Extreme Makeover, Yemeni Bride Style:

19 08 2008

The beginning of the niqash (Moira's hand)

Moira & I had been trying to get niqash (black henna) on our hands for weeks. I asked Altaf (our teacher) about where we could go to get it done. She said she had a friend who could do it, and she attempted to set up a time to take us. However, the date kept getting pushed back again and again for various reasons. Just days before Moira left Yemen, we gave up on trying to work something out through Altaf.

Last Wednesday, Moira, Celine (my roommate) and I found a person who could do the niqash for us. It was the sister of the man who runs the sweet shop near our school. He took us to his family’s house just after 6:00 pm and turned us over to his sisters. One of the older daughters of the family, who did the niqash, was not available when we arrived. We sat with a middle daughter, Amal (which means hope), and talked to her for more than an hour.

Amal is twenty years old. We talked about her plans for the future and our own. Amal studied English in school and spoke quite well, probably at least as well as I speak Arabic; however, she did not like to speak English very much. That left me as the primary translator. Celine had been in Yemen for 2 months, and studied Arabic before, and could speak at a upper-beginning level. Moira had only studied Arabic for the four weeks she has been in Yemen, so she barely spoke at all. The experience as translator—explaining to the other two the gist of what Amal said and helping Celine say what she wanted to say—helped me to realize that I do really know a lot of Arabic. My time in Yemen has really paid off.

Talcum powder (Moira's hands)

Talcum powder (Moira

Once the sister came to do the niqash, she started with Moira. It was amazing to watch her work. She made up the design as she went. Each of our designs is different. The niqash was like black ink, and she applied it with a very fine paintbrush. Once the niqash was applied, we had to sit very still while it started to dry. After it had dried for about 15 minutes, the mother of the family put Vaseline on our hands to keep the niqash from drying too fast and cracking off before the dye had enough time to soak into the skin. A few minutes later she came back and put talcum powder on the Vaseline. I have no idea what purpose that served. To keep the talcum powder on, she put tissues on our hands, stuck on by the Vaseline.

Celine with tissues on her hands

Celine with tissues on her hands

Celest's hands

Celest's hands

While we sat there waiting for our hands to dry enough to go home, the mother, daughters and daughter-in-law showed us some wedding clothes that they were perfuming with incense. Then they brought out the jewelry that a bride would wear. They thought it would be fun to dress one of us up as a bride. I was the lucky one. With my hands out of commission, I sat there and let them do what they would to me. They took off my hijab and took my hair down from the bun it was in. The jewelry they put on me consisted of a beaded headband that had two big beaded tassels on the sides, a choker necklace with beads hanging down in a triangle shape, and a long necklace of several strands of beads. All of these were bright turquoise, as you can see. They also added a similarly colored veil.

After they had dressed me up, they decided I should have makeup as well. This meant bright lipstick, eyeliner and super bright turquoise and pink eye shadow. I felt very painted! It was fun to dress up and take pictures though. Once the picture taking was done, they took off the veil and jewelry and up my hijab back on me.

By this time (nearly 10:30 pm), our hands were dry enough we could leave. We were repeatedly warned, however, that we could not get our hands wet until morning. I was still very “painted” when we left. In a society that considers it bad form for a woman to wear makeup in public, I was quite embarrassed to have to walk home with all that makeup. Fortunately, we were not far from where we lived. Once we got home, I had a hard time taking all that makeup off without being able to use soap and water. I had to carefully get some tissues wet and wipe at it. The eye shadow was so thick that at first I was just smearing turquoise all around my eyes. I got most of it off before I went to bed, and the rest waited until morning.

Niqash on my cheek

The next morning I saw Moira and she told me how she had put her hand against her face in her sleep and transferred some the niqash to her cheek. When I saw her, it only looked like a few extra freckles, but this was after she had scrubbed at her face for some time. I gave her some hydrogen peroxide and this took off most of the remaining stain. After I took a shower, I was looking in the mirror, getting dressed, and suddenly realized I had done the same thing. The whole pattern from the back of my right hand had clearly transferred to my left cheek during the night. I got enough of it off with hydrogen peroxide to make myself presentable, but I did look like I had more freckles on one cheek than the other for a few days.


Bait Baws

2 08 2008

Last week, I went with several other Arabic students to Bait Baws. We went with a Yemeni guy I first met a few days before, Waleed. Total, we were twelve people. Really a much bigger group than I had anticipated.

First, we went to the fish market for lunch. I didn’t know that we were eating lunch before we went so I’d already eaten chicken and rice for lunch about an hour or an hour and a half before. Despite this, I managed to eat nearly as much as everyone else did, and I don’t even like fish.

Once we finished lunch, we all piled into a big debab (mini-bus) which drove us approximately 7 km, to the base of the mountain that Bait Baws is on. Bait Baws is an old and abandoned village on the outskirts of Sana’a. Once it was quite separate and farmers used to live in the houses at the tops of the cliffs and farm the fertile land below them. However, after Sana’a began to expand outside the old city in the 1960s, the land there became suburban Sana’a and the farmers sold their land at a large profit and abandoned the village, which required a serious hike up and down the mountain all the time.

We stopped a good ways from Bait Baws to take pictures of the houses on the cliffs while we were still far enough away to see the whole skyline. One student asked if we could walk to Bait Baws from there. Waleed said we could, and before anyone could really disagree we were walking down the road. It didn’t seem like it would be very far until we discovered that the only way up to Bait Baws was on the other side of the cliffs and we had to walk all the way around. The road looped around climbing gradually. It really was not bad at all. (The only reason I can complain is that we ended up doing so much walking and climbing the rest of the day that it was silly of us not to have the bus drive us all the way to the parking lot, from where it was only a short walk down a gully and back up to Bait Baws.

As we walked along the base of the cliffs, we went through a village / suburb. There were many cacti with ripe cactus fruit. One girl picked one of fruits, careful to avoid the spines. I’m not sure how she intended to eat it without pricking her fingers. One of the boys who lived there came up to her, took the fruit from her with some cardboard off the ground to protect his fingers, then deftly pealed the skin back and proffered her the inner fruit to eat. She was a bit upset because he’d held the fruit with cardboard off the ground. However, since you only eat the inside, which doesn’t touch the cardboard, I didn’t think she needed to be upset. As we continued our walk, the boy followed us, picking cactus fruit, pealing it and proffering it to each of us in turn. We also picked up a couple tagalongs, all of which spent the whole afternoon with us (nearly five hours).

Along our walk, we saw some guys with guns on the side of the mountain. Waleed hollered to them and one came over with his gun to let him shoot it. One girl asked to hold it and had her picture taken. Waleed shot one round then asked all the boys in the group if they wanted to shoot it. All of them declined (which really surprised me, but maybe it was because most of them were Europeans, where guns are much rarer and perhaps ‘scarier’ than in America.). I would have taken the chance to shoot the gun if I’d been offered, but none of the girls were offered and I didn’t speak up for myself fast enough. The gun was returned and we continued the hike up the mountain.

Just as we got to the parking lot for Bait Baws, it began to rain and soon it was raining strongly. Quickly we were all quite wet. However, we trooped on and entered Bait Baws. The significant attraction is the views of Sana’a from the cliffs. The ruins are not especially attractive. They look like all the other stone houses throughout Yemen and they weren’t in such a dilapidated state to be super impressive as ruins either. In fact, squatters too poor to afford housing anywhere else occupied some of them.

The rain let up after 30 to 45 minutes. During this time, and afterward, we wondered among the ruins going to each cliff edge, where accessible, to look out over Sana’a. While it was raining, visibility was quite restricted, but once the rain stopped the views were nice. After making a tour of the village, some women who lived in one of the houses invited us in for tea (which we paid for on our way out).

After touring the village, I thought we’d be going home. Already it had been a couple of hours and I was bored of looking off cliffs to see mostly the same thing. However, we wondered around some other cliffs next to those Bait Baws is built on. The boys decided to climb the cliff to the plateaus on top. Usually I’m all for hiking, but I was not so thrilled about doing it in the ankle-length skirt of my balto. I also had on long loose pants to further trip me up. In order to make it up the 30-feet (or so) cliff-face, I had to tuck my hijab into the balto—so my hands were free—and tuck my pants and balto up—so my feet were free. After wandering around on this adjacent mesa for a while we began to climb down. Fortunately, we found a less steep way down. We went down as far as the gully that divides Bait Baws and the other mesa from the rest of the mountain where the road was. Someone decided that rather than walking back down the road, it would be more direct the go straight down the mountainside. This was true, but it was just after sunset and it was rapidly getting to be full dark. With little choice but to stick with a group, but not happy about the plan, Moira and I, set off down the mountain. It was a little steep and difficult, but not bad. Normally, I would have had no complaints about going that way, but the lack of light and appropriate climbing clothes made it a bit dangerous. Luckily, we all made it safely to the ground without anyone falling or twisting an ankle.

We walked back through the village/suburb to where the bus had left us in the afternoon. Waleed then left us there on the side of the road to go and find another mini-bus to take us back to the old city. We waited in near total darkness for about 20 minutes, until he came back with a much smaller mini-bus than before. I could comfortably hold 8 or 9 plus the driver. Instead, we shoved 12 plus the driver in, including one girl sitting on my lap.

While the trip was fun, it was longer than it needed to be. By the end, I was wet, cold and tired, and ever so grateful to get home again.

Bait Baws in the back ground

Boy herding his family’s sheep near Bait Baws

Trip to Aden: 19 – 20 June

1 08 2008

Deepak, Milushka and I had talked about a trip to Aden in general terms since we all arrived. When it was almost time for them to leave, it came down to now or never. Milushka and I began working out details. Deepak decided not to go because he had class, ran out of money and didn’t think it would be worth it. Fortunately, Milushka was set on going to we never would have pulled it off. She took care of getting the proper forms from Jameel and instructions to get out travel permit. We spent several days trying to find Lauren to see if she wanted to go with us but we kept missing each other.

On Tuesday Milushka and I got our travel permit. Jameel gave us a paper with instructions in Arabic for the taxi driver to get to the Ministry of Tourism. I was a bit nervous handing the driver a paper and hoping we got to the right place. When the taxi began to slow to a stop, I thought for sure that we’d come to the wrong place because it seemed like a warehouse district that was deserted at that time of day. However, one of the buildings there was actually the Ministry of Tourism. We got our travel permit to go to Aden with ease, and I was pleasantly surprised that there was not fee involved.


Sheep grazing in field on the way to Aden

When we left there was no taxi insight. We began walking down the road in the direction we needed to go, hoping to catch a taxi once we got to a busier road. Finally a taxi came along. When it stopped, I asked how much it costs to get back to Bab al-Yemen (because the taxis aren’t metered and you should agree on a price before hand.) The driver just said “mish mishkila” which means no problem in Arabic. That was not a price, but there weren’t a lot of options, so we just got in. When we arrived at Bab al-Yemen (the only remaining entry gate through the wall into the old city; the walls and gates in other parts of the city have been destroyed) I asked again how much we owed. Again, he said “mish mishkila.” Eventually my best guess was that he wasn’t charging us anything. Milushka and I got out of the taxi and began to walk again, expecting a shout that we had misunderstood and we did actually owe something but the taxi just drove away. I was shocked at the kindness of giving us a free ride.

Mtn Village 1

Mountain farming village

We decided that the best way to get to and from Aden was by bus. It was cheap (only 1400 YR / $7 each way) and it was safe from highjacking because it was full of Yemenis. The only draw back was time, because it takes 7 hours according to the guidebooks to get from Sana’a to Aden, but we decided we could handle that. On Wednesday afternoon, we went to buy our tickets. I had left my passport in my room not expecting to need it to buy a bus ticket, however, they would not sell us a ticket without our passports. We went back to our rooms, but decided that we were too tired to go straight back and instead we went back in the early afternoon. When we got back the new guy selling tickets didn’t even asked to see out passports! However, he did want to see our travel permit that I had put in my passport, so it was not really a wasted trip.

Thursday morning we got up early to be at the bus station at 06:30. I got up just before 05:30 to get dressed, throw the last minute things into my bag and go. I was not as fast as I’d thought I’d be and had to skip breakfast, eating cheese and a granola bar instead. Milushka and I met downstairs just after 06:00 and walked to the bus station just outside of Bab al-Yemen (a 15 minute walk). I was not sure how we’d know which bus to get on when we arrived, but as we walked into the office we were recognized as the only foreigners who had bought tickets to Aden and the driver was there to take us to the right bus.

Mtn Village 2

Mountain farming village

We sat on the bus for about 35 minutes until it left just before 07:00. The bus ride was an event. The total trip ended up taking eight hours, though that includes approximately 1 hour spent at stops. The first event of the trip was our first police checkpoint. A soldier boarded the bus and asked to see our permit. He asked us questions like what is our nationality, were we going to work in Aden, etc. With some help from the Yemeni men seated around me who tried to clarify what I was struggling to say, I managed to answer the questions. Then the soldier said he needed to keep our permit. I can’t remember if I actually said anything or just looked super shocked and upset. Whichever, the guard asked if we didn’t have copies of the permit so that it could be collected at the check points. I said we didn’t; no one told us we needed to. With significant contributions from the Yemeni men around me again, we convinced the soldier that he could write down the info instead of taking the permit itself. I was relieved, but worried how many times were would have to go through a similar situation since we were only an hour out of Sana’a at that point. We were lucky that most of checkpoints just waved the bus, without stopping to check our permit.

Shortly after the first checkpoint, the bus stopped on the outskirts of a town, near a restaurant so that people could eat breakfast. Milushka and I weren’t hungry, so we wondered around near the bus for a while just to stretch our legs. Once, we finally got underway again, the bus conductor turned on a movie that played on a couple of screens suspended from the ceiling. It was a Jackie Chan movie. I partly watched it, partly dozed and partly watched the scenery out the window. Milushka slept for some time.

Religious slogans

Writing on the mountain

I enjoyed the mountain scenery. I was particularly interested in all the little farming villages. I was surprised to see that most farms still used donkeys, or occasionally camels or cows, to plow their fields. I only saw one tractor the whole trip. The other thing that interested me a lot were the religious saying written on the mountains with white rocks, similar in concept to the Y or other letters on the Utah mountains. They often passed too quickly for me to entirely read them, but I could usually tell they reminded people to think of God and to rely on Him.

It is over a 7,000-foot drop in elevation between Sana’a and Aden, and most of the drive was through gradually descending valleys. We were about an hour from Aden when we finally left the mountains behind and arrived to a sandy flat land. Shortly after we reached the plain, the bus stopped at a restaurant in a town for everyone to eat lunch. While I was grateful to eat as it was about 13:30, I was anxious to reach Aden and annoyed to stop when we were so close.

After a lunch of chicken and rice, we continued on our way. Just outside of Aden, we passed through another checkpoint and this time a soldier boarded the bus again. I was prepared to go through the argument about only having one copy of my travel permit, but the soldier just asked the same questions about nationality, length and purpose of visit, and gave us the permit back.

Celest in the Crater (Aden)

The water tanks are behind the fence. The maintains are the rements of the walls of a volcanic crater in which Aden is built.

We finally reached Aden about 15:00. The first thing we did was purchase our return bus tickets for the following morning. Then we took a taxi to the nice-but-budget hotel the guidebook recommended. We had a little bit of difficulty getting the taxi driver to figure out where we wanted to go. The guidebook only have the name written in English letters, so I had to make my best guess as to the Arabic pronunciation, but that didn’t seem to ring any bells to the driver. (There are essentially no addresses in Yemen, so we couldn’t just give him an address.) There was simple map in the book that had the hotel marked, but that didn’t seem to help too much either. Our driver got another taxi driver to come over and between the two of them, they seemed to figure out where we wanted to go. I was very relieved when we actually arrived to the correct hotel with out seeming to get lost at all.

The drive to the hotel was pretty, we could see a lot of the bay and the sea. We drove along a causeway and saw wild flamingos wading in the shallow water.

Overlooking Aden 1

View of Aden from Zoroastrian temple site

At our hotel, we got a room with two twin beds, air conditioning and small fridge for only $20 a night. We took a few minutes to freshen up, then went out to sight-see and make the most of our limited time. Our hotel was within walking distance of the two things I thought we could see before hitting the beach. One was some ancient water tanks. You have to pay to get in to walk around them and see them close up. Due to lack of time, and a lack of interest on Milushka’s part, we only looked through the fence briefly on the way to the other site of interest, a ruined Zoroastrian temple.

It turned out to be a brutally steep and uneven hike to the top of a mountain to get to the ruins of the temple. The path wove through a shantytown that has grown up on the steep mountainside on the edge of the city. The residents had taken advantage of the cobblestone-paved path that lead to the temple to give them access to the mountainside. When we reached the top, the hike became worth it. There were great views of Aden from that height. Also, the ruins themselves were very interesting. It is actually a misnomer to talk the ruins a temple, though that is how it is referred to. It was actually a place they brought their dead to decompose. Zoroastrians believed that unclean dead bodies contaminated the earth so they could not be buried. Similarly, they would contaminate the holy fire, so cremation was not an option. Instead, they left the naked bodies for the vultures to consume, freeing the soul for release. The “Tower of Silence” consisted of several concentric circles. The bodies of men were left in the outermost ring, with women in the center ring, and children in the very center. The center two rings were still mostly intact, though they may not remain so for long because it was clear (and also in the guidebook) that locals are gradually taking the stones for modern construction projects.

The center of the Tower of Silence

Outside the middle ring at the Tower of Silence

Milushka heading down from the Zoroastrian temple. The rising sun the the background is a southern-based political party's symbol. It was ubiquitous in the south.

We returned to our hotel about 17:00 and changed into swim suits and headed for the beach. We had been advised to go to a hotel beach resort so the we could swim in western wear without a problem. The cheaper of the two resorts in the guidebook was booked for a party on the beach that night, so we were forced to go the Sheraton nearby. It cost us as much to have access to their beach and health center area as it did to spend the night our own hotel! However, it was absolutely worth it.

We had a lot of fun swimming. We arrived about an hour before sunset and swam and played in the waves still well after it was dark. We only left we because we got tired and hungry. The nice thing about being at the Sheraton was they provided us with towels on the beach and fresh towels in the locker room when we took a shower. Despite being at a Western resort hotel, we were they only western women in the water. A few other men were swimming. There was a group of Yemeni women who sat in a group on the beach fully coved in baltos and hijab.

I loved the beach, and it made the very short trip to Aden very worthwhile. I really enjoyed going out till the water was chest-high, then floating on my back while the waved gently rocked me. However, I discovered that I had to face towards the beach and not towards the open sea or the lack of view as the water blended seamlessly into the darkening sky made me disoriented and sick. After it got dark, sand crabs appeared on the beach. They were a great surprise.

After getting our fill of swimming we showered, but came to the realization that since we had worn our swimsuits under our baltos on the way there we now had nothing to wear except our baltos on the way back. We tried drying our swimsuits with the built-in hair dryer but quickly over heated it. We hung out in the locker room for nearly an hour in our towels while we tried to dry our suits in the sauna, but the humidity was too high to do any good despite the high heat. Milushka’s bikini dried enough (from the combination of dryer and sauna) that she could put it on though it was still a bit damp. I gave up on my swimsuit and ended up just waiting the capris I’d worn with my suit on the way there and the balto over the top.
We went back to our hotel and ate dinner at a restaurant next door. After dinner, we quickly got ready for bed and went to sleep around 22:30 or 23:00.

The next morning we were up at 05:00 and checked out the hotel at about 05:30. I was worried that a taxi driver might not know where to take us for the bus. I didn’t know the name of the area and could only show him our tickets which had the bus company name but no address or directions. The first taxi driver we talked to said he knew where to take us, but after filling up at a gas station, he stopped along the side of road to show our tickets to some other men and ask directions from them. They seemed to know the way, and we made it to the correct location in good time.

The bus left at 06:30 in the morning and retraced its route of the previous day, including stopping for breakfast at the same restaurant where we’d eaten lunch the day before. Milushka and I ate rashoosh (big flat bread) only for breakfast, but our stomachs were not up for beans or liver for breakfast. The return ride seemed very long to me because this bus didn’t have enough leg room, so my legs quickly cramped up every time we returned to the bus. I amused myself by waking out the window.

This time we were seated right behind the driver (the convenience of checkpoint soldiers) so I had a good view. It was actually a bit nerve-racking because Yemenis all seem to drive like mad men. Though we were in a large tour bus, the driver would pass other large vehicles on these winding mountain switchbacks, even when it was a blind corner. He’d blare his horn then pull out and floor it. At one point, I was curious just how fast we were actually taking the curves on the road. I leaned forward to see over the riders shoulder and the shocker to see the speedometer read 0 km/hr, clearly entirely none functional. The driver just when at what ever speed felt comfortable for the conditions, which was usually faster than I was entirely comfortable with.

View of the mountains as we began the ascent toward Sana'a

I expected that we would stop for lunch at the same place the bus had stopped for breakfast on the way down, but I was wrong. Instead, the bus went a bit farther and stopped at a restaurant that was next to a mosque. We stopped just after 12:00 and this location allowed those who wanted to to attend the Friday noon prayer while others went into the restaurant to eat lunch. After lunch, Milushka and I wandered in the parking lot a bit. I could listen to the sermon over the loud speaker. While I couldn’t understand very much (due in part to the distortion the speaker caused), I did understand phrases about Iraq and Afghanistan and American occupation.

We got back to Sana’a around 15:00, tried but happy. Though we spent as much time on the bus trips as we did in Aden (including sleeping time), the two hours that we spent on the beach made it all worth it.