Posted on September 6, 2011 - by Mira
“So what do you think of Yemeni cooking?” Nooria asked me.
“It takes too long!” I said. She laughed.
It did. This is for women who don’t have jobs, I thought.
Nooria had invited me over to her parents’ house for a cooking lesson. Items on the day’s menu were: the traditional salta and fahsa (and the difference between the two); lahooh, a kind of home-made bread that was very similar to the Ethiopian injera bread; bint al-sahn, the ever-present dessert of Turkish origin; and, one of my favorites, shoufout, a yogurt dish that was often too spicy for me.
Married with a son, Nooria had left her husband and moved back with her son into her father’s house, where she’d been living for over three months, to pressure her husband into getting a job. He had, she said, and she was moving back soon.
Her parents’ house was quite large. It had three floors with seemingly endless rooms. They had parrots, cats, and a dog in the yard that looked like a Husky. They didn’t appear to be as traditional as other Yemeni families. So I was slightly taken aback when her father and brother had lunch in another room, separately from us, particularly when she told me that her father had spent some time in the United States. (Yemenis often proudly boasted about a family member who had studied in the U.S. or who had an American citizenship.) Was it out of tradition that they ate separately from the women or was it to give us space and the freedom to giggle and have fun?
Nooria’s aunt had joined us a little earlier. They called her Umm al-banat – the mother of girls – a nickname given to women who have many daughters but no sons. She was close to my age, but for a woman with four daughters, she looked younger. She told me she was married when she was 11 or 12, she wasn’t sure. Many Yemenis traditionally did not record their children’s birth dates, so they often estimated their age. She’d had her first daughter by the time she was 13, she said. She was very funny and quite playful. She and her nieces appeared more like close friends of the same age than aunt and nieces.
Two of Nooria’s friends also came over. The black baltos came off to reveal their colorful, fashionable modern clothes underneath. The young women were soft and funny and pleasant. I’d missed being in the company of girl friends, and out there, the Yemeni men on the streets were rough and crude. In the absence of men, the women were comfortably themselves, uninhibited. They were simple and close. They laughed together and didn’t seem to take anything too seriously.
When the food was ready, after several hours of Nooria’s instruction and my note-taking, the women brought out a large straw mat and we sat on the floor around the food. We dug in with our spoons.
After lunch, they showed me a video of their close friend’s wedding on the small screen of a camcorder. They joked that once it almost fell into a male cousin’s hands. What a disaster it would have been if he’d seen all those women without veils, dressed in their finest and most revealing! We laughed. I thought how in my world that wouldn’t have been anything.
Later, they took me across the street to visit their neighbor. Nooria covered herself with what older Yemeni women usually wear, a red fabric that concealed the entire body. She said young Yemeni women sometimes wore it when they went out to make the men think that they were elderly and, thus, they would leave them alone.
Their neighbor had just had her first baby after having been married for nine years. Maybe it was because of her husband, one of them said. Nooria told me that the new mom was ecstatic, but when I saw her she appeared more overwhelmed than ecstatic.
The young woman sat on a raised bed in the far end of the room where she’d been receiving guests for the last three weeks. As was customary, she wore a green dress with golden stitching. The women, her guests, sat around her in the majlis, smoked shisha and chewed qat.
Mostly, I listened to their conversations. I still struggled sometimes to understand Yemeni dialects. One of the girls would occasionally lean over and explain something to me.
At times I felt like I was watching them from a distance, detached. I could, to a certain extent, though not completely, understand their world.
When it was time to leave, my friends pulled on their black baltos and disappeared beneath them. Everything seemed to have changed from upbeat to quiet, body-less, being-less, as we stepped back out into the street.
But if the divide between private and public spaces in Yemen was huge, it was dwarfed by what I would later learn when I met two Yemeni-American women in Yemen.
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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