Love in Yemen
Ali, my friend, is 25-years-old and lives in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. When I was staying there, we often talked together for a long time. From my Euro-centred perspective I can't give any unprejudiced answers on the question of love in Yemen. Perhaps Ali can help: in the style of a romance magazine, he once told me stories about three women: Stephanie, Rada and Aisha.
"Stephanie was 22 and came from America to learn Arabic." Ali, 20-years-old at the time, was communicative and liked to talk to Westerners. Just like he spoke to me in the middle of the street was how he also met Stephanie. After their first conversation it was clear that both of them wanted something more from the other: Ali wanted to brush up his English and Stephanie her Arabic. They arranged to meet – and this became a frequent occurrence. He checked her homework and she talked to him in English.
At their sixth meeting it happened: "She kissed my goodbye!" Ali told me enthusiastically, as if it had been yesterday. "Properly?" I asked. "Yes, properly!"
The following times we met, everything was different. "Somehow more exciting: we held hands and looked into each other's eyes more than usual ... but at some point," Ali remembers, "she wanted more. She began to kiss my neck and touched me where no one normally touches me." For Ali that was an unusual situation; he was used to women being more reserved. "And how was it?" I asked a little indiscreetly. "I rushed out of the room and avoiding seeing her again. Luckily she left two weeks later."
Five years after that the two of them are still in contact by email. Stephanie has often invited Ali to visit her but Ali is not sure if he should. "I want to stay in Sanaa; I like it here!" But sometimes it overcomes him: once, when he was chewing khat and the inspiring meditative phase of the intoxication started, he closed his eyes and began to daydream. He saw a beautiful house with a green garden in a good American neighbourhood. Two cars were parked in front of the house and Stephanie got out of one of them. They hugged each other. "Suddenly the call of the muezzin brought me back to reality." Is that love?
Rada is 22 and studies English at the same institute in Sanaa as Ali. Apparently she was very pretty. Ali knew that because in contrast to most other women in Yemen she had not covered her face, only her hair. "She smiled at me!" Ali thought: "Something proper is going to come of this."
For men in Yemen there is a great risk of losing the reputation of being a good and loyal man. The more women he speaks to in public, the lower his reputation sinks. "People talk about things like that!" Ali assured me. But he interpreted her smile as a sign and thought it was going to be true love. Making up his mind, he went up to her. She spoke to him for a while and it was actually very nice. She must be the right one, he thought, because at the end of the day she had also taken on the risk of losing some of her good reputation by talking to a strange man.
Ali went home after classes. "I couldn't eat or sleep and I also didn't do my homework. I simply wanted to go back to the institute to see Rada again." Was that love at first sight?
Two days later at the institute he saw her coming from a distance. He went up to her delighted and with a big smile on his face. She was smiling too, but then she gave him her hand and said: "Hallo my Brother." Ali knew what that meant. "She could have said anything, but not that!" Ali told me very upset. "A brother can never become a husband." He replied: "Hallo my Sister" and went into the classroom.
Aisha is 23-years-old and the sister of Sami, a very good friend from the same neighbourhood. Ali has liked her for a long time now. "I've known her since I was this high!" he says, holding his hand at thigh level.
Aisha has already had many admirers. Apparently she has already refused six. Ali is not brave enough to go to her father and ask for her hand because he would be too disappointed if he refused. "I don't want to be the seventh," he says and stares into the air with a lovesick look on his face as if picturing her. She even refused a man with lots of money. Sometimes he rings Sami's house. "I like it best when she answers the phone. I don't really want to speak to Sami at all but I ask for him nevertheless and always hope that she will say more than just 'Yes' or 'Just a minute'."
It's not as if he doesn't have a precise idea about the procedure. He would go to the father of the woman he admires and tell him of his interest. They chew khat, talk together, laugh a bit together and then go to pray. After that he invites Sami, Aisha's brother, and their father to his house and they do the same thing. One week later they meet again at the house of the father of the young woman. Ali and his father bring best-quality khat with them. They chew it and talk. The young lady looks unobtrusively through the door into the mafraj, the traditional Yemenite living room, and examines her prospective husband. "Perhaps she will even come into the room unveiled and bring us tea!" At some point, Aisha's father goes to her and asks her her opinion. If she says:"I would prefer to finish my studies," that is paramount to a refusal. However, if the answer is: "As you wish it, Father," then the answer is "Yes".
"And have you visited her father yet?" I asked Ali, the last time we met. "No I think I'll wait a little bit longer ... ."
Translation: Moira Davidson-Seger
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Fikrun wa Fann