Jan Hagedorn on the incidents of complete cultural immersion


It was during the final descent into the beautiful city of Sana’a that I got my first impression of Yemeni culture.  The Arab women who had boarded the plane in Frankfurt with ‘only’ a headscarf were now applying their niqabs, face veils that leave only the eyes uncovered. Yemen is one of the most conservative Muslim countries in the world.

The Arabic courses at St Andrews are good, but I was determined to experience the language first-hand during the summer. A good friend of mine recommended a college in Sana’a to me.  Encouraged by my professor’s assurances concerning the security situation I enrolled for a six-week course.

Arriving at the college in the middle of the night I was surprised by two things. The level of comfort I found at the dormitory was comparable to St Andrews university accommodation – maybe not quite DRA, but definitely above Andrew Melville! Secondly, there were hardly any students. Although the college has a capacity of well over one hundred, there were never more than fifteen students present during my stay.

When the academic term began the next day, all students took a placement exam. This usually serves to determine on what level and in which class you are taught.  Since we were less than ten students we all ended up with a private tutor, though. This reduced the number of class hours to two per day, but extra lessons cost very little.

The classroom experience is very different from St Andrews. I was previously used to lessons focusing on grammar taught to a class of at least twenty students. My teacher decided to focus on my speaking skills when he noticed how underdeveloped they were. The fact that he could not speak English was surprising but did not prove to be a problem.

While it is difficult to communicate new grammatical concepts or abstract vocabulary without English explanations, conversation and revision are actually facilitated by having to speak Arabic all the time. In fact, one of the most important reasons that foreigners study Arabic in Sana’a is that very few Yemenis speak English. While you can get by perfectly with  French or English in Lebanon or Egypt, in Yemen you actually need Arabic all the time. There is one minor problem, however. People understand Modern Standard Arabic, but they will answer you in colloquial Yemeni. It is like dropping a foreigner into Glasgow. Nevertheless, I have been told that this is even more so in other Arab countries, and that Yemeni colloquial is quite close to Classical Arabic.

The one cultural difference that is most irritating to Westerners is the strict gender divide. All women in Sana’a wear a face veil, the only exceptions being foreigners and members of the more progressive upper classes. It is a taboo for men to speak to women in the street; when you are invited to someone’s home, you (being male) will not see a single female member of the family. Female foreigners are exempt from most societal restrictions, though.

It is important to note that these rules are not enforced by the state as in Saudi-Arabia as women have the same legal status as men. Traditions, however, are hard to overcome and the Saudi influence is still considerable. I was spending quite some time with a Yemeni employee of the college; I later found out that he has a pregnant 14-year-old wife, a fact that shocked me deeply.

In addition to these cultural differences, students are being scared away by the poor image of Yemen carried by the Western media. A recent example is a Time magazine cover: “Is Yemen the next Afghanistan?” While it is true that the government is fighting a war against tribesmen in the north and an Al-Qaeda insurgency in the south, most major cities remain safe and I was able to travel well outside Sana’a.

Studying in Yemen is a unique experience. If you are willing to engage a truly foreign culture despite obvious differences you will be rewarded. Yemen is mostly untouched by Western cultural influences; foreigners are treated with fascination and given lots of attention. Most stares are simply curious, none are hostile. Study experiences strongly depend on the college you choose. How much your Arabic improves depends mostly on you.  There are plenty of opportunities to integrate and have Yemeni friends; or you might just concentrate on classroom instruction.

However, if you want to have a good drink you better bring it yourself.

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