Artist in Yemen

I will be in Sana'a, Yemen, May 27-July 10 2006. I'll be working on my Arabic language skills and painting every day, walking around asking questions about food and gardens and perfume and incense. I'll be studying and living at the Center for Arabic Language and Eastern Studies(CALES)in the Old City of Sana'a. Although I usually paint in reverse on glass, in Sana'a I'll be working in watercolor and mixed media on paper.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

First Weekend: Gardens

It's the weekend here, it falls on Thursday and Friday.

I had one of those tough days Wednesday, where I felt foreign and disconnected and lonely and hot and cranky and weird. Part of the deal, I think. It always passes.

Yesterday I woke up early and after breakfast decided to wander out in search of maqaashim, the old vegetable gardens that I read about, that have been attached to mosques in the old city for hundreds of years. I have a so-so map of the Old City, which is better than a good map because it affords me the opportunity to get lost. The map shows gardens. I found a couple that I could see from over a wall, but couldn't find access. The third one I found I stopped to ask directions of a woman bundling vegetables (cilantro, parsley, some kind of onion green). There the adventure began. I ended up staying and chatting for a long time, more women appeared, and they kept giving me little handfuls of mulberries that little boys kept bringing in fresh off the trees. They invited me to a wedding, with a paper invitation and all, in two weeks. I'm saving the paper invitation to incorporate into my language lesson on Saturday.

I was just about to go when one of the women, got up, and took my hand, and lead me away, with some strong intention. I had no idea where we were going, but was enjoying the mystery. Her name, it turns out, is Najat. (This appeals to my dyslexic taste for symmetry and reversal: Janet-Najat). She lead me to another garden, all the way across the Old City, where we visited some other gardeners, and she picked some onions and rue and cilantro, and delivered a handful of wedding invitations to a house nearby, and then we went visiting some more and delivered some vegetables to her aunt. She seemed to especially enjoy picking routes through streets and alleys and suqs that specialized in wedding party rentals (special bride thrones with silk flowers, strings of lights, car service, and loudspeakers) and bridal regalia (not just dresses, but bead veils, tiaras and strange honeymoon lingerie). I guess it's wedding fever at her house. Several times she took me a little out of the way to show me particular dresses she liked. They're very sparkly, in luscious saturated colors.
I confessed to Najat that I was curious about the location of any hammams (bathhouses associated with mosques) and which days they were open to women. She took my hand again, and firmly lead me off to show me every hammam she knew. We crisscrossed the city hand in hand, stopping at five hammams, getting the info at each on which days they are open to women. We visited another miqshamaa where she had more family . A beautiful old walled garden, accessible through a gate, with a big cistern for water, and fruit trees interspersed among the vegetable beds, all redolent with the skunky bitter smell of rue.

It was a wonderful morning, walking with my new friend. I arrived home hot and thirsty and happy. I look forward to visiting the family in the garden again, to trying out all five hammams, and to going to a wedding in two weeks.

Thank you Najat!

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don't go back to sleep. You must ask for what you really want. Don't go back to sleep. People are going back and forth across the doorsill where the two worlds touch. The door is round and open. Don't go back to sleep. -Jelaluddin Rumi