Yemen for a Younger Audience

Anna Hestler, Cultures of the World: Yemen. Singapore: Times Books International, 1999, 128 pp. ISBN 981 204 868 5.
[AIYS members can take a 30% discount for a price of $13.93 (rather than the list price of $19.90): order online at]

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 41 (1999)

"Visitors to Yemen are struck by how distinctive it is from the rest of the Arabian peninsula. No wonder it is called the "green land of Arabia." Lush green valleys and rugged mountains stand in stark contrast to the endless deserts elsewhere.

Yemen's roots are far deeper than its Islamic past. Civilizations thousands of years old left remnants of impressive structures as a testimony to their genius. This was the fabled land of the Queen of Sheba, where kingdoms flourished on the fringes of the desert.

In contemporary Yemen, ancient traditions survive in spite of modern developments spurred on by the recent discovery of oil. Yemenis still marry according to age-old customs, and tribesmen still wear handcrafted daggers. The unique Yemeni identity is alive and well" (p. 3).

Yemen's unique identity is amply illustrated in the books and articles that scholars and travel writers produce at an unfortunately rather slow pace. It is not hard to find materials that adults can read for learning more about Yemen. But what about the younger audience, starting at about middle school level? That question can now be answered with a recent publication on Yemen in a series about "Cultures of the World." The author, Anna Hestler, is a professional writer who has never actually been to Yemen. However,she has done a good job in bringing together useful and relevant information about Yemeni culture without the journalistic exaggeration that characterizes much that is written about the country Despite the inevitable minor errors one might expect in a publication of this kind, this is a book I would be happy for my own son to read.

This very readable volume combines a concise survey of Yemeni history and culture with an attractive range of photographs and a map that actually represents Yemen after unification (lots of books on library shelves lead people to think there may still be two Yemens -- at least in a strict geographic sense). The chapters, as shown in the box, cover just about everything with a level of English that should be accessible to middle schoolers without turning off adults. There is not a lot of depth here, nor would it be warranted, but there is a respectable overview that portrays Yemeni culture as unique in its own way and not just the wild, khat-eating, rhino-depleting tribesmen so often encountered in "popular" newspaper and magazine articles. The topographic map (pp. 122-123) includes Socotra, but is somewhat stingy in listing major towns or identifying the major wadis. A section on "Quick Notes" is the bare bones of a general encyclopedia entry and the glossary mentions less than two dozen Arabic terms(although most of these are genuinely Yemeni terms and not just common Arabic words). The index is ample and user-friendly, but the bibliography is awful. Of the six works mentioned, three are not a tall appropriate for a younger audience. As much as I admire Tim Mackintosh Smith's recent travel account, I think it is far too sophisticated for a pre-adult audience (I refer to the prose and not to Tim himself, of course). Nor would I recommend the self-servingly slick Motoring with Muhammad to teen or adult. I am not sure that most teens could wend their way through the Serjeant and Lewcock tome, if anyone could in fact find it outside a university library. That said, I must admit that there are few books on Yemen I can think of that would be useful additional reading for a younger audience. This, in itself, speaks well for the need the present volume fills for our nation's library shelves.

Whenever an American or European encounters and writes about Yemen, the tendency is to focus on the exotic. For Yemen this is most often the chewing of qât, which tends to be negativized as some not-yet-in-America narcotic or romanticized as the golden fleece of organic speed. Hestler first discusses qât under a section on agriculture, following a discussion of the decline in viable household farming and growing dependence on imported crops. She states (p. 41):

"Another reason is that more qat, a shrub whose leaves are chewed for their stimulating effect, is being grown at the expense of food crops. A great deal of controversy surrounds this crop. Although women chew qat, it is more prevalent among the men. Many men spend a large portion of their income and a fair amount of their time chewing qat. This habit used to be confined to the rich elite, but it became affordable to the rest of society when incomes rose. Because of the high local demand, a large number of farmers have converted their land to qat."

A Yemeni girl carrying a bundle of qat ("khat"). (p. 4. Photo from Hutchinson Library)

This is a straightforward discussion that is reasonably accurate. It is also important, in my own experience, to recognize that production of qât has its advantages for small farmers and traders. And it was not just the rich who used to chew, as a visitor to cosmopolitan Aden earlier this century could well attest. Illustrating the discussion is a photograph of aqât field. Unfortunately the accompanying caption is ludicrous! (Qât is the Yemeni substitute for alcohol. When chewed for a long time, it induces a state of happiness comparable to the effects of alcohol.) Obviously, the writer of the caption has not chewed qât or has a very idiosyncratic view of what the effect of alcohol is. If the author means that both are social in nature, I can see the point of a better worded comparison But anyone who drinks alcohol as a stimulant is in for a surprise Indeed, it is the anti-stimulant nature of hard booze that some Yemenis choose to counteract the qat. At any rate, a photo (p. 63) of Yemeni men chewing has a caption that notes that Yemeni men chew "because they believe it can give them strength." Not a very strong argument, I am afraid. It gives endurance, but surely this implies something more than mere "strength" even at the middle school level. Under a section on leisure, "men's gatherings" are discussed as follows (p. 104):

"The afternoons are quiet in many towns because men often attend qat parties, which may last for as long as four hours. The parties take place in the mafraj of a house, and everyone takes turns hosting it. The custom is to bring your own qat. Information about where the gatherings will take place on a particular day is exchanged in the market or at the mosque.

Since Yemenis love verbal banter and jokes, the afternoon parties usually begin with the exchange of good-natured insults and jokes. Afterward, weighty subjects such as politics, business, religion, and the economy might be discussed in smaller groups, or in pairs. Important business decisions are sometimes made at these gatherings. Quite often poetry is composed and recited. On a special occasion there might be dancing, music, and singing. But there is usually some quiet time at the end of the gathering for enjoying the view or simply meditation"

Some substitute for alcohol, especially whatever odd ideas teenagers can develop today about drinking!

There is much to speak well of in this text. It is good to see that Yemen is portrayed as a democracy (struggling,to be sure) and thus a political system "unique on the Arabian peninsula" (p. 31). Also, the population is not just lumped into an amorphous group of "Arabs" but is recognized for the diversity it truly has (p. 51) and for having tribesmen who are not Bedouin nomads The chapter on lifestyle is especially welcome; I appreciate the attention paid to explaining the basic social values and hospitality of Yemeni society. There is even a discussion ofzâmil (p. 90)! Women's issues are also well represented in this book, from the important role of women in agriculture (p. 43) to their dress and social activities. A sidebar (p. 32) notes that Adeni women demonstrated before unification for fear that many of their rights would be taken away by the more conservative religious climate in the north. Another sidebar (p. 36) discusses the role that women play in the Islamic party known as Islah. You can even read about some popular children's games (p. 101-102).

Long ago, people used to greet the imam by kissing the back and palm of his hand and the hem of his robe.
Today, Kissing the hand is an act of respect to the recipient.

(P. 86. Photo by Hutchinson Library)

Some of the information is a bit misleading or just plain wrong. It may indeed be that date palms can grow up to92 feet high (p. 14), but I for one have seen none that tall in Yemen Would it not be better to give an average height? Most certainly there were no giraffes (p. 15) in Yemen a century ago or even a millennium ago! It is surely a bit idealistic (as well as historically inaccurate) to assert that everyone in Yemen converted to Islam around A.D. 628 (p. 22). The history chapter barely covers the medieval period and concentrates most of the attention on recent historical contact with the West. Also, it is a bit too general to state that women do not usually go to the suq in Yemen (p. 43); it depends where you are. I also seriously doubt that "almost half the population in Sanaa used to be Jewish" (p. 53). While it is indeed the case that a number of English words derive from Arabic (p, 82),"checkmate" is from Persian, not Arabic! Those who savorshafût will remember the hot chilis, but search in vain for the beans (p. 121).

This is still a book that I highly recommend It would make an excellent gift to a later elementary or early middle school age kid. And AIYS members can take a 30% discount for a price of $13.93 (rather than the list price of $19.90): so order online today from


Favorite Foods and Drinks

Friends often gather for breakfast at a coffee stall. such socialization is an intricate part of Yemeni life.

(p. 62. Photo by Hutchinson Library)

"Every community has its favorite fare. City folk enjoy fruit, honey, vegetable stews, salads, and rice. Along the coast, people eat fish. The tribal people love their local porridges,which are highly nutritious.

Bread is to Yemenis what pasta is to Italians Every day the women of the household will bake enough bread for breakfast, lunch, and supper. There are all types of breads, and most are made from local grains. Khubz tawwa ("KU-butz tah-WAH") is ordinary bread that is fried at home, and lahuh ("LAH-huh") is a festive pancake made from sorghum. In the cities, modern bakeries sell oblong roti ("ROH-tee") loaves. The word roti was introduced along time ago by Indians who traded in the port of Aden.

The national urban dish is saltah ("SAHL-tah"), which means soup. The favorites are lamb or thick lentil soup with vegetables such as beans. Sometimes refreshing green yogurt soup called shafut ("SHA-fuht"), made with sour milk mixed with chili beans (!) and herbs, is poured over bits of bread and eaten in the afternoon.

A typical desert is bint-al-sahn ("bintal-SA-han"), a sweet bread made from eggs. This is dipped in a mixture of butter and honey.

The world-famous Yemeni coffee from the port of Mocha is not as commonly drunk as tea because it is more expensive Instead, people drink a flavorful brew known as qishr ("KU-shir"). The drink is made from ground coffee husks and ginger. For those who prefer a stronger coffee, there is bunn ("BUN"), a traditional coffee made straight from the beans. For Yemenis the perfect end to a meal is tea in small glasses, usually very sweet,and sometimes flavored with cardamom or mint.


lamb or chicken stock
1 cup finely chopped boiled lamb or chicken
1 cup boiled lentils or beans
1 egg,beaten
1 tablespoon chopped coriander leaves
1 recipe quantity of hilbah (see below)
1 cup boiled rice/potatoes/wedges of flat bread
Boil the lamb stock then add chopped meat and vegetables. Thicken the soup with a well-beaten egg. Then add coriander leaves and bring to a boil again. Put the hilbah mixture on top and serve immediately with rice, potatoes, or flat bread


1/4 cup ground fenugreek
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tomatoes,chopped
1/2 cup chopped onions
1/2 teaspoon salt
a small pinch of turmeric,saffron, cardamom, and caraway seeds
To make hilbah, pour a cup of boiling water over fenugreek and let it steep for three hours. Drain off the water,beat fenugreek with garlic, tomatoes, onions, salt, and spices" (pp.120-121).


Landscape, Climate, Flora, Fauna,Cities
Pre-Islamic civilization, Decline of the kingdoms, The spread of Islam, The Europeans and the first Ottoman occupation, the British in South Yemen, The second Ottoman occupation , Consolidation of the Zaydi Imamate, Formation of the Yemen Arab Republic, The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, Unification of the two Yemens
The constitution, The institutions of government, The legal system, Political parties and civil war,Political outlook
The challenge of development,Agriculture, Natural resources, Industry, Energy and transportation, Trade, Finance, The environment
Population, The Arabs, Yemeni Jews,Social structure, Rural/urban divisions, Men's wear, Women's dress
Social values, The pace of life, The family, Children, Arranged marriages, Education, Health, Inside a tower house
The Prophet, Sunnism and Shi'ism, the Koran and the Hadith, The Five Pillars of islam, The mosque,Prayer and daily life
The Arabic language, Letters and numbers, Writing, Speaking, Body language, Media
Poetry, Calligraphy, Architecture, The art of house-building, Silverware, Decorative weapons, Dancing,Music and song, Contemporary trends
Games, Sports, Bathhouses, Men's gatherings, Women's gatherings
Religious occasions, Ramadan and fasting, Feasting, Secular holidays, Day of National Unity, Agricultural festivals, Weddings
Yemeni cuisine, The kitchen, Meal patterns, Table etiquette, Favorite foods and drinks
Map of Yemen......122
Quick Notes......124

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