San’a in Yemen is one of the cities that has best preserved its way of life and culture, its architecture and its traditions.
Of all the countries I have visited, Yemen sticks in my mind as the one with the most personality, the one most unique, and the one that has struck the most successful balance between modernity and its own unique identity. The photographs that accompany this article testify to the originality, the human warmth and the reality of Yemen, which reminds me of Cuba in the way it stands firmly rooted in universal culture.
FIVE DIFFERENT CLIMATES
Yemen lies on the southwest side of the Arabian peninsula, between the equator and the northern tropical zone. Bordered by the Red Sea on the west and the Gulf of Aden on the south, the country boasts a 2000-kilometer-long coastline. With an area of 527.970 square kilometers, it is the largest country on the Arabian peninsula after Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s terrain exhibits striking contrasts from region to region. The country boasts five climate zones, with contrasts ranging from the tropical to the temperate. While temperatures in the mountainous inland region, which includes the capital San’a, rise to 30-35 C. in summer, for example, in some places they can fall below zero on winter nights.
As I indicated at the outset, among the countries that can be regarded as ‘authentic’ Yemen is one of those that has best preserved its way of everyday life, its culture, its architecture and its traditions. Indeed perhaps it is ‘the’ best. Surely the main reason for this is that the area’s geological significance and its strategic importance for world politics, both geographically and economically, emerged only in 1990 following the unification of the two Yemens. Signs of Western civilization are particularly rare within the fabric of the old walled city of San’a where almost everything you see truly belongs to Yemeni culture. So much so that when you set foot here you feel that you have stepped back two or three hundred years.
THE PLEASURES OF THE ‘MAFRAJ’
The capital San’a, which harbors the most advanced examples of Yemen architecture, is a city that has been taken under protection by UNESCO. Yet, regardless of the total uniqueness of Yemen architecture, the Ottoman has nevertheless left traces here as it has in the other countries of the Arabian peninsula, the most prominent examples of this influence being the bay windows (cumba) and lattices (kafes), which are not characteristic of authentic Yemen architecture and are encountered only in buildings from the late period of Ottoman rule. Meanwhile, the Ottoman presence in Yemen appears to have brought people closer together. There are many Yemenis, for example, who are of Turkish descent on either their mother’s or their father’s side.
One of the most salient features that makes Yemeni architecture special on a world scale is the method of construction that is employed. First storeys are generally built of cut stone and upper storeys of sun-dried bricks; indeed, sun-dried brick buildings of up to six or seven storeys, even a record nine storeys, are frequently encountered in Yemen. The earthquake-resistance of these tall buildings is due to their being built in groups. The top storey is reserved for a chamber called a ‘mafraj’, which is dedicated purely to pleasure, to the accompaniment of the view. The ‘narghileh’ or water pipe is an essential part of the decor here in this most prestigious room of the house. Two types of windows can be found in the mafraj, which usually looks out over an impressive landscape. The first type are windows that allow the view to be seen only when seated on the floor; the second, immediately above the first, are windows of colored glass which let in tinted light. One item of particular interest when you are entertained as a guest in a mafraj is a plant that is offered in the form of a leaf. Known as ‘gat’, this plant has small leaves that are put into the mouth and chewed for a long time. Usually consumed by men, this plant has a relaxing effect, and the ‘gat’ parties that take place in the mafraj play an important role in social relations. These parties, which begin every day at one in the afternoon, generally last for seven hours right up to evening. Topics of every kind, politics included, are fair game, and business deals are also made here. Another item Yemeni men are never without is a dagger known as a ‘jambiyyah’. Worn purely as a symbol of masculinity, this dagger and its accompanying sheath pose no danger whatsoever. For one thing, the blade is not sharp, and it is virtually unthinkable that it would ever by used as a lethal weapon. In any case, you will not witness even the hint of an argument or any other dispute in the streets of San’a, and use of the ‘jambiyyah’ extends at most to the folk dances that can break out spontaneously at any moment in the middle of the street.
Besides its tall, sun-dried brick construction, another reason Yemeni architecture is of world importance is the very elaborate decorations on the facades of the buildings which exemplify a rich art of composition. Because the openwork in the facade is an outward reflection of the organization of the interior space and therefore created out of functional concerns, some extremely felicitous asymmetrical compositions emerge. These facades can perhaps best be regarded as works of abstract art.
A PALACE BUILT ON ROCK
Maintained by a foundation and the common property of the residents, the city gardens, actually kitchen gardens, constitute a fine example of cooperative living. The fruits and vegetables grown in these gardens supply a good part of the city’s needs, while the income derived from their sale goes to helping the needy.
At the top of the list of other important reasons to go to Yemen is the Dhahar Valley not far from the capital, whose dramatic topography has become a traditional venue for wedding festivities. Following the ceremony people come here in convoys to celebrate with dancing. Also noteworthy in the valley is one of the most prodigious examples of Yemen architecture, the Rock Palace, which was erected on a large mass of bedrock in the period of the Imam Al Mansur. A genuine palace with its many rooms, it is one of the most interesting structures I have ever set foot in up to now. Besides the Dhahar Valley, other places worth a visit include Al-Rawdah, Ibb, Jiblah, the Wadi Hadhramawt and Shibam, Aden, Kulan, Tula, Hajjah, Al-Makha—famous for its coffee, Ta’izz, Zabid, Al-Hudayda and Manakha. Shibam in particular is one must-see on the list. When a person visits Yemen and sees what the Yemenis have done, he inevitably thinks of all the effort that is expended in the name of creativity and asks himself: Is it really necessary to exert yourself to such an extent to be creative, and, on top of it, to indulge in “deep philosophy” to justify your exertions? This kind of superficial creativity devoid of functional content may appeal to a very limited range of people, while ‘functional creativity’ emerges as a holistic action based on participation and sharing. To understand what this means, I recommend that you visit the capital San’a and the other cities of Yemen.