When we first came here to Yemen, we lived for a month in a relatively new house right next to the language institute we were studying at. The institute had chosen it for us, but it was too expensive- we may have been coming from the world’s wealthiest nation, but we didn’t share in that wealth…in fact, we were pretty poor. My husband asked around and heard about an old tower house a few blocks away. He checked it out and we moved in a couple of weeks later. (Read more about this house here.) I still laugh at the picture we must have made as we pulled our little suitcases across the walking bridge and over the twisting, cobblestoned streets to our new house. Being American was enough to earn stares in and of itself; but walking with all of our possessions in a few suitcases in a line like a mama duck and her babies, literally brought out every kid in the neighborhood. Old men stopped in their tracks and watched, and we saw the flutter of curtains at upstairs windows as the women made sure they didn’t miss the show either.
Almost as soon as the door shut behind us, a woman came and offered to clean the house for us. We politely declined, but she remained hopeful for a couple of weeks, crouching across the street from our door with her broom, mop, and bucket of cleaning items, her colorful Sana’an overgarment wrapped tightly around her. Every once in awhile for good measure she would have her son ring the doorbell repeatedly. After the first day, we just stopped answering.
Then one day the bell rang, and, peering down the wooden chute placed over the doorfor this purpose, I saw a small woman looking down shyly as she waited for someone to answer. I grabbed on my overgarment and went down. It soon became clear from her gestures that she was one of our neighbors.
At this time I was still having a difficult time understanding the local dialect. Not only is the general dialect unique, but the women have a totally different way of speaking than the men do. For example, “Masmooki” is “What is your name?” in the pure Arabic. My visitor grabbed my hand and said, “Ayshishmish?” I looked at her in complete confusion, until she pointed to herself and said her name, Fatima, then to me and repeated her question. I told her my name, then called my older son to stand on the steps above and help me out a bit with translation. Fatima thought this was amusing, and giggled. After a minute I began to giggle as well, and we just stood there smiling at each other, cackling like a couple of maniacs. Thus began my first dealings with a Yemeni outside of the language institute.
Fatima would drop in often, always refusing to come up and sit, repeatedly asking me to come to her house. Finally I worked up the courage to go over. I was afraid of saying something dumb, or making a huge social gaffe, so I told Mujaahid to come and get me in half an hour- how much trouble could I get into in that amount of time? Right??
Actually, the visit went pretty well. I was intrigued to see how the Yemenis house many generations and family members in one house. It is especially tricky because of the Islamic prohibition of non-related men and women being together. Basically each couple had their own room- some of them had a whole floor- and the kitchen and bathrooms were common areas. The women all cooked together for the most part, and the families often shared meals. Fatima pulled me into the small sitting room that she and her husband shared. There was a low couch that doubled as a bed, a couple of small tables, a two burner cooktop, a large bureau for clothing which was covered in gaudy little knick knacks and bright plastic flowers, and a gigantic television set against the wall.
Fatima gestured for me to sit down on the couch cushion, then sat on the floor in front of me with her hands on my knees. She talked to me animatedly, her bright brown eyes dancing behind her veil. She kept reaching up, trying to pull my veil down, until finally I pulled it down for a moment and gave her a smile and she clapped her hands and laughed in delight.
Suddenly the door to the room opened, and a middle aged man with neatly trimmed graying hair wearing a t-shirt and ma’waz (woven cloth Yemeni men wear around their waists and over their legs like we wear skirts) came in with a tea tray and cookies. My face was already covered, but I nervously pulled the veil the rest of the way over my eyes as he smiled at me and put the tea things down in front of us. He poured tea for Fatima and me, gestured at the cookies, and left. I thought of all the negative things I had been told about Yemeni men by Westerners, and reminded myself of how one-sided and shallow such comments are. Obviously this man cared enough about his wife to make tea, and bring it up, and then was kind enough to leave when he saw that I was uncomfortable around him.
When the bell rang and Mujaahid told me it was time to go, I actually felt sad about cutting the visit short. I had been so nervous about going, but Fatima’s kindness, and that of her husband, had made me feel comfortable once I got there.
As I walked home with Mujaahid I couldn’t help but feel thankful, once again, for the opportunity we had been given to live in this beautiful country with its generous, big-hearted people. And I prayed that I could let go of some of my shyness and inhibitions and somehow make this place my home, and these people friends of my heart.