Inspiring Women in the Old City of Sanaa: Stories of Resilience and Accomplishment

The smell of coffee and spices mixed with the sweat of daily struggle
Ola Al Safarjal
June 14, 2024

Inspiring Women in the Old City of Sanaa: Stories of Resilience and Accomplishment

The smell of coffee and spices mixed with the sweat of daily struggle
Ola Al Safarjal
June 14, 2024

In one of the narrowest alleys of the Old City of Sanaa, there is a remarkable woman known as "My mother Dhabia" among the local residents. Her story presents an inspiring image of daily perseverance as she works as a saleswoman in a small grocery store. Through her dedication, she supports her family, who rely solely on the income generated from this humble shop. For the past 24 years, poverty has compelled her to work tirelessly, demonstrating her unwavering commitment to providing for her loved ones.

Just a stone's throw away, you will find "My mother Fatima" standing shoulder to shoulder with her husband, tirelessly selling tea, coffee, and beverages at one of the most renowned stalls in the Old City of Sanaa. While nearby, Nadine (a pseudonym) proudly reveals her occupation as a traditional bread known as "Malouj" seller, fearlessly expressing to the Khuyut reporter, "It is essential for those who gaze or criticize our pursuit of making a living to grasp that work is not a disgrace. There is absolutely no reason to feel ashamed of the honest work we do."

In the bustling narrow alleys of the Old City of Sanaa, the remarkable tales of successful women unfold, captured by "Khuyut." These stories not only reflect the rich history of the city but also highlight the resilience and strength of women. Amidst the markets and shops, where the aroma of coffee, spices, and freshly baked goods fills the air, the daily struggles of these women blend with the vibrant pulse of life. One such woman, Um Fatima Gharara, shares her story with Khuyut. She recounts how her husband once urged her to stay at home and not venture into the market to work. However, she firmly rejected his request and explained to him that a true woman does not shy away from her responsibilities. As long as she maintains her integrity and works with the noble intention of supporting her husband and family, there is no shame in her labor. The true shame, she believes, lies with those who choose the wrong path.

In the photo, we see Umm Dhabiba, a determined seller in a small grocery store in Old Sanaa.

Um Fatima Gharara's words echo the sentiment of many women in the Old City of Sanaa. They refuse to be confined to societal expectations and instead embrace the opportunities to contribute to their families and communities through hard work and determination.

A smile adorned with the fragrant aroma of Rue

 As you wander through the vibrant surroundings, you come across Karama Al-Muhtadi, a woman in her sixties. With her warm smile and bundles of basil, she sells Rue, also known as "shadhab," along with other products to provide for her large family of over 15 members.

During a heartfelt interview with Khuyut, Al-Muhtadi opens up about her livelihood, saying, "I am a seller of Rue, basil, ansif (aromatic plants), and local eggs. My daily routine revolves around this market, leaving me with little time to engage in family or social gatherings." She further elaborates, "After my beloved husband passed away two decades ago, I decided to embark on this journey. We procure basil, Rue, and eggs from the hardworking rural women of the Bani Hashish area, situated to the east of Sanaa. Prior to this, I served as a midwife and also sold bread."

In the heart of the "Al-Tawashi" neighborhood, nestled within the narrowest alleys of old Sana'a, resides a woman whose presence is etched in the memories of the locals, spanning across generations. Meet my mother Dhabia, a seventy-year-old woman with piercing blue eyes, embodying resilience, serenity, and a spirit of perseverance. Every day, without tiring, she opens her humble little shop, measuring no more than three meters wide and six meters long, promptly at seven in the morning.

Before that, let me share with you the story of Fatima Gharara, affectionately known as "the mother of the market" in Old Sana'a. In an interview with Khuyut, she opens up about a crucial part of her struggle and the challenges she faced when she first ventured into her work, despite encountering strong opposition from her husband.

Fatima recounts, "I gave birth to ten sons and daughters while I was here in the same place, working in the Caravanserai. Eventually, I made the decision to live separately to avoid any potential conflicts that could arise from sharing the same house with my extended family. However, my husband strongly objected to my choice and implored my mother, saying, 'Prevent your daughter from going to the market. Honor is precious, and I fear for my reputation.''

With unwavering determination, she continued her narrative, "In my steadfast Sana'ani dialect, I firmly replied to him, 'I am a woman of integrity, and I do not engage in any wrongdoing.' The incident that truly ignited my drive to take action and embark on the coffee and tea business was when I clandestinely witnessed the cups, both for coffee and tea, being taken and stolen near the 'closet' within the Caravanserai. Some individuals would brazenly snatch the tea and boil it alongside others in the Caravanserai, while my husband, on the other hand, would distribute the tea in the market and collect the empty cups." She continues: "In that moment, a realization struck me like lightning. I understood that while we were catering to the needs of the people, I was confined to the boundaries of our home without any meaningful occupation. It was then, resolutely, that I made the life-altering decision to step out and seek employment."

These words reflect the hurdles Fatima had to overcome and the determination she possessed to pursue her chosen path. Despite the resistance she faced, she forged ahead, creating her own independent life for herself and her family. Fatima's story serves as a testament to her resilience and unwavering commitment, solidifying her position as a respected figure in Old Sana'a.

In the given context, the Caravanserai, or Samsarah as it is known in old Sana'a, is an architectural establishment that holds both social and economic significance. Its emergence is closely tied to the growth and advancement of craft and professional production. Similar to the brokerage, the Caravanserai also forms an essential part of the city of Sana'a, serving as a capital and commercial hub. The Caravanserai, with its distinctive architectural design, served as a multifunctional space that catered to the needs of travelers and traders. It provided a secure and comfortable environment for merchants, their caravans, and other travelers to rest, conduct business, and engage in social interactions.

Fatima shares some of her experiences: "One day, while I was on the rooftop (the Wajk), my husband approached me and I became frightened. He asked me what was wrong, and I confessed that I was scared of him. In his San'ani dialect, he responded, 'From now on, you can work with me in selling coffee.' And true to his word, I began working alongside him and never left his side. We would go down together every day, even when I was tired, until our ten children grew up and continued to support our livelihood."

She continues, "I also engaged in the preparation and baking of Malawaj, a type of baked bread, which I sold in the market. I would clean raisins and provide for my sons and daughters. Together with my husband, we took care of everything, working together in the coffee industry using the traditional brass pots known as Barmous. The enticing aroma of the coffee would waft up to the upper floors of the Caravanserai, where we resided for 50 years before moving to another house." Fatima is held in high regard and appreciated by all who work in the ancient markets of Sana'a.

Karama Al-Muhtadi, a street vendor, selling Rue in one of the alleys of Old Sana'a

Assisting my mother instead of getting married

In one of the bustling alleys of the famous Salt Market (Souk Al Melh) in old Sana'a, permeated with the enticing aroma of popular homemade dishes prepared by skilled San'ani cooks, a vibrant scene unfolds. Among the mouthwatering delicacies available is the traditional homemade bread known as "Al-Malouj," served in the renowned Salta restaurants.

Numerous women sell bread in this bustling location, including Nadine, who has been involved in the production and sale of Al-Malouj since a young age. Following the passing of her father, there was no one to support her and her mother.

Nadine shares, "I began selling bread and Al-Malouj at a young age because there was no one else to provide for me and my mother. She was the sole breadwinner, working in this field, just like my grandmother did." She adds, "I am now 23 years old. While I was studying in school, I chose to leave my education in the sixth grade to work and assist my mother. I never really considered my own future. My priority is taking care of my mother, and I declined the idea of marriage so as not to leave her alone." She concluded.

Not far from this location in Old Sana'a, right next to the renowned Bab al-Yemen gate, Um Saeed sells locally sourced frankincense and red pepper. She also takes care of her four children. Um Saeed operates a small wooden grocery store alongside the Shaimaa School in the Dar Al-Jadeed neighborhood. Her store caters to the needs of the female students attending the school. In the same Dar Al-Jadeed neighborhood, you will find Habiba, who has been selling vegetables for approximately three years. Before that, she used to work as a housemaid. Habiba has established herself as a vegetable vendor, serving the community with fresh produce.

A mother unaffected by sorrow

In the narrowest alleys of the Tawashi neighborhood, nestled within Old Sana'a, there resides a woman whose presence has left an indelible mark on the memories of both the place and its people, transcending generations. She is Um Dhabia, a woman in her seventies, with eyes as blue as the tranquil sea, reflecting her unwavering perseverance and resilience.

Every day, without a trace of weariness or monotony, she opens the doors to her small shop, measuring no more than three meters in width and six meters in length, promptly at seven in the morning. Speaking to the locals, she affectionately refers to them as "Khuyut". She shares, "After my husband passed away, I was left with seven young children to care for. That compelled me to embark on a relentless struggle for their sake so I bake bread and sell it at the Salt Market in the morning, and in the evenings, I remain in my shop, working tirelessly to provide for my orphaned children."

She pauses for a moment, her voice tinged with the distinct San'ani accent, and continues, "By God, my daughter, we do not complain or surrender to despair, except when our bellies hunger and our throats thirst." This proverb conveys their acceptance of their circumstances, acknowledging that their basic needs must be met, while choosing not to ask for more. 

Today, she single-handedly supports her family, including the children of her deceased son. Despite the reservations of the people of Old Sana'a about women working in fields traditionally reserved for men, and even in other areas besides teaching or medicine, she has never been bothered or hindered by anyone. On the contrary, she found, as she affirms, full cooperation and support from those around her, knowing that she works to provide for her family. Her son used to buy and provide her with the necessary goods for the shop before he tragically passed away in a car accident on the road from Dhammar to Sana'a. This forced her to close the shop for seven months, mourning his loss.

Unfortunately, Um Dhabia found herself drowning in debt during the period her shop remained closed. According to her, the recent months have witnessed inflation and a decline in returns, describing the buying and selling activities as "dripping like a leaky faucet" due to the deteriorating living conditions for many people.

However, she did not give up. After recovering from her period of grief and illness following her son's death, she resumed her struggle for her family in her shop. She continued to interact with her children and everyone else with the same warmth and care, making her a living example for all women in resilience, provision, perseverance, and maintaining the dignity of her home and family in the traditional and conservative setting of Old Sana'a.

In conclusion, Um Dhabia's story is one of unwavering determination and resilience. Despite societal reservations and personal tragedies, she has remained steadfast in her commitment to provide for her family. Her ability to overcome obstacles and maintain her dignity in the face of adversity serves as an inspiration to all women. Her story is a powerful testament to the enduring strength of the human spirit and the power of perseverance. Um Dhabia's steadfast determination and resilience make her an extraordinary role model, not just for women but for anyone facing adversity.

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