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.

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