Popular culture isn’t a freeze-frame; it is images zapping by in rapid-fire succession, which is why collage is such an effective way of representing contemporary life. The blur between images creates a kind of motion in the mind.
For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past and future years, my mama. For all the anguish this picture of pain will cause you. For the unspeakable mystery that brings good fathers and sons into the world and lets a mother watch them tear at each other’s throats. For the Master of the Universe, whose suffering world I do not comprehend. For dreams of horror, for nights of waiting, for memories of death, for the love I have for you, for all the things I remember, and for all the things I should remember but have forgotten, for all these I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.
― Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev
Many African societies divide humans into three categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead. As generalised ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered. Many … can be recalled by name. But they are not the living-dead. There is a difference.
― James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.
―C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Our culture has kind of let the concept of the Renaissance Man die out. We don’t really tell the kids that it’s okay to bounce around the world, work odd jobs, and do six different things.
The alternative to the free market consumer culture is a set of covenants that supports neighborly disciplines, rather than market disciplines, as a producer of culture. These non-market disciplines have to do with the common good and abundance as opposed to self-interest and scarcity. This neighborly culture is held together by its depth of relatedness, its capacity to hold mystery, its willingness to stretch time and endure silence.
―Walter Brueggemann, An Other Kingdom: Departing the Consumer Culture
The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.
If diversity is a source of wonder, its opposite – the ubiquitous condensation to some blandly amorphous and singularly generic modern culture that takes for granted an impoverished environment – is a source of dismay. There is, indeed, a fire burning over the earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Quelling this flame, and re-inventing the poetry of diversity is perhaps the most important challenge of our times.
The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the walls surrounding a medieval castle: obsolete walls evoke nostalgia. Make your walls obsolete.
—Khang Kijarro Nguyen
Presided over by Queens in ancient and medieval times, modern Yemen has been called the worst place to be female.
Women in Yemen are encouraged to stay home rather than going to school or work. Almost half of Yemeni women are married by the age of eighteen and child brides are common. Many have no identification and don’t vote, although technically they are eligible to do so under the constitution. Leaving the house requires the permission of a male family member and very few women drive (until recently driving while female was a crime).
A woman’s voice in Yemeni courts is worth half of that of a man, so to equal a man’s testimony it takes two women. Women may not testify at all in cases of slander, theft, adultery or sodomy. If a woman wants to end her marriage for any reason, even if her husband is beating her, she must obtain his consent for the case to be presented.
This seems an especially cruel reality when you consider the history of Yemen. This is a people who remain fiercely proud to call the Queen of Sheba their ancestor. Perhaps the most beloved ruler of Yemen is the medieval Queen Arwa, a Muslim woman who buried two husbands and went on to rule for decades on her own, creating peace, prosperity and stability in her nation.
Queen Arwa al-Sulayhi was born in 1048 in the Haraz Mountains, a fertile area of picturesque villages and mountainsides terraced for farming. Her parents died when she was young, and her Aunt, the formidable Queen Asma, who ruled alongside her husband, Caliph Ali al-Sulayhi, brought her to the palace in Sana’a to be raised. Asma was known as al-Sayyida al-Hurrat-ul, “The noble lady who is free and independent, the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.” She recognized in Arwa a woman who could be heir to that title.
Arwa proved to be brilliant, with a great mind for history, poetry and stories. A devout Muslim, she became a scholar of the Quran and Hadith (the latter being a collection of reports and stories which describe the life and habits of Muhammad). When the time came for Prince Ahmad al-Mukarram to be married, Queen Asma was set on Arwa. In 1067, Caliph Ali was assassinated and Arwa became Queen, ruling alongside her husband and mother-in-law. She was nineteen years old.
As time wore on, Asma died and Caliph Ahmad became paralyzed and bedridden, so all power passed to Arwa in 1086. She moved the capital from cosmopolitan Sana’a to the smaller city of Jibla, where she felt more in control, and was able to avenge her father-in-law’s murder. She had a new palace built, converting an older palace into a mosque where she would later be buried. Arwa attended state councils with men, refusing to conduct meetings while hidden by a screen, although she did wear a veil, unlike Queen Asma, who had been older and bolder when she came into power. Arwa would have time to grow her boldness.
When Caliph Ahmad died in 1091, Arwa was advised to marry his cousin, Saba ibn Ahmad to cement her power. This she did, but the marriage remained a reality in name only and her second husband died ten years after the first. From 1101 to 1138 she ruled alone. She had four children by her first marriage, none of whom outlived their mother, making her the last ruler of the Sulayhid dynasty. Arwa founded many schools, improved roads and took an active role in encouraging agriculture, which created a robust economy.
Not only was Arwa respected as the sovereign ruler of Yemen, she was the first woman to be proclaimed hujjat, proof or demonstration of Allah, her life sanctified as a sign pointing to God. She sent Shia missionaries to India and built many mosques. During her lifetime, prayers were proclaimed in her name; after her death, her grave became a place of pilgrimage. Much more than a ruler; she became a beacon of truth and an individual to emulate and revere.
Arwa’s story is a powerful reminder that there have always been strong women in the Muslim faith. It is also a warning that attitudes and cultures are never uniform and can change dramatically. In a place where a woman ruled and was declared to be close to God, a majority of women are not even allowed to go to school. Arwa would be appalled.
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This is the second post in a series exploring Yemen. You can see our first post here.
Challenged by the unknown and unfamiliar, we often turn away. Can our curiosity help us to become better, kinder people?
This is the first post of a series exploring foreign cultures. We begin with Yemen, focusing not on the bloodshed and the destruction wreaked upon her, but the humanity and beauty that make her both vulnerable and resilient. I’ll be posting more about the culture and arts of Yemen later this week.
The images that follow were graciously shared online by Rod Waddington, yeowatzup and Valerian Guillot, who have made most of their illuminating and risky work available with Creative Commons Licenses. Click on the captions beneath the the photo collages to see their full albums and link to more of their images. Synkroniciti is indebted to the generosity and boldness of these travelers and artists. Please follow their magnificent output on Flickr.
As I curated these sets of people, places and animals, which date from 2010 to 2016, I could not help but wonder what has been lost in these few years. Are these buildings still standing? What has become of these people, especially these bright, playful children? I had to stop several times in my gathering to mourn the innocence and beauty that has surely been changed, if not destroyed. The human and cultural price in Yemen is very high.
Travel to Yemen is not suggested nor is it easily feasible, as the Yemeni Civil War and the presence of Al Qaeda and ISIS, as well as airstrikes (Saudi and American), make it a dangerous place for anyone, particularly Westerners, who have been detained and kidnapped. Mismanaged from within and exploited from without, it is a place that is lost to the outside world. Some might think that the poorest country in the region, a desert nation without an oil industry, doesn’t hold much. They couldn’t be more wrong. It’s a beautiful country, with fantastic architecture and a long, proud history.
Yemen lies on the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, near the crossroad of three continents, along trade routes that cross both land and sea. This has made Yemenis a very diverse group. Some trace their roots to Africa, especially the northern Sahara, some to Persia, ancient Israel or other nations, ancient or modern, on the Arabian Peninsula, while others hail from India and South Asia. There also Yemeni of European descent, particularly Russian and eastern European.
The vast majority are Muslim, but Christians, Jews and others have a place in the culture, although the advent of more extreme fundamentalism has strained that somewhat. You will notice that women’s faces are under-represented. All women are encouraged to cover up, regardless of faith, in order to avoid negative attention. Photographing women in Yemen can be risky and is discouraged. This is an uncomfortable truth for a nation that counts two prominent Queens in its history, the biblical Queen of Sheba and the beloved Queen Arwa, who ruled from her early twenties until she died at the age of 92.
Note the gentleman below wearing the jambiya, a ceremonial curved dagger that is a symbol of male honor and status in many Arab countries. They are worn on expensive belts and many of the hilts are made from precious substances such as jade or ivory.
The favored pet in Muslim households is the cat, admired for its cleanliness and beloved by the Prophet. Cats are commonly considered indoor animals while dogs are kept outdoors. It is said that Muhammad once cut a sleeve off of his robe rather than awaken his cat Muezza, who had fallen asleep on it while he prayed. It is good to know that cats have remained constant throughout time and across cultures!
Sana’a, the largest city in Yemen, and until recently the capital, is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities on the planet. It has been a seat of power for much of that time, presided over by Sabaean (from Sheba) rulers, Himyarite Kings (who converted from polytheism to Judaism), Ethiopian Viceroys, Muslim Caliphs, local Imams of the Zaydi tribe and Ottoman Turks, who took the city twice over the span of a few centuries. Yemen includes four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the old city of Sana’a. Some of the buildings in Old Sana’a, including the Grand Mosque, are over 1,400 years old. There are more than 100 mosques, 12 bath houses and around 6,500 residences. These homes are several stories tall with flat roofs and elaborate decorative elements. The architecture is unique and lovely.
The Romans called Yemen Arabia Felix, “Happy Arabia”, because the country has a great deal of fertile ground. For centuries, much of the food for the Arabian Peninsula was grown in Yemen, which was also world-renowned for growing coffee. If you are a coffee drinker, you may enjoy coffee mocha, named for the fabled medieval port that distributed it to the world. Mocha, or Mokha, isn’t much to look at now, as it was upstaged by other Yemeni ports long ago. Recent damage has plunged Mokha even deeper into poverty, but coffee is still grown in the Haraz Mountain region of Yemen, known as Jabal Haraz. Terraced farms are visible on the mountainsides and fortified villages cling to rocky mountaintops. Long ago, in order to break the Yemeni monopoly on coffee, Westerners stole plants from this region and transplanted them into their own countries.
Away from the mainland lies Socotra Island and the tiny islands of Abd al Kuri, Samhah and Darsa. Together with a few rocky outcrops that support seabirds, these islands make up the Socotran Archipelago, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a tough, isolated life for those who live out here, but it is probably safer than any of the mainland cities.
Approximately one third of the plant life here is endemic, occurring naturally nowhere else on the globe. The Dragon’s Blood Tree, Dracaena cinnabari, and the Bottle Tree, Adenium obesum, are the most striking of these plants. Socotra was occupied by some of the earliest humans during the Lower Paleolithic Period (1.7 to 2.6 million years ago) when it was attached to the mainland.
There are many inscriptions in the rocks of the island, most in Brāhmī script, which was used across south Asia and India, while others are in South Arabian, Ethiopic, Greek, Palmyrene and Bactrian. Socotra was once an important landmark and stopover for boats moving from the Arabian Sea into the Indian Ocean and vice versa.
In addition to mountains and beautiful white sand beaches, Socotra features a karst region with stunning limestone caves.
Here we will stop, although there are many more wonderful places in Yemen, including stunning Taiz with its walls and gardens and lovely Jibla, where “Little Sheba”, the powerful Muslim Queen Arwa ruled for more than seventy years. Her story is a story for a different post.
It is humbling to realize that Yemen was a sophisticated place in better days, a reminder that poverty and lawlessness are never as distant from the human experience as we would like them to be. May this terrible conflict end before more is lost.