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About The Author

Steven C. Caton

Steven C. Caton, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University and director of its Center for Middle Eastern Studies, is the author of Lawrence of Arabia: A Film's Anthropology. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and New York City.

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Yemen Chronicle
Khawlan al-Tiyal, Yemen Arab Republic. November 25, 1979
I had finally arrived at the place where I was to begin my fieldwork, a village whose inhabitants claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Called in Yemeni Arabic a hijra, or sanctuary, it was a settlement where the surrounding tribes of this eastern region of Yemen, known as Khawlan al-Tiyal, could pray in the mosque and trade in the souk without fear of being attacked by enemies. As a stranger in this strange land, I needed to live under protection, and if it was not to be that of a powerful sheikh, then I hoped it would be the sanctuary's.
Jon Mandaville, Director of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, had just left in his jeep, and the many cartons that held my belongings, which he had helped me to transport from Sana'a, the capital, lay scattered at my feet. They caught the attention of village youngsters playing outside my door, who later called me "Mr. Karatis," or Mr. Cartons, because of them. This would be the least embarrassing of my nicknames.
A tall, very erect gentleman, every inch a stern Old Testament prophet, strode up to the courtyard to see why the children were making such a commotion. After the proper salutations to me, he inquired, "Are you a doctor?" The house into which I was moving had been formerly occupied by a Peace Corps couple, the wife of whom had been anurse. He indicated that her ministrations were sorely missed. No, I reluctantly conceded, I was not a doctor.
"Ah, of course." He smiled knowingly. "You must be our new English teacher," for an English teacher was what the husband of the Peace Corps nurse had been. "We need an English teacher almost as badly as we do a doctor."
"No, neither doctor nor English teacher. I'm an anthropologist."
"Fine," he said, either not understanding what I had said or choosing to ignore it. 'We'll take you to the school in the morning to teach the children English. Where did you learn to speak Arabic?"
"In the United States and in Saudi Arabia."
"Oh, you taught English there, too, no doubt."
"No, I've never taught English in my life. In Saudi Arabia I worked for the Ministry of Education, in their Department of Antiquities."
He looked at me as though I were finally beginning to make sense. "Aha! You've come to dig up our ancient treasures. Khawlan is full of them, you know, going all the way back to the Sabaeans."
"Actually, I want to collect your poetry."
His expression was blank. The reason for my being in the village was obscure once more. After a pause, he tried another tack. "What's your name?"
I had long ago learned to arabize my American name so that it could be pronounced more easily by my Yemeni friends. "I-S-T-I-F-A-N."
Silence. The unflappable children were momentarily aghast.
"What's your name?" the old man inquired incredulously. I repeated it, much to the delight now of the boys and girls. "Change your name!" the old man snapped. The children began to snigger.
I'd been in the village less than an hour and already felt like taking flight. But curiosity got the better of embarrassment, and I asked to know why.
"Believe me, I'm your friend. Just change your name!"
"Well, what's your name?"
"Well, Sayyid Ali, I'll change my name, but if you're my friend, you must tell me why."
Now it was his turn to be flustered. "No, no, I can't," he stammered. "At least not with the children present."
"Your discretion is already lost on them." I pointed to their grinning faces. "I'm the only one who's still in the dark."
"Well, I don't want to hurt your feelings, but you do know what fann means, don't you?"
"Why, yes, a work of art." By this time, the kids were howling with laughter.
"You mean you still don't get it?" The old man looked at me as though I were a congenital idiot. "Ist-i fann. My ist is a work of art. Ist-i-fann. My ist is a work of art."
I kept repeating the sentence to myself, wondering what its meaning could be. I gave the man a puzzled look.
"I'll tell you some other time," he said and made ready to beat a hasty retreat.
"No, no, you must tell me now," I insisted. He bit his lip and tried to point to his backside without the children noticing.
I now realized what I'd been saying. The whole year I'd been in Yemen, I'd been introducing myself to people as "Hello, my ass is a work of art."
I couldn't help laughing. "You're right, Ali. You are my friend. As you say, I must change my name."
"Do you like Seif?" he suggested encouragingly. "Seif al-Islam: that was the name of the imam's son, you know, in the olden days of the monarchy."
In Arabic, seif also means "sword," and that was certainly more flattering to my masculine ego than "ass." But I wasn't sure I wanted to be identified quite so closely with the ancien régime, so I offered an alternative. "Or Seif bin Dhi Yazan." This Yemeni folk hero, an actual historical personage, was thought to have beaten back invading Ethiopian Christian forces a century before the advent of Islam.
"Good, good," the old man exclaimed, obviously pleased by this diplomatic solution. "From now on, we'll call you Seif."
The children demurred, for they were having far too much fun with Ist-i-fann. For weeks afterward, whenever I would leave my house withthem trailing behind me, I would hear "Whatsyourname? Whatsyourname? Whatsyourname?"
"No-o-o. What's your real name? What's your American name?"
And then they would skip away, clucking in tones of mock dismay, "Imagine! For a whole year, he called himself I-S-T-I-F-A-N-N."
It was a consolation to learn later on that nearly everyone in the sanctuary, even its most respected members, had a nickname, such as "the poor one" or "the hunchback" or "the blind one" or "the beltmaker" or "the agent" (who looked after my house when the landlord was away). I had not only arrived but been accepted, in an ambivalent sort of way. My American name had become my nickname, as I learned had happened also with the beloved nurse, for I would be slyly asked why she was called Jeannie when everyone knew that jinni means "evil spirit."
It was stipulated in the contract I signed with my landlord that I had to "juss" my lodgings, the first floor of a large stone house, at either the beginning or the end of the period of my lease. Juss is a whitewash, a mixture of water and finely ground limestone applied mainly to the inside walls of a house. I thought it would be to my advantage to enjoy the benefits of whitewashed walls sooner rather than later, so I decided to do it right away. It would be a sign of having taken possession, like applying a fresh coat of paint to a newly purchased home.
It was a simple job, but transporting the juss from Sana'a was a headache, as I explained in a letter to my mother.
January 5, 1980
Dear Hanni:
... I've hired a man [my upstairs neighbor, Ahmed] to do a job called "jussing" which is whitewashing the inside of my apartment. I carted the plaster back from Sana'a myself. What a trip that was! The road is extremely bumpy, being unpaved and traversing mountainous terrain. That plaster, which comes in a very fine white powder, is packed in burlap sacks which are slightly porous. Naturally, the powder escaped through the small holes in the burlap weave while thecar was careening and bouncing on its way, with the result that we soon found ourselves enveloped in a fine cloud of the stuff. Because it consists of lime, it irritates the skin and eyes, so we were scratching, rubbing, and sneezing, until finally we had to stop the car and figure out a way to transport it without being covered in it. I was all for dumping it and starting all over again, but my friend [Muhammad the Window Maker, Ahmed's older brother] was more patient and prevailed on me to consider less wasteful alternatives. Eventually we went back to Sana'a to get large plastic trash bags in which we dropped the sacks of plaster and then completed the journey.
The situation in Sana'a is still very peaceful, and [the sanctuary], of course, is completely safe. I do wish that you and Dad might be able to visit me in Yemen sometime in the spring or fall ...
In the courtyard of my house, Muhammad the Window Maker (not the same Muhammad whose grave I visited in 2001) carefully prepared the mixture in wheelbarrows, stirring it until it looked like a vanilla milk shake. He then poured the thick liquid into buckets that Ahmed carried into the house.
Ahmed showed me how to apply the whitewash. Dipping strips of white cloth in the mixture, he swatted them against the wall. Smack, smack, smack. You had to squint or look away to avoid getting stung in the eyes by the vile stuff, all the while trying to aim at a bare spot. In the process we both ended up looking like Casper the Friendly Ghost. I questioned the efficiency of this obviously slapdash method of application but was assured by Ahmed that it was preferable over, say, the use of a brush or sponge. Though I had my doubts on that score, even I had to admire the uniformity of the finish when we were done. No streaks, no blotches, only a smooth, slightly crystalline surface that glistened like the icing on a cake.
Beans and freshly baked bread had been prepared for lunch by Ahmed's wife, Fatimah. I could not tell what she looked like under her veil, a cloth tie-dyed in red, blue, and black that was pulled far in front of her face, but she had a beautiful voice--clarion and soothingly melodious. The three of us chatted amicably while taking turns cuddlingthe couple's two-year-old son, Ahmed bin Ahmed, or Junior, as I called him. In just a few hours the whitewash was dry. Ahmed helped me put my furnishings back inside the house, and my apartment was ready for occupancy.
I was happy and relieved for the first time since my arrival in Yemen ten months earlier. There had been so many obstacles and delays that I had begun to doubt I would ever get to settle down. The act of moving into a place of my own symbolized the stability I craved, which had been eluding me. To understand why until then my fieldwork had been such a maddening combination of false starts and missteps, one has to know something of the drastic political situation in Yemen in 1979, and so I must say something of the earlier political history of the Arabian Peninsula.
What is now known as the Republic of Yemen was in 1979 two separate countries, informally referred to as North and South Yemen, or the Yemen Arab Republic and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, respectively. As a result of the geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula during the cold war and the different political systems that emerged in the shadow of Soviet-American rivalry--a republican government in North Yemen under the sway of Saudi Arabia and, by extension, the United States; a regime in South Yemen that was a staunch communist ally of the Soviet Union--hostilities between the two had been more or less constant since their founding. North Yemen was the first to emerge from its cocoon, in 1962, when the thousand-year-old monarchy there (actually more like a theocracy, headed by an imam) was overthrown in favor of a constitutional republic. A protracted and bloody civil war followed between royalists and adherents to the imam, who were supported by Saudi Arabia, and republican loyalists, allied with Egypt; it ended in 1974. Though the republic emerged victorious, the bitter struggle left its infrastructure and economy in tatters. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, along with the United States and various European nations, came to its aid, but most of the income for reconstruction was from remittance payments of Yemenis working in the Gulf States. Meanwhile, South Yemen, shortly after receiving independence from Great Britain in 1967, became a powerful Marxist state. By contrast with North Yemen, it managed to develop in relative peace, with aid from the Soviet Union. Its educational system was sound, and its military well-armed and well-organized. Given the global political alliances of the time, it was inevitable that North and South Yemen were at odds with each other, and the North regularly accused the South of trying to destabilize its regime by arming and mobilizing insurgents on its borders.
In early 1979, when I came to North Yemen for the first time, the simmering hostilities between the two states rose to a boil as South Yemen invaded its northern neighbor. American newspapers were full of the story, which was somewhat surprising because Yemen, a poor nation with what political scientists frequently call a "weak state," was all too often considered a backwater, its political troubles too minor to affect events in the Middle East, let alone the rest of the world. But Yemen was not the only trouble spot in the Middle East that year, and the question in the back of many American minds was whether the conflict between North and South Yemen was part of a larger pattern. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan; a revolution against the Shah of Iran was gaining momentum--it would lead to his overthrow in November--and it was not clear whether Marxist revolutionaries or their Islamic allies would gain the upper hand in the ensuing struggle to take over the reins of government. The U.S. Department of State did not consider that a communist aggression on the Arabian Peninsula threatening not only North Yemen but also its oil-rich neighbor Saudi Arabia was a mere local conflict, but looked on it as part of a potentially more ominous geopolitical trend.
In the middle of March, I received a worried telegram from my sister.
I wasn't sure if "US" was "U.S." or "us," but then the ambiguity was apt in this overheated moment. I replied:
This was not just a sop intended to quiet my family's fears (as the last two sentences of reassurance in the letter I wrote to my mother were), for there was a history to this conflict that American news media generally didn't cover. When events are seen as significant in the perspective of some global vision, other parts of the story that are important locally may be overlooked. As it was put to me sanguinely by someone whom I respected and who had lived in Yemen for nearly two decades, "We've seen this all before. Every seven years, in fact! The two sides decide to fight, then make peace, and then go about their business again."
But the fighting between the two Yemens had made it difficult to travel, so I had to bide my time to relocate to what I hoped would be a more desirable research site than Sana'a, the capital, once the security situation had improved. Several Yemenis told told me about a region due east of the capital that was renowned for its tribal poets. I was itching to get there and meet some of them.
I assumed at the time that there was such a thing as an "authentic" tribal poetry, whose heart beat in a rural and seemingly remote setting such as Khawlan al-Tiyal and not in a complex urban setting such as Sana'a (where later in fact I would study the works of many tribal poets, who had migrated from Yemen's drought-stricken countryside to enlist in the army or become taxi drivers or private security guards). But after only six months, I realized how simplistic that assumption was. The urban-rural dichotomy and the cultural dichotomy of tribal-nontribal, not to speak of the political one of state-nonstate, were, if not exactly wrong, then misleading. They certainly could not be neatly correlated. For example, the "hottest" tribal poet in Yemen in 1979, Muhammad al-Gharsi, whose cassette tapes sold out before everyone else's in the stereo stores, had his main residence in Sana'a, where he was in the army. Because of his poetic gifts but no less because of his connections to the president, Ali Abdullah Salih, he became an eloquent spokesman for the republican regime. But staying inthe capital to study tribal poetry was in my view a fall-back position, in the event that I could not get to Khawlan. The allure of Khawlan for me was like that of the wild frontier in the imaginations of nineteenth-century Americans who journeyed to the Old West.
Had I known how difficult settling in Khawlan would be, I might not have even tried it. My hope was to live in a proper "tribal" village with "tribal" poets, but that required the permission of a local sheikh, and I could not persuade a single one to give it and grant me his protection besides. And why should he, when I had nothing to offer in return except inconvenience and possibly trouble? I had gone so far as to be interviewed on prime-time national television by one of its female stars, who put in a kind word on my behalf at the end of the program. But even the intervention of this beloved pop-culture icon was to no avail. Calls offering to adopt me did not come flooding in, and once again I found myself having to revert to Plan B--studying the poets in Sana'a. Then, in the late spring, someone told me of a Peace Corps couple living in a small village in Khawlan that was a sanctuary protected by the local tribes. As they were about to be reassigned, their premises would be vacant soon, and perhaps their landlord would agree to rent it to me. Though grateful for this small crumb, I was not enthusiastic about the prospect of living in a such a place. It was not a "tribal" village--few tribesmen, in fact, lived in it--even though it was located in the heart of an important tribal region. It was the home principally of the highborn descendants of the Prophet, known as sada, who were the religious elite in Yemen and subscribed to a rather different cultural ethos than that of the tribes, with their love of spontaneously created oral poetry. To make matters worse, I would be associated with the politically suspect Peace Corps, and I conveniently forgot that the reputation of anthropologists was hardly better.
In spite of these reservations, I visited the hijra. After the tumultuous and anxious months I had spent waiting out the war in the capital, it seemed to provide the safety and tranquillity I yearned for. A village of no more than five hundred people, it was nestled in a starkly beautiful landscape of cone-shaped volcanic hills and meandering watercourses. I was somewhat dismayed by its lack of basic amenities, but in thosedays few places in Yemen outside Sana'a had electricity or running water. To my relief, the Peace Corps couple's house was clean, light, and in good repair. More important was the goodwill toward Americans that they had inspired and of which I hoped to be the beneficiary. I decided to move to the sanctuary and into the couple's apartment in spite of the landlord's exorbitant rent. In truth, I had little choice. I had to settle into a field site soon or I would run out of fellowship money.
A welcoming committee of sorts came when the juss job was done. A neighbor boy, Ali the Bird, shyly poked his head in the door to pay his respects. This was the first time we had met. I asked him to take a photograph of Ahmed and me with my camera, since my hands were still covered in plaster. There we were, standing in the wind, my arm tightly gripped around Ahmed's shoulder as though I were trying to squeeze the life out of him.
A door in the hall of my quarters opened onto a stairway that led to the upstairs apartment, where Ahmed lived with his wife and young son. It could not be opened from my side. Of course, it was entirely right that I should not have access to their abode, for the simple reason that Fatimah was alone in it for much of the day, but I did not like the fact that I could not prevent their entry into my place. No doubt our landlord thought that Ahmed, who looked after the house, needed to be able to get into my apartment in case of an emergency. I would not have minded this arrangement had Ahmed not decided to visit me whenever he was bored or wanted to chat, even if that meant waking me up in the middle of the night. Nor did he believe in knocking.
He was frustrated, it seemed, because he had not the skills, education, or intelligence to advance in life. And there were problems in his marriage. He let it slip that Fatimah sometimes refused to sleep with him. Though handsome in an unshaven, thuggish way, he was an oaf, and I could imagine how his boudoir demeanor might have dampened her ardor. I had the temerity to ask whether he beat his wife. Puffing on his cigarette, he replied wryly that she would have left him long ago and gotten a divorce at the insistence of her own family had helaid a hand on her. But he did expect her to cook and to clean and to raise his children and to have sex with him when he wanted it--that was all--and she had the gall to throw back at him that she was not his "slave." I hinted that there was something beck-and-callish about his notion of marriage. One scene that could have come out of A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, was enacted almost daily. Ahmed would arrive at the house around noon, bellowing "Ahmo-o-o, ya Ahmo-o-o," at the top of his lungs while pounding on the front door. I did not understand at first why he called out his own name instead of his wife's until I learned that it was considered shameful to pronounce a woman's name in public, since it is deemed a metonym of her sex. I could hear Fatimah whispering fiercely to him that it was not necessary for him to shout clear across the village for her, as though he were summoning a dog, but he continued the practice. Whether to annoy her or because such delicacy was lost on him did not seem to matter.
I tried to imagine Fatimah's side of the story, though I may have been just projecting my own white, middle-class values on their marriage. "Perhaps she wants you to talk to her more and to help out with the housework once in a while."
"It's deeper than that, Seif. She wants me to buy her things when there's not enough money for basics." A husband is expected to give his wife gifts--jewelry, for example--as much for her own satisfaction and as a token of his affection as for the respect for her family's honor that this practice is supposed to show. Fatimah was clearly within her rights. The gifts could also serve a practical function, as a kind of insurance in her old age or to help support her parents, as Fatimah in fact was trying to do. Oh, yes, the in-laws were another source of irritation to Ahmed. "She spends more time with them than with me," he complained bitterly, "often sleeping overnight at their house." This, I now realized, might have explained his forlorn late-night appearances in my own quarters.
On those occasions, he sometimes brought along his livelier and wittier teenage brothers, Yahya and Abdullah. Because they were single, they did not have to be home after dark with wives and children, and so the four of us whiled away the evening hours playing cards andgossiping. Their horseplay and laughter cheered me up, and they were more than happy to pull me up from the floor and teach me some dance steps. Sada were not known for dancing, and indeed some of the more righteous ones frowned upon it, though the religious explanation for this, trotted out in one Qur'anic dogma and hadith (the Prophet's sayings and deeds) after another, always eluded me. Nonetheless, just in case a puritanical neighbor should come by and hear us, the shutters in my sitting room were tightly closed and the volume on the tape deck turned down low, imparting a deliciously clandestine air to our harmless sociality.
"Let's hear one of those tapes you made of the music at the tribal weddings," Yahya suggested.
"Left forward--together. Left forward--together. Keep the right arm up, Seif, and shake the dagger slightly. Now turn around on the right foot." I hadn't been instructed like this since Mrs. Wilson's dance class in junior high school. Yahya sprang up and stood beside me, unself-consciously. grabbing me by the waist to demonstrate. I tried to tilt my body in the same direction as his, to bend slightly at the knees, and to sway as he did. Though Yahya and Abdullah had the agility of youth, even I could discern their lack of skill and precision compared with that of their tribal counterparts whose dancing they were emulating.
Ahmed, meanwhile, behaved like a wallflower. He dragged out a tome that had been lent to him, a sort of marriage manual produced by scholars of the Zaydi sect, a variant of Schica Islam to which he belonged and which was predominant in North Yemen. He pronounced the words haltingly, not always sure of what they meant. After a while he gave up trying to understand the legalistic jargon and closed the book with a loud thud. "Maybe I'll just divorce her," he muttered petulantly. I could not help wondering whether that wasn't already his wife's wish.
Sometimes Fatimah would summon me to the door and talk through it, saying in her measured tones, like those of a trained singer, that she would leave me some freshly baked bread on the front steps. When I opened the house door to go on an errand, I'd find it there, on an oldaluminum tray and covered with a cloth. The unleavened bread was the size and shape of a large pizza, delicate and spongy to the touch. It was delicious with a bean dip or hilba, a frothy sauce made from fenugreek. This too she would provide, in a blackened little tin pot. Aside from neighborliness, I cynically wondered what was behind this thoughtfulness. As she got to know me better, she would come to the front door and stand in the threshold with her little son on one hip. I knew better than to invite her into my apartment and she to accept, for then all the tongues in the neighborhood would wag.
One time she brought a friend, and holding their small children in their arms like passports into a foreign country, they pushed the door wide open and marched inside, brazenly inspecting the furnishings and informing me that they would like to have the first option of purchasing them when I left. I had hardly arrived and already they were anticipating my departure! I did not mean to sound condescending but asked as a matter of curiosity how they would pay for the furnishings. It was not that they were costly, but I needed every penny on my meager fellowship stipends and could not afford to give them away for a song. Oh, that would not be a problem, I was informed. The husband of Fatimah's friend worked in Saudi Arabia, and Fatimah had part ownership in a shop in the village souk. Women in Yemen could inherit money or own assets without their husbands having legal claim over them, and it was clear that these two intended to pay for my furnishings on their own. I was assured that they would make me a good offer. During these brief visits, I learned that Fatimah's parents were not in good health and that she spent as much time as possible in their house to help take care of them. Then, too, her brother's wedding was coming up, and there was anxiety over the expenses, so she had to make sure that her business was taking in enough money. She never spoke of the difficulties she was having with Ahmed, but I didn't expect her to, this being entirely inappropriate with a strange man. If truth be told, I liked her better than her husband.
Fatimah's friend invited me to visit her father, who was a caretaker of the Citadel, a house of imposing size located on the highest promontory in the sanctuary. He turned out to be the same Ali who hadgreeted me upon my entry into the village. Perhaps it was again cynical of me to think so, but I assumed she was banking on my becoming his friend in order to strengthen her claim on my household furnishings. He did not belong to the sada but was a tribesman, I learned, and she tried to intimate that he might have something specific to teach me about tribal poetry. It turned out he had very little to say on the subject, but his daughter was shrewd in suspecting that I would be won over by his charm anyway. He was indeed wonderful company and fun to talk to. It was precisely when I realized that I didn't want anything in particular from him that my visits to the Citadel became relaxing and refreshing. He would play with his little grandson until the boy fell asleep in his arms. I took a color slide of the two of them together and asked my father to have multiple copies printed so I could give some to the old man as a present. The daughter sent a copy to her husband in Saudi Arabia.
Ali the Bird began to attach himself to me for reasons that were not altogether clear. Perhaps he recognized a kindred spirit because of the books in my makeshift office. I in turn delighted in his subtle intelligence and gentleness. I nicknamed him the Bird because of his appearance. He had a beaklike nose and small, nervous eyes, and was always darting from one spot to the other as though in flight.
His ambition was to be a doctor. He had been fascinated by the American nurse "Jinni" and had often volunteered to be her escort on her daily rounds. Becoming a doctor would entail a long and arduous journey, however, leading farther and farther from the sanctuary he knew and loved: first a good secondary school in Sana'a; then the national university; then medical school in another Arab country or perhaps Europe or the United States. Besides the pang of separation, Ali's family worried that he might suffer a loss of faith in the lands of the infidel or succumb to alien ways. "It's what I want," he confessed to me, "to become a doctor. But it seems like such a far-off dream."
Afternoons were usually reserved for qat chews with friends. Qat is a mildly narcotic plant, the topmost leaves of which are chewed daily bynearly every adult in Yemen. My jaw muscles weren't up to such a regimen, so I would sometimes skip a session to take a walk with Ali the Bird as my guide. We skirted the fields east of the village, which were planted in barley, sorghum, wheat, and of course qat, the most lucrative cash crop in Yemen. Or we strolled in the orchards, where the crab apple, almond, and fig trees offered shade. Ali told me the names of dozens of plants and other features, and I still am pleased when I come across his beautiful handwriting in my notebooks, where he patiently corrected my spelling. The teenage boys we encountered on our walks would ask me why I walked so much, and I told them it was for exercise.
Once, I teasingly asked them whether they would like to join me in a jog through the seyla, the watercourse outside the sanctuary that flooded when the rains came in the winter and summer months but was dry for the rest of the year. It extended for many kilometers through rugged, dusty terrain.
"No thanks, we already know that Americans aren't quite right in the head. We prefer soccer."
Turning to Ali the Bird, I asked, "Do you think I'm not right in the head?"
"No," he responded shyly, "but I too prefer soccer," and he ran off to play with his friends.
I continued on my own and scrambled to the top of an escarpment where I could get a good view of the village. I gazed on a Cubist abstraction of planes: the tilting rectangles of fallow fields and the smooth stone walls of houses, set at sharp angles to one another and colored in delicate hues of brown, beige, yellow, and gray. The stillness that greeted me was like that of a wintry pond, with only the occasional gust of wind or throbbing of the water pump to break the silence. No redolence of wildflowers penetrated the nostrils; no scent of eucalyptus or pine such as one might smell in a California canyon, nor, for that matter, the acrid stink of manure that almost makes one faint as one bicycles past a freshly fertilized field in the Middle West. It was long past the rainy season, but the land was even dryer than usual because Yemen had been in the grips of a drought.
Running north-south was the road to Sana'a, about thirty kilometers away as the crow flies, but in 1980 it took at least two hours or more to reach it by car. I'd see the occasional "taxi" jeep dip and climb over the rugged terrain, looking like some ungainly, clambering beetle. Now and again the driver would stop to let off a passenger in the middle of nowhere. With his bag of belongings slung over his shoulder, he would trudge over neatly plowed fields toward some settlement perched on a rocky outcrop. Hajbah's store, no more than a wooden shed with a corrugated tin roof, was an important way station en route, where one could get soft drinks or fruit juice to slake one's thirst.
To the west was the tribal village of Sarkhan, nestled in a green valley. Above and quite far beyond it loomed a tabletop mountain, Kanin. Ali the Bird said that people bathed in hot and cold springs on the mountain. A treasure from the days of Yemen's ancient incense-and-spice kingdoms more than two and a half thousand years ago was said to be buried in its depths. No man has been able to find it because it's guarded by jinn. Did Ali, then, believe in jinn? I asked. Of course, he replied, they are mentioned in the Qur'an. But he sheepishly admitted that he'd never seen one.
The sanctuary had been nearly destroyed by Egyptian warplanes during the civil war, which had concluded only a few years before I arrived. Most people had rebuilt their houses using the rubble of the ruined old buildings, supplemented by stones from ancient sites. In effect, their homes became museums, the exterior walls studded with bas-relief snake sculptures and block writing, both being distinctive features of Himyaritic architecture. (The Himyarites were one of several powerful pre-Islamic kingdoms that flourished in Yemen about two thousand years ago.) Others who could afford it thought it more practical to start over, on the periphery of the settlement. Brand-new stone houses--the Citadel above where I lived being the most ostentatious among them--rose like phoenixes, built with money sent back by relatives working as migrant laborers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States during the 1960s and '70s. But this expansion sometimes occasioned disputes over land boundaries or fueled resentment among those who, like my upstairs neighbor Ahmed, could barely eke out a living. Theman known as the Agent, who looked after my house and the other properties of several absentee landlords, had shots fired into his home one evening as a result of a feud he'd been having with a neighbor over land. Expansion even brought charges of encroachment from outside the sanctuary. A tribesman in an adjacent hamlet, Ali al-Mahjari, loudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen that the sada were stealing his ancestral lands. I began to realize that this was hardly the halcyon spot I had hoped to find.
I spent a lot of my mornings in the marketplace, the hub of the village's activities. There was no point in going before ten or ten-thirty, because store owners caught up on their sleep in the mornings after bouts of qat-induced insomnia, so I busied myself until then with household chores. I could see women making fuel for their ovens out of a mixture of cow dung and straw, which they shaped into pancake-sized patties and left to dry on the rooftops. I thanked God that I had puta gaz. The alternative would have been to gather firewood, of which there was very little on the hillsides, long since denuded by centuries of use and erosion. The main source of water was a well at the edge of town. Veiled, hip-swaying women walked to and fro with buckets carefully balanced on their heads. In the beginning, I paid a man with a truck to deliver water to me on a weekly basis, but he wasn't reliable, and since no sada woman was willing to hire herself out to me--not out of meanness or sloth but out of consideration of her social standing--I ended up hauling water myself. I tried to pick a time when the fewest women were at the well, to save all of us embarrassment, and then I lugged ten-liter plastic containers, one in each hand, up the three hundred yards to my house, swearing in English all the way. By midmorning, washing would appear all over the village, sometimes on clotheslines, sometimes spread out on rocks, and if it was the day on which I had scheduled a bath, I would do my laundry in my rinse water--a conservation idea I was quite proud of. Dan Varisco and Najwa Adra, friends of mine and fellow anthropologists who had been in Yemen, had sent me an audiotape of Casablanca, taken off television and complete with advertisements so that I could keep up with U.S.consumerist tastes, and I liked to play it while doing my washing. As the Nazis invaded North Africa, I was stomping on my clothes like a winemaker on his grapes, and by the time Rick and Louis were swearing undying friendship, my shirts and pants were tugging on the line and snapping in the wind. When next I glanced out at the village, I might see women returning from the market with bags of groceries, a sign that I could begin my fieldwork in earnest. I would venture forth with a small spiral notebook and pencil wedged inside the waistband of my Yemeni skirt, or futa, my head covered in the cloth headdress called a mushadda. I knew better than to engage the women who crossed my path in conversation. Etiquette proscribed such familiarity.
My favorite shopkeeper, a man who was to become one of my dearest friends, was a dwarf nicknamed the Hunchback. He was respected not only for his keen intelligence but also for his shrewd and fair business practices as well as exemplary moral character. A man who seemed to know everyone, he might help me to make contact, or so I thought, with some of the best tribal poets in the region.
Muhammad the Hunchback would hail me with a broad smile, tell me to sit next to him, and ask what I had learned on the previous day. I would sit on his store counter or climb into the dark interior, perch on some sacks of grain, and talk to him about poetry, Islam, America, or anything else that came into my head. Grabbing my notebook, he would flip through the pages and read the words, phrases, and snatches of poetry I had recorded or a tribesman who was literate had written himself, then venture his own opinions as to whether the definitions and interpretations were correct or needed amplification. Why do you listen to so-and-so, he might mutter, seeing that I had jotted down information from someone he knew. He's not right in the head, he would say. Why don't you talk to X, who knows a tremendous amount about the subject? Why do you write down lies? When a tribesman came to his store who in the Hunchback's opinion might be interesting, he'd explain as best he could who I was and what I was looking for, and then ask the man to recite some poetry. I noted in my diary the Hunchback's efforts, and my own, to find poets:
Sunday, December 23, 1979
Late breakfast again and didn't arrive before 10:30. Sat mostly with the Hunchback and met Salih, the poet from the nearby village of Shadayg, whom I'd wanted to meet for some time. He seems to be a nice man--certainly had Muhammad the Hunchback's certificate of approval, which isn't given lightly--and he expressed interest in talking to me about poetry. I also met 'Ubad Ali, from Marhab, who said he'd come to see me tomorrow afternoon. It seems to have been the poets' bazaar day.
Friday, December 28, 1979
Got up late again. Did some household chores in the morning and went into the souk. Today being Friday, it was jammed with qabilis [tribesmen] who had come all the way from Marib [far to the east]. I also met some men from Bait al-Royshan, one of whom wrote down a zamil for me. He was enthusiastic about teaching me more poetry, so I hope we'll meet again sometime.
The Hunchback helped me with my project partly out of affection, partly out of intellectual curiosity, but also in an effort to control it. If I was a spy, he'd find out and alert the government. If I was not, he wanted to make sure I got "right" the information that I was planning to put in my book. But I suspected that after a while his sense of responsibility toward me became an unforeseen burden, and sensing that I was getting on his nerves, I'd change the topic to talk about more casual things or simply hang out without any agenda. When everything else failed, I often unwittingly provided comic relief.
December 22, 1979
One of the souk regulars offered me some burtugan [a kind of snuff], which I tried. You're supposed to take it under the tongue and then spit it out, but unfortunately I swallowed mine (after repeated and dire warnings from the Hunchback not to, and he scolded others for egging me on). The effect was instantaneous and as heavy as the blow from a sledgehammer. I almost passed out, broke into acold sweat, felt very dizzy and slightly nauseous, as if I'd had too much to drink. My heart was pounding in my chest. I was a little giddy and laughed uproariously at everything people said, even if it wasn't very funny. The Hunchback was beside himself with alarm over my condition and amused by it.
At times the playfulness had sinister undertones.
December 9, 1979
In the souk today one of the boys called me a little devil for writing the words down that I hear in conversation. He later explicitly stated that I was a spy. I laughed. I can deny [the charge] until I'm blue in the face and they'll still suspect me. It astounds me that they think Khawlan is so important to America's security and interests that it would send an agent to spy on its people!
Reading this diary entry more than twenty years later, I am struck by its disingenuous näiveté. I knew perfectly well, and even admitted as much to myself at the time, that had I been in their shoes, I would not have trusted me either. What was a lone American, with such an awkward way of explaining himself to others, doing in this part of the world? Worse, I was ignorant of the political importance of Khawlan to Yemen. I had accepted the standard diplomatic line that regions like Khawlan were mere backwaters to the mainstream of national political events in Yemen or international ones in the Middle East. My defensive tone also belied anxiety about my safety. By November 1979, the Iranian Revolution was at its peak, and a group of student radicals, angered by the United States, whose government had granted asylum to the deposed Shah, had besieged the American Embassy in Tehran and held a large number of its personnel hostage. In the meantime, anti-American, pro-Iranian demonstrations were erupting throughout the Muslim world, and though Yemen was relatively quiet, U.S. citizens there were nonetheless anxious lest they be targets of assault or other aggression.
December 8, 1979
Arrived [in the sanctuary] this afternoon ... Paranoia is slowly spreading in the American community, especially among embassy personnel as the embassies in Islamabad and Tripoli were burned (also Iraq & Calcutta had anti-American incidents, as did Kuwait). The "voluntary" evacuees left Sana'a today for Rome, but they represent only a handful of the community. No emergency of any stage has yet been declared.
HEW [Health, Education, and Welfare], which awards the Fulbright-Hays Grant by which I am financing the fieldwork, had the State Department send a secret cable to the ambassador in Sana'a requesting him to inform me of my options in case of an emergency: either fly to "safe haven" in Rome at my own expense, or remain in Sana'a at my own risk. What a thing to classify as secret, and everyone knew about it anyway. The State Department only sent the cable in order to cover its own ass in case something happened to me and it had failed to warn me of the danger.
One day the Hunchback sensed my concern and told me not to worry. "If something happens in Sana'a, we'd protect you." It was not, however, the Iranian Revolution that he and others in the sanctuary were excited about. During the Muslims' annual pilgrimage season, on November 20, a preacher by the name of Juhayman, who declared himself mahdi (rightly guided one), laid siege to the Haram Mosque in Mecca along with around two hundred of his followers (no one knew the exact number), protesting what they described as the moral degeneration of the Saudi royal family and relations with "infidel" powers that their policies led to. It took two weeks to crush the rebellion, and in the end the mahdi, his general, and the theologian or theoretician of the movement, along with most of his followers and a number of innocent pilgrims caught in the crossfire, were killed. This was the first time that the Saudi royal family had been publicly attacked for misconduct and misrule since King Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the founder of the modern nation, battled extreme Wahhabi elements over similar grievances in the 1920s--but it was not the last. In hindsight we can see that the rebellionin Mecca was a harbinger of more ferocious and determined campaigns against the Saudi state today, including those by Osama bin Laden.
In a field note from November, I recorded the reaction of the people in the sanctuary to the events of November 20: For some of them it represents the beginning of a revolution in Saudi Arabia against the King & the House of Sacud just like the revolution that began a year ago against the former Shah of Iran. In the souk, I bear them say: huh huh, nafs ath-thowrah: iran wa sacudiyyah, "It's the same thing, the same revolution: Iran & Saudi Arabia." And the fact that the incident in the Haram Mosque co-occurred with the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where over fifty hostages have been confined, may have added another mental association between Saudi Arabia & the Revolution in Iran.
The curious and difficult question is: do [the people in the sanctuary] secretly hope the same revolution will spread to Yemen and lead to what happened in Iran--that is, the establishment of a theocracy with the clergy in control and an imam as absolute ruler? This, after all, corresponds somewhat to the situation of the sada in Yemen during the reign of the imams, and the [sanctuary] may be hoping secretly for the return of its former power. This state of affairs could be brought about by a "religious" revolution such as the one that is occurring in Iran.
The Hunchback's was one of nine stores in full, daily operation when I was living in the sanctuary, with a new store being built by the sons of a man called Hussein the Servant. Besides these stores, there were some stalls whose owners eked out a living by serving Pepsi or tea from beat-up, blackened aluminum kettles, while others belonged to the better-off qat sellers. Shortly before noon each day, their motorcycles or pickup trucks would roar into the souk laden with bundles purchased from various growers in the region or from middlemen operating in Sana'a and Khawlan's administrative capital, Jihana. Shopkeepers and customers would immediately stop what they were doing and gather around the sellers, purchasing qat for themselves as well as for their womenfolk. The Hunchback would often help me select succulent branches and, by the nod of his head and the lift of an eyebrow, indicate whether the asking price was too steep.
Some of the tribesmen who showed up in the market to peddle their dry goods came from as far away as Marib, on the fringes of the vastcentral Arabian desert known as the Empty Quarter. This ancient town was once the capital of one of the great incense-and-spice kingdoms and thought by historians to have been ruled at one time by the Queen of Sheba. Though today a boomtown made prosperous by the discovery of oil in the 1980s, it was no more than a sleepy little place of a few hundred people when I was doing my fieldwork. The tribesmen from Marib were scragglier and tougher looking than even the men from these parts, and I learned that they were smugglers. The Hunchback would partly replenish his own stock from their supplies but would more often make trips with his sons to the spice souk in Sana'a for the rest of his purchases.
On Fridays I hoped to meet poets who would come to the market town, first to conduct their business, then to pray in the mosque and listen to the imam's sermon. One day the Hunchback gleefully waved to me from across the way to come and meet the man standing at his counter. He was Yahya al-Qiri, a son of Muhammad al-Qiri, a paramount sheikh in these parts and a poet in his own right. His shrewd eyes had a twinkle in them, and his face was as round and smooth as a cherub's.
"So you want to learn tribal poetry, eh?"
"Give him some poems, Yahya," the Hunchback urged him. "Give him some zamils from the civil war." A zamil poem is two lines in length with a strict meter and rhyme scheme (often with intricate internal rhymes) and is meant to be pithy or aphoristic. Most zamil poems are composed orally for certain ceremonial or political occasions and are remembered only if the poet or the event that occasioned the poem is famous. Because of their brevity, it was easy, or easier, for me at the beginning of my fieldwork to learn zamils.
Turning to me, Yahya asked, "Have you heard the famous zamil that al-Ghadir declaimed when he broke with the republic?" Naji al-Ghadir was one of the great Khawlani sheikhs of the previous half century. He had been an ardent supporter of the revolution until Egypt sent military forces to assist the republican forces, which in his mind was tantamount to occupation by a foreign power, and he had been assassinated by South Yemenis during the civil war.
Mount al-Tiyal, I summoned and cried out to every peak in Yemen: "We shall never be a republic, not even if we were to be snuffed out forever from this world! Even if yesterday were to return today and the sun were to rise in the south! Even if the earth were to burn up in fire and the sky were to rain bul- lets!"
Though my literal translation captures the hyperbole of the original, it cannot begin to render the beauty of its sound patterns. The most distinctive are internal rhymes: the Arabic for "he summoned" rhyming with "Yemen" at the end of the first hemistich, for example.
Yahya was taken aback but pleased that I knew the poem. He asked me if I had collected the reply composed by the republican Sheikh al-Royshan, another famous Khawlan leader of the civil-war era.
Pardon, if you please, someone who has wended a devious course. The MIG, the Yushin with the helicopter, and the black fighter jet--Neither cartridge belts nor M-1 rifles will stop the pilots. Say to Hasan and Badr, O Naji, "Already silver has turned to brass!"
The two poems are coupled as "provocation" and "retort." Being a rejoinder, al-Royshan's poem must, according to the rules of the verbal joust in Khawlan, replicate the meter and rhyme scheme of the challenge, but to be judged the superior poem, it must do more than this. And indeed, al-Royshan's poem is a tour de force. For example, in Arabic the phrase "a devious course," whose final sound echoes the internal rhyme in the first hemistich of al-Ghadir's poem, is also a chiasmus--with the sequence of consonants in one word (t-1-w) being reversed in the following one (w-1-t), conveying in sound the sense of someone who has flip-flopped or reversed course. And the concluding line, because it alludes or indirectly refers to the monarchy (whose silver has been debased and turned to brass), has the rhetorical force of a good joke's punch line, the more so because it manages to include the namesof Naji al-Ghadir's allies--Imam Badr, whom the republicans had deposed, and Hasan al-cAmri, the imam's general.
A grin wrinkled Yahya's face. "And do you know what al-Ghadir said to that?" I shook my head. He began to recite:
The Yushin will do you no good. We have something to combat it. You are out of your mind! The land mine is certain to leave the tank in pieces. Of no use to you is Sallal the lunatic [the president of the republic] or Hasan al-cAmri. O Satan, you are cursed, and the curse will be fulfillled in a narrow grave.
A good poem, we agreed, but not up to the standard of al-Royshan's. It lacked the latter's imaginative flair. The Hunchback nonetheless exclaimed, "God be thanked, Seif, you've found the cycle of poems you've been searching for! Do you think you could invite Seif to come to your village, Yahya, to see your weddings and maybe to record some of your own poems?" Yahya said he would be honored to.
The Hunchback pressed him. "But when, Yahya, when?"
"Soon. We'll do it soon. Any time you want, Seif."
I could not resist reciting a proverb. "A promise is like thunder and fulfillment is the rain." He laughed, backing away from the store, waving and smiling, before he turned on his heel and was gone.
"Who taught you that proverb?" the Hunchback inquired admiringly.
"Hussein the Servant. Do you think he means it?" I asked doubtfully, thinking of all the other times a poet had promised to see me and then didn't.
"I think he does, Seif, but you'll have to be patient."
"I know, I know. 'Patience is beautiful,'" I said, quoting from the Qur'an and bringing a smile to the Hunchback's lips.
Meanwhile, I was diverted by the colorful scene before me. Vegetable sellers, usually women more thickly veiled than they would have been in their tribal villages, out of respect for the sanctuary, sat inshady lanes with their produce--onions, radishes, tomatoes, heads of lettuce--spread out on blankets while their menfolk hawked firewood. This happened to be one of the rare days when fresh vegetables were available, and I bought an armful. The women were joined by sellers of coffee, sheep's wool, carpets, used auto parts, motor oil, fencing wire, and spark plugs. I recognized some of these souk regulars from open-air markets in other Yemeni towns. A young man stood with his dagger aloft, slowly turning around and drawing people's attention to it by shouting loudly, "A thousand riyals! A thousand riyals!" An older man did the same thing with a rifle. A tribeswoman stepped up to the Hunchback's counter and thrust a clock at him; he was clever at fixing radios and other appliances, clothes irons, and small tools. Market-goers came to him for medicines, disinfectants, bandages, and palliative kinds of incense, which he dispensed with folk wisdom about bodily ailments and their reputed cures. Because his wife was a skilled seamstress and owned a sewing machine, he also received orders for women's and men's clothing. I had placed an order with her for several zanna, or male robes. And not least, since he knew how to read and write, the Hunchback was often called upon to decipher documents, for many of the older tribesmen had little if any formal schooling. Outside the main gate of the Old City of Sana'a, known as Bab al-Yemen, one would often see elderly men seated under umbrellas next to simple crates upon which they would write letters or documents dictated to them by tribesmen. To me, there is no more dramatic sign of the spread of education in Yemen than that these scribes have all but vanished today.
Most of the Hunchback's customers bought their goods on credit. He was a careful, even zealous bookkeeper, adding up accounts at the end of the month so that he would know exactly how much money his customers owed him. But unlike Shylock, he extended credit without interest, which is considered usurious according to Islam, and he allowed payment schedules to be flexible. "Running a store would be impossible without extending credit," he explained to me. "People don't always have the cash when they need to buy something." Only once did I see him lose his temper with a customer who he thought was takingadvantage of him by letting the bill go unpaid too long. From below the counter, the Hunchback dragged out a large ledger in which he wrote down his accounts, which seemed even bigger next to his small, deformed body, like a holy tablet meant to last the ages, and opened it to the page where the young man's name was scrawled. He pointed out to him the date of sale, the amount of the purchase, and the cost. When the young man disputed the accuracy of the figures, the Hunchback swore up and down that there was no mistake and that the young man had to pay his debt or his name would be mud. This was a rather strong admonition, for it presumed dishonesty, so the young man took out his dagger to challenge the Hunchback's accounting, then handed it over to a bystander to act as mediator. Within half an hour the dispute was settled, the young man agreeing to pay the sum he owed at his next visit to the market. But the Hunchback was not sanguine about that prospect. "I'll probably never see him again," he muttered under his breath to me, "that son of a whore ..." It is interesting that, for all his meticulous bookkeeping of sales made on credit, he did not keep a record of sales against his expenses and thus had no precise idea of his income. As far as I know, all the other souk merchants adopted the same methods: they were content to know that they were doing "well" or "poorly" or "average" in comparison to years past. It was difficult to estimate the Hunchback's net income in 1980, but I would surmise that it averaged between ten and twenty dollars per weekday and perhaps five times that amount on Friday, or souk day. This income was higher than that of the average merchant, primarily because his family owned the building where he kept his store and he had practically no overhead, but I also heard that he was a notorious skinflint.
In light of his altercation with the young man, I thought the Hunchback would appreciate the fact that I never asked for credit, but the contrary was true.
"Don't you trust each other in America?" he asked me one day, sarcastically.
"What do you mean?"
"You buy my stuff, but you always pay for it immediately. I thought we were friends, Seif."
"We are friends, Muhammad. I show my respect to you that way."
"No you don't. You show me that you don't trust me to be generous and understanding when you fall behind in your payment."
"I don't want to end up like that young man you had a fight with, Muhammad, and have our relationship spoiled."
"You're different, Seif, you wouldn't try to take advantage of me. I know that because I know you, and it's because I trust you that I don't ask you to pay for your purchases immediately. Otherwise I hurt your feelings, and you mine."
The Hunchback would invite me to spend an afternoon or two in his grape arbor, located in the western part of town, surrounded by walls or wire fences to keep out animals that might trample or eat the harvest. Being winter, it was time to prune back the vines, and I offered to help. Propped up on thin stone supports, they looked as unprepossessing as unraveled balls of yarn, madly twisted like the snakes in Medusa's hair, but in a month or two they would begin to sprout emerald green leaves. Then the Hunchback would cover the branches with thistles and thorns to ward off birds, and later, the most succulent or heavy clusters of grapes might be wrapped in canvas or paper for added protection. The vines produced mostly green grapes, wonderfully sweet, like the wine of the German Palatinate. I learned to identify the different types, with names like razigi, atraf, and gawarir. The Hunchback sold most of the grapes to middlemen in Sana'a, and the rest that were not immediately eaten were dried as raisins, which, along with locally grown almonds, made a delicious snack.
The arbor was a delightful spot for small gatherings. On matting and cushions we lay down and stretched ourselves and watched motes of dust gently swirl in the vine-filtered light. I tried to get the Hunchback to talk about the history of the village, but he deferred to Ibrahim, aka the Beltmaker. "Besides," he said, "Ibrahim travels to the tribes all over Khawlan, and you might go along with him and meet some of their poets." Though the Beltmaker did travel extensively, he had a reputation for being a recluse inside the sanctuary. He prayed inhis house rather than in a mosque. Rarer still were his appearances in the market, for he preferred to send his youngest son, Ghazi, to run his errands for him while he sat at home studying his religious books or making the belts for which he was famous.
'Do you think he would talk to me?" I asked Muhammad the Hunchback.
"I don't see why not," he replied. "I'll speak to him about you."
It was Ghazi who came to my house one day with an invitation from his father. "Come on this day next week," the boy advised.
Ibrahim the Beltmaker lived in a modestly appointed, three-story house in the middle of town, one of those that had miraculously escaped destruction during the civil war. I pounded on its massive door with the brass knocker. This was always a suspenseful moment, exciting because of the new person I might meet but filled with dread lest I be turned away. No answer. A part of me was secretly relieved. It was always so much work getting to know someone here, and one never knew whether a person would be friendly or interesting. I moved away from the door to check the windows, but no face was pressed against the glass panes. For all its stillness, I nevertheless sensed that the house wasn't empty, that unseen eyes were watching me from behind the curtains. I knocked again, shouting, "It's Seif the American, come to visit Ibrahim." No answer.
When I told the Hunchback about what had happened, he seemed surprised and somewhat embarrassed. "Don't worry, Seif, I'll talk to Ibrahim about it."
In a few days I was summoned again to Ibrahim's house. When I knocked this time, a woman's voice came from the wooden-latticed peep box above me, uttering one loud and menacing staccato word. "Man." "Who is it?" It sounded like the crack of a whip next to my ear.
"Seif the American."
The door opened from inside, pulled by a string that I imagined was operated by the invisible woman above my head.
"Proceed to the top floor," the same disembodied voice said, more gently. It was so dark I almost stumbled as I climbed the stairs. I uttered the formula "Allah, Allah, Allah," the customary warning to the women in the house that there was a man in their midst. Rather than causing them to scatter, it had the opposite effect, inviting them to draw near, checking me out through the cracks and keyholes in the doors while they remained hidden. I could hear a giggle as I passed, and an unintelligible exchange of whispers that made me feel self-conscious and foolish. As creatures of the forest, would they have been predator or prey?
As I entered a simple but cozy little room, Ibrahim rose from the floor with the suppleness of a dancer, though he was nearly twice my age. He was tall and erect in carriage, with a distinguished countenance. Only the gray stubble on his head betrayed his advancing years. I clasped his right hand, bringing the back of it to my lips as if to kiss it, and he did the same to mine. Thus did we ritually greet and gaze warmly into each other's eyes. I noticed flecks of green on his front teeth and a bulge in his cheek, telltale signs of qat. I was glad I had bought some sprigs in the marketplace that morning in preparation for my visit.
Ibrahim ushered me to my seat, propping up the back cushions, which had started to sag with age, straightening out the worn elbow rests, and in general trying to make me feel comfortable in spite of the threadbare furnishings. After a few minutes a discreet knock was heard at the door, and a woman's arm pushed a thermos across the threshold. He offered me a cup of scented water and, while we talked, picked up the strip of cotton cloth on which he had been working and spread it on his knee. He was making the decorative band sewn onto a leather backing that made up a belt. With a thick pencil, he carefully outlined the intertwined grape-and-almond design that his wife would later embroider in gold, silver, red, and green thread. I ordered two such lovely strips of cloth but never had the nerve to tell Ibrahim that I intended them as wall hangings instead of belts.
Belt-making was hardly more than a hobby for Ibrahim. His major source of income was from keeping the records of the religious endowments (waqf) scattered all over Khawlan. Waqf are properties (lands usually, but they can also be buildings, businesses, and so forth) donated by wealthier individuals to local mosques, the proceeds from which help to defray the cost of upkeep and repair of the mosques or to pay for new schools, clinics, and whatever else the congregation sees fit to support. As there are many mosques in Khawlan with waqf attached to them, Ibrahim was kept busy. Occasionally he might also be asked to adjudicate a divorce or settle an estate or perform graveside services. His religious knowledge and judicial skills were highly regarded, and because of his descent from the Prophet, he could move through tribal territories without the need for a person to guard him from potentially hostile tribesmen. However, there were times when it seemed wise to Ibrahim not to wander abroad, the tribes' obligation to protect sada not withstanding.
When hostilities broke out, the term sanctuary had real meaning, as Ibrahim's older brother, who now joined our conversation, could attest from his own experience. Hussein had been secretary to President al-Hamdi before the latter was assassinated in 1977. Fearing for his life because of his great admiration for the slain leader, Hussein tookrefuge in his ancestral home, where he had remained cooped up ever since. He was keen, alert, and suspicious, his personality alternately overbearing and immensely charming.
I noticed that Hussein did not chew qat. He was quite fastidious in his spotless white robe. "Do you not like it," I asked him, "or do you object to it on principle?"
"A filthy habit," he said with considerable disdain. "And far too expensive. I'd rather spend my money on other things. It's a scourge on our people as far as I'm concerned. Rather like your drugs." He did not look disapprovingly at his brother with his bulging cheek, nor did the latter seem to take offense.
"Certainly not that bad, I hope." I had to smile at the comparison. "It seems more benign. Like drinking a lot of coffee, though that isn't necessarily healthy either." The Qat Question, as I like to call it, is a topic of perennial debate in Yemen. Qat's detractors are mainly foreigners or the Yemeni elite, who blame practically every social and economic ill of the country on qat consumption, but the general population refuses to give up its guilty pleasure. The government has enacted mild reforms, such as prohibiting the chewing of qat in the army or the state bureaucracy, but enforcement is lax. In general it is loath to interdict the cultivation and sale of a crop that has been so important to the livelihood of so many people in Yemen for such a long time.
"Here." Ibrahim passed the mouthpiece of the water pipe to his brother, who accepted it gratefully.
"You do not consider smoking a vice?" I asked him.
"Not when the smoke has to pass through all that water, filtering out the impurities. Anyway, it's not an addiction with me."
Sanctimonious sonovabitch, I thought to myself.
Hussein the Secretary asked the usual questions. Why was I in the village? What sort of study was I doing? How long did I plan to stay? When he learned how much money I "earned" from my research fellowships, he scoffed, saying that he spent that much in one month on the house he was building. He wasn't simply or only bragging, for through his probing and challenges he hoped to find out moreabout me. Ibrahim betrayed not a flicker of what he was thinking, but he must have sensed my growing discomfort under his brother's interrogation.
I congratulated Hussein on his good fortune, saying he was obviously beloved of God. I could see that he was not amused by this feeble attempt to fence with him, but I could not know until later how deeply ironical and even hurtful I had sounded. Grimly he got to the point.
'The president of Yemen has seen you on television and wanted to know whether you were a spy." Hussein smirked at the effect his words had on me."Of course, I advised him that the American was a man of science and was in the sanctuary for the pursuit of knowledge."
"Very gratifying," I replied sarcastically. I proceeded to explain in detail all over again what I was doing in Khawlan, but he left the room before I could finish. As things turned out, it was the last I ever saw of him, but I had an intuition that he would somehow affect my life.
I tried to recover my composure. Ibrahim smiled and offered me the stem of the water pipe. I sucked at it gratefully, the deep drafts of the incense -flavored smoke acting like a sedative on my nerves.
After continuing to work on his belt in silence for a few minutes, Ibrahim tried to explain to me that his older brother was not a happy man. He had married many times but had not been able to father children. Now I could understand why Hussein might have been offended to be called "beloved of God." He had nurtured wealth and power but not offspring. In his old age, he was a lonely man. He had been like a father to Ibrahim's older sons, paying for their education and the bride wealth for their marriages to prominent sada families, neither of which Ibrahim could have afforded on his modest income.
"Your brother is going to tell you not to talk to me," I said.
"On the contrary." Ibrahim smiled. "It was my brother who asked me to invite you in the first place."
"He suspects I am a spy. That's what he wanted to confirm by my visit."
"Maybe so, maybe not. But he would not want me to keep talking to you now, would he, if he truly thought you were a spy? We all have to live under the uncertainties of what people think of us, Seif."
"Well, yes, that's true, but certain uncertainties put one at greater personal risk than others, no?"
"You mean that people might try to hurt you if they suspected you were a spy? That applies to me as well, for I or my family have enemies, and if they suspected you of being a spy, I might be accused of being a collaborator. I can only get to know you and judge for myself."
"But you can defend yourself. You have family and friends here. You're not alone."
"At the same time, Seif, because you have no family or friends, because you're alone, no one feels you're a threat to them."
"How can you say that I have no enemies, Ibrahim? There are people who hate America, and some of them are in this village." I was thinking of the Syrian teachers in the sanctuary school, who I had learned had been spreading rumors about me.
"Maybe they hate America, but as a rule they don't hate Americans. America is just an abstract concept to them. You're real, and people like you when they get to know you. Besides, the important thing to remember is that you're our guest. We have accepted you in our midst. We must protect and honor you."
Ibrahim continued to work on his belt. I had another, more desperate thought. "Does your brother think that he can win political favor by making others believe I'm a spy whom he can deliver into their hands?"
"What are you talking about, Seif? Which people? What political favor?"
I knew I had gone too far, but I could not stop myself. I had to bare my anxious suspicions to Ibrahim, even if their revelation made me seem ridiculous. "He did say, didn't he, that he had had a talk with the president about me? Doesn't that imply that he's working for him or at least trying to get back into his good graces? Handing me--or someone like me--over to the authorities would be the ticket back into government life and out of this sleepy little village."
"Maybe so, maybe not." Ibrahim laughed gently. "Are you then so valuable that you could become a pawn? Besides, that sounds like adangerous game. If Hussein were wrong about you--which I would say to his face that he was--it would cost him dearly to accuse you falsely." He reached out to tap me on the shoulder. "You came to find out more about the history of the sanctuary, didn't you? What can I tell you about it?"
From my studies in Yemeni Islamic history, I had learned that the Arabic word for the sanctuary, hijra, has a precise reference to a historic event, the departure of the Prophet Muhammad from his hometown, Mecca, to Medina, where he was asked by its citizens to arbitrate a bitter dispute in exchange for accepting his religious message and leadership. The Zaydi sada, related to the Prophet through his son-in-law, Ali ibn Talib, and the Prophet's daughter, Fatimah, emigrated in the late ninth century A.D. from the Hijaz, in what is today western Saudi Arabia, and history says that they came to Yemen at the behest of the tribes there to help them settle internal disputes, thereby eventually becoming their rulers. Thus the story of Muhammad helped legitimate the sada, for by following its example they were constituting their own power.
But one ought to be skeptical of this history as a peculiarly sada invention, for it fits the classic rhetoric of colonial rule: that is, because the Other cannot rule themselves, they in turn need Others to bring governance and peace. Had I not been told by my friends in the sanctuary--and rather smugly, too--that "chaos" prevailed among the tribes? That if I ventured forth alone among them, they'd slit my throat?
Over time, the term hijra came to acquire other meanings. We know that it is used as the beginning date of the Muslim calendar, but it has a reference to a place as well. To continue the history, the Zaydi sada in Yemen became missionaries, instructing the tribes in Islamic credo and ritual and successfully converting many of them; in exchange for these services, they were given rights to land on which to build their settlements, from then on called hijra, and they were also granted protected status by the tribe or tribes in the area. It was in accordance with sacred covenants that a hijra could not be attacked by the tribes, nor could tribesmen who sought refuge in one. In Yemen, the term hijrathus has a more locally specific meaning than elsewhere in the Muslim world, as the name for a type of settlement in which sada have historically resided and in whose precincts certain protections are guaranteed. Yet not all such settlements in Yemen were established by the original emigrants from the Hijaz. In some cases, they were formed by someone who for one reason or another was moving from one region to a different one. This was apparently the case for the sanctuary where I was living, as Ibrahim explained. I did not tape his remarks, not having my tape recorder with me, but in the course of our talk I jotted down his comments in my small spiral notebook, which a later time I transcribed into a more complete field note.
Anthropologists like to distinguish between a diary and field notes, which are supposed to be the ethnographic reports they compile about the daily life of the people they are studying. In actual practice, it is hard to separate the two kinds of writing. Personal anecdotes constantly spill over into the supposedly objective field notes, and a diary contains much information of ethnographic import. When it comes to publishing, the habit has been to rework the information contained in both into a monograph or article, and to keep the diary and field notes invisible among one's private papers. Only rarely, as in the case of the great anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the founders of anthropological fieldwork, has a field diary been published; in that particular case, the racist contents created such a scandal and an embarrassment for the profession that the experiment has not, to my knowledge, been repeated. At issue, however, is not merely the publication of diaries or field notes: it is the boundary between them and the ethnographic monograph. What I learned about Yemeni society, politics, and poetry in the sanctuary was facilitated as well as constrained by various circumstances--ranging from my psychological states, bordering at times on paranoia, through local conflicts, to world historical events like the Iranian hostage crisis. Here I want to show the complexities of these interconnected levels of life in Yemen, so I have interwoven diaries, field notes, post-fieldwork reflections, and my ethnographic reports.
Here's my field note containing the history of the sanctuary as toldby Ibrahim the Beltmaker: The founding ancestor of the sanctuary, a certain Mut'iq ibn Hayjan, came to Khawlan from Wadi al-Jowf [a large and important valley northeast of Khawlan], and this happened, oh, maybe three or four hundred years ago. As for why be left Wadi al-Jowf, it seems that Mut'iq got into a bad scrape with a tribesman whom he eventually killed. Did be kill the tribesman in selfdefenses Did he strike the first blow? The details are obscure. What is certain is that he and his family were convinced they had to flee, either because he was guilty and would have been punished by death or because he was innocent and could not be assured of a fair hearing. The tribes of Khawlan al-Tiyal agreed to protect Mut'iq and to let him stay among them. [It is a common practice in Yemen for a fugitive, regardless of his guilt or innocence, to receive sanctuary from a politically powerful group or person. The protector is then honor-bound to keep his pledge of protection, even if in doing so he risks the enmity of the plaintiff and his tribe.] So Mut'iq moved his family to Khawlan and settled here, and that is how this place became a hijra. The remains of his home are still visible on the surface. In fact, they are not far from here, and Ibrahim said that be'd take me to see them someday.
But why did be settle here? Khawlan is a big region, and there could have been other places to settle in. Ab, but the homestead is located on the border between two important sections of a very big tribe, probably the biggest at the time, Upper Yemeniya and Lower Yemeniya: These two sections were feuding over land boundaries, and Mut'iq offered to help settle their differences. Land boundaries are in general subject to dispute and therefore dangerous, and a sanctuary in this location, a "liminal" space as anthropologists since Arnold Van Gennep have been fond of calling it, has special symbolic significance. With no arms, just religious knowledge and regal reasoning, Mut'iq was able to persuade the sections of the tribe to remain at Peace, and they gave him this land for his trouble.
Thinking about it now, I wonder whether Ibrahim was aware of the contradictions in his story or simply accepted them as a matter of course, but I never pressed him on this. It's one of those countless lapses--questions not asked, answers not pursued, invitations not followed up--that were due either to recalcitrant circumstances at the time, now no longer recoverable in memory, or to sloth and fatigue. The contradictions--as I see them, at least, though maybe not Ibrahim--suggest that the sada were harbingers of disorder as much as of peaceful harmony; indeed, the latter presupposes the former. It's noteven as though Ibrahim tried to make excuses for Mut'iq's slaying a tribesman, unless he did this deliberately by obscuring the circumstances, which I doubt. Rather, he seemed to accept homicidal violence and peace as two sides of one coin. At the very time that he and I were talking about the history of the sanctuary, there were deep disputes among the villagers over land transactions, and they had led to shots being fired into a man's home, of all unpardonable things. And because of the building boom on the boundaries, a poor tribesman was being squeezed out, causing him to complain of the sanctuary's greed and heartlessness. Soon a bitter dispute between the sanctuary and a nearby village was to leave us all profoundly shaken, and this too seemed to confirm the dialectic between harmony and discord, peace and war.
The descendants of Mut'iq prospered, or so went the story Ibrahim told me, some of them becoming important as administrators in the imam's government, both in Sana'a and in other Yemeni cities, others as teachers and scribes. Their position did not change much until the overthrow of the last imam in 1962 and the ensuing civil war.
"What was it like," I asked Ibrahim, "to live here during the civil war?"
"On your way to the market from your house, Seif, do you notice the caves?" Ibrahim was referring to large underground passages whose openings were blocked by stones. "When the planes came, women, children, and old men took cover in them."
"How could all those people have found shelter in them? They don't seem big enough."
'They're bigger than you think. They extend very far and deep. That's why we've put stones in the entries to keep small children from playing in them and getting hurt. But the caves were not the only places where we found shelter. The tribes in the hills were our friends, and we would take cover with them. The people of Sarkhan often sheltered us against the bombs."
"Do you remember what the bombing was like?"
"Oh yes, the noise was terrifying, but few people died. Scouts would give us advance warnings when planes took off from Sana'a heading in our direction, so that we could take cover in plenty of time. Besides,the mountains are hard to get through, Seif. Easy to defend, hard to attack. The Ottomans had a tough time of it when they tried to occupy Yemen. In the end they could hold on only to Sana'a and a few other cities. And we fought back, too. You know what my younger son's name means? Ghazi? Raider. He was born at the height of the civil war. I wanted to honor the young men from the sanctuary who died attacking the Egyptian outposts."
"You fought back with what, Ibrahim? The Egyptians had planes with bombs."
"We had automatic weapons, even antiaircraft guns. We got pretty good at shooting down their planes, and after a while, they were afraid to fly over our village."
"So, the poet al-Royshan was wrong when he implied in his reply to al-Ghadir that the royalists had only small arms to combat the warplanes. Where did all this equipment come from?" Ibrahim was evasive, and I didn't press him for a straight answer. It was probably Saudi Arabia, which feared Egypt's backing of the Yemeni revolution, thinking it a ploy by President Gemal Abdul Nasser to gain a strategic foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, from which he could threaten their oil-rich and militarily vulnerable kingdom.
The people in the sanctuary had been royalist supporters for the most part, but this did not necessarily mean that their relatives elsewhere had been. In fact, among the earliest advocates of the new republic had been their own kinsmen, some of whom paid for it with their lives. As in the American Civil War, though perhaps not quite so bitterly, families were often divided, with brother pitted against brother. Ibrahim's family was a case in point. His brother had supported the republic and fought on its side, whereas Ibrahim had believed that the monarchy could have been reformed and salvaged.
"The monarchy had its faults, and the imam's government committed many abuses. Rule was supposed to pass down to the most qualified male among all the sada houses of Yemen, as determined by a special council, but in the end only one, his house, the Hamid ad-Din, and only Yahya's family within that house was permitted to rule. And then, Imam Yahya and Imam Ahmed were very closed-minded, refusing toallow things to come into Yemen from Egypt or the West, like up-to-date clinics and modern education. Before the revolution, we had fought the imams over these issues, demanding better care for the people, but they feared that the people would learn democracy, too, and crave it for our country. My family was involved in the coup that toppled Imam Yahya in 1948. And you know about al-Qardaci, the famous poet, whose zamil poems you've been collecting? We gave him sanctuary and then safe passage back to his tribe after he assassinated the imam."
"But why not have supported the republic, if it promised these things, too?"
"It had no legitimacy, Seif. Who was the first president? A half-literate butcher's son, Sallal, who rose through the ranks of the imam's army to become a colonel, a man who was part of the servant class of Yemen. A muzeyyin! What made him qualified to be president? He was only a puppet of the Egyptians."
"Would you want the monarchy back, then?"
He paused for a moment. "No, it's finished. But we don't have a strong republic, either. Al-Hamdi--now he was a president who could have unified us. He started to do good things for our people. That's why my brother believed in him and worked for him."
One day Ibrahim told me that his eldest son was home from school on a short visit, along with a nephew, the son of another brother, and I was invited to lunch (actually the equivalent of our dinner) with them. Yemen is outstanding in many arts--architecture, music, dance, handicrafts, jewelry, and poetry--but cooking is not one of them, and this in spite of Turkish occupation as well as centuries of contact with Indian and Southeast Asian traders. The one exception is bread--many unleavened breads made from wheat, millet, barley, or some combination of these baked in a special oven called the tanour. They may be oval--as large, say, as a dinner-table place mat and about a quarter inch thick--and either hard or spongy, or they may be small loaves, called roti. Chunks of bread are dipped in seasoned yoghurt or a sauce made from crushed tomatoes, onions, parsley, and hot peppers, but they are mainly used to scoop up mouthfuls of hot food in the absence of utensils.Overall, however, there is no style or art to Yemeni cooking that I could discern. Ibrahim's wife was thus all the more estimable a cook for doing so well with such conventional ingredients at that lunch: several varieties of unleavened bread; a scalding chicken soup surrounding like a moat a delicious dumpling called asid--this was a great delicacy; salads of mixed greens with fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, and hot radishes, which could be eaten with a kind of dressing called zoam; stuffed grape leaves; and for dessert, fresh fruit and a cake called bint al-sahn (literally, 'daughter of the plate'), topped with Yemeni honey, justly prized as among the finest in the world. The pièces de résistance were chunks of highly seasoned lamb served on a bed of saffroned rice. Meat is usually boiled rather than grilled in Yemen, which may kill bacteria but leaves the meat tough and stringy. Ibrahim's wife had avoided these shortcomings, perhaps by marinating the meat in advance or otherwise tenderizing it; whatever her secret, the tidbits were succulent. The dishes did not appear in sequence but all at once, spread out on the floor on top of a cloth. The rule was to sample a little of everything but to leave room for meat at the end. There was more food than we could possibly eat, which is a prerequisite of Arab hospitality but also because the leftovers were intended for the women and children of the house.
We men sat in a circle, one leg folded under the haunch, the other knee upright and touching the neighbor's. The local term for this position is takhawlan-t, literally meaning "I have khawlaned," or "I have assumed the position of a person from Khawlan." Uncomfortable for someone with long legs or arthritic joints, it takes getting used to. Ibrahim muttered the formula "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate," reaching out with his right hand for the food as he did so, and we followed suit. Except for Ibrahim's assiduous prompting to keep eating, which I found superfluous in light of the fact that I hadn't had such a delicious and filling meal in ages, we hardly spoke a word. Meals are for eating, not idle conversation. For that, there is the afternoon qat chew.
"Well, that was certainly a delicious meal," I said to Ibrahim. "Thank your wife for me." Later in my fieldwork, when I repeated this among the tribes, my faux pas was pointed out to me. It is the family and itsgenerosity or nobility that should be thanked, not any individual or group within the household. Mindful that men were claiming this, I wondered whether the women, who did almost all the work, would have agreed. Probably. A feminist critique of women's labor in the patriarchal household had not yet made it to Yemen, let alone Khawlan. A scented towel was passed around on which we wiped our hands.
When I got up to stretch my legs, Rashid, Ibrahim's younger son, insisted that he pour rose water on my hands and then wanted to sprinkle a few drops on my jacket for good measure (a custom I rued because it spotted the material, which reeked of the sweet smell for weeks thereafter). I begged him not to, all the time thanking him profusely nonetheless, and he accepted my refusal of the honor graciously enough. Now his cousin Hamid appeared with some liquid refreshment. It was gishr, an infusion thought to be a digestive, made from the husk of the coffee bean and flavored with cardamom. Etiquette dictated that I slurp it loudly.
"What do you do for your meals, Seif?" asked Hamid.
I made them laugh when I described my kitchen, a counter and cabinet I had improvised from a shipping crate, which I had set on one side, the bottom toward the wall, the topside covered with vinyl, a curtain on a string to cover the opening, and the other sides painted a bright orange. Behind the curtain, hanging from nails or stacked on the bottom of the crate, were pots, pans, and various utensils. On the stone floor I had a little range with two burners hooked up by rubber hoses to a gas tank outside the house. Cupboards made from wooden fruit boxes, also painted orange--a little color coordination in the decor I was rather proud of--were nailed onto the wall, and in them I put my canned goods. This was where I prepared my food.
"And this arrangement is sufficient for you?" asked Hamid, incredulous.
"It's simple, but it works. I don't want to clutter up my life with things or chores that keep me away from my main task. The one thing I worry about, though, is rats. I can hear them scrambling about in the kitchen at night. Sometimes I wake up, terrified, thinking I felt one running over my bed. I've laid traps, but they don't seem to be effective."
"Ah, you need a cat," said Hamid.
"Indeed, and do you have one to lend me?"
"No"--he grinned--"but I'll keep my eyes open for one."
"And what about food?" asked Rashid. "Do you have enough to eat?"
"It's hard to get fresh food," I admitted. "Salads and vegetables I can get locally, but they don't come in many varieties, do they? And I can't afford meat. When you want a chicken"--I motioned to Ibrahim--"you go out to the barnyard and kill it for dinner. But I have to bring one frozen from Sana'a once every two or three weeks and then eat it the same day, because it's impossible to keep the meat refrigerated when the generator is turned on for only a few hours at night."
"Do you believe it, Seif, when it says on the wrapper for the frozen chicken 'slaughtered the Islamic way'?" This was Rashid's skeptical question.
"What do you eat, then, Seif?" asked Hamid. Almost none of what I consumed was food he had encountered, and it would have been difficult to describe to him. Omelets; bean salads and soups; pancakes and syrup; oatmeal with raisins; cheese melts; popcorn; pasta; peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; salads made from lettuce, horseradish leaves and leeks, canned mackerel and tuna. Especially tuna. By the time I was done with my fieldwork, I had figured out a thousand and one ways to prepare tuna: with mayonnaise and mustard in a spread, in casseroles, in salads, with rice and canned peas on the side, in stuffing. I'd never been fond of it; now, over twenty years later, I cannot stomach even the thought of it.
"A lot of vitamins," I answered, and he laughed at the jest. "If I'm lucky, eggplant or zucchini when they're in season, cooked with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and different spices. And one time my neighbor's wife gave me a yoghurt culture that I use in sauces and as a topping for mixed fruit. She also gives me fresh baked bread. I'll have you over for dinner at my place sometime and show you."
Hamid made a wry face.
Ibrahim was clearly happy to have his son around, but he excused himself after a little while to perform his prayers. "These two rascalshave wanted to get to know you, Seif, so I leave you in their clutches. I'll be next door, should you need help." We broke out the qat and started our chew.
Rashid and Hamid were in their early twenties. Rashid was the more intense and scholarly of the two, no doubt taking after his father, and was attending the University of Sana'a. "I hope to become a professor of Arabic literature someday," he explained shyly. His cousin was the more attractive: handsome, lithe, affable, and fun-loving. He readily confessed to being a philistine, not liking school very much, and certainly not seeing much point in going on to university, since his ambition was to be a businessman, which he could learn by working in one of his uncle Hussein's establishments. I surmised that he had married recently, a Sana'ani woman of a powerful family evidently; from the way he talked about her, I thought his father-in-law might have been no less than Yemen's vice president, a member of a sada house different from that of the sanctuary but just as distinguished and even more powerful. "The dowry was a lot of money," he said in the first serious note he had struck, confirming that his uncle Hussein the Secretary had paid for it.
Hamid cuffed his cousin on the back of the head for making a fresh remark. The cousins were jolly and relaxed in each other's company. Their principal charm came from their having to remember they were no longer boys and to suppress the urge to tussle and tickle each other and break out in uncontrollable giggles. I was drawn into their affection and felt liked, really for the first time since I had arrived in the village. Whether this was intentional or not on their part, the effect was disarming. Rashid laughed and asked me innocently, "So you don't want your life to get too complicated and get in the way of your work. What is your work, anyway?"
They're checking me out after all, I thought. I suppose it was to be expected, but my heart sank a little. I explained, once again, the nature of my research, the fact that the authorities--like the Yemen Research Center, the governmental agency that oversaw all research being done in the country--had approved it, what I hoped to do with the materialafter I had collected it, and so on. Rashid understood most of what I said, since he was familiar with the idea of dissertations, but for Hamid it seemed to suffice that he liked me.
"How do you expect to meet the poets and tape them?" Rashid asked.
"I was hoping that the sada would take me to them."
'That's difficult, you know," he answered."It's considered caib [shameful] for us to visit the tribes uninvited. It's all right for the tribes to visit us, but not the other way around."
I was stunned by this revelation. "But what about your father? He visits the tribes, doesn't he?"
"Only on business and when they ask him to."
"I see."
I was barely able to conceal my disappointment, but Hamid offered some encouragement. "Of course, you could go with him. He's going to Harub next week, in fact. He wouldn't mind if you accompanied him." And he exchanged a sidelong glance with his cousin as if to say that he should play along.
When I left early that evening, I felt dejected. The point had finally been driven home: if I was to collect tribal poetry, I would have to do it on my own and in some place other than the sanctuary.
November 26, 1980
A little boy had been playing in the road when a car drove over the ditch in which he had been hiding and killed him. Though it was an accident, the driver was so griefstricken that be threw himself at the bystanders and implored them to shoot him. The cugal (persons of reason, or headmen of the village] summoned to adjudicate happened to be Muhammad the Hunchback and Ibrahim the Beltmaker. Some of the People at the bearing were for punishing [the driver] with his life or at least levying a heavy fine. The judges, especially the Hunchback, strongly objected, saying they had no legal right to enforce such a penalty under Sharica law. The boy's father accepted the judgment ... Despite initial criticism, the people of the sanctuary were very proud of the way the case was handled. The Hunchback, in particular, was crowing to himself. "See how peacefully we managed to settle the matter. If this had happened among the tribes, or if the driver had killed a tribal boy, there would have been war." But the peopleof the sanctuary are sada, they are reasonable and peace-loving. A tribesman who was present at the discussions and final resolution was even supposed to have congratulated them on having been able to avoid bloodshed. The story, I suspect, is apocryphal.
The dead boy had lived in a house in back of mine, and outside it one morning I could see villagers gathering to perform the hajr, or ceremony of atonement. I decided to join them. The driver had come with a bull, which he presented to the boy's father. Some words were spoken, which I did not catch but assume came from the Qur'an, and then Nasir, a servant of the village, grasped the bull and with one swift stroke cut its throat. The beast collapsed onto its side, a dark stain like a gigantic pillow on the ground under his head. The legs kicked a bit, the shoulders shuddered, and then it lay still, its head thrown back and eyes wide open, looking as if it were more in delirium than in death.
This was not the first occasion on which I had seen an animal killed in the "Islamic way," but it was the first ritual sacrifice of its kind I had witnessed. I was squeamish at first but then surprised myself by getting caught up with the rest of the sanctuary in the majesty of the death. I remembered a much more mundane event, looking down from my window into a neighbor's courtyard at the precise instant when a woman cut a chicken's throat, holding its legs aloft and away from her body as it writhed and twisted in the air, spraying blood like a sprinkler. There was a gracefulness, even a gentleness, in her killing, that seemed not to have diminished in the countless times that she performed this act, at once everyday and religious. In the United States, massive deaths of a much cleaner--though perhaps not less cruel--kind are carried out by machines, and we eat the meat of the animals without the inconvenience of, perhaps the compunction about, first having to stare their death in the face.
Nasir now butchered the animal, hacking it into sections and cutting these into smaller pieces that he distributed, dripping with blood and slippery in his fingers, to the boy's father and relatives. His behavior was more than relaxed, it was positively irreverent. His was the laughter of the circus clown, the loudmouthed antics of a slapstick comic or alcoholic. He elicited guffaws by taking a sliver of meat anddangling it between his legs, a performance that was less coaxed than coerced by the people around him, which I supposed was intended to confirm his baseness and their superiority.
This was not the first time I had seen something like this charade. Waiting once for a taxi to take me back to Khawlan, I saw a very imposing man stride up to some sacks of grain, which he appraised with a calculating eye while their owner engaged him in some brisk bargaining. "He's a doshan, Seif," the owner whispered to me, meaning town crier, praise singer, and messenger, and then he asked the man to say a few conventional things in the way of his occupation. Mechanically, he complied with the request, as though commanded by royalty to the stage. He became boisterous to the point of seeming deranged, and then, as quickly as he had assumed the manner of a buffoon who delighted the onlookers, he dropped it and became again the shrewd, hard-driving bargainer.
Khaddam (servants) like Nasir could be found in villages all over Yemen. Unlike the darker-skinned cakhdam, who were said to have originated in Africa and who also performed menial tasks, the khaddam were virtually indistinguishable from tribesmen, except that they did not ordinarily carry guns. The old man Ali told me they were once tribesmen, even sons of Himyaritic kings, who lost their noble status because of cowardice or criminal offenses. Those who did not leave Yemen became servants known as "the people of the fifth," because they received one-fifth of the booty taken in warfare in return for performing menial services considered beneath the dignity of tribesmen. We already know what the doshan does. The one who butchers, barbers, and circumcises is called the muzeyyin. If a servant has a particularly beautiful voice, he may be given poetry to memorize and sing at weddings or make tapes for sale accompanying himself on a tambourine, in which case he is a mulahhin, literally composer of music, the most talented of whom can make a fairly good living in the cassette industry. This conceptualization of honor and categorization of work, ranking the tribesmen above the servants and regulating jobs as well as access to material resources, is central to the political economy of Yemen.
Of course, modern migrations to the oil-rich kingdoms of the Arabian Gulf complicated the economic picture, exerting pressure on the cultural boundary between tribesman and servant. At one time there had been several servant families in the sanctuary; now there were only two, and only Nasir, his wife, and youngest son actually remained in that line of work, his oldest boy having decided to strike out on his own as a qat seller. He had a shiny new Honda motorcycle, on which he scoured the countryside for good deals. In a picture I took of him, he grabs a goat and hoists it onto the seat, clowning in front of the camera, his pose at once deprecatory and defiant, like the cakhdam that he is. Nasir always seemed congenial and friendly, ready with a smile. People said of him, "He's a nice, decent, hardworking fellow and deserves our respect." He had to be nice, for his support depended on how much people in the village liked him, and his demeanor sometimes bordered on obsequiousness. Because of his lowly status, he was not permitted to own land, so he rented his house, and this meant that in some deeper sense he never fully belonged to the community. If his landlord decided to develop the property and there was no other place for him in the village, he would have to pull up stakes and go elsewhere. And if he got into trouble, he had to throw himself on the mercy and justice of his patrons; the servant group had little, if any, power to defend themselves. Earnings may have been steady, if slight, but security was always precarious in Nasir's profession.
The other khaddam family in the sanctuary was headed by Hussein, but he no longer worked as a servant, having become rich--richer, in fact, than many of the sada. He had been blessed with several capable and hardworking sons, the oldest of whom made fair livings in Saudi Arabia as construction workers and regularly remitted money back to their father. Shrewdly foreseeing the boom that overtook Yemen in the 1970s, Hussein had invested in earth-hauling equipment, which he rented to home builders in the sanctuary and surrounding villages. As he was not permitted to own land himself, Hussein invested his and his sons' earnings in several businesses, one of which was a store that was going up in the souk at about the time I moved in. He turned its management over to his younger sons while he tended to other investments,the exact number and nature of which remained something of a mystery to me and others, not to speak of the profit they turned, though the Hunchback guessed that Hussein's net worth was well over a million riyals (about US $250,000 in 1980). I once saw a young man drop to his knees before him, kissing the hem of his skirt, a greeting usually reserved for either one of the sada or a venerable patriarch. Hussein turned red with embarrassment and nervously gestured for the young man to rise. It may have been an acknowledgment of some favor Hussein had done him, but whatever the reason, the gesture indicated Hussein's very real importance in the community, as well as the pressure that changing conditions were exerting on the cultural system of honor and status. Some sada spoke disapprovingly of him because he did not seem to know his place.
Before he had become well-to-do, Hussein had made his living as a muzeyyin. With his exuberant conviviality, he would have been an excellent one. He had great charm and an exceptional gift for telling jokes and stories--he could be the life of the party, as I knew from having observed him at several qat chews--which must have put him in great demand as a master of ceremonies at weddings and other public events. It was a talent appreciated also by the tribal sheikhs, whose acquaintance he cultivated assiduously. That was one reason that he could act so swiftly and efficiently as a mediator.
On the suggestion of the Hunchback, who claimed that Hussein knew everyone in the area with any influence, I hired him to take me to some of the leading regional poets. With his son at the wheel, we drove to the village of al-cAin, seat of the powerful al-Royshan house, where we were to meet Salih bin Gasim al-Sufi, one of Khawlan's renowned poets. But when we got there, we were told that neither the poet nor the sheikh was in town. Greatly flustered by this unexpected turn, Hussein hastily tried to arrange a meeting with some of the locals who had memorized verse, while the sheikh's family took me into their newly built home and gave me tea. But the session was not to be. Hussein had lost face, and not just with me but, more important, with the people in the sanctuary, some of whom gloated over this failure. In their perspective he was an upstart, a social climber, and now had hiscomeuppance. He was quite glum during our return journey and insisted that I should take back the money I had given him, which I refused to do. How could he make it up to me? he asked contritely. I suggested that I would like to chew qat with him and perhaps tape some of the stories he was known for.
A quite large but modest structure, Hussein's house was located on the outskirts of the sanctuary, which symbolized his marginal status. As usual, I was ushered into the sitting room on the top floor, where the males tended to congregate and where I found Hussein with his sons. I had not anticipated any resistance on his part to telling me his stories, which he said he considered to be no more than idle chatter, unworthy of being taped let alone transcribed, but when he finally did begin a story, he flubbed the ending and then excused himself. Pulling a book from a shelf and putting on his glasses, he began to read.
"You know how to read?" I blurted out and immediately regretted the remark.
"Yes, I taught myself."
"Why didn't you tell me a story that you tell in front of the assemblies, Hussein, instead of ones that you read?"
"Oh, they're no good. These are the real stories." He showed me a book of folktales that had been collected by a prominent Yemeni scholar. Not only had he learned to read but he had imbibed one of the prejudices of literacy: that only works of scholarship and writing are worthy of esteem. How thoughtless of me not to have realized that for Hussein storytelling was a performance of his own servility, and so it was painful to be pressed into it. Perhaps he had even flubbed on purpose. Reading the book with his eyeglasses was meant to signal his newly elevated status. That I did not appreciate this only compounded his consternation. I decided to drop my request and, as on other occasions, let the conversation drift where it might.
"There are blacks in the United States, are there not?" I was startled by the suddenness of the question. The anthropologist was being placed in the position of the informant. When people heard I was from Chicago, they thought of "al-Capone" and gunned me down with their index finger. I found it harder to account for the images of womenthey saw in American movies. And they often wanted to know why the United States supported Israel. But Hussein's question I was not prepared for.
'There are problems between blacks and whites, or so I surmise from reading the newspapers and magazines. And yet it is true, is it not, that according to the law they are equal?" This was not the kind of question that was supposed to issue from the mouth of a servant, though at the same time it had an obvious bearing on his own experiences.
I tried as best I could to tell him about the civil-rights movement and the legislation that it helped to bring about. It turned out he was well aware of some of that history. Martin Luther King was a name that came to his lips in recognizable English, but his knowledge went deeper than that.
"Had you not fought your own civil war over the issue of black slavery?" he asked. Inequities still existed, I said.
"But the point is," he insisted, "that in the U.S. a black person is free, is he not, in the eyes of the law?" And as if in anticipation, he added, "Never mind that he might be poor. I know what poverty means. He has rights, doesn't he, that a court of law is obliged to defend?" He paused. "I don't own my home, Seif. I can afford to buy the land, I can afford to buy half this village, but I'm not permitted to own my own land. This house we're in is made from mud brick. I want to build in stone. But what's the point, if I can be cleared off whenever the sada say so? I have to move far away, to Sana'a, in order to own my own home."
I didn't know what to say, and didn't know enough about Yemeni law to help him. "You know I'm sorry, Hussein, that things are so difficult for you here."
"You're a nice guy, Seif. I want to make it up to you, by the way, for the mix-up in al-cAin. Do you trust me to go back with you one more time?"
'That would be splendid, Hussein."
"All right. Let me talk to the poet al-Sufi, and then I'll arrange a trip."
He was true to his word.
One day I decided to pay a visit to the elementary school. I had been told by a Syrian school inspector who had passed through that conditions there were to be envied by comparison to other schools in Khawlan, some of which didn't even have roofs over the pupils' heads. For high school, boys--as far as I knew no girls from the sanctuary went beyond the elementary grades--went to school in Sana'a and lived with relatives there. The boys sat on one side of the classroom, the girls on the other--veiled if they had already passed puberty. Most of these pupils came from the sanctuary, but some were from nearby tribal settlements like Sarkhan.
I attended an English class first. An Egyptian schoolteacher by the name of Fathi spoke to his students in a soothing voice, explaining the grammar clearly, waiting for the answers patiently, and enforcing discipline with a gentle hand. Next came religious instruction by one of the village elders. He had a grandfatherly relationship with his charges, who obeyed him out of respect, not fear. The other teachers, all Syrian, were responsible for the rest of the curriculum: Arabic, history, and arithmetic. Unlike their colleagues, they were overbearing and harsh, striking students with rulers at the first sign of disobedience. I cringed at the sound of wood hitting their hands and could not bear to stay in their classrooms. They must have sensed the rebuke implicit in my retreat, and afterward their tepid demeanor toward me congealed into icy formality.
It had been not curiosity alone that inspired my ill-fated visit to the school but a belated gesture of tact or diplomacy. From the very beginning of my stay in the village, my relationship with the schoolteachers had been strained. When I first came looking for housing, I was told that I could stay in the school with the other "foreigners," a gracious offer I nevertheless politely and firmly declined, fearing that such a move would isolate me from the rest of the village even more than my presence as a stranger already had. I had wanted people to know that I was an anthropologist and to teach them what that meant. Though I may have been too earnest about it, I don't think that intention was misguided. It would have been dishonest to pass myself off as anything else, and at first I naïvely thought people would help me with my project,though they could only dimly understand it, and truth to tell, I wasn't certain myself what it was. I was experiencing the paradox of fieldwork--the invention and reinvention of one's study as one carries it out, sketching and drafting while also composing and performing. I couldn't do any of this if I was separated from the village with other "foreigners." Unfortunately, when word got back to the teachers that I didn't want to live with them, they took it as a snub, and they began to spread malicious rumors about me. So I had thought it wise to pay them a visit and do some fence-mending.
They were young men, in their late twenties and early thirties for the most part, therefore my contemporaries, and for that reason alone they had assumed I'd want to associate with them. I also think they presumed a certain fellowship, induced by their own loneliness and what they perceived to be the terrible hardship and isolation of living in the sanctuary. They left wives and families behind in some of the most exciting cities of the world--Cairo, Damascus, Ateppo--and were homesick and bored. I tried to befriend the Egyptian schoolteacher, but it wasn't easy. I am sure he considered himself thoughtful and kind when he constantly shifted into English, even though I wanted the opportunity to speak Arabic. He condescendingly intimated that "as you know, life and these people are a little primitive here ... We are alone in the middle of nowhere and need each other's company." My declining the honor of joining his outpost of civilization in the schoolhouse seemed to him either supremely arrogant or highly suspicious. What was I trying to hide?
His first target of criticism was the way I dressed, as I commented in my diary, but it was not the last:
November 27, 1979
In the late afternoon, dropped in to see I., who had just finished his lesson with the Egyptian schoolteacher. He [the schoolteacher, Fathi] was very gay and talkative. [He] remarked on the fact that I wear the futa and sumata [headdress], etc., as if to insinuate that it was a little silly ... Fathi spoke to me mostly in English, of course, unless it was to tell me in Arabic how well I speak Arabic! I mustremain on pleasant terms with him, however. He can be useful and at the same time could do me harm if we don't get along ...
November 29, 1979
I met Fathi in the souk. He asked me why I chew qat since it tasted so awful--he would never indulge in the practice, and concluded that I would only stoop so low in order to ingratiate myself with the Yemenis. I asked him why he smoked the madacah [water pipe], as I saw him do at I.'s house. I never would, I said, because I don't like it (a lie). "Well, of course, that's a different matter altogether ... I guess we just have different attitudes about things," he concluded.
The question of dress was especially sensitive for me, and I bristled defensively at Fathi's innuendos. I brooded over what he had said for days. Was I wearing Yemeni clothes to ingratiate myself with the villagers? Obviously I didn't share his disdain for things Yemeni, but that didn't account for my unease. To imply, as he was, that I was trying to perpetrate a kind of scam on my Yemeni friends was not only to make them out as more gullible than they were but also to overlook that it was they who had suggested the fashion and encouraged me to adopt it. "You'd be a lot more comfortable, Seif, wearing the futa than your pants when you sit on the floor ... You'll find our mushadda a lot more practical than a cap because you can pull it across your entire face for protection from the sun." Fear of my "going native" was a concern for Fathi and me but not for my Yemeni friends who never once mistook my appearance for that of a "native." To them I was just an American who dressed like a Yemeni. Fieldwork may have made me want to become the "Other," but the process seemed more like becoming an image of someone whom the "native" had invented--often enough with the anthropologist's collusion, I admit. I would have liked to have thought I was in control of the process, but in reality I was not. My Yemeni friends applauded my cultural impersonations rather as one would a child trying to dress up for a part, and the implicit infantilization unnerved me. Besides, I may have been repressing an anxiety overgender identity that wearing a "skirt" occasioned. But to Fathi my Yemeni clothing was a rejection of things western, and that made him even more insecure about his own ambivalent identification with the West.
December 26, 1979
Read the Qur'an in the morning & went into the souk. There I had a confrontation with [Ismael] about his insinuations that I am a spy. The whole incident was triggered by his having read in my notebook the names of the three cagils [headmen of the sanctuary]. The fact that I had written this information down confirmed his worst suspicions of me, which had originally been aroused by the Syrian teachers. (They had told him not to talk to me because I was a spy!)
I asked him why this information was so sensitive. Others also seemed offended that I had noted it. But it was only the Hunchback who finally told me the reason: the cagils didn't want to be known to the central government because they were afraid it would thrust responsibilities on them that they didn't want ... I was fed up and, combined with irritation produced by bad health lately, lost my temper and more or less took it out on the boy ...
I don't suppose I should ever expect to be trusted completely by anyone, and yet I am shocked at how deep the suspicions of me run ...
In one sense, this has done me some good, for now I feel like breaking my ties a little with [the sanctuary] and going to the neighboring villages.
Copyright © 2005 by Steven C. Caton

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