Posted on July 19, 2011 - by mira
Love is a dangerous undertaking in Yemen, for women and sometimes for men as well. In this very conservative Muslim country, girls are segregated from boys at puberty. What this means is that when they reach puberty, or sometimes even before, girls must start wearing the black balto and face veil. They no longer are allowed to mix, study, or play with boys who are not their mahram, or guardian, such as a brother or a father, according to strict Islamic tradition. Any male who is legally eligible to marry them is not mahram and is therefore not allowed to see the women unveiled or spend time alone with them. Although this practice is somewhat more relaxed among the educated and wealthy urban families, a woman could still risk her life or reputation on the mere suspicion that she’s in a relationship with a man.
But despite the strict social rules, it turned out that Yemen was not devoid of love. A few love stories succeeded against the odds, while others failed in spite of the best conditions. Some love stories began before marriage, others couldn’t begin until after. Some were Facebook- or phone-based, as Facebook and mobile phones were sometimes a woman’s only space for freedom; others consisted of secretive and brief meetings. Men told of women who pretended to love but intended to ensnare for marriage. Women told of men who professed love and promised marriage but had other intentions.
And in this vast sea of secret love, betrayal, fantasy, and loss – beneath the women’s veils and the men with daggers’ machismo – was Najeeb, the lovelorn romantic, tormented with love and loss, craving romance.
Every Saturday when we’d meet for class, following the Muslim weekend of Thursday and Friday, Najeeb would let out a loud sigh. His friends would ask, “Well?” To which he’d shake his head in response.
I noticed this ritual among them but didn’t say anything until halfway through the term. Najeeb seemed particularly distracted that Saturday and eager to talk about what was preoccupying him. I asked him about it, but was not prepared for what I was about to hear.
Once upon a time, Najeeb was in love. He said he’d met the young woman in college, and they kept their love a secret to protect her. He promised he’d marry her, and they waited until they graduated and he could find a job that would impress her father. Once he was employed, Najeeb put on his best attire and arranged for a meeting with the young lady’s father. He brought with him his father and other honorable men in his family who could vouch for his good repute. He said all the right things. He promised him to give his daughter the best he could provide, and he meant every word he said.
Marriages in Yemen are almost always arranged. Matches between close relatives or tribes are common. But poverty is also a major factor. Since grooms have to pay a dowry, fathers often look for the richest suitor, whether their primary motivation is to secure the best life for their daughters or purely out of financial greed.
Despite Najeeb’s efforts, his beloved’s father was unimpressed and sent him home empty-handed. His romantic dreams were shattered, and like Arab poets of yore, he’d visit the ruins of their shared memories and lament the end of his true love.
Time passed, and his parents began pressuring him to get married. He learned that the woman he loved had been married off, so he gave in to his parents’ wishes. Following local customs, his mother found him a “suitable” young woman from the village, not as educated as his former love, but religious and dutiful enough to give him a good home and peace of mind. They were married and had a son.
With time Najeeb found that they had little in common and even less to talk about. She was a good wife and a caring mother, he couldn’t deny that. So he decided to try to educate her in love and romance. Every Friday, he professed his sincere love to her. He told her, “My love, say romantic words, like…” And he taught her what to say.
She nodded and sat still. Then a few minutes later, she started, “Najeeeeb.”
“Yes, my love?” he replied anxiously.
“When you go out today, don’t forget to buy diapers and milk for the baby, and we also need tomatoes.”
“OK, OK, habibti, I’ll take care of it. Now, ro-manse, ro-manse.”
“OK,” she said and got very quiet. Then, “Najeeeeb?”
“Yes, yes, my love?” Was this going to be the moment?
“I forgot,” she said, “we also need rice and zucchini and…”
“OK, OK, I’ll make a list, don’t worry. Now, ro-manse, ro-manse.”
But the romance never came. And Najeeb was left with the harsh reality of life and marriage in Yemen’s strict social codes.
I couldn’t help but empathize with Najeeb. He was an unpretentious and sympathetic person who was a victim of this unforgiving and unimaginative system. He felt torn; he was asking of his wife something that was foreign to her. At the same time, he was desperate to recreate the love story he so longed for. His friends poked fun at his misfortune, but he put on a brave face and took it all in stride.
As we contemplated Najeeb’s story, Amal suddenly cried through the veil covering her face: “I need love!”
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. What is your reaction to Najeeb’s story? What is your impression of Yemen?
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