The other night Maryam, my six year old, was laying on the roof looking up at a sky full of stars. The moon, which had dominated the sky just a few nights days before, was conspicuously absent.
“It looks like the moon shattered into a thousand pieces across the sky,” observed Maryam from her rooftop perch.
And so again truth comes from the poetry of simple observation and plain speech.
I recently took the step to attempt to get in touch with family members I hadn’t seen or heard from in ten or fifteen years. As I pick up pieces here and there, I realize how far apart we have all become, physically and emotionally. It seems odd, in retrospect, especially concerning my cousins, most of whom I considered friends as a child and teenager. I wonder how it came to be that we are so fractionated that I don’t even know for sure how many children most of them have, or where they live or what they do or what makes them happy or what makes them sad. I know one of my cousins is in Australia, where she lives with her partner and daughters and climbs mountains in her spare time. I know that one of them lives near my childhood home, and that another lives in Maryland. But I used to know what they dreamed of, and how to make them laugh.
This would be unheard of here in Yemen, where the tribe, and to a larger extent, the family unit, forms the basis of individual identity and outward interaction. In Islaam we are commanded to keep the ties of kinship, and the Yemenis do this without even giving it conscious thought. I remember one time I was on the bus with one of my daughters and an elderly, traditionally dressed, bearded man got on and took a seat next to a somewhat younger man wearing a business suit and glasses. After sitting silently for a couple of minutes, one of them struck up a conversation, and within a short time they had established that they had some sort of familial relationship and were discussing the health of various members of their extended family. More than once I have seen a disagreement in the street between two men turn ugly when one of them would call for his tribe. Within minutes what had been a private argument would into a mini tribal issue, as people from both of the men’s tribes came and stood behind their man, ready to fight. These tribal and family ties often work to the good as well, as marriages are arranged, and disputes are settled by community elders and judges instead of through the official court system. Businesses favor hiring people from their own tribes and family groups as well, and when someone travels he can be fairly sure that someone connected to his tribe will help him out no matter where he might be. Having lost so many of my family members in the last few years, I appreciate the sense of comfort that must be derived from these strong connections and interconnections.
Sadly, though, in a way my family and I have become like Maryam’s moon…we were once a cohesive unit, but now are scattered across the world like a sprinkling of stars.