How I Became a Sister 

By Dr. Cynthia Myntti[1] 

From 1977 to 1978, I conducted field research for my Ph.D. in anthropology in a small town called al-Hugariyya, in the governorate of Ta’izz. I was interested in how people made choices about health and healing. I selected that part of Yemen because of its rich traditional practices and because of its inhabitants’ early exposure to ‘modern’ medicine in the nearby city of Aden. Many men and women of the village had gone to live and work in Aden when the town and its hinterland were under British colonial rule. 

I settled in my chosen village on the invitation of its ‘shaykh.’  He wasn’t a shaykh in the tribal sense since the al-Hugariyya is not tribally organized, but he was recognized as a leader of the community by virtue of his sober personality, wisdom and ethical behavior.  He was an administrator in the regional hospital, earning a small salary, and living frugally. In fact, people admiringly referred to him as meskeen, not poor but modest. He was an imposing figure, much taller than the average villager, and darker-skinned thanks to his Somali mother.

As a young man, the shaykh worked, as his father had, as a stoker on ships out of the port of Aden. He saw the world from Vietnam to Marseille, Cardiff to the Baltic Sea.  In fact, on the wall of his sitting room was a photograph of him in a hat, looking distinctly like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, taken on his visit to Copenhagen in the 1940s.

In the 1970s, the majority of girls in al-Hugariyya were going to primary school. You would see them with their satchels and uniforms walking into Turbah, the central town of the area where the schools were located. Education for girls was still a new phenomenon. It was rare then to find a woman over 25 with any schooling. Village women, most of whom were illiterate, used to tease me for having to write things down so I wouldn’t forget them. They remembered everything.

Cynthia in Al-Turbah, Ta’izz

Cynthia in Al-Turbah, Ta’izz

The Shaykh was ahead of his time in educating his four daughters. They studied through high school in Turbah. Then he did something that almost no Yemeni man would have done: he sent two of his daughters to university in Egypt. They were already living abroad when I was in the village in the 1970s, but his youngest daughter, herself a school teacher, became my research assistant and a good friend.

I had a special relationship with all of the Shaykh’s family. He often spent his afternoons at home, relaxing after returning from work. He welcomed me to sit and talk with him. He helped me understand what I was observing around me and told me stories of life in Aden and abroad. His wife also took me under her wing. Whenever I left the village for some time, she would slip some money into my pocket as I headed out on foot. Even years later, when I returned to the village as a fully employed academic, she ran after me to slip a gold ring and money into my pocket. I protested but to no avail. Again, I felt like a daughter given a caring send-off.

In the late 1980s, I received a Fulbright award to return to Yemen, teach in the Medical School in Sana’a. Armed with a new master’s degree in public health, I wanted to return to the village for a ten-year follow-up study. This time, I was interested in the social determinants of child health; why was it that village children in some households thrived while others barely made it, especially since most homes had the same social and economic profile? 

On my return to the village for this research, I was fortunate to meet one of the older university-educated daughters of the Shaykh who had returned to celebrate Eid al-Adha with her parents. Upon finishing her studies in Egypt, she had been recruited to help to set up literacy programs for women in Abu Dhabi, in a region still undeveloped. She, her husband and her children had become Emirati citizens and returned to Yemen for important holidays. We bonded as if we had known each other all our lives.  

Some years later I learned that this daughter of the shaykh believed we were sisters.  She reasoned that when her father was stuck in Copenhagen during World War II, because of military blockades of the Baltic Sea, he had taken a local wife and that I was their daughter. This connection explained to her how it was that I came to the village in the first place – I was visiting my Yemeni father.

Years later, on a further visit to the village, I asked the Shaykh about this story. I noted that I was born after World War II, and in the United States, not in Europe. He just smiled as if he wished it were true. Sometime later my ‘sister’ invited my husband and me to the marriage of her eldest son in Abu Dhabi. When we made the rounds, she introduced me to assembled women guests; she - large, dark and brown-eyed - introduced me -tall, fair, blue-eyed- as her sister, laughing mischievously as she said it. 

Anthropologists, it is said, are often fit into kinship structures by the people whom they live as ‘participant-observers.’  The Danish-Yemeni connection is my version of this loving practice.

[1] Dr. Cynthia Myntti received her MA in anthropology from the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1974, before earning a PhD in social anthropology at the London School of Economics (1983) and a Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University (1986).  Cynthia worked as a program officer in the Ford Foundation offices in Cairo and Jakarta, and held teaching positions at Sanaa University in Yemen, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the University of Minnesota in the USA. After publishing Paris along the Nile: Architecture in Cairo from the Belle Epoque (Cairo: AUC Press, 1999) she returned to graduate school, in architecture, receiving an M Arch from Yale in 2004. From 2006-2016 Cynthia served as founding director of the Neighborhood Initiative at AUB and was Professor of Public Health Practice.