sect, the Republic was established, marking Yemen's entry into the modern world.
Location. Yemen occupies the southern shore and the southwestern corner of the Arabian peninsula. Its western boundary is the Red Sea. The country has a mountainous interior with a temperate or subtropical climate. The central highlands divide Yemen into a coastal plain called the Tihama, which has a tropical climate with sparse rainfall, and a desert region that stretches into the Empty Quarter. A midlands area consists of valleys (wadis) and foothills that slope down to the lowlands. Southwest monsoons influence Yemen's climate. The southern highlands receive the most rainfall, particularly where mountains provide less of a barrier to precipitation.
Demography. In the first national census that was conducted in 1975, the population of over 5 million included male laborers temporarily employed outside the country but excluded many Yemenis in the lowest servant groups. Population figures taken from various census reports between 1985 and 1989 range from more than 6 million to more than nine million. In the early 1990s the population of Yemen surpassed 10 million.
Linguistic Affiliation. Yemenis speak the dialect of Arabic spoken in the region or urban center from which they originate. Regional variations in the pronunciation of certain Arabic phonemes (especially the phoneme /q/) differentiates the speech of northerners from southerners, for example. The speech pattern of Tiharna residents is marked not only by dialectal variations but by characteristic accents, intonations, and inflections.
History and Cultural Relations
Yemen is an ancient country. In the millennia before Christianity, the two Yemens, known as South Arabia and Arabia Felix ("Happy Arabia"), were important points along the incense trade routes. South Arabian kingdoms dating from 1000 b.c. included the land from which the Queen of Sheba made her visit to King Solomon. Prior to the coming of Islam in the sixth century A.D., the South Arabian kingdoms declined, the conquests of Persian and Ethiopian rulers failed, and the famous dam at Ma'rib was destroyed. Remnants of the dam and pillars, reputedly from the queen's temple, are still to be found in the eastern desert of Yemen. Leadership under the Zaydi imams began in the ninth century. Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, various external and local dynasties struggled for power in different parts of Yemen. Among these were the Sulayhid (including the noted queen, Arwa), Ayyubid, and Tehirid dynasties. Yemen resisted foreign rule, but two occupations by the Ottoman Turks occurred—between the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries and from the 1870s to 1918. The imams then sought to reassert their political authority over the tribes of Yemen and against Saudi Arabia. The assassination of Iman Yahya in 1948 was eventually followed by a successful revolt of dissident army officers, intellectuals, and businessmen in 1962. Civil warfare lasted into the 1970s and reerupted in the 1990s.
Most Yemenis live in small, widely dispersed farming villages and towns. Three-quarters of the population lives in roughly 50,000 settlements with less than 500 inhabitants. The cities of Aden, Abyan, Al-Houta, Al-Hudaydah (a port), San'a, and Ta'izz have more than 100,000 residents each. Many foreign countries have assisted in the building of roads, hospitals, and schools, but improvements such as sanitary water facilities and power supply typically remain local development projects.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. In the rapid transition from a subsistence to a cash economy, most families can no longer support themselves exclusively by farming. Yemen, once a chief exporter of Mocha coffee (from the port of the same name) now has a highly inflated economy that is dependent on imports. Yemenis who continue to plow their fields manually or with the aid of oxen do so not only because traditional methods are more efficient on narrow traces, but also because farmers are far too poor to own or even to rent the services of a tractor. Radical changes in the subsistence economy began in the 1970s with the export of male labor to Saudi Arabia. By the mid-1980s, remittances from abroad, including U.S. earnings, amounted to a billion dollars and resulted in a sharp rises in bride-price and the cost of land, food, modern consumer items, and professional services. Yemeni dependence on the oil-producing economies now means that staple grains (such as drought-resistant maize, sorghum, wheat, and barley), livestock (including goats, sheep, cattle, and chickens) and even cash crops (cotton and sesame, for example) cannot compete with high-yield commodities from the industrialized world. Oil was discovered in 1984 by the U.S. Hunt Oil Company. By fulfilling its potential to become a modest oil producer, Yemen would reduce its economic dependence on Saudi Arabia. Presently, the most important cash crop for local consumption is qāt (Cathe edulis ), the mild leaf stimulant that Yemenis chew for its euphoric effects and which is an essential component of daily social and business gatherings. One measure of increasing affluence is the afford-ability of qāt, especially among town dwellers.
Industrial Arts. Yemenis are applying new skills to old trades or entering new occupations that were formerly reserved only for members of despised groups. Operating a sewing machine is an example of a new skill; women do the sewing at home, or, more often, men do the work in shops. Prior to their exodus from Yemen in the mid-twentieth century, Jews were the silversmiths. Now jewelry trades have been taken up by Yemeni Arabs. Returning migrant laborers apply the metal crafts they learned abroad in the making of steel doors, which are much desired by Yemeni homeowners and shopkeepers. Certain regional crafts and services must compete with imports and modernity: weaving, pottery, and charcoal selling fall into this category. Selling goods in the market was formerly an occupation considered too lowly for individuals of tribal status, but now shopkeeping offers men one of the few opportunities to invest their foreign earnings. On the other hand, greater spending on meat consumption and the resultant increase in the demand for butchers has not meant an elevation in the social status of butchers despite their upgraded economic position.
Division of Labor. Various tasks in the cultivation of crops are divided according to sex. Men, women, and children share responsibility for the care of livestock. Women gather firewood and water; in some regions, they now receive assistance from the men, who have acquired Japanese trucks. The family's livelihood may also depend on women selling homemade goods and produce in the marketplace.
Land Tenure. Farmers either own their plots, which tend to be small, or they work as shareholders. No stigma is attached to nonlandowners unless one is a member of a group that, in the past, was not permitted to buy land.
Kin Groups and Descent. In the northern highlands, tribal lineages are based on claims of descent from a named male (patronymic) ancestor. More characteristic of social organization in the southern and coastal regions are smaller alliances and/or greater association with others residing in the same vicinity.
Kinship Terminology. Yemenis recognize the concept of "closeness" to describe desired relationships through marriage.
Marriage. Islamic law and custom guide contemporary Yemeni marriages, although government regulations establishing ceilings on bride-price are often ignored. The legal marriage age of 16 for girls is also difficult to regulate because births are not routinely recorded. Arranged marriages prevail, but women do have veto power over a prospective groom. Fewer than 5 percent of Yemeni males exercise their option as Muslims to have up to four wives. The difficulty of supporting multiple wives equitably, as Islamic law requires, as well as the high cost of getting married, probably discourages polygyny. Divorce can be accomplished by men with far fewer restrictions than are imposed on women. Customarily, wives (through fathers or brothers) must remunerate their husbands if they wish to terminate the marriage. Legally, fathers' rights to the children after divorce supersede those of mothers.
Domestic Unit. Women preside over the work of the household, which may be comprised of blood relatives, neighbors, and members of client or servant groups in families of high social status. Women are valued members of the household unit as agricultural producers and are also crucial to the maintenance of the Yemeni ideal of domestic hospitality.
Inheritance. Landownership is concentrated within the dominant patrilineages, the result both of inheritance practices and marital strategies. Under Islamic rules, a woman's inheritance is only half that of her brother. In Yemen, women often do not renounce their claims of ownership. Thus the ideal marriage between patrilateral cousins would ensure that land remains within the patrilineage. Similarly, marriage to an outsider encourages the renunciation of claims to land that is too far away to farm.
Socialization. In Yemeni society, the responsibilities of child care are willingly assumed by many others besides the mother, including older children and grandmothers. Once children are able to walk, they freely roam their village, observing the activities of any household. Physical punishment is reserved for more severe infractions, but mothers have ingenious ways of getting their children's attention.
Social Organization. Yemeni society is hierarchically organized on the basis of birth status and occupation. Until relative political stability was achieved in the late 1970s, birth and occupational statuses were legitimized as ascribed social categories. The elimination of practical barriers that restrict power and privilege—especially through marriage and education—to certain members of the society has only just begun. Under the system of ranked social categories, members of respectable groupings recognized their own noble descent and considered themselves the protectors of servants, former slaves, artisans, and certain farmers, all of whom were thought of as "deficient," either because they provided a service or craft—such as bloodletting, butchery, or barbering—that involved contact with polluting substances, or because their origins were discredited as ignoble. The tribal code of protection was also extended to elites at the top of the social scale, especially to sayyids, the reputed descendants of the Prophet, who originally came to Yemen to serve as mediators between tribes and who are respected for their religious expertise. Another social category, that of legal scholars, also inherits high status in the ranking order. Scholars, along with shuyukh (sing. shaykh ), who are tribal leaders, typically serve as village administrators. The majority of Yemenis use various equivalent or substitute terms to identify themselves within the social hierarchy, including qaba'il in the northern highlands to connote tribal membership, ra'iyah in the south to mean "cultivators," and 'arab along the coast to signify respectable ancestry. Former slaves continue to act as agents and domestics in the households of former masters, but the most menial jobs (e.g., removing human waste from the street) are reserved for Yemenis who are alleged descendants of Ethiopians of the pre-Islamic era. In addition, Yemen relies on a range of foreigners from the East and West for professional, technical, and custodial services.
Political Organization. It is a continuing challenge of governmental strategies to achieve a stable balance between relatively autonomous tribes and the state. Alliance with dominant tribal confederation therefore may still be influential in the distribution of development projects by central authorities.
Social Control. A strict and complex code of honor based on tribal values governs behavior among groups and proper decorum between the sexes, including veiling of women in urban or northern areas.
Conflict. The cultural concept of honor also regulates the handling of disputes, which depends on confirming significant kinship ties.
Religion and Expressive Culture
Islam is the major force that unifies Yemenis across social, sexual, and regional boundaries. Yet most adherents of the different schools of Islam reside in distinct sections of the country, and this fact has certain political implications. Zaydis, who belong to the Shia subsect of Islam, are located in the northern and eastern parts of Yemen, whereas Shafis, orthodox Sunnis, live in the southern and coastal regions. Location in the highlands apparently enables Zaydis more successfully to repel invasions than Shafis in the lower lying areas. A smaller Shia subsect, the Ismaili, and also the remnants of an ancient Jewish community, may still be found in certain parts of Yemen.
Religious Beliefs. As Muslims, Yemenis aspire to fulfill the five tenets of Islam: affirmation of the Islamic creed, prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage.
In the Shafi areas of Yemen, the tombs of certain holy men are visited by believers for their special healing and other powers.
Religious Practitioners. Being of sayyid status, even in contemporary Yemeni society, still validates (but does not necessarily guarantee) one's access to religious learning. Men gather at the mosque for prayers and sermons on the Sabbath, which in Yemen occurs on Friday. Strict segregation of the sexes usually does not permit women to worship in public.
Ceremonies. Yemenis observe the major holidays, such as Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, as well as lesser festivals in the Arabian calendar.
Arts. Despite the imposition of modernity, Yemenis remain proud of their architectural and oral-poetry traditions. Houses and mosques found in different regions of the country reflect unique stylistic and functional variations. Highlanders construct multistoried buildings from smooth, layered mud, mud brick, or cut stone. Dwellings in San'a are particularly impressive with their decorative colored-glass windows. In the rural highlands, houses constructed atop terraced embankments were fortresses against enemy tribes. In cities along the coastal plain, the former elegance of houses and mosques can be seen in their elaborate doors and facades. Rural towns in the Tihama usually include a walled compound that contains mud and thatched-roof huts identical to those found in Africa, on the other side of the Red Sea. The interiors of Tihama houses may be highly ornamented. Buildings constructed of cinder blocks are routinely replacing the huts. Competitive poetry duels performed at weddings by men of tribal status are highly valued. In the past, celebrations for circumcision (required of all Muslim males) were particularly elaborate, but now government officials discourage postinfancy circumcisions, thereby undermining the importance of ceremonial specialists.
Medicine. Yemenis often continue to rely on traditional healers and midwives while simultaneously taking advantage of modern medical technologies. Illness is thought to be caused by such factors as fright—which many believe can be cured by branding (misam )—and possession by malevolent spirits (jinn), which requires the performance of the zar exorcism ceremony.
Death and Afterlife. On the occasion of a death, most households receive visits from those with whom they have social bonds. Such visits to the bereaved are part of the formal visiting networks that have been established, especially among women in towns and cities. Yemeni views regarding the Day of Judgment are far from simplistic, even though a fatalistic belief system is implicit in Quranic teachings of an all-powerful Allah. Yemenis also believe that whether one's soul spends eternity in heaven or hell is ultimately the responsibility of the individual Muslim.
Nyrop, Richard F. (1986). The Yemens: Country Studies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Swanson, Jon C. (1979). Emigration and Economic Development: The Case of the Yemen Arab Republic. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Weir, Shelagh (1985). Qat in Yemen: Consumption and Social Change. London: British Museum Publications.
DELORES M. WALTERS