Sanaa in the 19th century

A city of gardens, Greeks and Turks

Often steeped in prejudice and fed by ignorance, travelogues penned by Europeans travelling to the Middle East between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries nevertheless remain fascinating for the cultural insights they provide. Renzo Manzoniʹs "Yemen: A trip to Sanaa" is a case in point. By Mohamed Shaaban

"The city is very beautiful; the houses are large and wonderful, fully built with cut stones and brownish-red bricks. Roads are wide and clean, people are elegant and dignified."

During 1877 and 1878 Italian writer and traveller Renzo Manzoni several months in what is today the capital city of Yemen. Manzoni was extremely charmed by the tolerance and peaceful nature of Sanaa's residents, which even extended to their dealings with the Ottoman ruling class. During his stay in the city, he did not witness a single clash between Yemenis and Turks.

The city was also home to a sizeable Greek population; the Greeks owned all kinds of stores, selling matches, cigarette papers, tins of sardines, paraffin lamps, mirrors, clothes and all kinds of alcoholic beverages. They had previously been employed in the excavation of the Suez Canal in Egypt. On leaving Egypt, they moved en masse to Sudan's Suakin, Massawa in Ethiopia (currently in Eritrea) and the Yemeni city of Hodeidah. Sanaa was their final destination where they arrived bearing the goods that were in such high demand among the Turks.

Manzoniʹs attention was also drawn by Sanaaʹs music composers, some of whom only produced religious hymns for private audiences. Others gave explicitly racy performances and were thus looked down upon. Musicians were generally itinerant and moved from one country to another, as the mood and the work took them. Most importantly, a Yemeni woman would never dare to sing and dance in public.

While visiting numerous houses in Sanaa, Manzoni could not help but notice that there was a large number of servants in every house. They were all treated very well, even though they worked very little. "The worst servant in Europe could do the work of four or five Arab servants in one day – on his own – without any particular effort," he said.

Cover of Renzo Manzoniʹs "Yemen… a trip to Sanaa" (published in Italian by ellint)
Under wraps: "rich and poor women of all ages wore the same dark cloaks and thus it was extremely difficult to speculate which women were well-off and which underprivileged. Manzoni, however, noticed that Sanaa's women would usually leave part of their feet showing, which tended to be a good indicator of age," writes Shaaban

Yemeni men were not allowed to hire female servants and vice-versa. Nor were castrated servants available in Yemen. Jews were forbidden from hiring Muslim servants although, according to Manzoni, Christians were seemingly allowed to.

Sanaaʹs women

While journeying from Aden to Sanaa the Italian writer had passed by many tribes, which prompted him to draw comparisons between tribal women and Sanaa's female residents, describing the latter as whiter and more beautiful.

He said they had long black hair that was typically pulled back, except for a few curled locks at their temples. Some women would also wear their hair in an odd number of plaits for good luck.

Wives of the rich elite wore extravagant colourful clothes, yet only at home or when going to the harem. To walk in the streets they would don a cloak that covered them from head to toe, covering their faces with a light handkerchief that had no holes for breathing.

Rich and poor women of all ages wore the same dark cloaks and thus it was extremely difficult to speculate which women were well-off and which underprivileged. Manzoni, however, noticed that Sanaa's women would usually leave part of their feet showing, which tended to be a good indicator of age.

Manzoni did not overlook the harem, an isolated part of the house occupied by the home-ownerʹs wife and other female relatives. According to the writer, a harem was widely believed in Europe to be a place of debauchery.

In truth, however, harems were where a manʹs mother, sisters and wife remained closeted in an environment that was as strict and disciplined as a European nunnery. Harems of the wealthy employed maids who – contrary to the notion that they were sex slaves – were not allowed to see male residents. Each one of them served the wife by completing chores around the house.

Although Manzoni devoted considerable time to getting to know the streets of Sanaa, he did not meet a single educated woman; Sanaa's women were apparently illiterate. They merely knew how to cook and knit, among other household chores. He observed how they spent most of their time dyeing their hands and feet with henna and wearing make up in order to appeal to their husbands.

A superstitious people

Illiterate people in Sanaa believed in magic and spiritualism, records Manzoni who explained that the poor would usually pay visits to psychics, while the well-off were into astrology. Sanaa had good days: Mondays were designated for marriages, Thursdays were blessed and Fridays were full of good luck because Prophet Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina on the same day.

While Sunday and Wednesday were neutral, Tuesday was an ominous day and was called the "day of blood" because most Muslim martyrs died on Tuesdays. The Italian writer recorded that Saturday was the worst day for Yemeni Arabs, being the day celebrated by Jews. There were also good and bad seasonal days, the worst of which was the last Wednesday of the month of Safar. People would be afraid to leave their houses, thinking they would face unfortunate events because it was the day when ghosts celebrate.

In Sanaa, Manzoni said it was obvious that Yemenis thought highly of their sacred figures – both dead and alive. The latter were deemed sacred for no apparent reason, according to Manzoni and they would take advantage of such a granted status. He referred to these sacred figures as harmless "fools and idiots" whom people thought were special for some reason. They were above the law; even were they to walk down the street naked, no one would dare to say anything to them.

Dervishes, on the other hand, pretended to be more religiously devout than others. Mostly Turks and Persians, the dervishes would display their spirituality by engaging in extraordinary acts such as eating rocks, glass or metal, for instance. "They are deceivers who live off charity money that they either beg for or just receive without asking," Manzoni said. "Yemeni Arabs fear them because they believe them to be immensely ominous."

Sanaa was also blessed with a myriad of gardens, one of which – the Peacock Garden – was Manzoni's favourite. It was vast, neat and full of various trees and flowers. It was the preferred haunt of the Turks who would go there to drink arak and eat fruit before lunch.

Sanaa old town; Yemen (photo: UNESCO/Maria Gropa/Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO)
Days of the week held special significance in Sanaa: Mondays were designated for marriages, Thursdays were blessed and Fridays were full of good luck because Prophet Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina on the same day. While Sunday and Wednesday were neutral, Tuesday was an ominous day and was called the "day of blood" because most Muslim martyrs died on Tuesdays

Inaccuracy born of prejudice

Not everything Manzoni wrote about Sanaa's natives was accurate; he mentioned things that he saw as strange or irrational, based on widespread stereotypes that he and other Western travellers believed in.

For example, Manzoni mentioned what he described as people's subservient obedience to their superiors, saying that whenever the latter walked by, men in the vicinity would stop smoking and stand up to salute them. He also said it was common for a man to refer to himself while communicating with the elite, whether verbally or in writing, as their "very humble servant".

Some of Manzoni's judgments naturally were based on his encounters. "It happened many times that I saw in Yemen whole tribes of men and women who were extremely ugly, whereas there were other tribes of handsome men and charming women," he said.

During one of his visits, he was asked to treat patients after locals mistakenly thought he was a doctor. Consequently, he concluded that people throughout the Muslim countries believed that Europeans knew everything merely because they could read and write. In his opinion, an Arab man was ignorant because "he believed that all human knowledge could be entered in one book; the man who could read its pages would know everything".

The writer portrayed Sanaa as he experienced it, including in his writing common Italian misunderstandings of the time relating to the Islamic world. In retrospect, maybe he can be forgiven for thinking that Ramadan was the month of pleasures for Muslims – swept away as he no doubt was by the feasting after dark.

Mohamed Shaaban

© raseef22 2019

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