Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Yemen: Forgotten for a Thousand Years

فن العمارة اليمن
Source: Anas Abbas

Saba Hamzah

I stopped writing in Arabic for some time. During that period, I was studying Art History in Europe. I always thought that I wouldn’t suffer a culture shock when I moved to live in a European country since I had moved from country to country, which allowed me to see another side far from Yemen.

As expected, I didn’t experience any kind of culture shock when I arrived in the Netherlands. If we exclude the simplicity of the people and their passion for life and their obsession with working and studying until their last breath. What did shock me and forced me to feel my country that had a place in my heart as if I were calming a premature baby, was the history of life and art.

I, who had never visited a museum in my life, barged into history through its widest doors. On my first visit to a museum I was walking straight toward the past. In the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam, there on the second floor toward the north side was a large hall full of maps drawn by the Dutch during different centuries, specifically the 16th and 17th centuries. I headed to the world map drawn by one of the most famous mapmakers in the Netherlands, Willem Blaeu. Apart from the grandeur of the piece of art that covers half the wall, I went searching for Yemen.

There she was, I found her, an orphan, of who the world only knew Aden and Zabid, even though her area covered almost the entire Arabian Peninsula. I felt sad because, despite going back 400 years in history, I did not feel that it was any different today. Yemen is still forgotten, and the reasons are still the same. The only thing that has changed is that its size has diminished on the map and its enemies have multiplied. But the main reason for the lack of progressiveness, the ongoing conflicts and the regressive mentality they take toward life, is because its people are blind to the fact that Yemen is a country for everyone, and no one has the right to monopolize its government and its people.

“I realized from this experience that a person’s identity and history have an effect on us, I also learned how to appreciate the art that is present in everything around me, and I knew full well that my return to the kitchen was for that same reason.”

On the same day we went to visit Rembrandt’s home, the most famous Dutch artist, which was later turned into his personal museum. There, I felt a lump in my throat, standing in front of his magnificent paintings and the sketches hanging in his workshop, and seeing the marine creatures he was collecting to study. I became anxious, I began to curse the day that the Yemeni’s welcomed Imam Zaid and the ideology of Imam Zaid.

That extremist ideology that separated us from the world for more than a thousand years. I sent the map to a friend of mine who shares my feelings of extreme love and hate, the love of Yemen but hatred of our loyalty to it. What has Yemen accomplished in the past thousand years? I was asking him yet knowing for sure that he would say nothing but conflict, but he mentioned some landmarks and monuments from the era of the Rasulid and Tahirid states, such as the Cairo Citadel and the Amiriya School. Then I asked him directly: “Tell me, is there at least one painting?” And he answered, no!

I returned home heartbroken; I wasn’t only shocked by history, but I was disappointed. Why God, why did you leave us on the margins of the world, on the margins of the map, on the margins of history and on the margins of education?

yemeni architecture
Source: Anas Abbas

When I was in Rembrandt’s house, I took pictures of the kitchen, the oven, the pottery, the concrete floor and the gray walls, only those things represented something I know. So, after visiting every room in the house, I went back to the kitchen as if I conspired with history, customs, traditions and the higher Arab and western mentality at that time: that women belong in the kitchen. But I was wrong that wasn’t the reason!

The next day, I woke up sluggish, I wished I could miss the trip to the museum. I didn’t want to be disappointed again. There at the Katherina Convent Museum, which would later become the first museum where I would give the introductory tour to Dutch and foreign visitors, is where I discovered what drew me to Rembrandt’s kitchen.

Katharina Convent was a nunnery and a hospital, and then it was converted into a museum in the twentieth century. The museum holds artwork from the Middle Ages to the present day, including Catholic and Protestant artifacts, which reflect the historical changes that the Netherlands witnessed and their impact on culture and society. The museum contained ancient bible manuscripts, hymn books, sculptures, metal utensils, jewelry from churches, and paintings by many artists.

In the Katharina Convent, I regained my self-confidence slightly, I started speaking louder and changed my tone. The professor who accompanied us on the trip even asked: “It seems that you have found something that you like?” I answered with a smile: “Yes! For the past two days I have been feeling resentful because my people have lagged behind in civilization for a thousand years.”

Sanaa yemen
Source: Anas Abbas

She interrupted me: “But your people know technology, isn’t that strange?” I told her that I agree and that I no longer see the issue in such a negative way, and that my view today has completely changed, especially after my conversation with a Buddhist colleague who studies with us. I told her that museums are truly a western concept, and as soon as I set foot in the museum’s first hall, I began to recall all the historical places I have visited with my father.

In Yemen, we don’t care about museums but in every household there’s a piece of art. I opened my phone and showed her the old pictures of Sana’a that I keep and the pictures of Shibam Hadramout and Tarim, and I told her that these are living museums, people still live here. Art is in every piece, in every stone, in the engravings, the lunates and colored plaster that cover the walls in every home. What we truly lack is how to preserve these cultural treasures and artifacts and how to learn to respect them.

When we went up to the second gallery, where there were a lot of paintings, I wasn’t upset like I was in the earlier days, as I realized that every nation has its own art and that I was naïve to think that we are a nation that does not know art just because we do not have oil paintings!

I realized from this experience that a person’s identity and history don’t have an effect on us, I also learned how to appreciate the art that is present in everything around me, and I knew full well that my return to the kitchen was for that same reason. There I found the engravings on the clay pots, the simplicity in the walls and floors, the designs in the cooking utensils and the colorful reflections on the wall, I appreciated the art hidden in that place away from the oil paintings that filled the entire walls of the house.

I feared nothing more than I feared that all the lessons my father gave us about the great history of Yemen would turn out to be a mere illusion and that, in comparison with other civilizations, we are very primitive. But I returned to the starting point where my love for this country met my hatred for those who hide behind religion to manipulate people’s minds. I am sure that one day we will defeat them, and we will visit the ruins of their ideas in museums so that our children will learn that we are able to live in one country, regardless of our different religions, sects or ethnicities.

We will keep our beliefs in our homes and walk in the streets naked of any form of discrimination. We will find time to visit history after we’ve tightened our grip on the present, and I will remember my boldness as I write this blog and laugh!


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