Ezzadeen Mohammed stands every morning by the Grand Gate in Taiz city, south west Yemen. He carefully lines up bundles of mashaqer and sprays them with water to maintain their fresh green color and aromatic scent. For 20 years, he says, he has sold mashaqer at this very spot. This place is a destination for anyone who wants to buy mashaqer.
When you enter Taiz through the Grand Gate, the second gate to Taiz after the Moussa Gate, you face the city’s markets, mosques and shops. The first thing that catches your attention, though, is the corner where mashaqer are sold. This is where Ezzadeen sells his bundles.
You cannot keep walking towards the old city without being enchanted by the colors and smells of mashaqer blossoms. The sight alone makes you want to get closer to that corner to buy a bundle, which costs no more than 300 Yemeni rials.
The location choice is beautifully symbolic, as if Ezzadeen wants visitors’ first encounter with the city to be accompanied by the fragrance of mashaqer. Mashaqer have cosmetic uses that involve women and men, as well as being an integral presence for the existential rituals of birth and death.
Origins of the name
Mashqur is a collection of aromatic flowers and plants. One of each type are arranged and gathered in a small bundle called ‘mashqur’. ‘Shuqra’ is the name for individual components of the bundle. The word ‘mashaqer’ originates from the name of the place where they are grown: ‘mishqar’, which means a high visible space overlooking a house yard. The visibility of the place and the height, on the house rooftop, makes it look like a garden hanging from the sky when one looks at it from a distance. The mishqar consists of a pile of soil transported from fertile agricultural land to the house’s rooftop, which is then fenced off with stones to create an approximately 1×2 meters space. In the Arabic herbs encyclopedias, ‘shuqur’ refers to windflowers. However, the Yemeni shuqur differs from the windflowers that were often mentioned in classic Arab poetry and other basil types described in Arab encyclopedias.
Both women and men use mashaqer as an accessory that is always visible. Women tuck the bundle in the scarfs that wrap some of their hair, but do not cover the ears, leaving the bundle touching their cheeks. Men, on the other hand, tuck the bundle vertically in the ‘dismal’, which is a traditional scarf tied around the head.
Mashaqer in women’s daily life
Oum Mansour al-Himyari, a woman in her 60s who grows her own mashaqer on the rooftop of her house, says that women grow their mashaqer at home, because it makes it easier to take care of the plants while doing housework. She adds that rural women use some types of mashaqer as ingredients in the three daily meals. Oum Mansour believes that growing mashaqer is a task that only women specialize in. Tasks include transporting soil and making fertilizers out of livestock waste to add to the soil, in order to support a healthy growth for the plants. She also sees that picking has to be done in a particular way that ensures the continuity of the rest of the plants’ growth. For instance, picking basil is done in a different way from that with narcissus, or ‘tur’, another Yemeni plant from the mashaqer family. Mashaqer need to be watered daily, before sunrise and never at noon. This is usually the first task for rural women every morning. Besides the daily watering and picking, women dig the soil from time to time to add natural fertilizers.
Types of mashaqer
The types of plants a bundle of mashaqer consists of differ, based on use. Some aromatic types are used exclusively for decoration and accessorizing, while others are used in traditional dishes or for medicinal purposes.
Bayad, Rayhan, Fayjal, Tur, Rand, Khawa’a, Narcissus, Azab, Atria and Nana’a are the local names of the ten types of plants a mashqur consists of. Nana’a (peppermint) is the only type that is not part of the bundle used in women and men’s accessorizing. Instead, it is used in food, tea and in medicinal recipes to ease children’s diarrhea.
Rayhan or Humhum, a type of basil, is considered the king of mashaqer. It is famous for its special fragrance and the big size and violet color of its flower. Rayhan is used in various traditional dishes and medicinal recipes. Additionally, it is the main component of the mashqur bundle, both its white and violet types. The green leaves are similar in both types, and the growth process that breaks the original plant into two types is what distinguishes them. Rayhan flowers are white once they blossom, and with time they change to violet.
Fayjal, according to Oum Mansour, has tiny green leaves and an attractive scent. The special fragrance is what qualifies Fayjal as part of the accessorizing bundle. At the same time, it used in one of the most important Yemeni dishes in Ramdan, ‘Shafoot’, and more particularly in the type of bread used in this dish, where Fayjal is mixed with wholegrain flour during the baking process.
Tur, which has a yellow flower and small leaves, is used as a fragrant ornament and is not used in food, Ezzadeen explains. Khawa’a is another fragrant type, however, recognized by its medium size and silver, white leaves and small yellow flower. Ezzadeen points out that Khawa’a is used in many traditional dishes by adding the leaves to warm water; it is also used to treat kidney infections in rural Taiz. He also explains the use of Azab, another fragrant plant with small, round grey leaves and a green flower that is usually boiled in water and consumed to burn fat.
Some plants like Bayad, according to Ezzadeen, do not have flowers. Instead, Bayad has very tiny white leaves, used for their fragrance, in accessorizing but also as medicine for earache.
A separate plant that is only grown in Tehama, west Yemen, and Lahj, south Yemen, is Kathi, and it is exclusively used in accessorizing. Ezzadeen concludes by pointing to types that he calls secondary, as they do not have a fragrance and are mainly used for the color of their flowers, such as the red and white flowers of Rand and the orange flower of Narjes (narcissus).
Names may differ from one rural area in Taiz to another. But, in the end, the ten types remain the same in the make-up of mashaqer.
Mashaqer in women and men’s attire
Oum Mansour emphasizes that women’s special care of mashaqer also stems from their vital role in women’s attire at special events: “Rural women take pride in their mashaqer and compete over who wears and has the most various and the greenest of all.” When any special social event approaches, women stop picking the plants a week in advance in order to have the biggest and most complete bundles tucked in their scarves on the day they attend the event, in order to have the most special attire. The most fragrant of the plants, like Fayjal, is braided through the hair to strengthen the beautiful lasting scent of the hair. Women wear mashaqer at weddings, family visits, Eid and birth celebrations.
As for men, mashaqer do not include all the components women use in their attires, as men do not use Kathi or Rand and Tur flowers. Men wear mashaqer when they go to the mosque for Friday prayers and at religious events.
Mashaqer in rural traditions
Nayef al-Wafi, a journalist interested in cultural heritage, especially that related to mashaqer, says: “In the past, a young woman did not used to accept mashaqer from a man unless she is marrying him as offering mashaqer to women implied a marriage proposal.”
As well as accessorizing, Oum Mansour says that women also use mashaqer in spiritual rituals due to their belief in their effectiveness in exorcising demons. She also explains the presence of mashaqer in funerals in rural Taiz, especially Rayhan, which is connected to praising the Prophet Mohammed. Rayhan is usually put on top of the deceased on the way to the graveyard. At home, mashaqer are placed in containers filled with water to spread the fragrance indoors over three days, before refreshing the bundle with new ones. Mosques have their share of mashaqer on Fridays, where windows are decorated with the fragrant plants.
Whether it is a regular day at home, a Friday prayer, a wedding or a funeral, mashaqer continue to represent a vital part of Taizi heritage. One generation after another, women and men continue to grow and use mashaqer in rituals, decoration, food, medicine and accessorizing throughout the rural parts of Taiz, making mashaqer a timeless witness to the daily lives of the rural Yemeni in Taiz.
Mohammed Ameen al-Sharaabi is a Yemeni journalist, a member of the Humanitarian Journalism Network and the Data Journalists Network in Yemen. He has worked for 14 years for a number of Yemeni newspapers, such as al-Jumhooria, as a writer and an editor in the fields of arts, heritage and tourism. He is also a trainer in the field of humanitarian journalism and a television documentary producer and scenarist.
 Mashqur (sng.) and mashaqer (pl.) is a basil plant used by women and men in Yemen for adornment and ritual purposes during various occasions, such as weddings, births and funerals.
 A light bread drenched in a mild green yoghurt and herb mixture, garnished with deep red pomegranates.
A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)