Culture of Yemen

Yemen is a culturally rich country. The formidable architecture with its unique houses has been seamlessly integrated into the spectacular landscape. Poetry and literature are not classified or written down, but passed on orally to new generations, enriching the language with many sayings and proverbs. Popular culture has a rough, masculine edge to it, but the Yemeni language and speech are rather eloquent and poetical.

Landscape and Architecture

Yemen is an impressive country. The most striking feature is undoubtedly its architecture. Houses seem to hang from rocks at the most unlikely places, blending in with the steep and spectacular landscape. Western architects typify Yemeni architecture as lacking a plan, but built by excellent craftsmen. Each house has been adapted to its surroundings, both as regards used materials as well as in form and dimensions. As a result, each Yemeni house is unique.

The architecture is very divers. Rock is used in the higher mountains. In Sanaa, the hundreds of five-storey houses (lower part rock, higher storeys baked bricks) fiercely compete in height. Each has a mafraj – a penthouse-like guest room with panoramic views and covered in mattresses and pillows – on top. The other rooms have smaller windows, crowned with a qamariyyah, an arch made of gypsum (or expensive alabaster) and coloured glass. Whitewashed gypsum – which has be renewed every other year – decorates the outer walls. Massive wooden doors, with elaborate carvings and decorated with metal, give entrance to low, cool stairways. In between the housing blocks there is room for trees and vegetable gardens.

Mud is used as a building material in the lower mountain areas and plains. In Saadah and its surroundings, groups of trapezium-type houses easily blend in with the colour of the earth, resulting in a unity of tone much like the mud architecture of Djenne, Mali. It is possible to walk across the clay wall surrounding Saadah. The houses it protects are soberly decorated with bands of white plaster. Masterpiece of Yemeni architecture is Shibam, once the capital of the Hadhramawt, and nicknamed Manhattan of the desert. Shibam boasts the world’s first skyscrapers, which are made out of mud bricks, and are up to seven storeys high. Shibam has been designated a world heritage site, with constant restorations under way to protect the city from ruin. In fact, many of the Yemeni architectural masterpieces are constantly being restored as mud and gypsum washes away with the rain and wind. As a result, the restorers are reinventing traditional architecture and training new generations in age-old skills. Funding is usually provided by foreign donors, as maintainment often proves too costly. Restoration of the famous Ashrafiyya Madrassa in Rada was completed in 2006, but many historic buildings throughout Yemen, including a large number of domes and whole citadels, are on the verge of collapse, awaiting repairs and restoration.

Dress and Language

Yemeni men traditionally wear a thawb (also zannah, futah), a large cloth wrapped around their waist, held together with a broad, coloured belt and a dagger, and with a buttoned shirt and a jacket on top. You can tell which tribe a man belongs to and where he is from by the way the head cloth (or mshedda) is worn.
Most Yemeni women wear the niqab in public, some wear a burka. Urban women are clothed in black, rural women wear a more colourful dress and often only a hijab, or headscarf. Lately more and more urban girls and younger women are ceasing to cover their faces, wearing only a hijab instead.

All Yemenis speak Arabic, the northern part the Sanaa dialect, southerners the Taizzi or Adeni dialect. Up to half a million people in the eastern Hadhramawt – and the Hadhrami diaspora in East Asia – speak Hadhrami Arabic. Around sixty thousand people on the island of Socotra speak Socotran, which with its Indian, African and Portugese influences is more distinct from mainland Arabic. Most Yemenis do not speak any foreign languages. Mauritanian Arabic is similar to Yemeni Arabic. In fact, many believe that the North African Berbers are directly descended from the Yemenis. Many Saharan tribes claim descent from Bani Salim, who originate from Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Berber nomadic tribe of the western Sahara, the Lamtuna, claims descent from the old South Arabian kingdom of Himyar. Islamic Sevilla – called Ishbiliyah – was governed by Yemeni Arabs descendant from the Banu Lakhm.

Music and Dancing

Yemeni music is little known outside the country. There are no famous Yemeni singers, as the musicians and songwriters have little means to record and market their music. However, Yemeni songs are reportedly often ‘stolen’ by artists from the Gulf, registering Yemeni songs under their own name.

Music is widely played and songs are sung continuously during work and long taxi drives. Small orchestras often perform at ceremonies and other feasts. Instruments used are the ud, a selection of small drums and the flute. The singers usually remain seated. Dancers enter the floor halfway through the songs. They dance by walking rhythmically, usually in pairs, splitting up and coming back together. Often they take out the jambiyya dagger, mimicking a fight or some other incident. After the first round of the dance, the audience is gestured to join in.

The Art of the Language

Yemeni popular culture has a rather rough edge to it, possibly as a reflection of the roughness of life, climate and terrain. However, the Yemeni language and speech can be very eloquent. Conversations are loaded with proverbs and can sometimes turn into verbal jousts. This possibly reflects Zamil, a form of traditional tribal poetry, with pre-Islamic roots, in which short poems are made up on the spot or recited from memory. Tribal disputes, modern social conflict – many problems have been solved through the chanting of Zamil.

Most poems are not committed to writing. Yemenis do not read much, but they do have well-trained memories. Age-old stories and tales are passed on orally to new generations. The same applies to songs and poems.


Qat can be called a drug, or a social custom. The truth lies somewhere between enjoying high tea and smoking cannabis collectively. It is a drug in the sense that it leads to a periodic state of alert eagerness, just short of exaltation. Qat is always chewed collectively, and usually with close friends. Intense social interactions and lively conversations, and the singing and reciting of poems are the result.

Qat is simply a bunch of twigs of a shrub called Catha Edulis. The young leaves of the twigs are chewed slowly and pushed into one cheek. The residue is slowly absorbed through the natural watering of the mouth. Chewing takes up to a few hours, after which the exalted social chewer retreats into meditation. Traditionally qat was used by the well-to-do and only on weekends, or at special events. The use of Qat has increased manyfold since it has become widely available.
Qat has therefore become the dominant factor in Yemen. Qat dominates the economy, taking up half the available working hours and in many cases half of household expenditure. Qat dominates daily life as the whole country comes to a standstill after midday prayers, and people seek the company of friends to sit and chew together. Qat consumes half the country’s water supply. Qat employs a large number of people and furnishes the rural population with cash, while taking up more and more arable land. In short: Yemen has become qat.

The increase of the use of qat has many negative effects, from individual health problems to the paralyzing of the Yemeni economy. There are voices calling to limit the use of qat, but this has not led to concrete policies, as public support is very low.

Food and Drink

Yemeni restaurants are lively, busy places, with groups of men (women are seldom seen in restaurants) grabbing food from pots and plates placed in between them. Yemenis do not use cutlery, eating with the right hand is the norm. Food is often served on hot metal plates or in earthenware pots, heated by blazing flames, and is delivered boiling. Waiters preferably shout their orders somewhere in the direction of the kitchen. Eating takes no longer than ten minutes, after which everyone goes his way, which is usually to a qat session.

In the morning Yemenis eat a small plate of baked beans, or ful. At midday they eat a solid meal, as an important preparation for the qat session. Chicken, beef, and fish are part of the richer people’s diet, poorer people eat beans, more beans, kidney, eggs and bread. Vegetables are on most menus. Salta (see box) is a very popular Yemeni dish, notably in the North. In the evening Yemenis enjoy a small meal, the qat having taken away the feeling of hunger. Food stalls are found everywhere in the cities, offering a wide variety of seasonal food. Food in the rural areas is often limited to home-grown vegetables and cereals.

Salta is the most popular and probably the most authentic Yemeni dish. It originated in the north but is fastly becoming part of the menu in the south. The base of Salta is a dark stew, of which the ingredients vary regionally. Often it is made up of yesterday’s left-overs. A bitter, frothy green sauce, helba, is poured over the stew. Helba is made from fenugreek seeds, first beaten to powder and then left to froth with added water. The dish is served in a bowl hewn out of Saadah rock. These bowls are heat-proof – all dishes are presented literally boiling hot – and durable, even for Yemeni standards. Salta is considered the best preparation for a qat session.

Box: Recipe for Salta

First take a reasonable amount of (ground) fenugreek; dissolve it in water. Leave it for one hour. Then prepare meat or chicken soup. A special bowl called ‘Madr’ or ‘Makli’ is used to cook Salta. It is heat-proof. Place the empty bowl on the fire for five minutes. Then pour in some cooking oil, then some onions, to be followed by some fresh tomatoes. Mix everything well. Now add some pepper and one or two eggs. Then add some fresh potatoes. Mix well again; then add some soup as desired. Add some minced meat. The whole mixture is to be cooked for ten minutes. Remove the bowl from the fire. Remove some water from your fenugreek (called Hulbah) and pour it into the hot bowl. (Do not pour the fenugreek while the bowl is on the fire or else it will become bitter in taste.) The fenugreek will coagulate at the bottom of the bowl. Now mix in some citric acid. Keep on stirring until it is souped up. Add salt according to taste. Although it is the last course at lunch, it has to remain hot. People like it hot. (Yemen Times, September 2000)

Yemeni bread comes in various forms, always freshly baked and mostly as small pita-like breads or very light and small loafs. Noteworthy is mallouj, an immense, folded bread deliciously flavored with aniseed. Sweet doughry is not as common in Yemen as elsewhere in the Arab world. An exception is Bint al Sahn, a delicious desertcake made of thin layers of dough drenched in superior Yemeni honey, and covered with ghee.

Drinks are mostly limited to tea. Shahai ahmar (red tea) is strong, sweet black tea, flavoured with cloves or mint. Shahai halib is tea with sweetened condensed milk. Fruit juices are widely available in the cities. Coffee is drunk only occasionally, and is often flavoured with cardamon. Yemenis more often drink qishr, a light drink made from coffee husks and cardamom.


Yemen is not a very sportive nation. Soccer is played by Yemeni kids, in the alleys and streets of Yemen. There are hardly any sporting grounds or gymnasiums. In 2005, Yemen’s national football team was suspended by the fifa for alleged corruption within the National Football Union.

Yemen does compete in the Asian, Arab and Olympic Games. In the 2006 Asian Games a Yemeni Wushu player won a bronze medal. The Yemeni gymnast Nashwan al-Harazi won several medals in Arab and Asian Games, including the first ever golden medal won by a Yemeni, at the Arab Games in november 2007.

Banner: “She is from Aden. In Aden the people are more tolerant. I’ve heard they want to start training girls here in Sanaa next year. If I were to have a daughter, I would surely like to see her do gymnastics. Only, not here in Sanaa. People would say bad things about her.” Olympic gymnast Nashwan al-Harazi, on a female Yemeni athlete runner, also competing in the 2008 Olympics.

Yemeni Films

In 2005, the British-Yemeni director Bader Ben Hersi won the award for the best Arabic film at the Cairo Film festival with the movie A New Day in Old Sanaa, which was also the first Yemeni film shown at the Cannes Film Festival. Previously (2000) Bader Ben Hersi shot the documentary The English Sheikh and the Yemeni Gentleman, together with the author Tim Mackintosh-Smith.

Another filmproducer is Kahdija al-Salami, a Yemeni born woman living in France. Al-Salami has produced numerous documentaries and films, often focusing on the subordinant role of women in Yemeni society. Al-Salami herself suffered from abuse and rape when she was married off to an uncle as an eleven-year-old girl. However, Al-Salami managed to escape both the marriage and Yemeni society. At the age of sixteen she travelled to the US to study communication. Later she came to live, study and work in France.

Travellers to Yemen

There is a small stock of books on travels by foreigners toYemen. The famous Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta visited Yemen briefly in the early fourteenth century. The oldest Western report on Yemen is by two Spanish Jesuit priests, passing through Yemen in 1590 on their way from Goa to Ethiopia. More vivid is a book by Carsten Niebuhr (Travels in Arabia), a member of a group of scientists exploring the mysterious Arabia Felix in the eigtheenth century for the Danish king. Niebuhr was the sole surviver.

Early twentieth century a small wave of English travellers visited the eastern parts of Yemen which were under British rule. Freya Stark (The Gates of Arabia) explored the Hadhramawt extensively, Wilfred Thesiger (Arabian Sands) visited the empty quarter and the fringes of eastern Yemen. Other explorers include Hugh Scott, Harold Ingrams and the Dutch diplomat Van der Meulen. More recent are the books written by Tim Mackintosh-Smith (Travels in a Dictionary Land) and Kevin Rushby (Eating the Flowers of Paradise).

Banner: “I had already for some time practiced to live by good Arabic customs and therefore did not need knife, fork or spoon. He who can adapt to this way of travelling, and who is content to find nothing but stale bread in the local inn, he will surely experience as many pleasures as I myself have experienced.” (Carsten Niebuhr in Travels in Arabia)

Eleven Things to Do, Taste, Chew and See in Yemen


  1. Wander through Sanaa, and sip red tea at the Sa’ila afterwards.
  2. Have Silta, find a friend and get engaged in a qat session.
  3. Plunge into an afternoon hammam, come back out in the dark and wander through old Sanaa.
  4. Hike the Haraz mountains for a few days. For the more experienced: hike Jabal Bura.
  5. Take a taxi up to Shihara, and walk back down the next morning.
  6. Visit the Taizz Museum and travel to the top (3000 m.) of Jabal Jaber.
  7. Cross the eastern plain to the Hadhramawt and wander through Shibam.
  8. Visit the market at Bait al-Faqih, wander through Zabid and continue on to Al-Kokha, and swim in the Red Sea.
  9. Visit Socotra for at least one week.
  10. Sit on top of a Sanaa roof waiting to check-in for your nightly return flight.
  11. Go study Arabic for three months in Sanaa.