News / Middle East

Couple Aims to Preserve Yemen's Past Amid Present Chaos

Elizabeth Arrott
SANA'A, Yemen — Continued strife in Yemen often overshadows the rich cultural heritage of one of the world's oldest civilizations. Now there is an unlikely effort to preserve the country's past and make it relevant to the future.

The ancient land of Yemen is known more today for its fight against poverty, tribalism and terrorism.

Perhaps it's not the best place for an American couple to build a house. But that's what scholars Stephen and Kate Steinbeiser recently did, giving themselves the added challenges of making it environmentally sustainable, in a traditional Jewish design, primarily out of mud.

"When we first started, the neighbors around us, who generally have more modern homes built in cement, kind of made fun of me as the foreigner new to the block and not knowing what I was doing," said Stephen Steinbeiser.

Undaunted, Steinbeiser, the resident director of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, hired architect Abdullah al Hadrami. Together they devised a plan showcasing Yemeni craftsmanship while paying homage to this Sana'a quarter's once vibrant, now dispersed Jewish presence - a brave statement in a country al-Qaida calls home.

“It was all done by hand and so, for example, there were three workers who cut 2,240 stones from basically this bizarre shape into more like squares," he said.

  • The mud house revives the traditional architecture of the once Jewish quarter in Sana'a, Yemen. (E. Arrott/VOA)
  • Workers preparing the mud for plaster. (Photo courtesy AIYS)
  • A worker chews qat after working with plaster. (Photo courtesy AIYS)
  • All metalwork was hand forged, including the doorknocker and nails. (E. Arrott/VOA)
  • From right, Kate and Stephen Steinbeiser and architect Abdullah al Hadrami in the mafraj, a traditional room to chew qat. (E. Arrott/VOA)
  • Light from a stained glass window on the main staircase. (E. Arrott/VOA)
  • An alabaster window, upper left, is a traditional Yemeni feature. (Photo courtesy AIYS)
  • Architect Abdullah al Hadrami, behind a door leading to the porch. (E. Arrott/VOA)
  • A Star of David is often used to ward off the "evil eye" throughout Yemen. (E. Arrott/VOA)
  • Extra mud bricks make a temporary wall in the garden. (E. Arrott/VOA)

All the metalwork is handmade, by a blacksmith in Old Sana'a.

"This is kind of a simplified version of a more traditional lock... There is actually a hidden latch here that allows this to come out from the bottom and for the door to open. Yemenis are very clever with locks,” said Steinbeiser.

There's a traditional mafraj - or room to chew qat, a national pastime.

“We don't use it for chewing qat, but most Yemenis do, and the point is that you're at a high point, you know, of a city or place, and you're surrounded by windows so you can look out,” he said.

The main feature though, from traditional Yemeni architecture, is the use of mud: mud bricks, mud plaster, with, in some places, a coating of animal fat to seal it tight.

“This room is a very cool room of the house, especially in the summer. Mud architecture has that effect. It's basically a type of insulation that allows temperature to remain constant,” said Steinbeiser.

Not only does the mud make air conditioning unnecessary - it offered another benefit during the tumultuous uprising of last year.

“My Yemeni friends will reassure me by saying, 'Well, if there is a bullet that goes through the walls, it's not a big deal. It's mud. You just patch it over and it's fine,'” Steinbeiser said.

Few foreigners have stayed during the hard times. And for honoring Yemen's past, the Steinbeisers have changed their neighbors' opinions.

“When they saw the finished product and they saw it was really a kind of testament to Yemeni craftsmanship, Yemeni ingenuity and Yemeni heritage, they fell in love with it,” he said.

The house also is a commitment to Yemen's future, a small promise of continuity and self-reliance in a country struggling to find its way.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs