My family was telling our neighbour how they hadn't yet tasted Yemeni food and so she got her friend to cook us a traditional Yemeni meal: Rice cooked in a special clay oven called a meefa which cooks food over coal; meat that takes four hours to cook; qorooba, a special kind of potato; and roya, a salad made out of pineapple, apple, and cucumber with tamr hindy sauce. And all of it served with the traditional Yemeni red tomato sauce which turns out to be called beesbas.
And the woman had never even met us.
What's more, we told her we hadn't yet gone to visit any of the major Tarimi landmarks, and she gets her husband to take us. She doesn't know us, may have had something else planned that day, and yet she dropped everything for us. She asked us where we wanted to go, and we said to visit the grave of Sh. Abu Bakr Bin Salem, who was a great scholar who lived approximately 400 years ago. He was said to be so pious he didn't speak a word to anyone for 40 years, instead spending his time worshipping Allah. It's said he used to walk from 'Inat—where he lived and his gravesite is located—to Tarim every day. 'Inat is approximately 20 minutes out of Tarim by car. Sh. Abu Bakr's wird (litany) is one of the most famous ones there are being used to this very day.
And not only did the couple take us, but her husband acted as a tour guide explaining everything on the way to us. The view on our way there was gorgeous. It was a bit cramped in the car so I decided to sit in the trunk, but that way I got an even better view from out the back window. I know I saw the view on my way to Tarim, but I was so tired from traveling I wasn't really concentrating. It's a disconcerting thing to look out on one side and see humongous mountains and desert and dozens and dozens of palm trees and lush foliage on the other.
But I guess it makes sense when you realize that Tarim is essentially a giant system of wadis (valleys) that are irrigated by rainfalls. It's incredible to realize that now it is so so hot but then in the rainy season it rains so much you can't travel to Seiyum because the roads are flooded. It's even stranger to think that one day, a long long time ago, all of Tarim was under the sea.
So we visited the grave of the sheikh and his sons, and again, just like zambal, the graveyard is very peaceful. It was so quiet I could hear birds chirping—and for all we know they may have been doing their own dhikr.
The couple could have then thought "we've done enough," but no, they also took us to the sheikh's house, which is located in what looks like an alleyway straight out of Aladdin. The house is only one room and one bathroom, and has stood there for hundreds of years. The bed frame is still there, and each corner has a place where misk would be placed. I'm guessing someone has continued in the tradition, because it still smells like misk.
The couple then took us home in time for the mawlid and promised that insh'Allah they would show us all the landmarks in Tarim whenever we had the time. And these were people we had just met. Subhan Allah.
I also learnt today that people here get married very young. I knew they did--I read about this study conducted by Yemen’s Women and Development Study Centre that says that over half of women who marry in Yemen are under 15, but it didn't really register for some reason. I asked the Yemeni woman with us today how old she was, and she said in her early 30's. But, she added, she got married at 15, and so did her daughter, who got engaged at 11 to a man she never saw until her wedding night.
It seem so strange and alien to me. I'm 21, and yet to her second daughter, who asked me how old I was, I was a spinster: "my cousin is 21 with 5 kids," she told me. (And can I just add it's bad enough to get the spinster spiel from my grandma, let alone from a 14 year old?) To them, early marriage is a way of life, and I guess with the extremely segregated society it makes some sense to me.
But I can't imagine that at 15 I could have been married. I can hardly envision being married now and taking care of a house, husband and kids. Part of it, I'm sure, is that it takes us a lot longer to mature now. A 20 year old today is not like a 20 year old a half century ago.