The power of the spoken word and the captured image can be woven together in a way that evades description.
I thought I had finished synkroniciti’s short cycle on Yemen, when I ran across this beautiful poem by Yemeni poet Dr. Abdulaziz Al Maqaleh read so sensitively by Sarah Ahmed. It is a lament for the city of Sana’a, the longtime capital of Yemen, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It reduced me to tears.
The soft, sensual sibilance of Arabic, the restrained elegance of Tony Anderson‘s Ember, which makes a perfect musical backdrop, and the moving images of Sana’a and its residents, especially the young girls in white dresses running freely among the growing flowers and the crumbling ruins, imbue this short film with deep longing, nostalgia and hope.
May we hold this lovely city and its people in our thoughts. Even more, may we work to end participation in her destruction. Thank you to director Abdurahman Hussain and all who worked on this stunning piece of documentary video. You can read more about Hussain here. Such splendid, human work.
I hope one day that I will be able to visit this incredible, resilient city and to pay her and her citizens respect. Peace!
If you would like to read more of our series on Yemen please check out these links:
Muslim women are frequently shortchanged by stereotypes. How do artists help to change minds and destroy prejudice?
I have selected the work of two female photographers, Boushra Almutawakel and Yumna Al-Arashi, and two male painters, Hakim Alakel and Mazher Nizar, to show us the face of Muslim women. All of these artists are of Yemeni blood and wrap up synkroniciti’s series on Yemen.
Recently I posted about the difficulty of being female in Yemen today and how current attitudes toward women do not square with the history of the nation, a place ruled in the past by Muslim Queens. You can read that post by clicking here. This post explores how those ultra conservative attitudes make their mark on the Yemeni soul and how they impact the way Yemeni artists, male and female, seek to portray the female form.
No exploration of the feminine in Yemen is complete without acknowledging and unpacking the hijab, the head covering worn by many, but not all, Muslim women around the world. The graphic below illustrates just a small portion of the diversity in female coverings in the Muslim world. There is a great deal of variety and opportunity for self-expression.
Boushra Almutawakel was born in 1969 in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. She earned a BSBA in International Business at American University in Washington, DC, where she also fell in love with photography and worked as a photojournalist for the university paper and yearbook. Returning to Yemen in 1994, she became an educational adviser, but kept taking pictures and participating in exhibitions until embarking on a career in photography in 1998. Professional female photographers were unheard of in Yemen at the time. She balances her own projects with photography for magazines, charitable and cultural organizations and has garnered an international reputation for her insightful work. Boushra served as a cultural advisor for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington and later worked at the Ministry for Human Rights in Sana’a, specializing in women’s rights. She moved to France with her husband and children in 2013.
Her Hijab Series employs feminine humor and dignity to take aim at prejudice against Muslim women in both Eastern and Western culture. You can see more of this series as well as other works on Boushra’s website.
“I first started the series on the hijab/veil while attending photography school, where I attended a lecture by the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Elsadawi. At that lecture she said that she felt that women who wore the hijab/veil or nigab were the same as women who wore makeup, in the sense that they all hid their true identities. I thought that was a fascinating perspective, and so decided to interpret this photographically.”
“In this ongoing project on the hijab/veil I want to explore the many faces and facets of the veil based on my own personal experiences and observations: the convenience, freedom, strength, power, liberation, limitations, danger, humor, irony, variety, cultural, social, and religious aspects, as well as the beauty, mystery, and protection. The hijab/veil as a form of self-expression; the veil as not solely an Arab Middle Eastern phenomenon, the trends, the history and politics of the hijab/veil, as well as differing interpretations, and the fear in regards to the hijab/veil.”
“Mother, Daughter, Doll”
“A lot of people think that covered women are oppressed, backwards and uneducated. That is far from the truth. But at the same time I can’t hear very well if I am veiled and I can’t see the lips of women wearing the niqab. The biggest problem I have is with children being covered—there is nothing Islamic about that. I prefer our traditional veils which are colourful and more open. The black we’ve imported from the Gulf and the Wahhabis—with gloves and the rest of it—is too much.”-Boushra Almutawakel
Hakim Alakel was born in the artistic city of Ta’izz in 1965. He studied first in Yemen under the famous master artist Ali Hashim, following up at Moscow State Academy in Russia, where he graduated with a Master of Arts degree cum laude, specializing in frescoes, art history and conceptual art. There is a marked Art Nouveau influence in his lush and colorful paintings, which are on display all over the world. Learn more about Hakim and his paintings here. A large figure on the Yemeni cultural scene who has worked as a Professor of Art, a magazine contributor and critic, a consultant for the restoration of Yemeni architecture, a coordinator for children’s art and theater projects and much more, Hakim now lives in Jordan. The irony is that the elimination of his duties with the Yemeni Ministry of Culture, which is unable to operate in a country torn by war, has freed him to return to painting, imbued with a profound sense of nostalgia.
Hakim’s paintings recall city life in Yemen before the civil war, when communities functioned and family life was not dogged by death and warfare. There is a palpable longing for the emotional stability and simplicity of that time. Sleeping or awake, pensive or free-spirited, regal or humorous, the women he paints have personalities which are only rivaled by his vivid use of color. He must have had great affection for the women in his life to render them with such humanity and honesty.
“In my work, I depend on a range of aesthetic references, especially Yemeni ones, which form the basis of my artistic language. These include architecture, clothing, and other aspects of Yemen’s huge cultural inheritance, which goes back to 5000 B.C. and continues to the present day. This cultural heritage, especially its urban aspects, influences me greatly, and I feel that the Yemeni city lives inside me.”
“These cities, and their inhabitants, whether in Sana’a, the capital, or other cities, form a primary reference for my work… the clothing, the weather, the nature, and the environment. You’ll find the Yemeni women actually form the main inspiration for my art work. They are unique in their style, their vision, their dress… and there is also a certain kind of silence in their faces. I see these women as symbols and representations of the larger environment in which they live.”-Hakim Alakel
Traditionally, Yemeni women have dressed in bright colors and patterns. Most favored a bright cotton hijab rather than the burka or niqab, but those days have faded in the cities, where women are arrested for being on the street without permission and bullied for not being “properly covered”. Women in smaller villages, such as those picturesque towns in the Haraz Mountains that I have spoken about in an earlier post, still tend to dress in this fashion. It is good to have artists remembering and witnessing to better times. Maybe one day those good things can be restored and even bettered.
Born of a Yemeni family in Mumbai, India in 1958, Mazher Nizar came home to Yemen in 1985 after receiving his Diploma in Graphic Art from the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata. He lives in Sana’a and is frequently inspired by the Old City. Mazher’s paintings hearken back to the Queen of Sheba, blending Arabic and Yemeni motifs and elements with a romantic Indian painting style. He has exhibited his work across Europe and Asia, as well as Canada. His decision to remain in Sana’a through the Civil War and share his art online through his Facebook account have inspired many Yemeni to hold on to hope. You can see more of his work on his website.
The feminine “inspired me a lot because it was hidden, and something hidden creates imagination, and imagination is good for the artist to go on and on with.”
“It was very good for me to paint on the Queen of Sheba, and I started painting ordinary woman as a Queen. It became fact that all my women became very spiritual and they were very out of this world. They are not portraits of any particular women, they are just women of my expressions, how I feel them.”
Mazher is inspired by women and believes them to be more spiritual in nature than men. Rather than seeing the covered woman as a victim, he sees her as an exalted mystery. If she is not completely human it is because she is superhuman- a mythological force which nurtures hope, symbolized by flowers and birds- not because she is in any way inferior. Veiling her stokes her desirability and spirituality, heightening romance. This is lovely, although there is a certain loneliness in being mythical.
Born in Washington, DC in 1988, the child of a diplomat, Yumna Al-Arashi was in middle school when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 struck. Overnight, she became subject to intense intimidation and bullying stemming from misguided hatred in the wake of tragedy. I recommend you read her moving experience here. Yumna holds a Bachelors Degree in International Politics with an emphasis on the Middle East from the New School in New York City and is now a documentary photographer who has lived and worked in many places around the world. She has worked with prestigious cultural organizations and magazines and has exhibited her own projects in the United States, the Middle East and London. You can see her credentials and more of her beautiful work on her website. Her work does a fantastic job of unifying the mythological feminine with the human.
from Northern Yemen
from Northern Yemen
“There’s this prevalent idea of a woman who is covering her hair or her body as totally oppressed, and that’s never a viewpoint I’ve agreed with,” explains Al-Arashi, who is Muslim and grew up in Washington, D.C. “My whole life I’ve been surrounded by Muslim women who cover themselves, and they’re such badasses and have such incredible depth—as much as any of the uncovered women I’ve met. As a Muslim woman, you’re often boxed into a single identity. I wanted to shift that stereotype.”
from Northern Yemen
“I wanted people to see that there is a Muslim woman that exists that can be comfortable with her body and who still supports other women who are covered, who thinks that’s okay.”
“I believe that controlling sexuality is the root of controlling all power in a society. To be able to openly bring a woman’s sexuality to light is an incredibly important step in expressing a woman’s freedom and humanity. Discussions of sexuality shouldn’t be taboo, and my hope is to be able to open the forum for further thought on the issue.”-Yumna Al-Arashi
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.
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.
Faces of Yemen
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.