beeswax, pine cones, redwood crosses


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.

"Sit!" she commanded, and began to scrub this infidel's body with inflamed religious fervor and a steel-wool pad.

In San`a, 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 and change

This 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.

After 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.

Murmuring 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.

Naked 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.

The 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.

A series of domed rooms led into a vestibule, where the women rinsed, relaxed, discussed personal issues and world affairs.

With a 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.

On the 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.

To hard-core feminists,Yemen 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 Sheba 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.

In 1990, with a stroke of a pen rather than a streak of bullets, the former North Yemen and the Marxist-Leninist South Yemen unified.

Aneesa 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.

"When it all gets too much, I run to Hammam Ali for a good steam," she said.

No one 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.

Remarkably, 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 identify Yemen as another French Riviera, and German families flock to San`a during the Christmas holidays for its healthy climate.

The 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 to Yemen 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 of Arabia ." 

(Traveling in Yemen with my bodyguard)

For an undiluted Arab experience, the Republic of Yemen is incomparable.

Travel in Yemen 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.

Not all 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."

A crowd gathered and everyone took sides in the argument. I walked away, unnoticed.

One Yemeni defended the display of weapons.

"It is part of our attire," he said. "A Yemeni without his jambia [dagger] is like an Oxford man without his tie."

Commenting 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."

To flout 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.

But life in Yemen has its consolations; the table tennis champ and about a hundred women rented a hammam for the day, to celebrate.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu observed in 1717 that the baths are truly the women's coffeehouse.

For 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 patriarchs.


If You Go



The Republic of Yemen is at the southernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The country shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Red Sea.

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 delights.

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 them.

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 U.S. passport with blank pages. The visa application is filled with the customary questions. Visitors to the Middle East 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 Republic of Yemen, Suite 705, 2600 Virginia Ave. N.W. , Washington, D.C. 20037. Phone (202) 965-4760 or fax (202) 337-2017.

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. 







  Yemeni girl

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