by Samira Ali BinDaair

As I was growing up outside of Yemen, in my early childhood days, I was filled with dreams of the homeland I had never seen. Tales of my grandfather’s adventures in Hadhramout where he worked with Sultan Al-Gaithi fired my imagination. The stories were certainly more exotic than the childish fairy tales I read. Moreover it was more real to me since it was my grandfather rather than Jack and the Beanstalk. My grandfather died before I was born, and all I saw of him were pictures of an imposing face with his Yemeni turban and descriptions of a hefty man who had to bend his head before going into any doorway; typical of Yaffais. Like him many Yaffais had settled in Hadhramout and considered themselves to be Hadhramis for all practical purposes. All these stories came from my grandmother as she spoke lovingly of the husband she had wed as a young girl.

Her stories included the silk gowns and satin beddings that he had bought her while in another breath she would suddenly lament that all he had brought her from his trip to India was a ‘maure’ (stone handmill). l would then look at her huge four-poster bed with its picture of a peacock at the headstead and imagine all the glory of the old days as I saw the faraway look on her face guessing she was going into memory lane with her bitter sweet thoughts for company. I was her constant companion as she painted romantic pictures of poetry and songs. notwithstanding the high mortality rates at the time which had made her lose a few of her children or the endless household chores and breadbaking at the ‘mofa’ (stone oven).

An unfulfilled journey to homeland

From my late father I had a different version of this homeland that he impressed upon my mind would be our final destination sooner or later. It was as if through that process he vicariously lived the dream of the Return of the Native without ever having read Thomas Hardy. He was quite a charismatic personality who had friends from different nationalities. Despite this fact, Arab nationalism was very much a part of our household and I heard about Jamal Abdul Nasser long before I understood anything about politics.

Saut al Arab was my father’s daily companion as he listened to the news. I remember asking my mother once who were those tall blue eyed Arabs who came to my father and were given assistance and she patiently explained to me that they were Palestinians but not until much later did I understand the whole issue of Palestine and what Arab nationalism had symbolized for my father then. Even today I can still recall the sounds that preceded ‘Huna saut al-arab” and smell the wafts of sweet tobacco emanating from my father’s pipe. Thus from my father I inherited my love for Yemen at a tender age not by his telling us anything about its topography or characteristics but by his constantly drumming into us the fact of our impending sojourn to the homeland. But time was not of the essence for it was not a timed plan of winding up our life in Africa but a declaration from the heart borne of nostalgia. Although he was a prominent and well respected businessman, perhaps he longed to be involved in public affairs in his homeland and to be within the mainstream of Arab society at a very dramatic time in their modern history.

Two contrasting images

I had a very different version of Yemen from some of the conservative Hadhramis who refused to send their daughters to school and married them off at the first proposal producing several children when they were children themselves. I contrasted this with my father’s joy when we did well at school and the fact that he never discriminated me from my brothers as he ceaselessly drummed into us the importance of education. Many years later I realized that my father had well known the difference between religion and bad social tradition that many Muslims today fail to do for he was a pious man who made sure that we were not only taught about religion but religious values formed an integral part of our upbringing, and from my father I learned a lot through example. Many girls in Yemen today are unfortunately deprived of their right to education and childhood.

I saw a different Arab world through the eyes of the one-sided history lessons in our English education and I could not associate the picture of a fat Omani Arab called Tipu Tib bin Sultan, a wicked slave trader who held a whip in his hand with my father’s Jamal Abdul Nasser or the fact that the domestic workers were treated as family in our household. But Alex Hailey had not written his Roots then, although Kinta Kunte was all around me in that beautiful paradise of my childhood. Many years later Edward Said had helped me to understand this process of looking at ourselves through western eyes in what he called “orientalizing the orient” in his book Orientalism. For I had read all the Western literature at a young age but had never heard of the great Muslim scholars like Ibn Rushd, Ibn Tufail and al-Jahiz, nor read Najib Mahfouzm Taha Hussein or Tayeb Saleh, the last who aptly describes this predicament in his book Season of Migration to the North. It wasn’t until I went to university that my long journey in search of myself began and this was definitely linked to my dream of Yemen directly and indirectly. People like me weren’t so lucky like this generation as I see my children having a grounding in both from an early age in a more rounded exposure to both worlds.

to be continued