Yemen: Customs, Traditions, and More
Compared to other Arab countries, Yemen is the least affected by globalization. If one seeks to experience genuine Arabic culture, Yemen can’t be beat linguistically, culturally, and religiously. Following is some essential information about Yemen customs and traditions.
Yemeni Architecture – Old Sana’a City
Facts and Figures:
Located in the south west of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has a population of over 28 million inhabitants and an area of 555 thousand km2. The fertility rate is over 4% and around 75% of the population are living in rural areas. Yemenis are mainly Arabs. In the southern regions, a small percentage is of African (i.e. Ethiopian, Somali, and Kenyan) and South Asian (i.e. Indian) origins. Governed centrally, this vast area is divided into 22 governorates. Topographically, these areas are mountainous, coastal, and desert.
Arabic is the mother tongue for almost all Yemenis. As to dialects, there are two major and mutually intelligible dialects: the northern dialect and the southern dialect. Certain variations within each exist. Both retain all the features of Classical Arabic. Sana’ani—spoken in Old Sana’a City and the surrounding regions—is the prestigious dialect. Besides Arabic, Mehri and Socotri, pre-Islamic South Arabian languages, are still spoken in al-Mahrah Governorate and Socotra archipelago, respectively.
Yemenis are 100% Muslims. 55% of them are شَافِعِي Shafi’i, a branch of Sunni Islam, and 45% are زِيْدِي Zaidi, a branch of Shia Islam. Shafi’is are concentrated in the south of Yemen, while Zaidis reside in the north. Notwithstanding their affiliation with Shiism, Zaidis have been living harmoniously with Shafi’is ever since the first century of Islam. This is primarily owing to the scant ideological differences between Zaydism and Sunnism. According to most contemporary عُلَمَاء ulama’a, Muslim scholars, Zaydism has more in common with Sunnism that with Shiism.
Yemenis are known for their generosity and hospitality. They dearly value family and dignity. Behaving contrary to these values is a sign to of disrespect and poor manners. Generally humble and welcoming people, Yemenis run to help whoever is in need; they normally prepared the best possible feast for their guests/invitees. Typically, it is expected of every man to take good care of his father, mother, siblings, especially females. It is common to see men continue to live with the family after they get married. Due to their high sense of pride, Yemenis may not abandon their standards and principles. This is especially true for Zaidis.
Cuisine and Table Manners:
Yemen has a wide variety of dishes that are peculiar to Yemeni kitchen. The most frequently enjoyed are saltah, mandi, ‘aseeT, shafoot, and bint aSSaHn. These dishes are mostly eaten for lunch—the main meal in Yemen.
saltah سَلْتَة: it is considered the national dish of Yemen. A typical Yemeni would say a lunch without saltah is not a lunch at all. You can learn more about Saltah in this post.
mandi مَنْدِي: it a rice dish with meat. The best variety of mandi is goat meat. Recently, all types of red meat and even chicken are used to make the dish. Mandi has lately become a popular dish in many Arab countries.
‘aseeT عَصِيْد: it is a porridge-like but much thicker so that it could be eaten by hands. The flour used is sorghum or millet or a mixture of both. Yellow and red sorghum is considered more delicious and nutritious than the white. It could be eaten with consommé soup, organic ghee, boiled milk and ghee, or honey.
shafoot شَفُوْت: it is one of the most enjoyed Yemeni dishes, especially during Ramadhan. It is layers of bread call لَحُوْح laHooH separated with seasoned yogurt. laHooH is eyed crepe-like bread made of sorghum and/or millet. You can find out more about shafoot in this post.
bint aSSaHn بْنْت الصَّحْن: it is basically a pastry made of white flour, eggs, and (organic) ghee that is covered with a sprinkle of black seed and most importantly (local) Yemeni honey. It is eaten on especial occasions, such weddings, important social gatherings, especial days, such as Fridays and Eids.
Yemenis eat with their right hands. Eating with left hands is an inappropriate behavior. Regardless of the occasion or place, the norm is to eat from the same plate, each from the side of plate immediately facing him/her. Food is served in plates of varying sizes depending on the family size or number of people having the meal. In extended families, i.e. 15 members or more, which exist in rural areas, men eat in separate dining-rooms from women. Common phrases Yemenis say while eating:
بِاسم (بِسْم) الله bism illah ‘by/in the name of Allah,’ said by all when they start eating.
الحَمْدُ لله alHamdu lillah ‘praise be to Allah,’ said by everyone when they finish eating.
مَا شاء الله masha’a allah, in the context of eating it means ‘wow what a delicious-looking meal,’ normally said by guests or elder members of the family.
Clothing in Yemen vary between north and south, especially men’s clothing. In the north, a man typically wears ثَوْب thoub, a long robe with long sleeves, white for the most part. Around his waist, he puts on جَنْبِيَة jambiya, a dagger in a wooden scabbard fastened with a thick belt. Over his shoulder and on his back or on his head, he puts a Yemeniشَال shawl. Some put on كُوْت kout, suit-like coat and the shawl on it. With this kind of dress, it is always preferred to wear سَنْدَل sandals rather than shoes. In the south, men wear belted مَعْوَز ma‘waz, sarong, and شَمِيْز shameez ‘shirt.’ Some put on shawl the same way as in the north, but the shawl may be of different colors and/or design.
In a society that is conservative by nature, Yemeni women willingly dress in black while in public. This consists of بَلْطَة balTah, a robe-like black dress and بُرْقُع burgu‘, two piece of soft black cloths to cover the head and face, except the eyes. While at home, women may dress differently but they still dress conservatively, especially in the north. That is, it is uncommon to see a Yemeni woman at home in clothes like many women in most parts of the Arab World, i.e. in tight jeans, shorts, or short skirts.
Holidays and celebrations:
In Yemen, the weekend is Thursday and Friday. Most people still work on Thursdays. Friday, however, is the most relished day of the week. The most distinctive feature of this day is Friday’s congregational prayer, well-prepared lunch, family visits and get-together, and chewing Qat.
Religious holidays include عِيْدُ الفِطْر Eidul Fitr, small Eid, عِيْدُ الأضْحَى eidul adhHa, big Eid, مَوْلِدُ النَّبِي mowlidul nabii, the birthday of the prophet, أَوَّلُ السَّنَة awwalul sanah, beginning of Hijri Year, and the 27 of Rajab, the night journey of the prophet to al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and then to the seven heavens. Yemenis celebrate these days through family visits, decent lunches, attending public ceremonies, and religious sermons / talks.
Days that mark national dignity and sovereignty are September 26—revolution day against the Imam rule in the north, October 14—revolution against the British Colony in the south, November 30—expulsion of the last British soldier from the south, and 22 May—the unification day of northern Yemen with southern Yemen. During these days, Yemenis attending public celebrations, watch military parades and popular dance, and go to music festivals and gigs.
Family life, size, and traditions follow the same line of categorization stated above. That is, families in the north are relatively different from those in the south in many social respects.
In the Zaidi areas, family members are typically close-knit and supportive of each other. In terms of size, they are relatively big. It is customary, if not obligatory, that young men continue to live with their parents and grandparents after marriage. This social demeanor is deemed an integral part of their cultural and geographic heritage. Apart from working in the family property, women, in the main, are not expected to seek employment and assist with family expenses. Generally, families are not so willing to relax their values and traditions, and thus, resist the foreign / western values.
On the other hand, families in the south are less interdependent and a bit self-seeking. For this reason, family size tends to be far smaller. Once married, most young men, if not all, leave their family homes and find their own residence. It is normally expected that the wife finds work and contributes to family expenses. It is not mandatory that these young men support members of their extended families. Owing to this lifestyle, they are more accepting of and emulating to social practices and values that are foreign to Yemeni traditions.
قَات Qat (khat) is defined by some English dictionaries as an Arabian shrub. It is in fact a tree-like that may grow up to nine meters in height. The most important part of it is the newly growing tender leaves. These leaves are plucked from the tree and chewed by Yemenis. Apart from its effects on the chewer which is contentious, it is pivotal in keeping culture and traditions intact and undistorted.
Generally, Yemenis chew Qat (khat) for, on average, five hours a day, i.e. from early afternoon to early evening. Compulsive chewers may do it for well over eight hours a day. Some view it as a drug because if chewed every day for a few consecutive weeks, the chewer won’t feel well or ‘would have a nightmare, so they say.’ In chewing Qat (khat), one feels relaxed, happy, and energetic. To consider a Qat chewer as stoned, like many claim, is an overstatement. Once thrown away, the chewer feels down, irritable and sluggish. It is mainly chewed by men and even teenagers in rural areas. More recently, it’s gained popularity among women, especially in big cities.
Socially, chewing Qat (khat) could be positive in that it is a means of maintaining social relations, meeting new people and making new friends, and strengthening customs and traditions. It is customary that people chew in groups, in a room called دِيْوَان diwan or مَفْرَج mafraj, especially designed for chewing. In these sessions, people share their ideas, thoughts, problems, and discuss a variety of topics as they chew. It is normal that a chewer would sit in a different mafraj every day as the host could different for every session. Therefore, it is inevitable chewers will get to know and befriend new people every day.
In social occasions, such as weddings, condolence gatherings, welcome and farewell gatherings, boy circumcision feasts, engagement feasts and gatherings, and alike, special attention and a decent amount of money are dedicated to Qat (khat) from both the host and invitees. Traditional dresses are put on, traditional songs and music are listen to, folklores may be recounted, traditional and popular dances are performed, religious and consolatory chants are chorally recited. All of this is kept intact thanks to Qat (khat) which keeps people focused, energetic, static in one place.