LOCATION: Republic of Yemen

POPULATION: 15.8 million


RELIGION: Islam; Judaism


Ancient Yemen was known as "Happy (or Fortunate) Arabia" because of its great wealth. Its riches were the result of both its location on the most important trade routes of the time—over land and sea—and its profitable trade in frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense and myrrh are made from resins from trees growing only in that area. They are used to make perfumes and incense used for religious purposes. They were rare and hard to obtain, and much sought after in the ancient world. Today, however, Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Yemen has seen many rulers come and go. The earliest-known advanced civilization in the region was that of the Sabeans, who called their land Saba (or Sheba ). They occupied the land around 1000 BC . The famed Queen of Sheba was a legendary Sabean ruler.

In modern times, Yemen has been ruled by Ottoman Turks and by Britain. These two powers drew a border between the north and south regions in 1905. The land remained divided into North Yemen and South Yemen throughout most of the twentieth century. After decades of wars and attempts at unification, North Yemen and South Yemen were united on May 22, 1990, becoming the Republic of Yemen. The main reason for unification was the discovery of oil along their common border in 1988. Rather than fight for rights to the oil, or split the badly needed income, the two countries decide to join and cooperate.


Yemen is located in southwestern Asia, on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by Oman to the northeast and Saudi Arabia to the north. The Gulf of Aden (part of the Indian Ocean) lies to the south of Yemen, and the Red Sea lies to the west.

Yemen's landscape is made up of mountains and highlands, deserts, and plains. Yemen is cut off from the northern countries of the Arabian Peninsula by vast stretches of desert, called the Empty Quarter. The 1994 census counted 15.8 million people. Less than 25 percent of the population lives in cities and towns.

The population of Yemen is increasing rapidly; it is expected to double within twenty years. More than half (52 percent) of the population is under the age of fifteen.


The official language of Yemen is Arabic. "Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn . Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum (Peace be with you) with the reply of Walaykum as-salam (And to you peace). Ma'assalama means "Goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is Afwan. "Yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a .

The numbers one to ten in Arabic are wahad, itnin, talata, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, tamania, tisa'a, and ashara .


Yemeni tradition says that Shem, the son of the biblical figure Noah, founded the city of Sana.

Another legendary figure is the Sabean queen Bilqis, better known as the Queen of Sheba. Legend says that she visited King Solomon of Israel (who ruled from 965 to 925 BC ) to establish friendly relations, since she and Solomon controlled the two ends of an important trade route. Her visit with Solomon is mentioned in both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles (the Old Testament and New Testament), as well as the Koran (the sacred text of Islam).

The Ethiopians believe that they are descended from a child born to King Solomon and Queen Bilqis. No one knows whether the Queen of Sheba actually existed. Queens did rule in Arabia at that time, so it is possible that she existed.


The ancient Yemenis were polytheistic—they worshiped many different goddesses and gods. In the seventh century AD , the Islamic revolution swept through the Middle East. The Persian ruler of Yemen at that time converted to Islam while the Prophet Muhammad (570–632) was still alive. Most Yemenis followed him and converted, too.

About 50 percent of the people of Yemen now belong to the Shafai sect of Sunni Islam. Some 33 percent belong to the Zaydi sect of Shi'ah Islam.


Muslim holidays follow the lunar calendar, moving back by eleven days each year, so their dates are not fixed. The main Muslim holidays are Ramadan, the month of complete fasting from dawn until dusk; Eid al-Fitr , a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; Eid al-Adha , a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the hajj ); the First of Muharram, or the Muslim New Year; Mawoulid An-Nabawi , the Prophet Muhammad's birthday; and Eid al-Isra wa Al-Miraj , a feast celebrating Muhammad's nighttime visit to heaven.

Friday is the Islamic day of rest, so all government offices are closed on that day. In Yemen, unlike in some of the neighboring Islamic countries, many shops stay open on Fridays.

Secular holidays in Yemen include January 1, New Year's Day; May 1, Labor Day; May 22, National Unity Day; September 26, Revolution Day; October 14, National Day; and November 30, Independence Day.


Weddings are occasions for much celebrating. First, there is the betrothal (engagement) feast, usually held on a Thursday or Friday. This is when the future groom and his father visit the bride's father to settle on a wedding date and bride-price. The wedding itself lasts for three days, usually from Wednesday through Friday.

The most public part takes place on Friday and is called the laylat az-Zaffa . Men have a qat party in the afternoon. They sit together and chew qat leaves (a mild narcotic) and smoke the narghile, or water-pipe. Women help to prepare the food.

In the evening, the men go to the mosque (the building in which Muslims worship). They return dancing and singing around the groom, who carries a golden sword. Then they feast on the wedding food, chew more qat, and smoke the narghile once again. Incense is passed around with blessings, poems are recited, a lute is played, and songs are sung.

Some of the women go to the bride's home to help her dress. A special make-up artist paints delicate designs on her hands and feet. Eventually, the men line up outside the groom's house. He walks with them toward the door, leaping over the threshold.

The men sing the whole time. The women climb up on the roof and begin making a high-pitched sound, called the zaghrada . The bride arrives at the groom's house later. The guests may or may not wait for her to arrive. Once the bride enters the groom's house, she becomes part of his family.


Arab hospitality reigns in Yemen. As they talk to each other, Arabs touch each other much more often, and stand much closer together, than Westerners do. Arabs talk a long time, talk loudly, repeat themselves often, and interrupt each other constantly.

The Arab sense of time is also quite different from that of the West. Schedules are loose and flexible, with the day divided not into hours and minutes but into "morning," "lunchtime," and "evening." There are no clocks in public places.


Yemen has been trying to improve living conditions for its people. In rural areas, where 75 percent of the population live, running water has been made available in most villages. Sewer systems have yet to be installed, however. The water is often polluted, and diseases such as dysentery are common.

Medical care is limited, if it is available at all. The government has begun to establish some rural medical clinics. Few children are vaccinated, so diseases such as measles and tuberculosis spread quickly. Malnutrition is widespread.

Buses and cars have only recently replaced camels and donkeys for transportation in the country. Although life in the cities and larger towns is better, conditions are still far below modern Western standards.


The nuclear family (parents and children), called 'ayla in Arabic, is the basic social unit of Yemeni society. Most families are large, with eight to ten members. Several generations of an extended family may live together in one home.

Men and women are separated in public. Women keep themselves veiled and fully covered when anyone but family is present. Most Yemeni women will not eat in public restaurants. More women are going to school and getting jobs outside the home today. However, the Islamic tradition of separating men and women makes this difficult.

The average age for marriage is twenty-two for men and eighteen for women. Sometimes girls marry as early as fourteen years of age. Parents usually arrange marriages for their children.

Divorce is fairly simple for both men and women. It carries no sense of shame, and it happens relatively often. Some 15 to 20 percent of Yemeni women have been divorced and remarried at least once in their lifes.

In rural areas, only one girl attends school for every ten boys. Yemeni universities now accept women as students, but men are still chosen first for admission.


Clothing styles in Yemen vary by region. In hot coastal regions, men wear a lightweight shirt with an embroidered skirt called a futa and a straw hat or other head covering. In the cooler highlands, they wear a calf-length shirt called a zanna with a jacket. Many men wear a belt with a jambiyya, or ceremonial dagger, tucked in at the waist. A man's jambiyya identifies his clan and is a symbol of manhood. Boys start wearing it at about the age of fourteen.

Women's styles are much harder to classify. Yemeni women like bright colors and lots of jewelry, especially silver. In Sana, many women wrap themselves in brilliant cloth imported from India, called sitaras . In the highlands, they wear baggy embroidered trousers called sirwals under their dresses. In eastern Yemen, women wear black robes and pointed straw hats to work in the fields.

Many Yemeni women throughout the country wear the traditional Islamic covering, the abaya— a loose black robe that covers the woman from head to toe—when they go out in public. The sharshaf— a black skirt, cape, veil, and head covering—is also worn by women throughout Yemen.


Shourba Bilsen
(Thick Lentil Soup)


  • 1 pound soup bones (beef or lamb)
  • 8 cups water
  • 2 cups brown lentils
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 cups stewed tomatoes
  • ¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro (the green leaves of an herb also known as coriander ), OR 3 tablespoons dried cilantro
  • salt and pepper to taste


Rinse soup bones and put into a large saucepan with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer. Add lentils, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook for 1½ hours, stirring every few minutes to prevent sticking. Makes 6 servings.

Adapted from Albyn, Carole Lisa, and Lois Sinaiko Webb. The Multicultural Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1993, p. 72.

12 • FOOD

The Yemeni diet is quite simple. Staples are rice, bread, vegetables, and lamb, with fish in the coastal regions. Breakfast is a light meal consisting of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, or a bean dish called ful, served with flat bread. Supper in the evening is similar.

Lunch is the largest meal. It generally consists of chicken, lamb, or beef, with cooked vegetables, and rice mixed with raisins and almonds. Flat bread soaked in buttermilk and covered with tomatoes, onions, and spices is served at almost every meal, as well as a spicy green stew called salta . Salta probably can be called the national dish of Yemen. It is made with meat broth, onions, tomatoes, mince meat, eggs, and hulba— a mixture of fenugreek (an herb) and grated leeks (which look like large scallions, or green onions). Sweet custards are usually served for dessert, with either tea or coffee.

Coffee originated in Mocha, a port town on the Red Sea in Yemen. It made its way to Europe on trading ships during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In Yemen, both the husks and the beans are used to make beverages.

Yemenis make a drink called qishr by steeping coffee husks in hot water, then adding ginger, cinnamon, and cardamom for flavor. Qishr is milder than bean coffee and is actually preferred in Yemen.

A soup that is popular in Yemen is shourba bilsen, made with lentils.


For much of Yemen's history, education was available only to the wealthy. The new constitution guarantees the right of all citizens to an education. The government has opened a number of public schools in large cities and towns. Rural areas still have only Muslim religious schools.

The literacy rate (proportion of the population that can read and write) continues to be very low. In the early 1990s, under 27 percent of Yemenis were literate. That average breaks down to about 46 percent of men and 7 percent of women.


Arab music can be rich, repetitive, and dramatic. The oud, or kabanj, is a popular traditional instrument. It is an ancient stringed instrument that is the ancestor of the European lute. Another traditional instrument is the rebaba, which has only one string.

A traditional Arab dance is the ardha, or men's sword dance. Men carrying swords stand shoulder-to-shoulder and dance. Within the group, a poet sings verses and drummers play the rhythm.

Islam forbids making pictures of the human form, so Arab art concentrates on geometric and abstract shapes. Yemen is famous for its silver jewelry. Stained glass and pottery are also important art forms. Calligraphy (ornamental writing) is a sacred art; texts from the Koran are the main subject matter.


More than half of all Yemenis are small farmers. In cities and towns, there is a very high unemployment rate. This was made worse in 1990, when Saudi Arabia threw out all of its Yemeni workers. Over 700,000 people lost their jobs and returned home. In 1992, thousands of refugees from Somalia arrived in Yemen, also looking for work.

Rural women have very heavy workloads. They do as much as three-quarters of the work in the fields. They are also responsible for fetching all the wood and water—which means carrying loads weighing fortyfour to fifty-five pounds (twenty to twenty-five kilograms) on their heads for long distances, often uphill. They also must cut alfalfa to feed the cow (it takes six to eight hours of work per day to care for one cow), do all the cooking and housework, and care for the children.


Soccer is the national pastime of Yemenis. Organized sports are rare, and Yemen has few athletes with enough skill to compete at an international level. Yemen has sent athletes to recent Olympic Games, but as of 1998 they had yet to win a medal. The Yemeni Cricket League finished its first season in 1995.


The favorite form of entertainment in Yemen is chewing qat leaves, a mild narcotic. Men gather every afternoon for qat parties that last until sunset. Women chew qat as well, but not nearly so much as men.

Women's afternoon gatherings are known as tafritas. At these, marriages are arranged, goods are sold, and information and experiences are shared.


Silver jewelry is one of the most important forms of art in Yemen. Other crafts include textiles, leatherwork, basketry, and stained glass.


The use of the narcotic qat is a problem in Yemen, although most Yemenis would disagree. Farmers are growing qat on land where they used to grow food because qat brings a much higher price. Once cultivated, qat leaves only retain their narcotic quality for a couple days. In addition, men spend so much time chewing qat that the women are left to do most of the work to provide for their families. Qat is legal in Yemen. However, it is considered an illegal drug in international markets, so it can not be sold outside the country.

The extremely high rate of unemployment is a tremendous problem. The economy is improving only very slowly, so it does not appear that there will be any significant growth in jobs in the near future.


Albyn, Carole Lisa, and Lois Sinaiko Webb. The Multicultural Cookbook for Students . Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx Press, 1993.

Chwaszcza, Joachim, ed. Insight Guides: Yemen . Singapore: APA Publications (HK) Ltd., 1992.

Crouch, Michael. An Element of Luck: To South Arabia and Beyond. New York: Radcliffe Press, 1993.

Dresch, Paul. Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hämäläinen, Pertii. Yemen: A Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit . Hawthorn, Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1996.

Wenner, Manfred W. The Yemen Arab Republic: Development and Change in an Ancient Land. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1991.


ArabNet. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide, Yemen. [Online] Available , 1998.

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