Posted on August 30, 2011 - by mira
I was lost in the narrow alleys of Old Sanaa. Its ancient towering houses surrounded me. If I went alone to the old city, I was rarely able to navigate its labyrinth of crowded streets on my own. (Watch a video of Old Sanaa here.) But it was one of my favorite places to be lost in. There was always something to see, and I relished being there. Carpenters carved wood into doors; tired laborers rested in their wheelbarrows; a camel powered an oil press.
I stopped at a shop to ask for directions. “How do I get to Saylah?”
Instead of giving me confusing directions – in an ancient city whose streets defied any sense of direction – the shopkeeper sent a young boy with me to show me the way. It was a considerable distance.
There were many such acts of kindness in Yemen. If your car broke down, a small group of people would start gathering around, and the number would quickly grow. Two. Then five. Then 11. Then over 15. Each new person would inquire about the problem and would be informed by the others. They were curious, but they also offered to help any way they could. Do you want me to take you somewhere? Do you want me to call my cousin who’s a mechanic? Eventually, one of them would fix the problem for you.
Generosity and hospitality to guests is an ancient, engrained tribal trait not only in Yemen, but in Arab culture as a whole. In the old days, guests would be received and treated to royal meals for three days before they were asked about their business or their onward destination.
My former student invited me and two other teachers over to lunch. He wanted me to meet his wife. It would have been rude to refuse the invitation, and he insisted.
It seemed to be taking us a lifetime to reach his residence in a modest neighborhood in a suburb of Sanaa. When we arrived, he came out to the street to meet us and led us to his home. It was a very small place, with just one bedroom, a bathroom, a small kitchen, and a majlis that could seat about a dozen visitors. We sat here on worn out cushions that lined the four walls. There was a small TV in the corner, and the walls were bare. More people arrived. They were students and neighbors.
He took me to see his wife and her newborn baby boy in the bedroom. She was unveiled. We kissed each other on the cheek, three times on one side. She and I chatted and made baby sounds to the little one. Her two other children sat with us, observed me and listened to our conversation.
When it was time for lunch, a food mat was laid out on the floor in the foyer. Various dishes were brought from the kitchen, big and small, from rice and chicken to potatoes and other vegetable and meat dishes. It was a huge banquet with more food than we could eat. I felt honored but saddened by it. It was too much. He gave so much when he had so little to give.
We all sat together on the floor around the meal. There were around a dozen of us, maybe more, filling the entire space in the small vestibule. Someone happened to stop by and was forced to join us for lunch. We made room for him. We shared all the food and ate with bread scoops in our fingers or, occasionally, with spoons.
Now there was a strong bond between all of us. Aysh w milh. Bread and salt.
Read more posts in the series: Yemen Journey: A personal narrative of my life in Yemen
Stay tuned for the rest of the story. This is a new series on my life in Yemen, to be updated every Tuesday and Friday (unless I’m on the road and internet-less). Send me your questions or share your thoughts in the comments; I’d love to read them.
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