A Day in the Life of Birdis Bint Mohammed Abdallah

by Christje M. E. vanSchoot

Yemen Update 28/29(1991):6-10

The village is still covered in darkness when the old man makes his way between the houses to the small village mosque, to switch on the cassette recorder so the Allahu akbar can be heard from the loudspeaker. He has to hurry because the stars are paling in the velvet blue sky. A cock crows and a dog curls up once more in his hollow to protect himself from the cold. The tops of the ragged mountain range surrounding the Montane Plains become visible and deepen their colour against the pale orange skyline of the breaking dawn.

The Allahu akbar chant from the small mosque drifts over the village. Birdis wakes up and gently pushes Saleh, her youngest boy of a year and a half who has been sleeping in her lap, to the side. He stirs and quickly she moves him over toward Anisa, her eight year old daughter, who lies curled up with small Arwa of four years. In her sleep Anisa puts her arm protectively around Saleh and al-hamdulillah nobody wakes up. Now she can do her fajr prayer without being disturbed. Quickly she finishes her ablutions, arranges her prayer-mat in the direction fo Mecca and starts to pray. She really values these precious moments for herself.

After praying she glances over the three children, who are still happily asleep and then she silently leaves the room to go to the kitchen. In passing the room where Mohammed, her husband, and Ahmed, his eleven year old son from his first marriage, are sleeping, she stops a moment and listens at the door; their regular breathing tells her that they are still asleep. She smiles, it's good that Mohammed is still resting, because he had to irrigate their alfalfa field last night and she did not hear him coming back, so it must have been late again.

As silently as possible she draws back the long iron bolt of the door and leaves the house. The first light casts long shadows over the yard. Within an hour the sun will be up, and its rays will be reflected sharply by the corrugated iron sheets, material of which her kitchen was constructed after the earthquake some years ago. Shivering from the cold morning air, she enters the kitchen, fetches the kettle, fills it with water from the watertank and quickly lights the small kerosine stove to make tea. Later on she will prepare the firewood for the cooking of today's lunch and arrange it in the tannur, so it can be lighted easily by her sister Fatima. She herself will be away collecting firewood on the slopes of the hill nearby.

Waiting for the tea to boil, she shakes the gourd in which the mild is being fermented and takes out one cup. She puts the cup of fermented milk on a shelf, to add it in the evening to today's fresh milk. Then she starts to collect the kitchen waste and food left-overs from yesterday to feed her cow -- pieces of bread, some 'asid porridge, bean water. The bones from yesterday's sheep meat she throws to the mangy dog, which has been waiting expectantly outside. Then she squats down and mixes the ingredients together with some salt in an old cracked cooking pot. Hakima, her neighbour and sister-in-law, is going to gather firewood this morning and yesterday they agreed that they would go out together. To go with Hakima is always good, because she has a donkey which carries the bundles of shrubs. Her own family's donkey is going out with the grazing sheep for fetching the water. Of course a woman should not go out by herself to the rangelands; people talk so easily.

Through the open door of her kitchen Birdis sees wisps of smoke escaping through of the cracks in the walls from Hakima's kitchen. So her friend has lighted her tannur already, probably being nagged by Kheiserah, the mother-in-law of both Hakima and herself. Birdis is very happy that her husband made the decision to build a house of their own after the earthquake, so she doesn't have to share the house with bothersome Kheiserah. Poor Hakima, thinks Birdis.

She gets up from her squatting position and stretches her back. It is still stiff and painful from yesterday's cleaning of the sheepshed, collecting the sheep dung and mixing it in the manure pit. How she hates that work and almost automatically she brings her hands to her nose; Are they still smelling of manure?

Then she sees her daughter Anisa crossing the yard, heading towards the kitchen. Good, she is awake, because it is high time to start milking the sheep and feeding the cow. "Sabah al-khayr, ya ummi ", says Anisa, while kissing the hand of her mother. "Sabah al-nur, ya binti ", replies Birdis, "did you sleep well? Are Arwa and Saleh still sleeping? Come, hurry and let's milk the sheep. Here, take the pot with the food for the cow." Together they walk over to the sheepshed and take a deep breath before entering, because the strong, almost suffocating atmosphere is overpowering in the small closed shed crammed with bleating sheep.

Birdis has a quick look at the lambs, which have separated into one corner of the sheepshed. The she grabs at the left hindleg of the nearest ewe, catches it between her knees and bends over to milk. Although Anisa is starting to be quite skilled at milking the sheep herself, she is mainly there to hold the head of the ewes, in case they are difficult for Birdis to control. After half an hour they have finished milking some fifteen ewes and while Anisa takes the milk to the kitchen, Birdis takes the pot with food for the cow and goes over to the cowshed. While the cow is eating, she starts to milk. She talks softly to the cow: "Be kind to my little daughter this morning. She will feed you; I shall give you my attention in the afternoon again." Birdis is humming the words now into a song, because she feels so content. Milking the cow is something she likes much better than the tedious work of milking sheep. Look how the milk is flowing in thick and long jets. But then cows milk costs money, alfalfa is an expensive fodder; sheepmilk is free, because the sheep graze on the rangelands.

When she carries the cows' milk to the kitchen, Saleh and Arwa are already awake and playing on the doorstep. Mohammed, on leaving the house, steps carefully over them, blinks sleepily into the bright sunlight and yawns. Chickens are scuttling around, voices of children fill the fresh morning air and mix with the general din of clanking cooking utensils, bleating sheep, barking dogs and the ungainly sporadic braying of donkeys. The village has finally shed off the cloak of night and is coming to life.

Time for breadfast. Anisa brings the thermos with steaming-hot tea and the tray with bread. She has also prepared a dish of foul and there is some laban on the side. The food is placed on the floor in the middle of the room and the family gathers around it. In the corner of the room a bundle of blankets comes to life and from it Ahmed emerges to join the others. "Wash your hands first", says Mohammed, "are you still a baby"? Birdis gives Arwa tea with a lot of milk in it and Saleh crawls on to her lap, where she allows him to drink from her breast.

Birdis tells her husband that she is going out with Hakima this morning to collect firewood and that Anisa with the help of Fatima, Birdis' sister, will look after the children and the cow and will start the preparations for the main midday meal. Ahmed will go out with the sheep, as he does every morning. Afer lunch Mohammed will take over from him so Ahmed can go to school in the afternoon. Occasionally Birdis has to take over, when Mohammed has to be away during the afternoons.

"Where is Fatima now" asks Mohammed, "should she not be here already?" Birdis explains that she asked Fatima to pass along her alfalfa field to cut a ration of fresh fodder for the cow and the two fattening rams, because she would not have the time to do it herself today.

When breadfast is over, and Anisa and Arwa are cleaning up, Birdis goes to the kitchen to feed the left-overs of bread from breakfast and some grain to her two rams, which are kept for fattening purposes in the mahnazah, a small pen in a corner of the kitchen. First she roughly cleans the feeding trough and puts a bucket with fresh water beside it. When she turns around she sees Arwa standing in the doorway of the kitchen carrying little Saleh on her small hip. "Fatima has come," Arwa tells her "and she has cut a lot of alfalfa."

Birdis smiles, she is very fond of her younger sister and grateful that Fatima is often around to help her with the running of the house.

She will make a good housewife and her future husband will be proud of her. She is only thirteen now, but look how much she can do already independently. She sees that Fatima is entering the house and will shortly come out with the matresses and blankets. Anisa gives her a hand to put everything in the sun to air. This is part of the daily cleaning routine.

Birdis pours a glass of tea from the thermos for Fatima and goes over to her to discuss the work when she will be away to gather firewood. "First milk the sheep again and let Anisa start feeding the cow, give straw to the rams in the kitchen, light the fire in the tannur, prepare the dough for the bread, sweep the house, and if there is time left, collect the dung from the cowshed. Oh, don't worry about cleaning of the sheepshed," Birdis adds quickly, when she sees the face of Fatima cloud over, "I did it yesterday thouroughly; my back is still reminding me of it. "Al-hamdulillah," sighs Fatima, "I really hate that work, it smells so terrible." She gets up from her squatting position to have a look at the small pit where the dung is being collected and mixed with water and some straw. "Ah your pit is almost full, if Anisa can do some trampling today, I will help you tomorrow with making the cakes." "Excellent idea" says Birdis.

At that moment she hears the shrill voice of Hakima. "Ya Birdis, ya ukhti, yallah, let's hurry, it's getting late." Birdis quickly takes the small hoe for cutting branches and uprooting small shrubs and joins Hakima and her donkey who are waiting at the entrance of her yard. It must be around eight o'clock because, when passing the village school they see the children just being marched inside by the Egyptian teacher.

As soon as they have left the village and ascertained to be alone, they both remove the part of the veil covering half of their face. Arriving after half an hour on the slopes of Hayt Bayaan, two other village women are already at work. One of them has the face covered with a thick paste of yellow turmeric powder to protect her skin from the sun. On seeing her, Birdis brings her hands to her face and exclaims annoyed, "Oh I have forgotten to protect my face." Hakima starts laughing and teases her, "Why should you protect your skin after eight years of marriage, your time of being a young flower is past, ya ukhti. Or do you have a secret lover who wants you to be beautiful?" she giggles. "Shame on you Hakima," calls Birdis feigning anger. As she tries to grab her, Hakima quickly moves away pushing the donkey between them.

They put on their gloves to protect their hands from the thorns that most plants have and start to work. Some shrubs give a nice smell to the bread, others have to dry for almost a year outside before they can be used. Some plants have a big root system with large roots and burn long in the tannur. But uprooting them is difficult, especially during the dry season when the soil is hard and dry. Although not knowing them all by name, Birdis knows a great deal about the use of most of these plants: as firewood for the tannur, to smoke the milkgourd ,or for medicine.

Birdis has tied a cloth around her hips in order to give support to her pregnant belly. During a moment of rest she plucks off a small plant near her and smells its leaves. A lovely smell, almost as sweet as the rayhan which she grows at home. Rayhan was used at her wedding, now some eight years ago, when she was fifteen. How young and afraid she was then, but fortunately, Mohammed has been a good caring husband to her and as proud as she is of their three children.

Hakima's voice nearby startles her in her daydreaming and quickly she continues with the collection of shrubs. After a while she has a nice, big bundle and Hakima helps her to load it onto the donkey. The other women shout that they have tea, so Birdis and Hakima walk down the slope to join them. The donkey follows them. In their coloured dresses the four women form a remarkable contrast against the desolate dry slope painted with overtones of brown. While drinking the tea, Hakima tells about the problems she has with Kheisera, her mother-in-law, especially now that she wants her daughter to attend the village school and Keisera is against this. Birdis says that she would like to send Anisa to school, but who will look then after Arwa and Saleh? "At least Ahmed is going to school in the afternoon," she concludes. Before the tea is finished several subjects have been discussed; their health, the crops, the work at home. Then another hour is spent collecting shrubs on the slope. After the donkey is loaded, they walk back to the village. At home Birdis will sort out the several types of shrubs and store them in a semi-circle around her kitchen. Until Mohammed will build a wall around the house, a thing he promised Birdis to do after selling this year's harvest of potatoes, the thorny firewood tangle acts as a kind of fence to keep animals out.

Birdis looks at the sun and sees that she has to hurry in order to have lunch ready when Mohammed comes home from the field. Fatima has shaped the bread dough into small balls which can now be flattened out on the makhbaza and then, one after the other, be slapped against the hot wall of the tannur. The bowl with 'asid is already on the fire and Fatima is patiently stirring the stiff mass. Birdis prepares the hilba, using her hand with spread fingers to beat air into the sauce. Flop, flop, flop goes her hand, a sound that attracts little Saleh, who is hungry and realizes that food will be ready any moment. Anisa gives him half a cup of maraq to drink. Meanwhile Fatima and Anisa tell about their work in the morning and of Kheisera who came over this morning to drink tea with them. "And of course to watch what we were doing," adds Fatima. She goes over to the milkgourd and shakes it vigourously for some time to separate the butter from the milk.

During lunch Mohammed tells Birdis about his work in the field this morning and about the land ownership problem which has been brewing between the Mohsin and the Nasr families. Birdis puts some food aside in small aluminium pot which Mohammed will take with him to Ahmed, when relieving him of herding the sheep. After a quick cup of tea he sets off.

Fatima and Anisa clean up the dishes and cooking pots, while Birdis has another cup of tea. "Ya Fatima," shouts Birdis, "do not forget to smoke the mildgourd, there are still some nice pieces of peach wood let." Then she pushes herself up and goes to the cowshed to mild again. After milking she handfeeds the cow while Saleh and Arwa are playing around her. Hakima comes over and squats beside her. "It's good to sit down for a moment" she says, "I have just been turning the dungcakes, they are almost dry." Fatima joins them a few moments later and for one hour they sit happily together, talking and playing with the children and taking turns in handfeeding the cow.

When Ahmed returns from the range, he puts his food pot in the kitchen, pours himself a cup of tea and joins the group for a few minutes. Anisa brings him his books and a moment later he is off again to school. In the kitchen the two rams can be heard bleating because it is time to feed them. Birdis gathers some alfalfa which she puts in the trough for the rams. Hakima hurries off to feed her rams and promising to come back later when they will watch an Egyptian soap opera on the television set in Birdis' house. After feeding the rams Birdis and Fatima start to sort out and arrange the freshly gathered firewood, so it can dry easily and will not be blown all over the place.

"Ya Fatima, ya ummi,: calls Anisa, "the television program has started. They stop the work and go inside. A few moments later Hakima and her daughter Salima join them. Contentedly they huddle together on the mattresses of the mafraj and watch the program on the black-and-white set connected to a car battery. Arwa and little Saleh crawl around them. They are so engrossed in the story that they do not hear Mohammed coming back with sheep. When he enters the room he really startles them. "Ya salaam 'aleikum " he booms, "wallahi, it is really comfortable in here, shall I bring in the sheep too?" Birdis hurries outside to feed the sheep sorghum stover, while Anisa pours Mohammed a cup of tea. He watches the program for a while with little Saleh on his lap and Arwa at his side. Hakima yawns, "It's time to go" she says. Fatima arranges her headress and veil, so she can return through the village to her house. Mohammed follows Hakima to the house of his brother to chew qat. Kheisera sits in a far corner surrounded by her grandchildren.

Birdis has finished feeding the sheep and is shutting them inside the sheepshed for the night. The shadows have grown very long now and the last sun rays of the day put the village in a warm and deep golden light, despite that the westerly winds blow very cold. In a few moments the sun will have disappeared behind the mountains and the call from the village mosque will be heard for maghreb prayers. Alone inside the dark house, Birdis rolls out her prayer-mat in the direction of Mecca and starts to pray. Today, like many other days, she has had no time to do al-dhuhr, the second, and al -asr, the third prayer. But Allah knows that she tries to be a good and obedient housewife and a devoted Muslim. Oh, it has been a busy day. Anyhow, things she did went well, al-hamdulillah.

She hears that outside Saleh Mohsin is starting his generator and a few moments later the two tubelights flash the room into a bright light. For every bulb Mohammed pays Saleh twenty riyals a month. Birdis leaves the house, calls for Anisa and walks over to the sheepshed to milk the sheep. While they are busy milking, Anisa tells Birdis that a lot of the discussion among the qat chewing men that day dealt with the land problems of the Mohsin family.

When finished with the sheep, Birdis squats beside her cow to milk it. in the kitchen she puts the cow's milk with the milk of the sheep into the milkgourd and the cup with already fermented milk is added. She then goes back to the house, taking a flat basket with bread and the pot with some lunch left-overs which were heated up by Anisa. Saleh and Arwa have returned from the house next door, together with Ahmed. Saleh is sleeping already and, after having eaten a few pieces of bread, Arwa curls up at Birdis' side. Mohammed will come home later and, as always after chewing, will not be hungry.

They watch TV for a while and Ahmed tells about his afternoon at school. Later on Anisa pulls Arwa over to her and together they disappear under the blanket, their protection against any interruption later. Birdis puts Saleh close beside her, and stretches herself out on the mattress. Within minutes she is lulled asleep, surrounded by the familiar noises of the thumping generator and the barking dogs.

Before entering the house, Mohammed spits out the qat, rinses his mouth with water and clears his throat loud and extensively. Birdis, being woken by this sound, gets up and pours him his last cup of tea from the thermos. He smiles at her and runs his hand over her plaited thick hair, letting it rest on her neck. She smiles back at him and silently he follows her to her mattress.

A waning pale moon sheds its silvery light over the village houses, which large looming shapes cast deep shadows over the ground. A million stars litter the dark blue sky. The generators have ceased their monotonous thumping. The village is at rest.

[Adapted from L. M. Maarse and C. M. E. van Schoot (August, 1989) Rural Women in Livestock Production and Rangeland Use (Dhamar: Range and Livestock Improvement Project, Project Communication #34), pp.10-17.]

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