One Tale in a Thousand
I was wearing nothing but a gold chain around my neck as
the fully dressed, saffron-headed woman shuffled toward
me. She pulled me by the hand through a maze of
underground passageways while I skated behind her on a
slimy stone floor, past mountains of shaved hair, into the
main steam room.
she commanded, and began to scrub this infidel's body with
inflamed religious fervor and a steel-wool pad.
the capital of Yemen, Islamic tradition prevails. For three days a week, women
are permitted to use the public baths (hammam) to wash and
purify themselves. In times past, visits to the bathhouse
gave women a chance to escape from their secluded
dwellings. In the hammam they could shed their veils and
remove the yards of swathing fabric from their bodies.
tradition of women's all-day rituals has continued
undisturbed. Today, however, the bolts of discarded cloth
reveal slinky silk dresses and startlingly sexy underwear.
hours of scouring, steaming and kneading, Saffron's beauty
treatment left me limp and pliable. I was touched by the
bath aide's willingness to share her beauty secrets with a
stranger. However, we arrived at an impasse when she tried
to pull the hair off my legs. Glaring ferociously, she
dumped gallons of water over my head and marched me off
down a sultry, sloping tunnel to an adjoining chamber.
women leaned against stone troughs ladling water on each
other. Others were busily examining their bodies for
ungodly hair. Islam determines even the details of
personal hygiene. It is considered a sin to have hair on
one's private parts. Numerous dipilatory concoctions have
been invented over the ages, and some women were applying
the current favorite, a candylike paste of lemon juice,
water and sugar.
women and children drifted out of the mist from an
adjoining subterranean passageway and kissed my hands in
the traditional Yemeni greeting. I became the center of
attention, and the source of much amusement, when the
women discovered my lamentably hirsute condition.
one-woman battalion of the hammam flopped her arms up and
down, shooing away the women around me. Like a magician,
she produced a bowl of hair-eating paste from under her
many petticoats, intent on performing my last
purification. My hysterical and pathetic Arabic stopped
her. She threw her hands up in disgusted resignation and
disappeared into a foggy tunnel.
of domed rooms led into a vestibule, where the women
rinsed, relaxed, discussed personal issues and world
lot of laughter and cackling, we exchanged cosmetics and
perfumes. After covering their faces and bodies with yards
of black fabric, one woman was indistinguishable from
another. I followed the dark figures up a musty granite
corridor to the vaulted stone entrance of the hammam, and
we stepped back into the outside world.
street, women become ghosts again. Heads are bandaged in
cloth to the eyebrows. A dark stretchy gauze covers them
from neck to nose. Others wear all-enveloping enormous
black cloaks with matching scarves through which they can
see without being seen.
resembles a throwback to the Neanderthal ages. Yet there
have been notable exceptions to the general rule of female
anonymity and subservience. The queen of
set out from Yemen
on her legendary journey to visit King Solomon. In 1091
Malika Arwa became head of state and ruled for 47 years.
She held the royal title, Al Sayyida Al-Hurra, meaning
"the lady who is free." Historians claim that
Arwa never made an important decision without first
visiting the bathhouse.
with a stroke of a pen rather than a streak of bullets,
the former North Yemen
and the Marxist-Leninist South Yemen unified.
Ghanem, herself something of an anomaly as a Yemeni
feminist writer and activist, observed that "the
unification of the two Yemens
has been good for the country. But previously achieved
gains for women in their former south have been
compromised. The new Family Law has set women back
centuries. Now, I must get the written permission of my
husband, father or close male relative in order to
travel," explained Ghanem.
it all gets too much, I run to Hammam Ali for a good
steam," she said.
can determine how many wars have rolled over the country's
volcanic terrain and desert dunes, but the periods of
warfare exceed the passages of peace.
life in the public bathhouses remains unchanged and
untouched by war. With peace relatively secure, the
government has launched a reconstruction program designed
to promote tourism. Europeans have already begun to
as another French Riviera, and German families flock to
San`a during the Christmas holidays for its healthy
State Department advises U.S.
citizens to travel only with an armed guard outside of
San`a. This is not a destination for the timid. The path
is no intercontinental exotica route,
and thrill seekers are still able to satisfy their lust
for the unexpected. Intrepid individuals in search of
the wild and primitive will find a long shoreline, high mountains, deep gorges
and vast deserts. Yemen
is known as the "green land
in Yemen with my bodyguard)
For an undiluted Arab experience, the Republic
has to be undertaken on Yemeni terms. Socializing with the
locals in the underworld of San`a is one way to bridge the
cultural gap. The 17 bathhouses are modeled after the
Roman baths and are 400 to 1,000 years old.
of these establishments welcome foreigners. At the baths
near the Taj Talah Hotel, in the old city, I was met by a
vigilant community elder. He wore typical Yemeni garb -
sports jacket over a long skirt, a 10-inch dagger around
his waist and a cartridge belt over his shoulders. He was
tall, his face profoundly wrinkled and the color of
obsidian. He told my Iraqi companion, "No Westerners!
First they bomb Iraq, and now they have come to destroy our hammams."
crowd gathered and everyone took sides in the argument. I
walked away, unnoticed.
Yemeni defended the display of weapons.
is part of our attire," he said. "A Yemeni
without his jambia [dagger] is like an Oxford
man without his tie."
on the shrouded women, he said, "The restrictive
clothing of our women has nothing to do with religion.
This is tradition, and tradition is our identity."
tradition this strong is no small thing. This year, for
the first time, the female table tennis champion of the
Arab and Asian worlds showed up for a tournament unveiled
and wearing shorts. The two males on the podium presented
her with the trophy in stony silence.
has its consolations; the table tennis champ and about a
hundred women rented a hammam for the day, to celebrate.
Wortley Montagu observed in 1717 that the baths are truly
the women's coffeehouse.
today's Yemeni women, the hammam is not only a convivial
social center, but also a forum for ideas that might
otherwise find no expression here in the shadow of the
is at the southernmost tip of the
Arabian Peninsula. The country shares borders
Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Indian
Ocean, and the
San`a, the capital of Yemen, is
about 2,000 years old and is 7,200 feet above sea level.
Mountains surround the city, and parts of the highlands
are volcanically active. Hot springs
can be found here.
San`a offers the widest variety of hotels in Yemen.
The 270-year-old Taj Talah Hotel is in one of the
largest preserved medinas (the old city) in the Arab
world and classified as a "world heritage" by UNESCO.
The hotel has a garden restaurant, helpful kitchen staff
and a roof garden overlooking San`a's architectural
The Taj Talah is the potpourri of the Arab world and
attracts an assortment of characters usually found only
in spy novels. Journalists, the New York Bombay incense
crowd, expatriates, mysterious Iraqi businessmen with
bulging briefcases, ex-politicians in hiding, and
Algerian artists looking for asylum. Carlo Schellemenn,
a famous German painter, lived at this hotel.
Singles, doubles, and triples cost from $12 to $20.
Hammam Yasir and Shukr are said to be the oldest (about
1,000 years) bathhouses in San`a. Hammam Al-Maydan was
built in 1598, and Al-Sultan a hundred years later. Most
of San`a's 17 bathhouses are in the old city.
Yemeni hammams are built according to a traditional
plan. Three warm and three hot pool rooms in adjacent
rows, each with a changing room, meditation or prayer
room, lobby, furnace room and boiler room. Hypocausts
and vents direct the heat. Hot water flows to the pools
from the well and boiler via a system of pipes. Outside
of San`a, hot springs
provide the heat.
Bathhouse visit memorable
Western visitors rarely visit the bathhouses in Yemen,
which is a pity since the experience is pleasant and
memorable. On your first visit, you may feel more
comfortable if you hire a local guide. There is no fixed
price for the bath. Guests pay the bath keeper according
to their wealth.
Most Yemenis go out of their way to help and advise
foreigners. In return they want visitors to respect
their way of life.
Children have been known to throw rocks at foreigners.
Do not make the mistake of getting angry or hitting
Men and women need to dress conservatively. Women should
wear head scarves and shapeless long dresses. Some
eateries may not serve a solitary woman. On buses, women
sit in the back and are not allowed in the bus-stop
cafeteria. Men bring the food to the women. This does
not apply to Western women. However, mimicking Yemeni
women socially puts everyone at ease.
American citizens need a visa to enter Yemen,
and it is easy to get one. Tourists with visas or border
stamps from Israel
will not be admitted. It is possible to apply for a second
passport with blank pages. The visa application is filled
with the customary questions. Visitors to the
are routinely perplexed about how to answer the question
"religion." It is perfectly safe to write your religion.
Stating "no religion" may not be acceptable.
For the latest information contact Embassy of the
705, 2600 Virginia Ave. N.W.
20037. Phone (202) 965-4760 or fax (202)
For the latest travel advisory and how to obtain a
second passport, call the Department of State in
Washington, D.C. at (202) 647-525 or the Consular
Affairs automated fax system at (202) 647-3000.