To most of the Western world, Yemen is dismissed as a war-torn wasteland, riddled with the scars of multiple civil wars and religious disputes. The ongoing conflict has been the source of countless viral videos depicting terror and despair, yet while the area may be chronically embattled, there is much more to the ancient history and culture of this medium-sized country that caps off the southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula.
Yemeni Life and Customs
Yemen is a tribal society. Households here are closely knit, and one’s family is the only thing held in higher regard Than one’s tribe. Tribes are an extended family unit that traces their heritage to a common ancestor. Feudalism is still practiced widely in less developed parts of the country, and violence often solves disputes that the weak state authority cannot. Many rural Yemeni men and boys carry the traditional jambiya, a short, broad, curved blade, worn in a sheath across the abdomen. These daggers serve dual purposes; both as symbols of status within a tribal hierarchy, as well as being used in a popular traditional Yemeni dance known as Al-Bara.
In addition to Al-Bara, experts say Yemen is the home of well over a hundred distinct traditional, folk, and contemporary dances. Dances are performed with or without musical accompaniment, and play a part in most weddings, social occasions, and celebrations. In the example of Al-Bara, these dances are performed by men alone. Yemen is an intensely patriarchal society, and women almost invariably play a secondary role in traditional households and cultures. San’aani dance, however, is for both men and women. Unlike many Yemeni dances that reflect war, San’aani expresses the culture of the capital Sana’a, and many people from all over the country enjoy it.
Recently, Yemeni dances have begun to evolve as television and internet have exposed the country’s youth to the songs and dances of other cultures, including Gulf, Egyptian, Indian, and beyond. The biggest example of this came in 2008, when rap and hip-hop culture achieved widespread popularity in the country. Many attribute this sudden ubiquity to Hajaj Abdulqawi Masaed, also known simply as “AJ”. AJ produced rap music in America as far back as as 1997, but later turned his focus to his home country, using his music to propagate an
image of change. This image resonated greatly with many young Yemenis.
Food is another important piece of Yemeni culture. It is customary for Yemeni households to generously offer food to their guests, and to decline is considered insulting. Traditional cuisine favors dishes that include chicken, goat, and lamb. Mandi is a popular dish that consists of lamb or chicken with rice and a special blend of spices known as Hawaij. Though the traditional foods of Yemen are not common in America, visiting an authentic Yemeni restaurant such as Shibam Yemeni Kitchen in Chicago is one way to experience a small piece of this battered country’s ancient heritage. Find a location, or order online (online order page) today!