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LOCATION: Republic of Yemen

POPULATION: 15.8 million


RELIGION: Islam; Judaism


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 timeover land and seaand 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.


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.


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.


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.


The ancient Yemenis were polytheisticthey 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 (570632) 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.


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.

Secular holidays in Yemen include January 1, New Year's Day; May 1, Labor Day; May 22, National Unity Day; September 26, Revolution Day; October 14, National Day; and November 30, Independence Day.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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 toewhen they go out in public. The sharshaf a black skirt, cape, veil, and head coveringis also worn by women throughout Yemen.


Shourba Bilsen
(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.


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.


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.


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.


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 waterwhich 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.


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.


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.


Silver jewelry is one of the most important forms of art in Yemen. Other crafts include textiles, leatherwork, basketry, and stained glass.


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.


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.

Dresch, Paul. Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

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, 1998.

World Travel Guide, Yemen. [Online] Available, 1998.

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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 occurredbetween 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 and Family

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.

Sociopolitical Organization

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 privilegeespecially through marriage and educationto 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 craftsuch as bloodletting, butchery, or barberingthat 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 frightwhich 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.


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