All my life I dreamt of returning to my birth place Sana’a. This is the place where I spent the first year of my life, and of course many summer vacations. Every now and then I fantasized about “returning” to a place I never really lived. I talked to friends about options for work, but then always failed to take the last step of actually moving. One day, I decided to move to Cairo, which rejuvenated me with its spirit of life. It is also the place where I met my soul-mate, Ben. It was Ben who gave me the final push to move to my Yemen.
Yesterday marked our one month “anniversary” of living in Sana’a. I came to Sana’a numerous times before, but this time it was different. Arriving with the mentality that we “moved” here and that my dream to live in my birth place came true, filled me with excitement, fear, and emotional reflection. This first month was very emotional for many reasons:
One, I am living in the family home where I was born. When I look out, I think about how my grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts all walked, ate, and slept in this same place. When I look at the room upstairs, I think about the very difficult labor that my mom went through. I can’t help but wonder what my life would look like if we had never moved. Would I be the same person I am today?
Second, I had such high expectations of what living in Yemen would be like. I hold our traditions and culture in a very high state, but now I am confronted with the reality that my beliefs are too idealistic for any people; and that, naively pains me.
Third, and most difficult is that I feel alien sometimes. Although Yemenis are VERY welcoming, I had expectations that I would fit in society right away. After all, I AM Yemeni, right? But how “Yemeni” am I? What is the index to measure Yemeniness? I think this index is the level of adherence to cultural norms and regulations, including gender and class roles.
For some things, I am very Yemeni. I speak the language fluently with a Sana’ani accent that I’ve been told is very good, especially for someone who never lived in the country. I love Yemeni food, enjoy qat every now and then, love Yemeni music, architecture, and love family gatherings. But at the same time, I am married to a French man, I have been traveling alone since I was 12, I smile in the street and talk to strange men, and I attend mix gatherings. This really confuses some Yemenis. Some of the more “educated” Yemenis and the “elite” of Yemen seem to accept all the above, what confuses them is that I take the dabbab (mini bus) on my daily commute to work, I love local grocery stores, I drink tea at the local tea market (with men), and God forbid I buy my own meat from the butcher. (good girls from a certain class should NOT go to the butcher).
So, it seems I don’t necessarily adhere to gender or class cultural norms of society, and therefore categorizing me based on my gender or class becomes extremely difficult, and it makes me an anomaly in this city of similarities and unchanged attitudes. The fact that I went against some traditions, not only confuses people, but also sometimes offends them. Nevertheless, I hope that my love for Yemen and Yemenis is enough to allow me to keep the title of “Yemenia”. I hope that my fellow Yemenis can understand that in this globalized world it’s not a contradiction to be be proud of my heritage, hold on to my individuality, and become a citizen of the world, all at the same time.