Yemen History, Language and Culture
History of Yemen
To the Romans Yemen was ‘Arabia Felix’ (‘Fortunate Arabia’), whose mountains and fertile plains caught the tail end of the Indian Ocean monsoon rains and were distinct from the barren desert of the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. However, there’s little that can be described as fortunate about modern Yemen.
During the early 17th and early 19th centuries European powers and the Ottoman Empire struggled to control unruly Yemeni tribes and evidence of colonial legacies is visible across the country.
In 1832 British East India Company soldiers captured the port of Aden, which provided a strategic staging post en route to the company’s territories in India. Britain split the country with the region’s other colonial power, the Ottomans, in 1904 and when that empire collapsed after WW1 its slice of Yemen gained independence until Arab nationalists acting with Egypt established the Yemeni Arab Republic in 1962 and precipitated a lengthy civil war.
The British protectorate held out in the face of violent attacks until 1967 and the birth of the Marxist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, before its union with the Yemeni Arab Republic in 1990 joined the two states under President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
A suicide attack on USS Cole in Aden in 2000 killed 17 US personnel and was blamed on al-Qaeda in a foreshadowing of the 9/11 terror attacks, which saw Yemen stand with President Bush in his War on Terror. The inevitable Shia insurgency in Yemen began in 2004 and continues to this day, as the country is ripped apart by war.
Saleh was ousted in the 2011 Yemeni Revolution and replaced with Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi resulting in the intensification of the Shia insurgency. Hadi was swept from power in February 2015 and enlisted the support of a coalition to fight back against Mohammed Ali al-Houthi’s newly declared Revolutionary Committee of Yemen. The situation remains volatile: the country faces permanent fragmentation as it teeters on the edge of failure.
Did you know?
• The traditional sport of camel jumping involves men (women are not allowed to take part) competing to jump over the most number of camels from a standing start.
• Yemen is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Old Walled City of Shibam in Wadi Hadhramaut, the Old City of Sana’a, the town of Zabid and the Socotra Archipelago.
• The average wedding feast in Yemen lasts 21 days.
Religion in Yemen
Sunni Muslim (especially in the north) and Shia Muslim, with some small Christian and Hindu communities. There is still a tiny Jewish minority.
Social Conventions in Yemen
There are plenty of jokes about Yemeni hospitality, usually involving enforced stays in hidden mountain caves surrounded by armed men. However, with rare exceptions, Yemeni hospitality is traditional, courteous and generous. Yemen is a conservative Muslim country with all the prohibitions that this entails; women in particular should dress modestly and in some instances cover their hair. Mosques with the exception of certain times at Sana’a’s Al Saleh Mosque, and many Islamic holy sites, are off limits to non-Muslims; alcohol is forbidden to Yemenis and restricted to upmarket tourist hotels for foreigners. No such Islamic prohibition applies to qat. Pervading almost all strata of society, buying, chewing and waxing lyrical over narcotic qat leaves is a national obsession verging on addiction – everything stops for qat.
Language in Yemen
Arabic. English may be understood by some in larger cities.