“Beyond the mouth of the Nile at Peluse, bathed by the Red Sea, is the so-called Fruitful Arabia, full of perfumes and riches”: This is how Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, described the present day country of Yemen, once called “Arabia Felix” (Happy Arabia, or Fruitful Arabia) by the Romans. Yemen was also the site of the kingdom of Sheba, which extended out into Eritrea. How could the land of such a mythical queen not be a land of treasures?
The perfumes and riches of which Pliny speaks are, of course, overshadowed today by the war, but green Yemen, a historic stop on the sea routes to India and the Far East, is a breeding ground for know-how and craft traditions, including, in particular, Arabic calligraphy and palm braiding, which have been proposed for inclusion as Unesco World cultural heritage practices. The capital has given its name to the “songs of Sana’a” whose melodies give rhythm to wonderful ancestral poems, and Sana’a is also the city of origin of the “Sanaa’i”, a brightly colored square-shaped cloth that is wrapped around the body, one of the most popular garments in all of Yemen, as well as among others, the silver thread embroidery of the Bajil region, an area found at the foot of Tihama, the coastal plain of the Red Sea.
“The revolution of tradition”
These creations, made by extraordinary embroiderers, triggered a real passion in Barbara Evans, a collector whose husband was a British advisor to the Yemeni government between 1981 and 1989. Upon her return to England, Evans donated her Yemeni embroidered dresses to the Fashion Museum in Bath. The donation included a traditional indigo-dyed woven dress from the central mountainous area around Sana’a and a dress with a silver-thread embroidered front plate.
With such rich traditions, transmission never stops. It evolves with each generation, inspiring new callings and creations. In December 2010, Sana’a organized its first fashion show in a public place, in the presence of a mixed audience, under the theme “The Revolution of Tradition”. The event showcased new Yemeni talent, including fashion designer Maha AlKhuleidi, who studied tailoring in Italy and focused on reusing traditional elements in her designs. Another new talent is the Anglo-Yemeni designer Kaffa Mockbill, who uses the famous gold and silver wire weaving in her designs.
“I feel very proud”
Among the young talents from Yemen, Kazna Asker, finalist of Fashion Trust Arabia’s Prize 2022 in the Debut Talent category, tells Pulse a bit about her journey and country and lifts the veil on the discreet Yemeni creative community whose members are unfortunately now scattered.
“I was born and raised in the UK, however my parents raised me around Yemeni culture alongside the British Yemeni community. My family are from Yafa and the best Yemeni designers I know were the Yafai women I was raised around in my community! My grandma would design and sew abayas and diracs for her family for weddings and eid, which always inspired me to make my own clothes. Regarding creators from Yemen, I am extremely inspired by the Yemeni film scene and film makers, such as Sarah Ishaq, Wissam Al Jamaly and Albaraa Mansoor. My favorite Yemeni film is ‘When I Grow Up’ by Albaraa Mansoor – it is extremely inspiring and showcases the beauty and light-heartedness of the Yemeni community despite the hardship they are currently going through. Also, it is exciting to see the Yemeni diaspora collaborate and build a creative community around the world to raise awareness – such as Al Yamaniah, a platform focused on Yemeni women in the arts and culture.
“Although Yemen is currently going through hardship, we act as our own media and I believe there is so much beauty in our people that goes unrecognized, so when I see Yemeni filmmakers, photographers and designers around the world representing our culture with confidence, I feel very proud and I’m excited for what’s next!” she concludes, before saying with passion, “I believe Yemen is often overlooked and the country needs acknowledgement and resources in order for the creators to thrive! ”