A close friend of mine wrote this. She wants to be anonymous ...It took place 10 years ago.
It is a good read.
"Conversations at Tea in Seiyoun (Hadramawt) Yemen"
"There were at least ten women sitting in front of me. I was served tea. The tea was strong and thick, with one cube of sugar, served in small glasses with the tea barely covering the sugar.The women were talking and laughing amongst themselves but their eyes were on me. I was curious about them, they were more curious about me.
Except for S and M, they all looked about my age, at most a year or two older. Most of them had at least one child thugging at the side. Without their burkahs, I could see their faces in full. All of them were very good looking. There was something wild and carefree about them when they were just amongst women - their chatter and giggles were lively. Their eyes were especially beautiful. Enhanced by kohl, they shone bright, expressive, and got my full attention.
S, who had visited Singapore several times, could speak heavily accented Malay. She acted as my interpreter. M who was next to me, was assigned to follow me around. I woke up that morning and found M at my door smiling. Initially I thought she was there to direct me to breakfast, but when she did not go away, despite my various attempts to tell her to, I gave up and tried to get used to having her around me.
I was asked all sorts of questions – where I got my clothes, where I got my earrings, where I got my pendant, whether I knew what my pendant meant (my pendant was Allah in Arabic).I found the tea way too thick, way too sweet and I kept adding hot water. I nibbled on the nuts and fried dough. I was uncomfortable with the attention I got.
I wanted to change the conversation, so I started asking the questions. I asked about their names and their meanings, about their children, about school. They asked whether I was still in school. I decided to show off. I told them about my work, and I recited my education history, all the time with a smug smile on my face.
I saw the look of surprises. There were a few giggles. M, smiled shyly. S, stared hard at me. She asked for my right hand, turned it upwards and caressed my palm. She then asked M to give me her right hand and told me to caress M’s palm. I felt M’s palm, it was rough, rougher than mine. S announced that M was 16 years old and that my palm was too young for my age.
I was not surprise that M was only 16, her face looked her age, but understood that her palm felt much older and that the women were surprise to hear that I was 25 years old (had studied for 18 years from age 7 onwards). I also understood that compared to me, M did housework and worked in the field.
After a brief silence which allowed me to digest the situation, one lady started to speak, followed by another, and another, and they spoke amongst themselves. I saw curiosity but also a challenge. S took her time to let almost all the women speak. When she was satisfied that they had asked their questions, S looked at me, with a slight smile and spoke:
“They want to know why you studied so long, so hard? Would it not be a waste of time?”
My first reaction was to pity the women for not realising the value of education. I proudly answered that I went to school to get an education, which got me my good job. I added that in my country women could go to the highest level of education and work just like men, and I hoped one day the women in Hadramawt would also enjoy the same right to education and a good job, all the time with a smug smile on my face.
S was careful and slow in her translation. It warned me of a clash of cultures.The reply led to many chatters, but one woman stood up to speak.
She was articulate. She spoke calmly, but with strength and indignation. Her eyes were all the time on me, with almost a pitiful smile and a dare. From the expressions I saw on the other women’s faces, they supported her reply.
I was curious but met her eyes and the dare. I wanted to hear the reply of the women from Seiyoun whom I presumed had not much of an education. S translated slowly:
“They wanted to know why you waste your time in school and work in office - Why fight with men in their field? Look at us, we do all the work at home and in the field. We take care of the children.
We cook all the food. We let the men think they are in charge. If we don’t like them, we can always influence the children against their father. If they are really bad, we can always poison their food. Do you really think you are better than us with your education and your job in the office, fighting men all the time? Can you be happy?”
Although my ego wanted to dismiss their reply as uncivilised, something deeper told me to be quiet – not to speak on matters I hardly knew. In an inexplicable way, I understood them and the wisdom of how they led their life. It was simple and basic. Something I was not used to in my complex city life. Perhaps they were right, I might never be happy with my education, with my job, fighting with men all the time.
I could not win this debate. I offered a smile as a peace offering. They smiled in return. Even when I could not make out the words they said, I understood. Our eyes spoke a universal language.
The chatter continued on more mundane topics." "