Yemeni Glossary

What follows is a very haphazard glossary of terms you might come across when dealing with Yemen.


– Bara’: Tradition dance from the Yemeni highlands. Apparently originally a tribal war dance (think a Yemeni haka), groups of men will perform various synchronised moves with their janbiyas. Can be fast paced or slow. I can’t do the bara’ so don’t bother asking.

– Bint al-Sahn: Literally ‘the daughter of the plate’ (no idea why). Doughy-pastry like dish, usually served towards the end of the meal. Will usually have honey on top.


– Dabbab: A type of micro-bus, one of the cheapest ways to get around Yemeni cities. Hop-on, hop-off service.


– GPC: Stands for the ‘General People’s Congress’. Known in Arabic as al-Mu’tamar [al-Mu’tamar al-Sha’abi al-‘am]. This is the party of former President Saleh and the current President Hadi. More a patronage network than a political party with any real ideology, their position in post-Saleh Yemen is confused and will only become more obvious with the next elections.


– Herak: Southern separatist movement, al-Herak al-Janoubi [the Southern Movement]. Generally call for the return of the former independent state of South Yemen (North and South Yemen were united in 1990). Various different factions led by various different figures calling for various different things. Currently a very popular movement in the former South.

– Houthis:  Named for their deceased founder, and former MP, Hussein al-Houthi. Also known as Ansar Allah and the Believing Youth. Emerged in Sa’dah province in the far north of Yemen, they ascribe to the Zaydi Islamic school of thought. This does not mean that all Zaydis are Houthis. The Houthis emerged largely in response to what was felt to be the marginalisation of Zaydis by the central government, and the emergence of Salafis in Sa’dah. Very anti-American. A really rough analogy, but a bit like a Yemeni Hezbollah.

– Hulba: National dish (well at least in the highlands before people start hating on me). A kind of stew, at its most basic it is meat broth with a whipped fenugreek-y topping, but can have pieces of meat, egg, potato, chilli, and even rice. Technically only the fenugreek is the hulba, the rest is saltah. Or something like that.


– Islah: To put it simply, the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. In reality, an amalgamation of the MB, the leaders of the most powerful Yemeni tribe, Hashid, and more Salafi-inclined figures. Allied to former President Saleh till the 2000s (they didn’t run a candidate against Saleh in the 1999 Presidential elections), they became overtly anti-Saleh and joined a coalition of opposition parties, including their former adversaries the Yemeni Socialist Party, called the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). Joined the revolution against Saleh early on, and then agreed to become part of a post-Saleh coalition government.


– Janbiya: Traditional dagger worn by men in many parts of Yemen. The hilt of the dagger can often indicate the wearer’s tribe, and the most expensive are made of ivory. The dagger is worn on an intricate belt. Wearing a janbiya is seen as a sign of becoming a man. I was given my first janbiya when I was 7 #JustSaying.


– Khat: See Qat


– Mashaddah: Male headscarf, can be worn in a distinctive Yemeni way round the head, or round the back of the shoulders. Comes in various different patterns. More commonly known internationally as a keffiyeh (what the Palestinian variant is called).

– Me’waz: Kind’ve like a sarong, worn in coastal parts of Yemen and in Hadhramaut (basically anywhere it’s hot). Looks very comfortable. I’ve never worn one because I have a massive fear that it’ll fall off in a public place.


– Qat: Yemen’s favourite (mild) narcotic. A plant that grows across Yemen (also very popular in Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia). The leaves of the plant are chewed, specifically the smaller ones. Qat chews are the primary social gatherings of Yemenis, serving as the country’s social glue. Chewed far more today than it used to be in the past, when it was only really chewed on special occasions (or so my dad tells me). There is a growing grassroots movement trying to move Yemenis away from qat-chewing, many point to the negative consequences qat has for the country’s economy.


– Sahawiq: Yemeni chutney. Made of tomatoes, garlic etc. Can be spicy or not. Fantastic.

– Salafi: Thought about several ways to define what a Salafi is, but whatever definition I do come up with it’ll piss off someone somewhere. Very conservative Muslim, I suppose. Google it. Not as big a deal in Yemen as in other Arab countries, mainly because of Yemen’s indigenous religious traditions. Moving gradually into politics.

– Shafi’i: The school of thought largely followed by Sunnis in Yemen.

– Shafoot: Dish served at the start of a Yemeni lunch, there or thereabouts. Kind’ve like a pancake with yoghurt and salad on top. Never used to like it, but do now. Bit strange to look at, but good.

– Sufi: ‘Mystical’ Islam shall we say. Popular in Hadhramaut, where some of the world’s leading Sufi scholars are based, especially in the town of Tarim, which sees thousands of foreigners come to study at its seminaries.


– Zaffa: Yemeni wedding procession. Best part of the wedding in my opinion (men’s side anyway). Out in the street, the whole neighbourhood comes out. Everyone gathers in a circle of sorts, with the groom on one end and the singers on the other. Over the course of an hour or two the crowd gradually walks down the street. Fun times.

– Zanah: What Yemenis call the traditional Arab dress, otherwise known as the thobe/dishdasha/kandoura/gallabeya/jellaba. Yemenis have snazzed it up by adding a suit blazer on top.

– Zaydi: Shia school of thought prevalent in the northern part of the Yemeni highlands, specifically in governorates such as Sana’a, Sa’dah, Hajjah, and Amran. The background of most people who originate from the northern Yemeni highlands is Zaydi, and a Zaydi imamate, centred on northern Yemen, ruled for 1000 years up until it was overthrown in a revolution in 1962. After the revolution, and despite the fact that political power largely remained with Zaydis (all the leaders of North Yemen were Zaydi, including Saleh), there was a cultural move away from them, especially in the cities, and many people of Zaydi background no longer practice the specific tenets of Zaydi Islam. Having said that, Zaydis are considered very close to Sunnis, and so the small differences are not considered important by many laymen.

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