The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (3 page)

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
6.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

I WAS TEETERING
on a ladder, under siege by my outfit. The long black skirt I’d bought back in Manhattan wrapped itself around my legs every time I took a step and the scarf kept slipping off my hair. Altogether too much material was swirling around me. I clung to the ladder with one hand and pulled at my drapery with the other.

I was standing between two roofs of a tall gingerbread house in Sana’a. It was my first morning in the country—my first morning in any Arab country, for that matter—and my first time attempting to dress like a Yemeni. The building I was climbing belonged to Sabri, the amiable director of the Yemen Language Center, and housed his apartment, a dozen or so students of Arabic, and, temporarily, me. I needed a place to stay while teaching a three-week journalism workshop to the staff of the
Yemen Observer
, and Sabri had kindly accommodated me.

Having landed in the middle of the night, I had no idea what Sana’a looked like. All I remembered from the hazy, nausea-inducing car ride from the airport was a series of bright storefronts, wheelbarrows brimming with mangoes, and
men
. Hundreds and hundreds of men. Men in long white robes (called
thobes)
with daggers dangling from ornate belts; men in Western suits; men in patterned
foutahs
, traditional Yemeni man-skirts.

There had been no other women on my flight, and I saw none at the airport. I found this most peculiar and striking. Yemen seemed to be a land without women.

Sabri was leading me up the side of his house to show me one of his favorite views of Sana’a. The bright early-summer sun sailing up the sky made me squint as I climbed, and I resisted looking down until I had managed to haul myself—and several yards of black fabric—up the last rung of the rickety ladder and staggered to Sabri’s side. I was out of breath. Sana’a lies at 7,218 feet above sea level, and you can always tell who the foreigners are by who is panting on the stairs.

I stood next to Sabri on the flat, dusty rooftop and gazed around me. Sand-colored mountains rose from the plain in every direction. Having spent my formative years in Vermont, I have always found the sight of mountains enormously reassuring, and this morning was no exception. Below us stood the fantasia in gingerbread that is Sana’a’s Old City, a cluster of tall, square, cookie-colored homes trimmed with what looked like white frosting, surrounded by thick, high walls. Sabri pointed out some of the more prominent of the city’s hundreds of mosques, liberally sprinkled across the city in every direction, their slender minarets thrust perpetually toward God.

Sabri’s house stood just outside of the Old City, on September Twenty-sixth Street, named for the date on which the Yemen Arab Republic was officially formed in 1962 (sparking civil war that lasted until 1970). As I stared silently at the improbable landscape, Sabri carried on, explaining to me which direction was north (toward Mecca) as well as the locations of various neighborhoods, hotels, and major streets. He also pointed out the antennas for his wireless Internet, on a roof below. He was particularly proud of these.

I was overcome with gratitude for Sabri. When I had shown up on his doorstep close to midnight the night before, reeling with disorientation, he had rushed downstairs to welcome me with the sprightliness of a woodland faun. In his early forties, Sabri was slim, dark-eyed, curly-haired, and quick to dissolve into laughter. Even better, he seemed delighted to see me.

June was the busiest time of year for Sabri’s school, and most of the rooms were full, so Sabri had given me a room in his personal quarters.

“I took a look at your face and in your eyes, and I decided I could trust you,” he said to me. “We make instant judgments, we Yemenis. And then we open ourselves completely. In New York, maybe you do not make such instant hospitality. But I could tell you were a good person, and I like your sense of humor. And also it is good that you are not young.”

“Not young?” It’s the jet lag, I wanted to say. Usually I look much,
much
younger.

“I mean, not twenty-two.”

Well, that was true enough. I was thirty-seven, an age by which many Yemeni women are grandmothers.

Up about fourteen flights of uneven stone stairs, in my plain little white room near the top of the house, I was enormously relieved to find a wooden double bed, a desk, a closet, a chest of drawers—things I recognized. The bathroom, complete with a tub, was just across the hall. It looked like paradise. I don’t know what kind of dwelling I had expected, perhaps a straw mat on a floor in a hut with no shower. But I hadn’t expected this.

Sabri’s quarters were palatial, particularly to a Manhattanite. The kitchen was about the size of my one-bedroom apartment, if not larger, and had all the modern conveniences, including a fancy espresso maker from Italy, a dishwasher, a microwave, and shockingly, even a wine collection. I had none of these things in New York. I didn’t even own a toaster or a television. Next to the kitchen was a wide hallway hung with paintings by Sabri’s German wife, from whom he was separated. Past that was his office. Between this floor and the floor where I was staying were Sabri’s bedroom suite and his personal bathroom, which included a Jacuzzi. When I woke that morning, Sabri made me espresso, which we drank at his king-sized wooden dining table, the sun streaming in through the stained glass windows all around us. He had plants everywhere. Thick, leafy vines climbed around the whitewashed mud walls of the rooms in search of light.

Then he took me to his roof.

THE SKY AROUND US
was a clear, cloudless blue. Still wobbly from my twenty-four-hour journey, I inched slowly along the edge of the roof, letting my headscarf slide down and trail in the dust, and peered at the streets seven stories down. Tiny men in white below walked by in pairs, holding hands, as children in bright greens and pinks and yellows careened from side to side in the alleys, calling to each other.

Then I saw a woman. She was the first I had seen since my arrival. Completely shrouded in black, she looked like a dark ghost drifting by on the street below. The sight sent an unexpected shudder of fear and revulsion through me. Her features were utterly erased. She was invisible. I was immediately ashamed of my instinctive horror and relieved that I had seen her from the roof, where she could not sense my reaction. I said nothing to Sabri and took a steadying breath. The furnishings of his well-appointed house had felt so familiar, I had nearly forgotten I was in a place so utterly foreign.

BEFORE I LEFT NEW YORK,
several friends and colleagues had asked me if I would wear a
burqa
in Yemen. This is always one of the first things Americans ask me about Yemen. The various Eastern ways of swaddling women are perhaps the most perplexing and problematic part of Muslim culture for westerners.

“The women in Yemen do not wear
burqas,”
I said. This much I had learned. When westerners think of
burqas
, they generally envision the Afghan
burqa
, which is a one-piece garment that covers the entire body and has a grille over the face so the woman can peer out. Here, women instead wear a black
abaya
or
balto
. An
abaya
is a wider, fuller garment that is pulled on over the head, whereas the narrower
balto
has buttons down the front. Both garments are worn over clothing, like raincoats, and do not cover the head. Underneath, almost every Yemeni woman I would meet wore Western-style jeans and T-shirts.

In addition to these robes, almost all women wear a black headscarf called a
hijab
over their hair and a swath of black fabric called a
niqab
, which reveals just the eyes, over their faces. All of these terms
—abaya, niqab, hijab, burqa
—have shifting definitions depending on what country you’re in. Some Muslims use the word
abaya
to mean a garment that includes the head covering, so that it is nearly interchangeable with the Iranian
chador
. And a
niqab
is also referred to as a
kheemaar
.

None of these garments is required by law in Yemen, which is one of the more (officially, anyway) liberal Muslim countries when it comes to the covering of women. Nor is the veiling of women mandated by the Holy Qur’an. Yet the social pressures to veil oneself are enormous. A Yemeni woman daring to venture out without cover is often harassed by men, who order her to cover herself, call her a shameful whore, and worse. Like many practices in Yemen, it is a cultural tradition dating back centuries rather than a religious rule. But the roles of culture and religion are often confused, by outsiders and Yemenis alike.

The tradition of veiling can be traced back to the Hadith of Sahih Bukhari. The Hadith is a document that contains the teachings of the prophet Mohammed, and Bukhari’s interpretation is often considered the standard, although there are several others.

According to the Hadith, “My Lord agreed with me (‘Umar) in three things … And as regards the veiling of women, I said ‘O Allah’s Apostle! I wish you ordered your wives to cover themselves from the men because good and bad ones talk to them.’ So the verse of the veiling of the women was revealed” (Hadith, verse 1, book 8,
sunnah
395).

Like many westerners, before I came to Yemen, I thought of the veil as an oppressive practice that kept women from being who they are. But the women I would meet in Yemen often told me the opposite was true. These women consider their coverings a statement of identity, an important defense against men, and a source of freedom.

The
hijab
is not to keep women from looking too alluring, one woman told me. “It is because I respect myself. And when the beauty is hidden, the more important things rise to the surface.”

My initial reason for covering my head was simple: I wanted to fit in. I stood out enough, with my blue eyes and pale skin, and it didn’t seem wise to call even more attention to myself by allowing my waist-length hair to fly about unfettered. I also wanted to demonstrate respect for my host culture, and the head scarf was a way of broadcasting that I knew how things were done here and that I was happy to play by the rules.

So I had arrived with a suitcase full of long black skirts, long black Indian blouses, and a black head scarf. My friend Nick coached me through these purchases, as I have a morbid fear of shopping. The head scarf we bought had actually been a dressing-room door in a small boutique, and Nick had talked the owner into selling it to me for $10. “It’ll be just perfect,” she said, holding up the length of dusty black cotton. “Once it’s cleaned.”

But while I planned to cover my head when I left the safety of Sabri’s house, I had never considered covering my face. To have cloth over my nose and mouth gives me an intense feeling of claustrophobia. The thought of the heat of my breath being pushed back against my skin all day long made me queasy. I was already having enough trouble getting oxygen at this altitude.

And I had to wonder if there wasn’t also a bit of vanity involved. I didn’t know how to be
me
without my face. I suddenly felt terribly shallow. I wanted people to know what I looked like. It mattered to me. Perhaps these Yemeni women were simply more evolved than I was, not needing to flaunt their features. Imagine, though, going years on end without anyone outside of your nuclear family telling you that you looked pretty!

BOOK: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky
6.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Gold in the Grave by Terry Deary
Wartorn: Resurrection by Robert Asprin, Eric Del Carlo
Finding Faith by Reana Malori
Gold by Darrell Delamaide
All the Feels by Danika Stone
Blood Safari by Deon Meyer
Yaccub's Curse by Wrath James White