x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A crumbling house of heritage

Yemeni folklore, traditions and historical artefacts have been painstakingly collected by one woman who is now desperately seeking assistance, whether local or foreign, to secure a safe place where they can be kept.

Arwa Othman runs the House of Folklore out of a building that is rodent-infested and in danger of collapsing.
Arwa Othman runs the House of Folklore out of a building that is rodent-infested and in danger of collapsing.

SANA'A // As a child, Arwa Othman was attached to her grandmother, a renowned teller of fables, and unlike other schoolchildren, she spent the pocket money her father gave her for sweets on books of Arabic short stories and old silver jewellery from the souq.

Ms Othman's early fascination eventually became a career, and the 42-year-old writer is a vocal advocate for the preservation of Yemen's folk culture and traditions, which have been disappearing because of a number of factors, including Islamisation, rapid urbanisation and simple negligence. Three weeks ago, Ms Othman issued a second appeal to the government and international NGOs to help fund the rehabilitation of her one-of-a-kind folklore museum, which is housed in a crumbling building.

After her graduation from Sana'a University and employment as a teacher of philosophy at a secondary school in the early 1990s, she used her savings to travel around Yemen with a tape recorder and camera to document folklore and traditional cultures. "I travelled to different parts of the country. I spent a lot of time recording the tales and fables being narrated by old women and men. I went to the farms to record farmers' pastoral songs. I ate, sang and danced and even dressed like the people there," she said.

Her anthropological project was not free from risk. "Because of extremist religious fatwas, I was harassed in some areas like al Mahweet and Tihama; people threw stones at me while others accused me of attempting to liberate women and get them out of the house. Some even badmouthed me and accused me of being an agent for Israel and the US. Some women started to tell me taking photos is haram or prohibited," Ms Othman said.

During her field visits, Ms Othman collected folk tales, chants, proverbs and myths from elderly people in different parts of Yemen. She also collected invaluable traditional costumes, kitchen hardware, books and pictures that portray day-to-day rural life. "I am infatuated by the distinct facial features of the people and I am sad to see women's faces covered in black, leaving behind our traditional costumes," she said. The veil was mainly introduced to Yemen by expatriates who had been to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. Women in Yemen used to wear typical Yemeni traditional attire, but since the 1990s, the veil dominated and was encouraged by Islamists.

With the US$5,000 (Dh18,000) prize she received for winning the short story category of the Sharjah Award for Arabic Excellence in 2000, supplemented by the profit she made selling a plot of land, Ms Othman established in 2004 what has become her lifetime project, the House of Folklore, a non-profit, non-governmental organisation and museum. Located in Sana'a's old quarter, the museum aims to document and preserve Yemen's heritage, especially its oral traditions, including songs, fables, jokes, riddles, fairy tales and myths.

The House, which is in an old, decaying building, is composed of small rooms. The folk costumes room contains attire from across the country that is worn only on specific social occasions. There are also a variety of head scarves, traditional hats that are used by women during weddings and social and religious events and an assortment of herbs and dyes that were used as women's make-up. Other herbs on display were used for medicinal purposes and to ward off evil spirits.

The House has also a library, a traditional kitchen, a photo gallery and a cafe for visitors. "Our objective is to preserve the decaying heritage and folklore that is at risk at the moment. We want to protect the diversity of culture. This project is meant to promote tolerance and respect for other cultures, beliefs and traditions away from political or religious ideology. Humanity is my dogma," Ms Othman said.

Since its establishment, the House has held numerous events for the public, including a revival ceremony for the al Madraha, or swing, which used to be run for pilgrims before they left for Mecca. At the gatherings, people play on the swing and chant folk songs hoping for a successful journey. The swing is set up on a public open square so that many people can attend. The House also organises workshops, including one on the image of the ruler in folklore and another on violated femininity in folklore. It has also published a book on folklore in Aden and 70 folk tales.

However, Ms Othman feels that the antiques she has been collecting and preserving for more than 20 years are under threat. "The building is old and collapsing. I feel panicked when it rains. I am scared the building will fall down at any time and I will lose all these precious items," she said. Last February, Ms Othman appealed to all government and non-government agencies to help rescue the house. She cried as she explained how mice run from the deserted house next door into the museum and cause significant damage to valuable items.

"I am ready to sacrifice my life rather than see this house demolished. I wept because I felt that my sole child who has grown up is dying and I am not able to help. It is a tragedy," she said. In response to this appeal a number of ambassadors from European Union countries paid a visit to the museum last week to show support for such individual efforts. "We are here to show the political support of the EU to initiatives like this, aiming at preserving cultural diversity," said Michael Ruess, the deputy head of mission at the German embassy.

Mr Reuss said Yemen's heritage is under threat and the museum is vital to preserving it for the country's young population. "The culture and heritage of this country is under threat, if it is not constantly persevered - Seventy per cent of Yemen's population is under 24 years and therefore, the majority of this country does not know what Yemen looked like 30 years ago - If this generation does not learn about their culture at school or see it in museums like this, the essence of the distinct Yemeni culture and its diversity will be lost very quickly," he said.

After the February appeal, government officials said a bigger, historical building was being prepared for the House to move into. But, Ms Othman said, it was a false promise that never materialised, which is why she issued another appeal a few weeks ago. She said the culture ministry's contribution is only $250 per month to cover the rent. Mohammed al Maflahi, the Yemeni minister of culture, said during last week's EU event that the government did not have an adequate building in the capital, urging the private sector, embassies and international agencies to support culture and heritage projects.

Ms Othman said the museum needs a larger historical, and permanent, building where all of the precious artefacts and exhibits can be displayed. She also hopes to turn the new museum into a larger foundation for folklore. "I have got a lot of ideas including the publication of an encyclopaedia for Yemeni folklore, but we are crippled by this decaying building and lack of financial resources. Sometimes I get frustrated when I start thinking of packing all the folklore exhibits into boxes as the last option," she said.