A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
“I wish I was still young, and that I had never grown up.”
This is how she started her talk, as if she, in that fleeting moment, had gone back to the memories of her beautiful childhood in the blink of an eye.
We had agreed to meet at 7:30 Friday morning, and the place we chose to meet was Old Sana’a. As for the person I was meeting with, Najmia, well…who doesn’t know Najmia?
She is the young Sana’ani girl that we were introduced to by the short documentary film, A Stranger in Her Own City, which was directed by Khadija al-Salami, a Yemeni director, in 2005, when Najmia was 13 years old. In this short film, Najmia had a strong presence and a spellbinding charisma, with the viewer finding themselves focusing on her Sana’ani accent and cleverness. Her audacity and lack of concern for the views of the society she was in, a society with a harsh outlook and traditions towards her as a female, were very clear to anyone watching, and the viewer saw an interesting mix in her character of an untainted nature with an acquired talent for conversation.
Unlike what was usually the case for young girls her age, she did not wear the hijab, and she rode bicycles and motorcycles. She played with boys and confidently declared that she would be the one to choose her husband in the future. She was not afraid of anyone, and she promised to respond to anyone who harmed her. More importantly, she talked about her dream of becoming a translator in the future and being able to talk to and inform foreign visitors about her city, Old Sana’a.
Najmia dreamed of being able to exercise her natural right to live her life the way she wanted to live it, without being attacked because of her rebellion against the norms of her society. All of this made her the protagonist of her story, a story that drew others into it to learn more about her.
Where is Najmia now, and what has happened to all of this? What has happened to her childhood dreams, and has the time that has passed since then been as harsh to her dreams as it has been to her cherished city, Sana’a?
These were the questions on my mind as I looked forward to my meeting with her, on the way to the location that we had agreed upon. Walking through the old city on this temperate Sana’a morning, I passed through the old neighborhoods and alleyways, while the sunrays were beginning to shine down onto the street through the decorated old buildings, buildings that were standing like dignified and wise old women from the distant past. This despite the fact that many of them have been destroyed, as al-Razi mentioned in his book, The History of Sana’a, with only around 1,400 dwellings remaining during the reign of Wali Ahmad bin Qais al-Dhahak due to the wars and changing rulers of Sana’a.
I arrived at the Great Mosque, our designated meeting place, one of the most famous mosques in Sana’a. This mosque has long been an independent school and scientific institute frequented by religious scholars and scholars in the natural sciences, including astronomy, medicine, and other fields, before it became a center for worship and religious studies.
I was surprised, however, by a call from Najmia while I was waiting for her, and she told me that she was feeling a bit sick and was in the al-Rahman Clinic in the area of al-Sarhah. I went to her, asking along the way for directions, until I finally reached it. The clinic was nothing more than a very small room, its doorway covered by a colorful curtain, with a table near the door and some medicine. An IV stand and bed were in the room, and Najmia was on the bed, with her brother and nurse next to her.
Inside, I felt a mixture of shock and sadness, and things did not look the way that I had imagined they would. Najmia looked completely different! She was wearing a black abaya, with her head wrapped in a black hijab with a niqab covering her face, this foreign uniform that had taken the place of the colorful and lively Sana’ani sitarah.
The questions that I had previously prepared quickly left my mind, with other questions popping up. What happened? How did things get to the point where she was now asking me to not take pictures of her eyes, even if her face was covered by the niqab! I had to, however, contain my surprise and focus first on checking on her health and making sure that she was alright.
Najmia did not hide her yearning for her past, flashing a wide smile, her eyes gazing around the room while she remembered those moments that she had spent playing and being free in the streets, free of responsibilities and oversight, which is not the case today. She also expressed her extreme sadness for not being able to complete her studies, saying that she had hoped to find someone to encourage her to continue attending school. She blamed the nature of the educational system, which she could never get used to or commit to attending, leading to her now having forgotten how to even read and write.
She also expressed her regret for wearing the niqab, which she no longer feels able to remove because it has become, as she described, “a part of her nature”. Najmia remembers rebelling against wearing the hijab whenever her mother would try to make her wear it. Instead of wearing it, Najmia would tie it around her head. She stressed that, when she becomes a mother one day, she will allow her daughter to live the childhood that she lived, saying that she will allow her to ride bicycles and motorcycles. She added that she will provide all means of comfort to her daughter, and she would not force her to wear the niqab. Then, she added, asking in her dialect: “What will happen? Will society eat her alive?”
The surprising encounter did not end here, and she told me that she had been married in a traditional fashion, and that her marriage, which was to an older man who was suffering from mental health problems, had failed. This marriage only lasted for one month.
She laughingly said that the reason for her innocent desire to get married when she was young was because she wanted to experience sitting at the bride’s chair during her wedding. She was taken back to the past then, laughing her unique laugh, shifting from sad tune to silence.
There were a number of suitors that came asking for her hand from different parts of the world, including the United States of America, and they came bearing gifts. They would always disappear in the end, however, due to the difficulty in getting to the country and the complicated procedures and process for marriage. When I asked her if she was thinking about getting married again, she said that she wanted someone who is handsome, as young as her, and who is not married to anyone else.
She then went back into her memories, remembering how she used to express her emotions freely during her childhood, talking openly about the boys she wanted to marry: “He is my love, he is my fiancé.” Now, however, all of the boys that she has said this about have gotten married, but this has not stopped them from expressing their desire to marry her as a second wife, an arrangement that she does not want.
She has given up some of her childhood behaviors, but this does not mean that there are no other aspects of happiness in her life, she told me. She spends her days happily, out in the street and in qat chewing sessions, as well as on trips with her family, which consists of eight girls and two boys.
These details piqued my curiosity, and I began wondering how Najmia today is seen in the eyes of the people of Sana’a? Has she remained in their memory? We had to wait before going out to have breakfast, to make sure that her health allowed her to leave. Najmia was very excited to go out with me in Old Sana’a, and her illness did not diminish any of the excitement or her lively spirit.
Despite the apparent changes due to the passing years and growing up from childhood into adulthood, Najmia still has that unique presence and distinguished way of expressing herself, a characteristic accent, and an innocent way of thinking. She always greets everyone passing by, men or women, and as soon as they know who she is by hearing her voice, their facial expressions change and they start laughing and smiling, as if she lights the area around her just by being there.
She took time to go into shops to see if the owners still remembered her, and they in turn greeted her, laughed with her, and asked how she was doing. This would happen in a very natural and human way, where all important considerations that are foreign to Sana’ani society relating to the relationship between men and women disappear.
She met a pottery seller and talked with him for a while, then she carried some of the pieces of pottery and suggested that I take a picture with them. Then, coincidentally, we met Arafat, the young man who she had said she wanted to marry when she was young. He was sitting in front of a shop, with his young son was next to him! She pointed at him happily, exclaiming loudly, “Look, that is Arafat!”
Later, she took us through markets selling spices, copper, and janbiyahs, where some of the shops had not opened for the day yet. We passed by some local manufacturers of metal and wood products, which showed the high level of development that Sana’a had reached in the distant past, when Sana’a had represented a land port branching off the trade routes coming from east Asia, after the sea routes between Greece and India through the Red Sea had stopped, increasing trade and industry in Sana’a.
Afterwards, we moved on to the Al–Qalis Church, which is said to have artifacts from an ancient church, a living testament of the religious coexistence that the people of Sana’a were known for not so long ago. Christianity came to Yemen during the reign of Emperor Constantius II of Rome (317 to 361), and Judaism was also present in Sana’a, starting in the classical era and ending with the migration of Jews from Yemen in the middle of the last century.
Najmia talked about the flow of tourists into Old Sana’a, which had ended because of the ongoing events in Yemen during the past few years, and she said that she used to make money as a tour guide, despite being young. She knows many areas in Sana’a that no one else knows, she told me, and these are ‘secret’ places that she does not want to reveal to us. She also guided tourists to the places that sold Yemeni silver and agate jewelry. As for the way that she communicated with them, she used a few English words that were almost unintelligible. When I asked her whether she wanted to learn English today, she responded, “What would be the point? Where are the people?” She meant, of course, the tourists. She also earned money from the judges who were the caretakers responsible for the Great Mosque, in exchange for cleaning the mosque every day, as well as for guiding the people who needed it to the scholars and Quran reciters of the Great Mosque so that they could have the Quran read for recovery from an illness. When I asked her what she did with the money, she responded in her confident Sana’ani accent, saying: “The money then was really worth something, and I used to use it to buy sweets.”
Najmia pointed out an abandoned tunnel-like area that extended inwards and had a very low roof, and I was surprised to learn that a whole family was living in this area! It seems like poverty has tightened its clutches over this beautiful city, and Najmia kept expressing her distress about the worsening conditions of the people there, upset about the children who never chose this painful fate that they were born into.
The rest of the shops were starting to open for business, and the scent of spices and incense spread throughout the markets, with the streets and alleyways getting more and more crowded with visitors to the markets. Some of the people were heading towards the Great Mosque for Friday prayer, while others were in the restaurant square and in the middle of the markets. We had to go back as it was now close to noon, and Najmia started to feel tired.
Before we said our goodbyes, I asked her to describe Sana’a to us, and she said that Sana’a has changed a lot. She said this with a deep sadness, saying that Sana’a was an amazing place before the current conflict , and that the conditions for the people and her family have dramatically worsened with the rising unemployment and because many families have been affected by the war. From what Najmia has seen in the people, she said that things have gotten gloomy and the people are very unhappy.
Yes, Sana’a has changed, and Najmia’s situation has changed, but it is enough that she still has her vibrant spirit that refused to be kept down or have its luster taken away by the war or the changing conditions.
I said goodbye to Najmia, then I said goodbye to Old Sana’a, as if I was traveling back in time and place and coming back from a living example of people interacting with the realities that they are living in. I could not help but think about how many magical stories were hiding behind the details, buildings and faces, and how many treasures lay undiscovered in this city! As for Najmia, I saw her as a star in the tapestry of the story that is Sana’a, a story that will always charm us with its details and characters.
 The History of Sana’a by al-Razi, verified by Dr. Hussein al-Omari, pg. 29.
 Najmea name in Arabic means “star”.