TALES FROM AL- AHJUR 

Author: Najwa Adra[1]

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For eighteen months, from 1978 to 1979, my husband Daniel and I lived in Yemen while we conducted fieldwork for our doctoral dissertations. My interest was in the semiotics of dancing, while he focused on traditional agriculture and water use. We lived in the intensely beautiful al-Ahjur, an agricultural basin covered most of the year by lush green vegetation and stenciled brown terraces immediately after harvest. Since then, I have returned to Yemen for further research and numerous consulting assignments. Each visit was pleasurable and always involved in learning experiences. The following stories reflect a few memorable moments that deepened my understanding of this beautiful society.

Samaritans in Yemen

After we arranged our stay in al-Ahjur, an American friend offered to drive us there with our belongings. About halfway between the town of Shibam-Kawkaban and the border of al-Ahjur, the full jeep got stuck in a muddy trench just off the road. We were stuck. We would have to empty the car if we had any hope of lifting it from the ditch. But it had just rained, and the road was muddy. I resisted laying our mattresses on the mud. There was no one in sight, and these were the days before mobile phones. We stood next to the car not knowing what to do. About fifteen minutes later, a truck filled with armed men drove by us. They waved, then suddenly backed up to where we were. A dozen men got out and walked toward us. Our expatriate driver was a bit nervous, but what happened next left us all in a mild shock. The men lined up by the car in the mud, and with a short prayer, heaved together lifting the vehicle onto the road. They immediately piled back into their truck and went off before we had a chance to thank them. 

What a wonderful welcome to our new home! 

More than Hospitality

 
Wadi Bana

Before we decided to work in al-Ahjur, Daniel and I visited various other potential fieldwork sights. Because of his interest in agriculture, a friend recommended Wadi Bana, a lovely valley full of peach and apricot trees. We stayed at the local hotel in the town of Nadirah. We walked around the area talking with the people we met. Everyone was hospitable and invited us to return, but when we asked if we could live and conduct research in this valley for a year, the emotional expressions of hospitality cooled visibly. We were confused, but the message was clear. 

It was not until our return to Sana’a that we discovered how close Wadi Bana was to battles of a mini-war waged at the time with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen[2]. By refusing us long-term hospitality, the people of this valley were protecting us from harm. It was a valuable lesson on the parameters of hospitality. While women, looking out of their windows, invited us in whenever we passed by, and neighbors competed for our visits, a precondition of reception in Yemen is always the ability to protect one’s guests.

Gender Stereotypes

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My experiences in Yemen shattered many of my stereotypes on gender. Although I grew up in the Middle East, I always lived in urban cities among Western-educated folk, so I grew up sharing common stereotypes about gender segregation in rural areas, and especially in the Arabian Peninsula. When we moved to al-Ahjur, I cautioned Daniel against talking with women, as he walked among agricultural fields. One day, soon after our arrival, I was talking with a group of women explaining where we came from and why we were in al-Ahjur. Soon a woman asked pointedly, “Maysallimu bi-biladish?”  (“Don’t they greet people in your country?”) I was surprised: “Of course, they do,” I replied. “Then why,” she asked, “doesn’t your husband respond to our greetings when we meet him in the fields?” Surprised, I said he was trying to be respectful and not offend. The women laughed as one said, “Tell him we are not like Saudi Arabia.” 

We soon realized that gender segregation in this community was limited to large celebrations – otherwise, women and men mixed comfortably at work, in the fields and during leisure hours. Years later, I was told that in other Yemeni rural communities men and women danced together at weddings until the early years of this century. 


Fetching the Bride

Because my research focused on dancing, I was always alert to the drumming that summoned dancers to a location. One morning, I heard drums a few minutes down the mountain from our residence. I collected my super-8 camera and tape recorder, and then I asked Daniel to come with me to help film and record the dancing. I insisted on taking all of my equipment none of which was very light, despite his protests. As we arrived at our destination, we found eight men piling onto the back of a truck. They invited us to join them. “Where are you going?” we asked.  
“To pick up the bride,” was the response. 
“From where?” 
Sāla al-Tawīla” (“Towards [the town of] al-Tawila.”) 
My husband hesitated, but this was an incredible field research opportunity, so we joined the men on the back of the truck.

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The road was still unpaved, and the drive to al-Tawilah took two hours. When we arrived, the driver parked the car in an open area, and the men set off down the mountain. When we asked where the bride was, they told us she was just a little ways away. We had not been in Yemen long enough to feel comfortable leaving some of our equipment in the truck, so we took all of it with us. I wore walking shoes, but Daniel had flimsy Chinese loafers on.

The men set off at a trot - the usual way Yemeni men walked up and down mountains before cars became popular. Daniel and I tried to keep up, and now and then, our companions would halt to let us catch up. We were slowing them down, but now there was no turning back. As we walked up and down mountainsides, we realized that only one person knew the location of our destination. 

Eight hours later we arrived in the village of al-Mahzam in al-Mahweet where we were met with drumming and dancing. I went off to meet the women, and Daniel stayed with the men. There were dining and dancing that night. Contrary to custom, Daniel and I were given a separate room for the night, but our travel companions spent the entire night performing Bara’[3], a men’s dance, as I watched from our window. They stopped just before sunrise. I do not know if they slept at all. We were back on the road at 8:00 a.m. this time with a young bride on a donkey accompanied by a woman from her village. About ten hours later we drove back to our starting point, and our hosts invited us to join them at the wedding dinner to be followed by dancing. Neither Daniel nor I could walk another step, so we declined. The story of our hike to Mahweet and our subsequent exhaustion was told and retold for years. In 2005, at another wedding in al-Ahjur, several middle-aged men reminded me that we had traveled to al-Mahzam together in 1978. The young bride, now a mother, is still a good friend.


Mountain Hikes

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Although Daniel could clamber up mountains like a mountain goat, I was terrified of heights. One day, I was too frightened to walk down after a particularly steep climb, so I descended the mountain in a sitting position. The most embarrassing moments for me in Yemen were on that trip when women carrying large loads on their heads passed me, skipping lightly down the mountain. They always stopped to ask what was wrong and to give me advice on how to proceed. 

We were headed to the historic town of Kawkaban, which is located 3,000 feet above the city of Shibam. By following a lovely stone-paved path build by the Ottomans, we could reach Kawkaban from Shibam. But we could also walk up from al-Ahjur on the other side of the mountain. In those days, women and men from al-Ahjur would walk to Kawkaban to visit friends and relatives or to sell items in the market. The hike would take them one hour, but for us, it required us two hours. When we first asked for directions, the usual response was to follow the road (al-ṭarīq). It took me six months before I could distinguish a clear goat path (the “road”) from the rest of the mountainous landscape.

I had no problem walking up when traveling between Shibam and Kawkaban,  but I would pick my steps carefully upon my descent. One day in the 1980s, on a visit to Kawkaban from Sanaa where we lived at the time, we met an old man who suggested that we share a taxi back from Shibam to Sana’a. We assumed we would have to stroll considering his age. Imagine our embarrassment when we found him waiting for us in the cabstand, wondering what was taking us so long!

My favorite memory of the Kawkaban – Shibam road, however, was the time a woman in full black Sharshaf[4] caught up with me as I was gingerly making my way down. After the usual greeting, she took my hand, and I found myself flying down the road in her firm grip. 

Tribal Dancing and Social Equality

Bar‘a, a men’s dance symbolically connected in various ways with tribal identity, is essential to the region’s heritage. To understand bar‘a’s social and cultural significance, I had to learn what it meant to call oneself tribal (a qabili, pl. qabayil)[5] in Yemen. 

Although most of al-Ahjur’s residents were considered qabayil, they lived among other groups that - at the time - did not intermarry with qabayil. The references I read before coming to Yemen pointed to clear status differences in occupation and clothing, despite the abolition of status differences in Yemen’s constitution. My own experience with status hierarchies in the Middle East led me to expect deference behavior towards those of higher status. I also expected the various groups to socialize and eat separately. But I found no such differences in al-Ahjur. Members of all groups worked, socialized and ate together and, with only a handful of exceptions, dressed alike. Men from all groups participated in bar‘a, which I had been told was a “tribal” dance. But whenever I asked why someone who did not identify as tribal performed bar‘a, the inevitable response would be “status distinctions are erased in bar‘a performance.” 

I was confused. 

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Over time, and more than a year into participating in local life and asking questions that doubtless appeared stupid to my friends in al-Ahjur, it was confirmed that when people called themselves qabayil, they meant their tribal ancestry. More importantly, however, was that qabayil felt bound to a moral code colloquially called qabyalah (pronounced gabyalah), which requires tribesmen to be generous, hospitable, courageous and protective of the weak. Qabayil, or tribesmen, must avoid violence and respect the customary law. Anyone who fails to follow this moral code is no longer considered qabili

Also, within the definition of qabyala are Yemeni forms of tribal organization and customary law, which are participatory and egalitarian. Both, the organization and the law, are flexible and will vary according to circumstances. Tribal identity, then, more than anything else, refers to an adherence to a moral code. I was left with one more question: if someone without tribal ancestry follows this code, does this render them tribal?  

It would be over 20 years before my question was answered.

When I returned to al-Ahjur in 2005 to update my research[6], I was told of changes that had occurred in the past few years[7]. Among these changes was an increase in marriages between traditional status groups. Another was that local leaders had met to update customary regulations and elect new village leaders (shaykhs). One day as we drove past a village, I heard that a member of a previously low-status group had been elected the village shaykh. Surprised, I asked another stupid question: “How can a member of this group become a shaykh? My friend, who was driving, gave me a look full of disdain as he asked rhetorically, “wa mā hī al-qabyala?” (“What is qabyala after all?”) In other words, didn’t I understand that tribes are egalitarian?

With all of the challenges facing Yemen, what stands out for me and others who have lived among Yemen’s tribes as well as in urban environments is the robust moral code, respect for the legal process, egalitarianism and the flexibility to meet changing conditions. These provide Yemeni with a social capital that can give them the strength to emerge intact from the shocks coming at them from all sides.


[1] Dr. Najwa Adra is a cultural anthropologist with long-term experience in development and research in Yemen and the Middle East. Her research has spanned tribal customary law, adult literacy, rural women’s work and oral poetry, heritage and the semiotics of dancing.In 2000-2003, she piloted an innovative literacy project for rural women in Yemen in which learners’ own oral poetry and oral literature are used as text from which to learn reading and writing skills. The project was featured in National Geographic News, January 27, 2004, and UNESCO’s Information Kit on Intangible Cultural Heritage. It was cited as “best practice” in Improving Women’s Lives: World Bank Actions Since Beijing, p. 21; the Center of Arab Women for Training and Research (CAWTAR) and nominated for a UNESCO prize. 

[2] During that time, there was a series of armed skirmishes between the northern and southern regimes using local proxies.

[3] A lively traditional male dance during a gathering. Each tribe has its own Bara’ dance and men use their traditional dagger or Jambiyyah to dance to the drum beat. 

[4] An urban covering for women that is composed of two black pieces, a face to rift top and a long flowing skirt. It is believed that the Sharshaf was introduced to Yemen’s North by the Ottomans. 

[5] A Qabili in Arabic is a tribesman, while Qabayl is the plural for Qabilah, or tribe. 

[6] Dr Adra’s research was  with a grant from the American Institute of Yemeni Studies

[7] The author visited al-Ahjur recently, but the recent trips were short social visits rather than field work.