Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Yemen - Goodbye to Arabia Felix

The time has come for me to say goodbye to Yemen, known to the Romans as Arabia Felix or 'happy/fortunate Arabia'.  My learning journey to Yemen has been really fascinating and, despite the current political difficulties faced by the Yemeni people, I've been left with a very positive impression of their culture and their potential to create a society that is peaceful and prosperous.  As usual, my 'armchair' travelling has also left me with a great desire to go and see Yemen for myself!

A summary of the topics

Esoteric by Martin Sojka
During the past six weeks I have had the opportunity to learn more about the History of Yemen - how it's a bridge between Arabia and East Africa.  I've learned about the two Yemens, north and south, following separate paths until reunification in the 90's.  I learned a little bit more about Islam and the Madhabs, or schools of Islamic thought.  I learned about the Queen of Sheba and the current situation for women in Yemeni society.  I learned about Coffee and Qat, two plants that were first cultivated in Yemen, they have had very different destinies in the modern world.  I also listened to the music of Mohamad al-Harithi.  I learned how to make Saltah, Yemen's national dish and I also visited a Yemeni restaurant just off the Edgware Road here in London.

Books about Yemen by me
I read several books about Yemen.  Tim Mackintosh-Smith's travelogue Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land was very readable and informative, Mackintosh-Smith is a great authority on Yemen and his book gave me a lot of ideas about the themes I should research for this blog.  I also read the popular novel Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday, which was really funny and enjoyable and I read The Hostage by Yemeni writer Zayd Mutee' Dammaj, which was darkly sensual and frightening.  I watched several movies relating to or shot in Yemen, including King Vidor's Solomon and Sheba (1959) and Pasolini's Arabian Nights (1974).  I also learned a lot about the island of Socotra, the part of Yemen that isn't really all that Yemeni.

Other themes for further research

Of course I touched on a whole range of themes that I didn't have time to research fully, but would be interesting to explore further, if you want to learn even more about Yemen.  Some of the other themes were:

The beach in Socotra by Martin Sojka
- the History of Frankincense and Yemen's role in exporting it to medieval Europe
- the poetry of Imru' al-Qays and the theme of nostalgia
- Mad Mitch and the last battle ever fought by the British Empire
- The Yemeni poltergeist  idar al-dar and the Arabian approach to the supernatural
- Yemeni dress and that ultimate male accessory, the djambia
- The skyscrapers of Shibam and the development of architecture in Yemeni towns
- Joseph Wolff, the Jewish Anglican missionary
- Cush and the sons of Noah

I really regret not having time to do some research on the Temani, the Jews of Yemen.  To make up for it, I'm posting a YouTube video below from Ofra Haza, one of the most famous Yemeni Jews.  This is a traditional Temani song called Im Nin' Alu and comes from her 1984 album Shirey Teyman aka Yemenite SongsMadonna fans might recognise this, as she also sampled a version of this song on Isaac from her album Confessions on a Dance Floor

Did you know?

As well as the 'big' themes I didn't have time to blog about, I also picked up lots of trivia related to Yemen, which will come in handy in dinner party conversations, I'm sure.  I learned that:

- the prophet Mohammad said the Yemenis have 'the kindest and gentlest hearts of all'
- the official Arabic word for 'motorbike' translates as 'fiery bicycle'
- the Yemeni general Abdul Rahman al Ghafiqi conquered Bordeaux in the 8th century
- there are baboons in Yemen
Young man chewing Qat by Martin Sojka
- the mountain tribesmen of Yemen didn't use to eat fish, as they thought it was some kind of inedible worm
- the Arabs call rain 'barakah' which is also the word for blessing
- Yemeni fans of Michael Jackson are called mutamaykalin
- by the time the British pulled out of Aden in 1967, it was costing them £60 million a year
- Aden's busiest market is called 'the Suq of rumours'
- Aden was known as the 'white man's grave'
- Al-Maqah was the god of the moon
- There are people on the island of Socotra who have blue eyes
- the 1994 Yemeni census included 'cave' under types of accommodation
- a Kurdish dynasty ruled Yemen in the 12th century
- many cities in the Middle East have a Tahrir square, tahrir تحرير means 'liberation'
- the Queen of Sheba had hairy legs
- Marriage between cousins is permitted in Islamic traditions
- Yemeni weddings usually begin on a Wednesday and end on a Friday
- at 2300 metres above sea level, Sana'a is the 7th highest capital city in the world (just below Addis Ababa and Asmara)
- Yemen is one of only 7 countries in the world that apply the death penalty for same-sex relations

I hope you've enjoyed my virtual trip to Yemen as much as I have.  I'm going to leave you with the words of a very poignant poem from Imru al-Qays (Diwan, Poem 2):
Djambia by Martin Sojka

Weep for me, my eyes! Spill your tears
And mourn for me the vanished kings
Hujr ibn 'Amru's princely sons
Led away to slaughter at eventide;
If only they had died in combat
Not in the lands of Banu Marina!
No water was there to wash their fallen heads,
And their skulls lie spattered with blood
Pecked over by birds
Who tear out first the eyebrows, then the eyes.
Image credits:
For this final blogpost on Yemen, I wanted to highlight the work of a very talented Slovak photographer called Martin Sojka - Martin has taken some stunning photos in Yemen and Socotra, but also in places like Iceland and New Zealand.  You can see more of his images on his Flickr photostream  
Thanks Martin for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons License. 

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