the family that eats together…

One of the things I’ve always liked about my father and mother in law was their ‘no exceptions’ on eating together. Just past Dhurh for the noon day meal, any of their children and their spouses that were home at that time sat together to eat as a family. There never was this ‘women in one room after the men ate’. They all ate at the same time, or nobody ate.

I thought, mistakenly, that was the norm in Yemen. I would find out soon enough, that if anything, my in-laws were not the norm by any stretch. Not even within their tribe, nor among the extended family of their own in-laws. My mother in law would repeatedly state, ‘they’re too Saudi for my taste’. Sorry, she blames the Saudis for everything.

The realization dawned on the day after my 30th day of marriage – the official ‘honeymoon over’ time. As is custom for their tribe, we could go ‘visiting’. Bang! I got hit with a feather. Every where we went the women ate either in the kitchen, or the inner family room if they had the means to afford it. We would understand when there was no blood relation to the women, but even when all were first cousins it would still be separate. So much so that ‘they might as well be strangers’, as my father in law would lament.

Both my husband and I were not happy at being separated, and I certainly missed the fun, relaxed meals we had at home. All the joking around, usually at my father in law’s expense. He is still a major prankster! It was the time we discussed everything under the sun. Making our meals particularly long affairs we were all loath to leave. Leave for those diwans and the Qat chew.

You see my father in law never goes to the diwans to chew Qat. The few decades old social custom of the Yemeni. In reality the use of it is more recent than what most are led to believe. Qat has been around for a long time, but only until recently when it spurred on particular industries did its popularity skyrocket, much to the demise of the Yemeni water table. In my in-laws mountain-peak home, that privilege is reserved for the wife’s company. My father and mother in law are always together. To separate them is to cause one of them to get sick, my father in law can’t stand the idea! They brought their children up to be like them. The only one, ‘son of a Saudi’ as both father and mother would gravely announce, was the eldest son. Now there’s a man the Muttawa would be proud of. Some apples do fall far afield…

When he married, the eldest didn’t allow his wife to sit next to or in the same room as his brothers, father, or any woman for that matter. He kept her locked up in her room from the first day she arrived. Not allowed even to cook, wash or anything in the company of anyone. She was not allowed to bond with anyone. The situation got so bad that one day, my father in law hit the roof when his son asked for the hundredth time, in as many days, to have his wife’s food served on a platter that he would take to her when he finished eating.

What would rile my father in law was the amount his son stated had to be on the plate. ‘Since when do we price the rice by grain, or the meat by sinew?! Everyone here eats until the food is finished and had their fill. What you have in that plate won’t feed one of our chickens!’ He shouted at his son while grabbing plate and throwing it outside into the yard everything scattering, scaring even the dogs. ‘You think she’s an animal? Then she would have to eat off the floor! But before you even do that, leave this place where I can’t see or hear you, because you will surely hear the words not the meaning!’ Yemeni can be very ‘poetic’, especially when angry!

A few days later his eldest moved out with his wife. My mother in law stated as they left, ‘well at least the poor woman will have a house for a prison instead of a room’.

I married into the tribe a few months after, and this scene was recounted in all its disturbing details when we returned from the first visit outside the compound. ‘Their ways are not ours.’

In fact, because of my eldest brother-in-law the next two sons in line, right after their brother married and started this inhumane treatment of his wife, took jobs away from their mountain so they could not in any way see something they had no power to stop. For my father it signaled a horrible death for his family, it was disintegrating in front of him. Only when we were married, my husband and I (he’s the fourth son), did things return to normal and the air was again relaxed and joyous. The other two sons returned grateful they could enjoy their home. What had happened for a few months was an anomaly. When these two sons  married two years later, they kept to ‘Al-Bayt traditions’, to everyone’s relief.

The eldest, sadly, is banned from living on the compound, because he has not mellowed one bit- on the contrary ‘he seems more foreign everyday!’

Once or twice they have tried to reconcile their differences, but my brother-in-law remains a stubborn mule. To the point that his children prefer to spend most of their lives at their grandparents, than at home. When my in-laws see on TV or are read to from newspapers and magazines (neither read nor write) they cry at the injustices of people neither allowed nor allowing each other the true comforts of family living. Which is one reason my mother in law blames the Saudis: ‘Ever since our men went there to work, they have come back with the worst manners and thoughts. How can your mother, sister or wife be treated as if she were haraam?!’

Life for them was never easy, true – but they tried their hardest to at least have peace and joy in their home to be shared by all. It has not always worked in their favor; ostracized by their own brothers. But for them, it is what Allah will ask of them with regards to their own children that matters. ‘Allah knows I had no hand in making my son so foreign!’

My father in law believes and lives the motto of the ‘family that eats (and pray) together, stays together.’

Indeed we do!


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