Yemen’s famous king Taban As’ad, nicknamed Tub’a, passed by the city of Yathribwhile on a business trip to Al Sham [Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon today] . There he left his son for business purposes, and continued on his journey to Al Sham. On his way back to Yathrib, he received news that his son had been killed over a difference with another businessman. Vowing revenge, he mobilized an army against the people of Yathrib. A war ensued between the Tub’a of Yemen and Yathrib; a very strange war. Fighting would break out during the day, but in the evening the people of Yathrib [who are Yemenis] would send Tub’a and his army food. Tub’a was amazed, he had seen nothing like it before.
Generosity, like blood, runs in the veins of Arabs. Indeed it was the most worthy mark of a man. So paramount was this trait that no distinction was made between guest or foe, both were welcomed with lavish hospitality. The Arab poet captures the generous mood of the time, “I am a slave to my guest so long as he is my guest.” And Arab historians document Bedouins lighting bonfires on hilltops at night to guide wandering strangers to their tents. Some even went as far as to burn aromatic wood to guide blind wanderers, for surely they deserved their share of Arab hospitality. Whether the experience of Tub’a with the Yemenis of Yathrib was fact or fiction is up for debate, but generosity has always been synonymous with Arabs. After the advent of Islam, the Prophet (peace be upon him) would affirm this social trait as a religious obligation through his instruction, “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should be hospitable with his or her guests.”
I was reminded of this noble trait while viewing a video of a middle-aged woman in chador wandering among the tents of the revolutionaries in one of the many Squares for Change in Yemen. I watched as she wrestled with her chador while attempting to pull a cart holding a 5 gallon plastic container filled with water. A male revolutionary strolled up to buy water from her. As he approached her, she silently filled a glass and handed it to him. After drinking it, he reached into his pocket for some Yemeni riyals. She shook her head at the money, and continued her mission to quench the thirst of the revolutionaries. In awe, the refreshed youth returned to his friends and pointed to her saying, “She is bearing water for the Thuwaar [Arabic for ‘the revolutionaries’].” His fellow revolutionary asked, “By Allah, is she?” He said, “Yes,” and raised his hands in prayer saying, “May we all be granted victory.” Water, a basic human right, is a commodity in Yemen and a running faucet is a spectacle in Yemeni homes. So, you can understand the intensely generous gesture of the “Yemeni water bear-ess.” [click here for her video and yet another video]
Indeed the Squares for Change in Yemen have been, in many aspects, described as places of revival of extinct Arab values. Even the sign to the entrance of the ‘Change Square’ in San’a reads, “Welcome to the first kilometer of dignity.” Kilometers that witnessed the once reputable Yemeni generosity that was buried by crushing poverty under the Saleh regime. There emerged once again a trait thought to have remained for the most part imprisoned within the hard covers of history books.
There have been reports of women turning their rations of flour into bread for the revolutionaries; bread on which they carved the message “Irhal [Arabic for ‘leave’]” for President Saleh, and a reminder to the revolutionaries of their un-negotiable demand. Their demand for a Saleh-free Yemen. Breads that nourished the bodies as they did spirits with motivational messages like “Stand firm O youth of Yemen.”
Tents and blankets poured out of homes and set up in the Change Square. Youth have been seen wandering the square with blankets to cover anyone huddling in the cold Sana’a air. At the onset of the protests, food was scarce. So neighboring homes cooked large quantities and distributed them to the protesters, seeking out and giving priority to the needy. Pretty impressive for a nation with an estimated 60% under the poverty line. Another family brought in a cake and auctioned it off to the financially stable. The proceeds were then distributed among the impoverished revolutionaries. Just when it seemed that Yemenis had given it all, they surprised us further by not only finding space in their hearts but their homes. A young couple offered to demolish the wall between their home and the hospital to increase capacity for the injured.
Yet, all this pales in comparison to the generosity of Yemeni society in overcoming their tribal divisions to unite in their cause to overthrow a regime that has suffocated them all without exception. An armed society that has abandoned its estimated 50 million weapons to march in a peaceful protest crying “Selmiyyah! Selmiyyah! [Peaceful! Peaceful!].” And armed society that has offered its bare chest to live bullets shot from their Yemeni brothers on the other side. This in accordance with the Qur’anic principle, “Were you to stretch forth your hand to kill me, I shall not stretch forth my hand to kill you, for I fear God the Lord of the Worlds” (Qur’an 5:28). It is they who have offered martyr after martyr for the revival of the once renowned Arabia Felix; like the deathless inspiration of the Phoenix that repeatedly rises from the ashes.
With this they surpass their own expectations and that of the international community who had composed a bloody scenario for their revolution. They amaze today as they did Tub’a centuries ago.
As freelance journalist Iona Craig tweeted from Sana’a yesterday, “Protesters march ended with riot police and demonstrators waving goodbye to each other as they headed back to the camp site. Only in Yemen.” Yes, only in Yemen the birthplace of the Arabs.
by Dr. Almas