Bab al Yemen: Gateway to Yemen

A videotape by Walther Grotenhuis. 40minutes. Olympic Films, 1993. Distributed by Filmakers Library. 124East 40th Street. New York, New York 10016. Rental $55. Purchase$250.

Reviewed by Thomas B. Stevenson

Yemen Update 39(1997):40-41


Walther Grotenhuis's videotape on contemporary Yemen was shown at the1994 MESA meetings in Phoenix. I braved the unseasonable Arizona cold yet missed this video because it was screened it at odd times. Many Yemen Update readers may be unfamiliar with it as well. It is a welcome addition to the list of films and videotapes on Yemen

Drawing on symbolic opening of Bab al-Yamanin Sanaa, this cinéma vérité montage portrays socioeconomic change through contrasting images of daily life. The dialogue, shown in subtitles, is between the people interviewed and the director's translator. There is no commentary; the viewer is left to interpret the images presented. This is both the video's strength and its weakness. The photography shows Yemen's stark contrasts: lush greens and dry browns. Viewers familiar with Yemen will recognize the places and identify with the people. They will also appreciate that the issues and themes Grotenhuis presents are part of the daily discourse on traditional and modern Yemen. However, the lack of this insider's background distinguishing between the old and new may be daunting

The old characterization of Yemen as ArabiaFelix was based partly on the availability of water for agriculture. It is fitting that water, in particular its uses and shortages, is a recurring topic in the video. The opening scenes are of men manually deepening an old well in Sanaa. The workers explain rain shortfalls and new wells outside the city have lowered the water table. This well must be at least twenty meters deeper to again draw water

Water remains the topic in a village where the shaykh explains how he distributes seasonal water. Unrolling a300-year-old document, he describes how long each parcel of land is watered He also explains how conflicts sometimes arise with neighboring villages over shares of the water. In the midst of the discussion of such traditional practices we get glimpses of belt-driven pumps spewing water from tube wells for women to washcloths and men to irrigate qat.

The rural setting provides an easy transition to discussion of tribal life. A shaykh's leadership and administrative roles are explained briefly. The shaykh links tribal identity to weapons. Tribesmen demonstrate rifles, automatic rifles,and rocket launchers as the tribal approach to defense of land and especially fields of qat. Other scenes of tribal life include a zamil.

The director questions the use ofqat. A shaykh informs him that chewing is a customary practice and that qat is a social lubricant. Chewers do not mention the cost of daily chewing, but several chewers, including the shaykh,comment critically on the time lost in qat sessions. These opinions are familiar to researchers and it will not surprise them that even as the criticism mounts no one abandons their leaves and charges off to the fields.

At a rural wedding, we see the exchange of ceremonial greetings between the armed men from the bride's and groom's parties. Later we watch hosts and quests eating har�sh and shafüt at the wedding feast. We also see the shaykh buying a large amount of qat for the afternoon chew. Characteristically he pays for this with wads of money carried casually in a plastic bag There are some brief scenes of men testing their shooting ability This results in a comic moment when a tribesman laments on the shooters' inability to hit the target.

At the wedding, Grotenhuis addresses men's and women's roles. The expressed rural male view is that women should remain veiled, apart from men, and in the home. The director contrasts this opinion with images of an unveiled woman using a loudspeaker mounted on a car to encourage women in a Sanaa neighborhood to improve household cleanliness. The message is presented as an Islamic duty; the health worker stresses that Allah commanded women to maintain a clean house. We also see veiled women bringing instructional videos into homes to show neighborhood women ways to improve family health. The lesson shown is on clean drinking water and proper hygiene.

The director asks women about the changes in their lives. They comment on the importance of this education. They also explain the importance of the veil and how they use it to conceal their emotions. The women give us a quick lesson the language of the eyes. This segment concludes with a woman baking bread, not in the traditional wood fired oven but a butagas fueledtannur.

The film maker's treatment of women's roles and their influence raises questions of Western ideas. Men question the loss of customary ways, not they say because of its impact on their power over women, but because history has shown that tradition was best. We get the feeling they are dissembling. Women call for more freedom, more decision-making, and more opportunity to be active outside the house. They expect the process of change to be slow. Scenes of praying men and veiled women reinforce the power and place of tradition.

The closing scenes show contact with the West We see Yemeni men and a few women attending a performance of the East European circus. The performers shown are women. The male reaction seems akin to viewing a striptease; the female response,like the veil, is impenetrable.

Oil, Yemen's future, is presented through images of the Can Oxy wells in Hadramawt. The commentary is sparse but the size of the installation suggests the significant impact oil will have on the Yemeni economy. Also, the remoteness of the site suggests the Yemen remains insulated from many changes accompanying oil production

Fittingly, the final two scenes return to Sanaa. Both portray aspects of change. In the first, a scoop loader removes garbage from the trash clogged sayl just east of Tahrir Square. Yemeni comment on the filth and remark that this would not have been a problem under the imam when seasonal rains would have flushed the largely biodegradable waste out of the city.

In the concluding scene, we are presented with Bab al-Yaman, its gates now permanently open. It is this openness that Grotenhuis focuses on. If the imam prevented trash it was because there was no consumer economy. Yet, with these positive changes come problems.

At the outset I remarked briefly on the difficulty viewers new to Yemen may have making sense of what they are seeing. For example, men and boys are shown enjoying rides at an amusement park. While this is certainly new to Yemen, American audiences will view these rides as antiques. Although a publisher offers the film with an introductory anthropology text book, I do not think it is suitable for general classroom use. The lack of commentary and a clear story line may make it hard for students to piece together what is happening and understand the film maker's point of view.

On the other hand, for more knowledgeable viewers familiar, the videotape offers a refreshing, honest portrayal of the contrasts that are contemporary Yemen. This video has a genuineness that is absent in some films on the Middle East. Most of us have experienced the events shown. We have heard the controversy over qat, listened to arguments for and against the veil and the changing roles of women, are familiar with the rapidly declining water levels particularly around urban areas, and observed the growing consumer economy and the disposal problems attendant to it -in sum, the positive and negative consequences of Yemen's openness. Grotenhuis's images present the complexity of these issues and remind us of the contrasts.

The film is selective; it does not show many facets of Yemen. Although a few scenes include posters of 'Al� 'Abd Allah Salih� and Saddam Husayn, understandably the video does not mention the government and shows no soldiers. Likewise, construction,traffic jams, blaring radios and televisions, schools, and children are absent. The emphasis is clearly on presenting a few image swell

In this video, as in our experience, Yemeni are so comfortable being themselves that they do not attempt to put on a show. The images also refresh our memories of what is distinctively Yemen: rifles slung over pegs along the walls of the mafraj, men squatting around plates of bint al-sahn and susi, the cheeks bulging with qat, the distinctive Sanaani veil, or a used sport coat seller at Bab al-Yaman. Viewers will enjoy hearing the characteristic intonation and pronunciation of the central highlands and recognize the distinctive Yemeni sense of humor

The issues Grotenhuis presents are contemporary and pressing. It is on this level that the videotape excels It is a welcome addition to the visual resources on Yemen

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