The Yemen College of Middle Eastern Studies believes that the best way to learn is through participation and cultural immersion. Our formal Arabic lessons are often conducted in the souks, for example, but on top of that the College arranges a variety of extra-curricular cultural activities. Alongside a regular program of lectures, film showings and museum visits, YCMES students will have the opportunity to take part in qat chews, hammam trips, wedding celebrations, henna parties, and cooking lessons.
Qat chews are the quintessential Yemeni cultural activity, the lubricant that keeps the wheels of politics and society turning and a brilliant opportunity to practice your Arabic.
The leaves come from a small evergreen tree that originated in East Africa. When chewed for a few hours, they have a pleasing narcotic quality, and chewing is deeply embedded in Yemeni society, an intractable part of many social interactions. Qat is present at weddings, negotiations, government events and even in the office (not ours, I hasten to add).
Trips to the Hammam
International students here often find themselves regular patrons of Sana'a's many hammams, and for the uninitiated we offer organised trips. They are, after all, an excellent opportunity to meet Yemenis and practice your Arabic in a more intimate environment.
Yemen, being a volcanic region, has many natural hot springs that have been used as outdoor bathhouses for millennia. The Ottomans, however, brought this inside and introduced Yemen to what is often known as the Turkish bath. The habit caught on, and many Yemeni men and women visit their favorite hammam several times a week.
In Yemen, rather than having separate bathhouses for men and women, the two sexes share the same bath locations on different hours of the day or different days of the week. For women, there is a wide variety of natural beauty remedies, mud masks and henna concoctions that can be applied in the humid atmosphere of the hammam to maximize their effects. Men, on the other hand, are often found chewing qat in the steam of the hammam - humidity and heat intensify the drug's effects – and it is not unheard of for dancing and singing to be witnessed. Before a wedding, too, both the bride and bridegroom are taken to the Hammam by family members and friends (separately, obviously).
Our more enthusiastic students should note that Yemenis do not remove all of their clothing in hammams. Nor should you. Men cover their lower bodies with a futah or mowaz, and women wrap themselves in a futah from armpit to knee.
Foreigners are often considered honored guests at Yemeni weddings. You will likely receive many excited invitations to these events during your stay here, especially if one of our staff, neighbours, friends, or Yemeni students is getting married.
The specific traditions and customs involved in Yemeni wedding ceremonies vary slightly from region to region, but the general pattern remains the same. First comes the engagement, al-khtoba, in which a relative of the would-be groom is sent to the girl's family to begin negotiations. When both sides come to an agreement, the family of the bride informs the groom and his male relatives and gives them a date on which to meet the bride and her family. During this visit, the groom's male relatives are required to bring a large amount of qat with them as a gift to the men of the bride's family. The women of the groom's family bring presents for the bride including clothes, shoes, and a set of jewelry items called shabkat al-khtoba. This set includes the engagement ring and earrings, and demonstrates the financial status of the groom.
Two days before the wedding the groom prepares a banquet in his house for the bride's family, and in the evening he invites his friends around and often gets hennaed. The next day, the bride does the same with her friends on what is called Green Day - she wears green clothes, and her face is covered by a golden veil that is not removed until the evening.
On the day of wedding the bride has her hair and makeup done. She dons a white dress, and goes to meet her family and guests who are waiting for her in the hall. Only our female students will ever get to see what goes on here. They will be shocked by the fashion on show, and will be expected to fly the flag for Western dancing. Needless to say, cameras are not allowed. The groom and his guests, on the other hand, go to another hall where cameras are frankly encouraged and there they remain, chewing qat and dancing, until the evening prayers. Once they're finished, the groom is taken through the streets to his family home, surrounded by guests and under strings of energy-saving light bulbs. A singer praises the virtues of the groom and congratulates him is a ceremony called Zafah, and then he enters his house to await the bride, who arrives in a convoy of decorated cars after a two-hour procession around the city. Only now may the bride enter her groom's house to meet him. He removes her veil, and says a prayer.
Juan Herrero shot this beautiful video of a wedding in the Haraz mountains. It's a bit different to an urban wedding, but watch it anyway.
We also arrange henna parties for our female students, and there are several opportunities for them to have henna designs applied to their hands and feet.
Henna is commercially cultivated in Yemen, western India, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Morocco and Sudan. It is used in these regions for body art and hair dye, and in addition to these ornamental uses henna is known to repel some insect pests and mildew. Applying the paste to your skin allows you to create henna body art - the natural colouring in the paste migrates into the outermost layer of the skin and makes a red-brown stain.
This stain has been stenciled onto young women's bodies on special occasions since the late Bronze Age. Four thousand year old wall paintings excavated at Akrotiri show women with henna on their nails, palms and soles, and many statuettes of young women dating from around 1000BC along the Mediterranean coast have raised hands boasting similar markings. Not much has changed since then, and in modern-day Yemen brides are adorned with henna prior to marriage.
People often come to Yemen with distinctly low expectations regarding the food, but within hours they find themselves surprised by meal after delicious meal. From salta to foul, we find students asking for the recipes, and as a result have started offering Yemeni cooking lessons.
To give you an idea, below is a recipe for Bint as-Sahan. This is one of Yemen's most beloved dishes, a cake-like pudding featuring flaky pastry layers covered in honey and black sesame seeds. Often served in the houses of the affluent, and even in more modest homes on special occasions, this dish is generally served as a first course. It takes an impressive level of discipline to leave space for what comes after.
For more information on Yemeni cuisine, we highly recommend the yemenkitchen blog.
It should also be noted that the meal being prepared below is not Bint as-Sahan.
While not strictly speaking a YCMES activity, the College often acts as a catalyst for developing friendships between international students and Yemenis.
Foreigners, because of shyness or uncertainty about the expectations and obligations that friendships with Yemenis may entail, often have some initial difficulty in meeting and making friends. These problems, however, are easily overcome when individuals are friendly and open. Yemenis, especially young people, are enthusiastic to meet their foreign counterparts and share their lives and interests – in fact, it is completely normal for a friendly Yemeni to approach you on the street and strike up a conversation with you (although it bears mentioning that this type of contact between members of the opposite sex is generally regarded as inappropriate).
Students are encouraged to pursue and cultivate contacts, and to seek out opportunities to meet and converse with Yemenis (in Arabic, of course). One of the many benefits of YCMES running English courses for Yemenis is that international students can easily make local contacts without even leaving the College, but hammams, cafés and restaurants are also great places to meet people, and students will be invited to qat chews, weddings, and other social occasions. While one should always be aware of the context of the friendship, as there are a small number of people (much smaller than in most countries) who might try to take advantage of you, YCMES recommends making the most of these opportunities to meet and speak with Yemenis in their own environment. Your efforts will be generously repaid in warm friendships and improved Arabic skills.