This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)
Memories of afternoons during the good old days pass through my mind like a calm stream: the after lunch bath, the brief siesta followed by the preparation for a femininity summit. Within moments I turn into Ms. Colors: face completely painted with turmeric,and my shiny black locks of hair fall on my forehead in a precise architectural fashion, a habit I picked up from the girls around me. The thick kohl lines my eyes in a way that makes them appear larger and darker. I maintain the modern feminine red paint that swept through the village in my early teenage years, ‘The Lady’s Lipstick’. I apply very little on my lips and a little on my cheeks. I use some to shadow my eyelids, while hiding from mother’s critical eyes. I add a last touch of perfume from my mother’s collection of fragrances, and of course, I am wearing a colorful dress designed by one of the village’s tailors and an equally laced and embroidered scarf. The sandals have to be absolutely red, adorned with an even deeper red stone, like the color of a blooming rose. I wait for the girls to call from outside and set off, carrying the water containers, which I have to fill on the way.
This is how my teenage generation used to dress up, long before the black abayas conquered and replaced everything with a cloak and a veil. Still, my teenage years appear quite simple in style in comparison to my mother’s generation. I always look at their old pictures and feel fascinated by their beauty and style. One of the pictures that I wish I could publish is of my mother sitting together with my aunts and grandmother on the rooftop, sometime in the late 1980s. My grandmother is sitting at the edge of the picture wearing a ‘Dera’a’,her henna red hair is parted in the middle into two equal parts and pulled to the back. Fair-skinned and rounded she gives the impression of an arrogant, wilful woman. At the other end of the picture, my mother sits upright, carrying herself as though she is a star. Her legs are covered with loose wide trousers that fall all the way down to her feet. She also wears a dress ending at the knee, with a low square cut neckline. Her shiny black hair seems to flow from the right side of her head to the left, covering most of her forehead, and then turning back again to pass behind her left ear, a move that gracefully keeps her hair from falling on her face. A colorful scarf elegantly wraps her head to cover the back while revealing her forehead, neck and chest. In the space between my mother and grandmother, my aunts smile: necks standing tall and breathing fresh air, short dresses and loose trousers. Their faces glow with a natural femininity derived from the surroundings: the beauty of the sun and trees, and the smell of ‘Mashaqer’that decorates the rooftop and their bodies.
When does a girl grow up in the village? When she owns a chest, her own chest box. I remember how exciting it was to have one, and how it created an incredible sensation of growing up . Chests that hold real secrets were secured with small yellow locks. The keys to a chest would hang from black plastic bracelets that girls and womenworeabove the elbow. The precious keys dangled on women’s sleeves wherever they went. The chests contained everything: old photographs, cassette tapes, new clothes, gifts, some money, antique jewelry, full and half-empty perfume bottles, henna and turmeric, as well as scattered pieces of incense. If the owner is a schoolgirl, then there are also letters from schoolmates, and perhaps from a secret lover. If the owner is an elderly woman, then there are true treasures: records and documents of land ownership whose owners have long changed, an old copy of the Quran, keys to locks that no longer exist, clothes that are no longer worn. Each chest has its own smell, a smell of all its days, of beauty and love, of nostalgia, of henna, turmeric and incense. Altogether, the smells gather and settle in the metal chest and in women’s memories.
In our villages ‘green’ refers to a dark skin tone. We say a green girl and a green boy to describe the dark shade of brown skin. In the past, people in our villages were not obsessed with fair skin. Green was preferred, the color of charm, and it was considered a sign of beauty. The lover always had, “Sweet beauty in the core,centering the tight curves in a body that stands like a branch, divinely green with no need for rain or anything at all”, as Abdullah Abdul Wahab Noman, the prominent Yemeni poet known as al-Fadhool, describes in his poem.In the original Arabic poem, he uses the phrase ‘from Allah’, which translates here to ‘divinely’. ‘From Allah’ is a common Yemeni expression, reflecting all that is natural and counter to the artificial. My mother’s generation hated ‘Fair & Lovely’, the skin whitening product my generation began using; they rejected the ‘lady lipstick’ and the soaps that dried the skin. The oils and creams that we bought to take care of our hair surprised them. All they used was sesame and coconut oil. They could not comprehend how turmeric was replaced by Fair & Lovely, and how girls dared to put on lipstick like ‘ … ’ – a word they were too modest to utter. So the expressions you are ‘beautiful from Allah/divinely beautiful’ and ‘fair from Allah/naturally fair’ were often heard whenever the imported cream or lipstick appeared in the vicinity.
Despite the vicious globalization attacks that brought Fair & Lovely to our villages, the girls extend the legacy of their mothers and grandmothers. Turmeric is still used for sun protection; it is still spread across the whole face or partially applied on the nose and cheeks. Mashaqer still stand on the rooftops; their green leaves tucked behind women’s ears and between strands of their hair, as they carry a smell that blends the scents of earth and sky together. Women still use tiny bottles of perfume, and continue to rub the scented oils with their fingertips across their necks and ears. Incense is still the master of fragrances, and cardamom is used as a mouth freshener. Sesame oil remains the one and only moisturizing oil. On every windowsill you will find various sizes of kohl tubes; the rural woman will not leave her home without applying kohl that she herself grinds. Women still buy and tailor colorful fabrics, even if they wear abayas. Here, beauty is, above all, self-expression.
Turmeric, Curcuma longa, is a floral plant that is ground into an extract of deep orange-yellow powder. In Yemen women use it as a dye and natural skin product for beautification and sun protection. It is also commonly used for cooking, especially in meat broth.
Dera’a is a woman’s loose dress that covers the whole body. It usually comes in a colorful variety of fabrics and is mostly worn in the southern and middle regions of Yemen.
Mashqur (sng.) and Mashaqer (pl.) is a basil plant used by women and men in Yemen for adornment and ritual purposes in various occasions such as weddings, births and funerals.