Sunday, 28 August 2011

Yemen - Coffee and Qat

It wasn't until I was blogging about the Netherlands that I learned that coffee originally came from Yemen.  Well, as with a lot of Yemeni things, it probably originated in Ethiopia but, I guess, Yemen was the first place that coffee was cultivated and turned into something palatable.  Whilst Yemen had been exporting coffee beans for quite a while, it was the Dutch who stole the young coffee plants and replanted them in their colonies in (what is now) Sri Lanka and Indonesia.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Coffee plantation by
Coffee, from the Arabic word قهوة‎ (qahwah) came to Europe in two directions; exported as beans through the Ottoman Empire to Istanbul and Vienna - it later took Amsterdam, Paris and London by storm, resulting in a proliferation of coffee houses or cafes in 17th century Europe.  Looking at the top coffee-growing countries today, it's hard to believe that Yemen was ever at the centre of the trade in coffee beans.  Brazil is, by far, the biggest coffee-growing country, followed by Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia.  Ethiopia has also reclaimed its tradition of coffee-growing and is currently the world's 5th largest coffee producer.

In terms of coffee consumption (per head of population), it might surprise you to know that people from Finland, Norway and Iceland consume more coffee than anywhere else.  In Ireland we also consume a lot of coffee, 3.5 kilos per person annually, according to 2007 figures from the World Research Institute.  In Britain, it's a lot less (2.8) and in the United States a bit more (4.2).  The global average in 2007 was 1.3 kilos per person annually.  Interestingly, Yemen's coffee consumption per person is almost zero!

Coffee Art by
Whether coffee is beneficial or harmful is debatable - I'm sure the major coffee producing companies would point out the benefits of drinking coffee and it certainly helps increase concentration and stimulates the brain.  My rule-of-thumb is that most things are good for you in moderation.  I usually have one cup of coffee per day, first thing in the morning or as soon as I get to work.  I didn't drink coffee until I was in my early 20's, but I'd find it hard to give up now, so I guess it's pretty addictive!  I drank all kinds of coffee for years but then something changed and I can no longer stand instant coffee.  I didn't use to be such a coffee snob but I've come to the conclusion that instant coffee is vile, just like drinking coffee-flavoured hot water!  I prefer ground coffee in a French press (or сafetière). 

Qat plant by A Davey
It's interesting to compare the fate of coffee to that other (in)famous Yemeni plant, Qat.  They're similar in many ways - both plants increase concentration and can be addictive.  Both are important in social situations and mostly consumed by adults.  Qat is chewed rather than drunk.  It isn't consumed by nearly as many people every day as coffee is and, if you're wondering why you've never heard of it, that's probably because it's banned in most of the Western world.

Qat contains cathin and cathinone, which are like amphetamines that stimulate the brain, suppress appetite and cause a mild euphoria.  In Yemen, qat is consumed mostly (but not exclusively) by men, especially in the hour or so before sunset, when men gather to socialise, talk and listen to devotional music.  In his book, Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land Tim Mackintosh-Smith rather poetically describes the importance of qat to Yemeni culture.  He calls this time the Hour of Solomon and says the songs that are sung then are 'as perilous as they are beautiful'.

Qat at an Ethiopian market by A Davey
Categorised as a drug in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf states, the consumption of qat is strictly forbidden throughout the rest of Arabia.  It's also banned in Scandinavia, France, Germany, Ireland, Canada and the United States.  Interestingly, the use of qat in the UK is legal.  I don't imagine it's available at every corner store and I'm pretty sure its use is mostly restricted to immigrants of Yemeni, Somali and Ethiopian origin.  Still, it would be interesting to find out how widespread the use of qat is here in the UK.  I reckon it's only a matter of time before the new coalition government redefines qat as a controlled substance, in line with the laws of other European countries.

I guess if caffeine hadn't taken off in Europe in the way that it has, it could well have been classified as a drug.  It's interesting to think that one man's socially acceptable stimulant is another man's controlled substance!  I'm going to leave you with a song by the popular Yemeni singer, Mohamad al-Harithi which is typical of the songs sung during the Hour of Solomon.

Image credits:

The coffee images are by flickruser INeedCoffee/Coffee Hero aka Michael Allen Smith, a coffee enthusiast from Seattle.  Michael has a very amusing and interesting website which is well worth a visit. 

The images of qat and the at the market in Ethiopia was taken by flickruser A Davey who is from the Pacific northwest.  You can see more of his photos on flickr

Thanks to Michael and A Davey for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Yemen - the Queen of Sheba and the women of Yemen

One of the things people from Yemen seem to be quite proud of is the country's claim to be the birthplace of the Queen of Sheba.  Sheba is also claimed by the Ethiopians, who called her Makeda and I'm beginning to see a pattern of cultural exchange that has blurred the edges of Yemeni, Ethiopian, Eritrean  and Somali culture.

Archaeological evidence from Ma'rib, a town in the desert just east of Sana'a, is offered as proof of the existence of Sheba.  Whether or not Sheba was a real personage hardly seems to be the point - it's what she symbolised that has become so important, not only to the Yemenis, but to the early Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Sheba and King Solomon

Solomon and Sheba by Piero della Francesca
Just as there is a paucity of historical evidence of the Queen of Sheba's existence, I've also found that there are very few interpretations (in the Western world) of the Queen of Sheba's life - the ones that do exist relate to her visit to Solomon, the King of Israel.  Most accounts tell how the Queen of Sheba had heard of Solomon's great wisdom and faith, so she travelled all the way to Israel to see his kingdom with her own eyes.  She has been depicted as being wealthy beyond belief and brought gifts of gold, spices and jewels which, I'm sure, made an impression on Solomon and his subjects.

As part of my research, I've read Kings 10:10, the paragraph in the Bible that relates to Solomon and Sheba.  It's an incredibly short version of the story and I can't help wondering what was left unsaid.  Other accounts have linked Solomon and Sheba romantically, but the Bible, rather enigmatically, merely states that 'King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba everything she asked for'.

The Hollywood movie

Of course, the Hollywood version, King Vidor's 1959 epic, Solomon and Sheba is a lot more exciting.  Not only does Sheba (played by the Italian beauty, Gina Lollobrigada) seduce King Solomon (played by Yul Brynner, who was born in Vladivostok), but she is also partly responsible for the fall of Solomon's kingdom and the Hebrew God's destruction of Solomon's temple, when he allows Sheba and her cortege to hold a festival in honour of the Sheban love god, Ragan.

It's a great movie and I really enjoyed watching it.  I'm posting the link to a YouTube video, which shows one of the movies' most famous scenes, ie. the pagan orgy in honour of Ragan.  Gina Lollobrigada is fantastic and the scene reminded me of a Lady Gaga video.  Whilst Lady Gaga might only raise a few eyebrows in our modern times, Lollobrigada's dance in this scene caused quite a stir in late 1950's America!

Claude Lorrain's Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba
The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba

Also as part of my research for this blog, I went to see Claude Lorrain's 1648 painting The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, which hangs in the National Gallery, here in London.  The Sheban port, as depicted by Lorrain, looks nothing like the photos and images I've seen of Yemen, but Lorrain's approach to this story was innovative, not only because of the way he used light in the painting, but also because of the subject matter - most artists and writers have only been concerned with Sheba's visit to Israel, whereas Claude chose to focus on her departure from Sheba, reflecting his interest in the theme of voluntary exile. 

The arrival of the Queen of Sheba

Handel's oratorio, Solomon, based on biblical stories about the wise king, was first performed at the Theatre Royal (now known as the Royal Opera House) in Covent Garden, London  on the 17th of March 1749.  The sinfonia from Solomon is better known as The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba and is a piece of music I have loved for many years.  I'm posting a video from YouTube below, so you can enjoy this piece of music firsthand (if you're not already familiar with it).

Soft diplomacy or cultural subjugation

I've been thinking a lot about Sheba's story and how it can be interpreted.  The optimist in me sees the story of Solomon and Sheba as one of the first portrayals of a diplomatic mission - one that wasn't based on war and conquest, but the exchange of gifts and cultural ideas.  In the biblical version of this story, Sheba leaves Israel peacefully and you get the impression that both Sheba and Israel have been enriched by this cultural contact.

I get the impression that, for many Yemenis, Sheba represents the 'glory days' of Yemen, when it was a land rich beyond any one's wildest dreams.  There are echoes of Yemeni history in the story of Sheba and, I think she is more a symbol of fertility and bountiful harvests, than an actual person.  Like a fallen queen, Yemen in more modern times has been culturally subjugated to the influences of a wider world.  Early Christians interpreted this story as the subjugation of pagan beliefs by monotheism.  For modern Yemenis, Sheba symbolises a country that is passive, female and exploited. 

Women in Yemeni society

Yemeni woman by localsurfer
The position of women in Yemeni society leaves a lot to be desired.  According to the Washington-based NGO, Freedom House Yemeni women have limited access to judicial institutions and the majority of law makers are men.  In the tribes, there does seem to be a strong role for women, but this varies from region to region and, in general, Yemeni women are discriminated against under the law.  For example, women in Yemen need a letter of approval from their 'guardian', before they can marry a non-Yemeni.  Bizarrely, Yemeni law considers the testimony of two women to be equal to that of one man.

There are no laws to protect women from sexual harassment at work - that is, if a woman can find a job, literacy levels amongst Yemeni women are incredibly low - according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 61.6% of women in Yemen are illiterate, which is double the illiteracy rate for men.  I'm not quite sure where the Queen of Sheba would fit in to modern-day Yemen! 

Image credits:

The image of Piero della Francesca's painting Legend of the True Cross - the Queen of Sheba Meeting with Solomon hangs in the Basilica de San Francesco which is Arezzo, in Italy.  This image is copyright-free, as it's in the public domain

The image of Claude Lorrain's Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba is also in the public domain.

The image of the young Yemeni woman was published on Flickr by localsurfer who is from Barnstaple in North Devon.  You can see more of his images on his website.  Also, it's worth having a look at the information he's written about this image, to get an idea of what life is like for women in Yemen.  Thanks localsurfer for sharing this image with us using the Creative Commons License. 

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Yemen - How I made Saltah

Research into the national dish of Yemen very quickly brought me to a dish called سلتة Saltah, which is very close to the Arabic word سلت which means salt.  I don't know what the real thing tastes like, but the version I made wasn't too salty.  There seems to be only one recipe for Saltah knocking about on various different websites and this was the one I used.


The Ingredients for Saltah, Hilbeh and Zhug
كوب واحد من النفط  one cup of oil
بصل 2 onions
البطاطا 4/6 potatoes
لحم مفروم minced meat (I used beef, but you could also use lamb)
لحوم البقر الأسهم beef stock
طماطم 2 tomatoes
بيض 2 eggs (which should be beaten)
عصير الليمون lemon juice
تشيليز 3/4 chillies
فصوص ثوم 6 cloves of garlic
حلبة نبات fenugreek seeds
كمون ground cumin
هال ground cardamom
كزبرة fresh coriander

Preparing Hilbeh and Zhug

Preparing Hilbeh
Preparing Zhug
Saltah is usually served with two condiments called Hilbeh and Zhug which are stirred into the dish at the very end.  I prepared these first, so I could put them in the fridge and chill them slightly.

Zhug and Hilbeh
Hilbeh حلبة نبات is a green-coloured condiment based on fenugreek.  It was my first time ever cooking with this spice (the English name comes from the Latin for Greek hay).  Fenugreek is popular in Indian cooking and is often used to make curries.  I steeped the seeds overnight in a glass of water, as recommended by the recipe, then blitzed them in the food processor, with some water, 2 garlic cloves, a green chilli, chopped coriander and the juice of a lemon.

To make Zhug مهدي الشوق I mixed some red chillies, oil and coriander with 4 garlic cloves, ground cumin and cardamom seeds.  Zhug is a popular condiment throughout the Middle East and I'm sure many of us have had this on kebabs or falafel.

Preparing the Saltah

Fry the onion
Fry the beef
To make the Saltah, you start by frying the onions in a frying pan, then adding the minced meat and frying this until it is brown.  I fried the meat and onions in a pan, then added them to the main stewing pot later - this was mostly because I'd underestimated the amount of space I would need to cook this dish - however, it worked out quite well doing it this way, so I would also cook the meat separately in future.

Heat the tomatoes and potato
Add the beef stock

I parboiled the potatoes before adding them to the main pot with the tomatoes (which I had salted) and fresh coriander.  In retrospect, I probably should have added the coriander later. Once the tomatoes had softened a bit, I added beef stock and brought the mixture to the boil.  It was at this point that I added the meat and onions to the pot and reduced the heat.

The original recipe recommends simmering for one hour, but I was in a bit of a hurry, so I let the ingredients simmer for forty minutes, before stirring in the egg and adding the condiments.

It was a really straight-forward dish to make and incredibly delicious.  I made quite a bit portion, so we also had Saltah for dinner the next day.  I'm sure you could add rice to the mixture (which would make it a bit like kabsa) but we decided to eat it with yummy slices of country bread.

Traditional Yemeni food in London

The Queen of Sheba restaurant
Halloumi starter
I decided to add a new element to my learning experience this time, by visiting a traditional Yemeni restaurant.  I'm sure that most of the world's cuisines are represented in London and, sure enough, there is a traditional Yemeni restaurant, not far from Paddington Station, called The Queen of Sheba.

Kabsa Lahan
I went there with some friends and, this being Ramadan, the restaurant was pretty empty, most of the bookings being later in the evening, after sunset.  Unfortunately, I couldn't try their Saltah, but we had a range of starters - halloumi, falafel, moussaka and kibbah (which I hadn't tried before).  We all ordered lamb-based dishes and I tried the Kabsa Laham which was quite good.  The portions were massive and, for the first time ever, my partner couldn't finish his dinner (he's usually asking for more!)

It was a nice addition to the learning experience and one I hope to repeat in future blogs.   

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me - please feel free to use this under the following Creative Commons license:

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Sunday, 7 August 2011

Yemen - the Madhab (مذهب) or Islamic schools of thought

It's quite apt to be blogging about a Muslim country during Ramadan.  I'd love to say that I planned it that way, but that's not the case.  When I was blogging about Saudi Arabia, I touched on the subject of Islam in a very general way, but it's such a rich and fascinating subject area, it will take me quite a few blog posts, I'd imagine to begin to understand the complexities of the Islamic faith.

Shi'a or Sunni?

One thing I learned about Islam when I was doing research about Saudi Arabia, is that it's an incredibly diverse faith.  There is no centralised power structure and history has led different branches of Islam in different directions, depending on which caliphate (from the Arabic خلافة khilafa meaning 'succession') you or your tribe believed in.

I'm sure most people will be aware that there are two main branches of Islam, أهل السنة or Sunni, who make up the majority of Muslim believers and  شيعة or Shi'a, predominant in Iran and parts of Iraq.  I'm still struggling to understand the difference between Sunni and Shi'a, but it seems to relate to a split that happened back in the early days of the development of Islam.

So what is Shi'a?
Arabia Felix by eesti

Followers of Shi'a believe that Muhammad's cousin Ali was his rightful successor, not the three Caliphs or successors (Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman) followed by orthodox Sunni believers.  Ali's succession gained early support in (what is now) Iraq and his final resting place is the incredibly important Shi'a shrine حرم الإمام علي in Najaf, Iraq.  The politics of Islam seemed to have moved away from Arabia pretty early on, as Syria and Iraq championed these first rival factions of Islamic belief. I'm just beginning to understand the significance of the Iraqi holy sites to Muslim and, more specifically, Shi'a believers. 

I'm also trying to understand what all of this means to Islam in the 21st century and what I've understood is that the independence of the Shi'a imams from the rigidness of the Quranic scriptures and the Hadiths has given the Irani imams power that goes beyond the laws of the state.  On one hand, Shi'a seems to have a greater capability to deal with 21st century life.  On the other hand, belief in the god-given rights of imams and end-of-the-world predictions about the coming of مهدي al-Madhi, a kind of 'messiah', make Shi'a seem arcane and backward.

The Schools of Shi'a
Yemen countryside by eesti

Shi'a is further divided into three main schools:

اثنا عشرية or ithna asharriyah often called the Twelvers in English - is the biggest school of belief in Shi'a and predominates in Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Lebanon

الإسماعيليون or Ismaili often called the Seveners in English - they seem to be a very small sect with a minority of believers spread throughout the Islamic world.

الزيدية or the Zaydi is a Shi'a school very closely connected to Yemen - they are know as the realists of Shi'a and split off from the other two branches very early on so, although they believe in the succession of Ali, they don't seem have the same belief in the god-given powers of the Imam or al-Mahdi

The schools of Sunni
Doorway in Ta'izz by eesti

Sunni believers also fall into various different schools or Madhab.  I can't even begin at this point to understand the difference between these, so for now, I'll content myself with identifying the four main ones and where they have most of their followers:

حنفي or Hanafi is the main Madhab in India, Pakistan, Central Asia, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, parts of Iraq and amongst Muslim communities in the UK and Germany. 

مالكي or Melikiyah is the predominant Madhab in north and west Africa (but not in Egypt or Sudan) - it's also the school of jurisprudence followed by most Muslims in Eritrea.

شافعي or Shafi'i spreads in a great arc across the Indian ocean, from the Muslim populations of Ethiopia, Sudan,Yemen and Somalia to Malaysia, Indonesia and South East Asia. 

حنبلى or Hambela is the school of Islam followed in Saudi Arabia.

There is also a Madhab called الاباضية or Ibadhi which is neither Sunni nor Shi'a and is the dominant school of Islam in Oman and Zanzibar.

Of course, all of this is an over-simplification of the spread of Islamic beliefs and each country, as well as many non-Muslim countries, will have a range of Madhabs and believers, from the main schools of Sunni and Shi'a, as well as more obscure Madhabs not mentioned in this blog. 

Islam in Yemen

Mosque in San'a by eesti
Yemen seems to have a characteristic north-south split when it comes to religion, with northern Yemen following the Shi'a school of Zaydi and southern Yemen following the Sunni school of Shafi'i.  By all accounts, both schools are in the moderate camps of Sunni and Shi'a so (perhaps?) not all that different to each other in terms of religious practice.  I get the sense that, whilst religion is important to Yemeni culture, it doesn't seem to dominate all aspects of Yemeni life, in contrast to the form of Islam practiced across the border in Saudi Arabia.

I look forward to learning more about Islam in future blog posts, now that I have added another piece to the puzzle!

Image credits:

For this blog post I've chosen to highlight the work of flickuser eesti who is from Saitami prefecture, just outside Tokyo and Japan.  He seems to have photographed half of the world, so it's well worth visiting his photostream on flickr.  He's also photographed Uzbekistan and Russia and has a very cute teddy bear who crops up in different places!

Thanks eesti for sharing your photos with us under the Creative Commons License.