Living in Sana’a

By Andrea Rugh[1]

Art work by Hajer Qasem

Art work by Hajer Qasem

My husband and I lived in Yemen between 1984 and 1987 in what I considered to be a dream house—one of the old traditional San’ani[2] houses with stained glass windows and intricate plaster reliefs lining the ceilings and windows. The difference between our house and many of the other beautiful “fortress” houses[3] in the capital was the lovely garden that surrounded it with roses and other flowers blooming year round and a pepper tree releasing its pungent smells as we walked across the peppercorns littering the ground. 

Once we got used to the sixty stairs climb and learned to duck our heads going through the doorways towards the living areas of our fortress, we settled happily into our cozy surroundings.  Below us, we had a large storeroom that contained our food consignment (the variety in the market was not so great then). Once a month, I took my key ring - which incorporated many large keys-  down to check on the state of our provisions with the gentle Abdul Hamid, our majordomo. 

One day we found mice had made inroads into the bags of rice and cereals, so I suggested that Abdul Hamid purchase traps in the souk[4] to take care of the problem. The next month when the damage was even worse, Abdul Hamid - in a rare show of resistance - explained, “But madam they eat so little.” Subsequently, we shared our provisions with them from then on. 

During a “fact-finding” trip to Yemen by a staff delegation, that perhaps included ten women from the US Congress, I was almost immediately queried on the difficulty they assumed I would have to live in a country where women were “so oppressed.” They showed disbelief when I said that I hadn’t found being a woman in Yemen difficult at all and that my husband claimed it was an advantage since he could only see half the population while I—a foreign woman— could mix with everyone.  

That afternoon at a party at a Yemeni official’s house I asked his permission to take the American women to see the women of his family. On the upper floor, we found the official’s wife in her late 40s sitting with her unmarried daughters, daughters-in-law, and some young children—some visiting but most living together in this large house. The staffers soon were asking the Yemeni women questions: Were they employed? Of course not—the men of the house provided more than adequately for them. Do the children go to school? Yes, all do—boys and girls alike. Are you free to go outside? They replied that the men did all the shopping and drove them to visit friends or relatives, so they did not need to go out alone. Do you always cover yourselves outside the house? “Of course,” they replied, “we’re a respectable family!”  

After a while, at my urging, the Yemeni women asked their questions of the Americans. Are you married? Most staffers said yes. Where are your husbands? Back in the US. The Yemenis reacted with horror that their men thought so little of them; they let them travel unprotected with other men. Why do you work—don’t your men provide for you? They clucked sympathetically at the plight of the staffers who felt compelled to work. Do you have children? None did. Why not, don’t you know children are the key joy to life? The older woman gestured with satisfaction at her grandchildren. Look I’m 40, she said, my daughters-in-law do all the housework, and I enjoy myself with all the children around me. The staffers were becoming uneasy, “Well, we need to get our careers established first,” they replied. The Yemeni women scoffed at the idea. The two groups parted, each convinced of the rightness of their way of doing things.  

But I was pleased when one of the American women told me later that it made her wonder listening to the Yemenis if she had her priorities straight. At least for a time, the word “oppressed” disappeared from the Americans’ vocabulary when describing Yemeni women.  

As foreigners in Yemen in the late 1980s, we encountered a certain amount of suspicion among Yemeni officials. Some attributed it to the indoctrination of the military and police whose officers had received training in the Soviet Union. Indeed, the guards who were assigned to the Embassy questioned anyone who wanted to enter the grounds, and even insisted that women show their faces to compare with their IDs. Naturally, that meant men only came to the embassy reluctantly, and the women refused to go altogether. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to vet all our invitations weeks in advance. When a US business delegation arrived in Sana’a wanting to meet Yemeni businessmen, the local invitees to a hotel luncheon were turned away at the door by secret service men--only one brave Yemeni came to the lunch, and for his defiance. he was interrogated for several hours afterward. These restrictions made us feel, at times, like prisoners in our little paradise to be sure but unable to meet local people. 

Despite all these obstacles ordinary Yemenis invited me to ladies’ parties, weddings, and family parties. When we traveled, rural people extended generous hospitality to us that we much appreciated. It became uncomfortable being always on the receiving end and not being able to reciprocate the hospitality we received. When the time approached for us to leave for a new posting, a friend named Leila, the wife of the director of AIYS and I concocted a plan to invite all the Yemeni women we knew to a dancing party at a local hotel. We circulated this idea among the Americans living in Sana’a and asked them to supply Yemeni names for our invitation list and to bring finger food for an afternoon party. We also called on the American women and young people to sign up to perform for the audience. In the end, we had square dancers, clog dancers, a break dancer, an acrobatic dancer, a guitarist, and singers. We sent out over 400 invitations to Yemenis, reserved a hall at the Sheraton hotel which agreed to provide drinks, held a dress rehearsal and waited for the day of the party. 

We knew all the reasons the Yemeni women might not come: the party was being held in a public hotel and Yemeni women generally don’t go to public places where men might be present. Even if they came, it was unlikely they would find the hospitality we offered in the form of finger food appropriately elaborate or something that would appeal to their taste. Even more problematic was the fact that shortly before the event, the Yemeni government sent out a notice that anyone connected with the government—wives of employees or staff—would not be permitted to attend the party. That was a severe blow, which would potentially and considerably reduce the number of guests. 

Even more worrying was that a few days before the party, the US had conducted an air strike on Gaddafi's compound in retaliation for a terrorist attack in Europe instigated by the Libyans. American embassies all over the region were on alert for potential acts of retaliation. The security officer in the embassy did not think it was a good idea to have a US-sponsored event which might be the target of attacks. Leila and I, however, felt we couldn’t call back the invitations on such short notice and decided to go ahead with the party. 

As the four o’clock time of the party approached we waited nervously. The hall was ready, the foreign women were present, and the finger foods covered long tables at the back, but none of the guests had arrived. At 4:15 a few women covered in black straggled in. With their faces covered, we had no idea who they were, but we welcomed them enthusiastically and ushered them to seats down front. By 4:30 enough had arrived to begin thinking of starting the performance. And then suddenly the hall filled up with at least 400 people, all with their faces covered so we couldn’t even recognize the people we knew. Leila took the microphone and welcomed them in Arabic. Next, I gave a short well-rehearsed welcoming speech in Arabic and then the dances began. The clog and square dancers were staid enough with their body-enveloping costumes not to shock the women but when the aerobic dancer came out in her skin-tight leotard there was an audible gasp and then a roar of approval from the audience with whistles and feet stamping. A young Yemeni boy who attended the American school did a spectacular break dance, and he also received the audience’s approval with such enthusiasm that it felt more like a sporting event.  

We would have been happy with the party if nothing more happened, but as soon as the performers finished, Yemeni women from the audience brought out a radio and some tapes. Several women danced on the stage while the others retired to the food table. Several minutes later, when I checked on the food supplies and whether they were holding up, not a scrap of food was left. Even the food had been a hit. 

Eventually, the guests filed out, sometimes throwing off their face veils as they went so we could recognize them. A minister’s wife told me as she left that there was no way she would not come “because you visited me in the hospital when I was ill.” I was so touched by that statement and the sheer courage of all the women who had ignored the official ban on our party and had come. And I was grateful for the face veils that had given them enough anonymity to dare an excursion into a public place. It was an enjoyable evening. 

[1] Andrea Rugh is the Spouse of Former US Ambassador to Yemen, and the technical advisor for USAID development projects in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. She was a Research Associate at the Harvard Institute of International Development from 1987 to 1994, and worked for Save the Children and UNICEF in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1998 to 2002.  

[2] Objects and edifices of the city of Sana’a are called San’ani. 

[3] Houses in Sana’a are securely gated, resembling fortresses. 

[4] The Arabic word for the Marketplace.