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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