This is the seventh post in a series on Yemeni dress, customs, and craft written by guest contributor Darleen Wilkerson Karpowicz, an American art teacher who lived in Yemen for five years in the early 1980s. During this time Darleen documented and studied the costume, customs, and crafts of the people she learned to love.
An hour east of Hodeidah and two hours from Bayt al-Faqih, lying at the base of the mountains separating Sana’a from the Tihama, is the crossroad town of Bajil. It is situated on the inland portion of the Tihama where it is still hot, arid, and barren. It is the last town before the long and arduous climb that commences into the mountains and into the high plain where Sana’a is situated.
This has always been an important traveller’s route, as it follows the wadi beds upstream and was used by the Turks to carry their supplies from Hodeidah to Sana’a on what, by modern standards, would seem like a dangerous and small road. When I lived in Yemen it was still used as the main thoroughfare only this time by the truck drivers and travellers from Hodeidah and beyond, who travelled on a paved modern road.
Bajil was mostly a collection of single-story concrete block buildings – shops, workshops, and simple basic dwellings – lining the main highway. There was some agriculture in the surrounding countryside, but the town’s main income was derived from its function as a stopping place for trucks and travellers. It was not a picturesque town with business and services as its reason for being, and unlike Bayt al-Faqih, it was not often visited by foreign tourists. Yet it was at the Bajil suq that the very interesting poncho (qamis) worn by the local women could be seen.
The qamis was especially unusual as it clearly displayed a combination of styles and designs previously mentioned as occurring in Bayt al-Faqih and in A-Adhi. There were some style differences – this qamis was loose and widely cut while it displayed the design, using tatting and silver metal thread embroidery (talli), seen in the old Bayt al-Faqih wedding dress. These qamis were frequently worn with the reverse side out apparently to keep the ornamentation clean but, according to one Bajil source, also to prevent prying and unwelcome eyes ‘seeing the intricacy of the handwork’. Strangers seeing this intricate embroidery was considered bad luck to the owner and wearer of the dress.
The older qamis were much more intricately adorned compared to some of the newer ones which could be seen more often towards the end of my stay in Yemen. Very traditional women used to wear this garment for a wedding dress and while I was there this style was dying out in favour of a newer more modern style of wedding dress with a more ‘Western’ look. While I was in Yemen, the traditional qamis were still being made and worn in and around Bajil and in Marawa which was a small town some twenty miles west of Bajil in the direction of Hodeidah.
The patterns and designs employed in the machine embroidery (zari) on the newer style qamis are similar to those seen on the elaborately decorated face masks from the Hijaz region of Saudi Arabia as well as in parts of Ethiopia and Sudan. When questioned about the origin of this technique and designs people making these garments invariably stated that they were ‘Yemeni’. Yet, the women in Bayt al-Faqih creating the garments were referred to as the ‘Indian’ women.
The towns of the Tihama were not far inland from the port of Hodeida which had served historically as a shipping port. Yemen had historically imported many domestic and commercial items from outside the country for centuries. It would not be altogether implausible to consider that design ideas for dress and costume and the techniques used to create clothing items would move between countries and cultures during international trade and commerce. It is also true that crafts and production techniques were in fact carried from one port to the other.
About one hour’s drive north from Hodeidah is found the small village of Adahi. This village was surrounded by subsistence farms in an area of little water and extreme heat. Here, as in Bajil, is where the black embroidered qamis was rather commonly worn and where it was sewn. Yet, Adahi was also a place where a more modern-day loose flowing ‘wrap’ appeared and many of the women in the area adapted this flowing garment as it was cool. The garment was decorated with machine embroidery for colour and design since its foundation was usually made from white or black material. This modern-day qamis seemed to have replaced the more elaborate hand-decorated article. Women in both Adahi and Bajil started wearing this garment in the early1980s years before I arrived in Yemen.
It was a unique garment since it was adapted for heat and yet it also satisfied women’s need for looking stylish. This garment was often seen worn by women in these towns yet trying to find a shop that sold these dresses was not easy since most were made only to special order. The Adahi dress flowed as the woman walked. The qamis could be slipped over the head so no need for zippers or buttons. Garments that do not need zippers or buttons were preferred since these items were often impossible to find in the small local markets where so many of the population purchased their everyday items.
Machine embroidered decorative patterns were abundantly displayed on each garment. Some appeared to exhibit an African influence showing designs of thatched huts, stylised mosques, and other geometric designs apparently derived from the embroiderer’s imagination of village scenes. The designs also appeared to be based on scenes of daily life showing Tihama’s round thatched dwellings with conical roofs, widely spaced and surrounded by thorn fences. The designs abstracted these scenes in an easily identifiable manner. The principal colours were reds, yellows, or black. The tunics or qamis made of white material were often embroidered with only black thread although sparkling metallic threads also appeared to be a favourite additional element.
A Practical ensemble
The garment, hanging to knee-length, was large and billowy with wide openings for the arms allowing cool air to circulate. Qamis were often worn with the standard Bayt al-Faqih dress or just simply with the futah. When worn without a blouse or upper garment the tunics were often belted at the waist to keep it closed. Many of these garments were worn by village women with little income for whom densely embroidered dresses were unaffordable and yet even the simplest dress was decorated with some type of machine embroidery.
The coolness of the garment was appreciated by the women and the ones I spoke to liked wearing it as it was affordable, comfortable, and practical as the women went about their daily chores. The tunic was often worn with the locally made conical hat and the popular red and black scarf that so many women in the various villages wore.
Darleen Wilkerson Karpowicz is an artist and designer who went to Yemen in 1981 to start an art department at a private Yemeni school. While working in Yemen for five years she met and married her husband (from England) and since that time together they have lived and worked in many developing countries for the past 33 years. Darleen worked predominately in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia with mostly Muslim women training them how to adapt their traditional textile-making skills to the modern market.
Copyright to all images belongs to Darleen Wilkerson Karpowicz. Reproduced here with permission.
Marjorie Ransom: A specialist on Yemeni silver jewellery and author of Silver Treasures from the Land of Sheba
Sigrid van Roode: Jewellery historian and author of Desert Silver, and Silver & Frankincense
About the Series
Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6 of this fascinating series here. Our next post will focus on Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city and most urban area, and we will discover what the women in the Old Town of Sana’a wore as their traditional clothing. I believe everyone should see the old city of Sana’a at least once.
We will also touch upon the garments and lives of the women to the north of Sana’a. The country to the north of Sana’a is harsh, dry, cold, hot, and rugged. With these variations come rich and diverse architectural styles, lifestyles, and dress reflecting the land and what challenges and opportunities it offers to the women who live there. We will touch on all these aspects.