Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Day 32 (Cont'd): Shihr

Bism Allah.

We set off for Shihr around noon, and I decided to go with my family in their car so we could stop on the way and visit some more walis—'ibn Ismail and Ahmed ibn Mohammad Al-Haddar. (The driver also had one of those weird fur things on his chair just like the one driver who drove us to Tarim so I realized it must be a cultural thing). We drove through the souq (market) of Makkala, and it looked like a wannabe Khan El Khalili/ Souq el-Gomaa (the Egyptian equivalent of Portobello market), albeit with men playing cards rather than smoking shishas and playing backgammon.

The further away we got from Makkala, the more I realized how cosmopolitan it was (by Yemeni standards)—no mud houses in Makkala, and the niqab rule isn't as rigid (we rebelled a little bit yesterday and opened the door to the room service guy without it). After passing by a group of scary looking headless palm trees, and a lot more beach-looking sand we made it into Shihr.

Shihr is a lot like Tarim, and in fact they call it the sister of Tarim (which is called the daughter of Medina), as well as the city of so'd (happiness). Same mud houses and same stark environment, but minus the blistering heat and plus cute looking flowery curtains that look strangely out of place on the windows. It was actually unexpectedly windy there, and nice cool wind, not the hairdryer type wind we get in Tarim.

Our first stop of the day was at the school of Khadija al-Kobra, named after Prophet Mohammad's first wife. A teacher introduced the school to us: it's 8 years old, and the 200 students are taught in six subjects. In those eight years, 50 students have learnt the entire Qur'an by heart mash'Allah. The school was built to "revive hearts with the light of Islam," since after the British were expelled the country was under communist rule for a quarter of a century, which led to deterioration in the understanding of Islam.

The teacher who explained this to us had beautiful Arabic skills. I know that's not linguistically correct to say, but it’s the word that fits. Truly, Arabic is a beautiful, eloquent, expressive language. Compared to it English is so restrictive and crude.

We were late so all the students had gone home, but we were greeted so so enthusiastically by the teachers, who sang us up the stairs. I don't know if it's in the air or maybe because they've had so much practice, but almost all the women here have beautiful voices.

Subhan Allah they had prepared a whole program for us, and gave us the VIP treatment. They welcomed us and performed a short piece for us in English (which I'm sure took them ages to prepare), sang us nasheeds, gave us dates that melted in our mouths and Tang-tasting juice, and fed us a feast of chicken and rice.

They also gave each of us a green silk sash they had personally made, embroidered with yellow and with the shahada written in calligraphy on it. And on each one they had pinned a little piece of paper they'd laminated with ribbons hanging off of it. The piece of paper said that this was a present from the school.

Again, as I've said so many times, I can't get over the kindness of people here; you will never feel like a stranger in this country, where people greet you like long-lost relatives.

We then made our way back to the bus, and passed by a stage being set up for a wedding. This big group of women passed by us, and although they were all wearing niqab, you could see their made up eyes with blue eyeshadow, and dresses peeking out from under their abayas :)

We then made our way to a huge courtyard, where Habib Umar was supposed to give us a lecture. We entered and (as bad as this sounds), my heart jumped—the sight of hundreds of women dressed from head to toe in black (with niqab) turning to see us enter was just scary. At the same time, it looked almost like something you'd see in a National Geographic picture.

As to why at least half the women were wearing niqab in a women only setting—turns out in Shihr unmarried women don't show their faces to married women. And for some reason most of the women with uncovered faces had bright lipstick on.

But if everyone starting at us wasn't uncomfortable enough, Habib Umar's lecture was cancelled, and the woman decided that some of us telling our 'stories' would be a good way to pass the time. Eva (the Bulgarian convert), bless her, was brave enough to get up, only she was too overcome to talk much. And mash'Allah some of the women started crying because she was crying, without even knowing her story or what she's gone through, calling her a meskeena (pour soul).

It's scary how hard and dead our hearts have become. It takes a lot to make me cry, and even then I wouldn't cry in public. I can't imagine my heart being so sympathetic and so unselfish that the pain of someone else could be reflected in me like a mirror.

After Eva finished Ustadha Moneeba motioned to Choclit to come up, only she was too shy to go. So she motioned to me, and Choclit and I kind of encouraged each other to get up. Choclit told her story, and I translated. And truly, speaking to those women was scarier than giving the graduation speech in my commencement ceremony to a couple of thousand people. Scarier than speaking in front of Habib Ali and Dr. Ramadan al-Bouti in the Litaarafuu conference in Abu Dhabi following the Danish cartoon crisis. It was scarier because it was a huge responsibility to try and faithfully convey to those women Choclit's story and her bravery in a way that would reach their hearts.

After that, we made our way over to the central mosque, where the mawlid was going to be held after maghrib. I needed to renew my wudu'u (ablution) and there was nowhere for women to do so in the mosque so one of the women took me to the nearest house and we knocked on their door. I'm trying to imagine someone knocking on my door and telling me they need the bathroom, and what my reaction would be. Somehow, I don't think it would be "come right on in."

The mawlid began with a number of men giving short five minute lectures about the isra' and mi'rag. I was feeling kind of tired and was thinking of dozing for a bit when two of my housemates came to me and asked me if I would mind translating for them. I said ok, and I am so glad I did, because (and I say this because I know myself), if I'd let myself doze I probably would have missed half the lectures.

But because I was translating, I had to concentrate 150%. One, because the Arabic they were speaking was classical Arabic, and two, because the Yemeni accent is hard to understand. But even though it turns out there was a real translator who would have explained things to them so much better than I did, elhamdulela I think I did ok, and now I realize how difficult simultaneous translation is.

And who would have thought that I could possibly translate one of Habib Umar's lectures (which was incredible by the way), which I could barely understand a month ago?

Unfortunately we had to miss out on the actual nasheeds, since they aren't going to start until after fajr. We prayed 'isha behind Habib Umar for the first time, and the girls then made their way back to Khadija al-Kobra (the school) to have a light supper, while I made my way back with my family so we could stop and get pizzas for everyone from Pizza Hut, the one and only fast food restaurant in the city! On our way back we passed over the bridge that overlooks the canal filled with sea water, and there was a concert with hundreds of men gathered—I'm guessing it was a nasheed concert to celebrate the isra' and mi'rag. I also saw a Hummer, which looked really out of place.

But more importantly, pizza was gooooooooooooooooooood. And garlic bread was fantaaaaaaaastic.

I also stopped at the lobby and the souvenir shop was open. I ended up buying an English magazine titled Yemen Today, which was surprisingly very good. Not a patch on Egypt Today(where I work :)) but good.

It's 1:30am now, and we have an optional visit to a secluded beach right after fajr. But—as the Brits here say—I'm 'knackered,' so I'm not sure I'm going to be able to wake up after just two hours of sleep, but I will definitely try.

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