Arabia and the Single Girl

Article excerpt

Byline: Elisabeth Eaves

When a young Canadian heads to Yemen, she finds effusive hospitality, an eager guide--and a marriage proposal.

We travel because other places are different from where we came from. Being from one of the most liberal countries on earth, Canada, I was drawn to the opposite sort of place with a kind of repulsed fascination and desire to understand. To come from a world where I could do anything (or believed I could, which amounts to the same thing) and visit a world where women are banished from public life was as dramatic a plunge into difference as possible. Which is as good an explanation as any for how I found myself, at the age of 20--when I could have been at a fraternity party in the United States or Eurailing my way through Belgium instead--wedged into the front seat of a group taxi in a dusty parking lot in Sana, the capital of Yemen.

There was a man rapping at our window. Unlike most Yemeni men, who wore sarong-and-sport-coat ensembles, he wore a Western suit. In careful English he asked, "Please, will you sit with my relative?"

My friend Mona and I had been backpacking in Yemen for several weeks, on vacation from a school year in Egypt. These group taxis for eight or nine passengers were a good way to get between cities, but we usually tried to get the front seat, separate from the other riders, observing the prevailing gender apartheid.

We reshuffled ourselves so that Mona and I sat in the back with Shafa, the girl in crown-to-toe black, protecting her from having to sit next to a strange male. The man who had rapped at our window was her uncle, Abu Bakr. He worked in Sana as an English teacher, and was taking her down to the family home in the highland city of Taiz, where we were headed too. When she removed her gloves I saw her baby fat, and asked Abu Bakr how old she was. "Twelve," he said.

"Isn't that young to be wearing the veil?" I said.

"Yes, it is," he replied. "She did not want to wear it but I made her. I will not let any member of my family go uncovered, because I am con-serv-a-tive."

He enunciated the last word like one studied but rarely spoken. His worldview was broad enough to know that a foreigner might think his outlook needed explaining, and so he had learned the appropriate vocabulary but hadn't found much cause to use it. I, likewise, had learned the words to explain myself here. I knew how to say in Arabic that I was Christian--only true in the vaguest sense--and that where I came from it was normal for women my age to be unmarried. But my knowledge was theoretical; conversing with an actual person who held Abu Bakr's views piqued my interest.

By the time we got to Taiz, he had invited us to stay in his family home. It was not an especially surprising offer. Everywhere I'd been in Arab countries, I'd been shown an effusive hospitality of a kind rare in the West. And one of the great advantages of being female and traveling through Muslim lands is that "conservatives" like Abu Bakr can invite you to socialize with their women, an experience barred to foreign men. …