This is the second part of a long essay, first part of which was published here.
1.1. The Yemeni Arab Spring: crisis and revolution
So how did I stumble onto rizq? On 7 July, 2011, soon after my arrival in Ṣanʿāʾ, I was welcomed by a stunning pyrotechnic show. Thousands of rifles started shooting at the moon, dressing the night in leaden garments. The heated bullets turned the sky red and danced over our heads for more than an hour. Thence, above our heads, they started falling, causing tens of injured people and two deaths. Later, in the morning, children gathered those weird bullet-shaped hailstones for hours.
That sudden hailstorm was the consequence of a seemingly strange and painful circumstance. On the 3 June 2011, a presidential compound had been bombed, and the explosion ripped through the mosque during prayers. President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh and several others were injured in the attack, and five people died. The president was swiftly transferred to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. The following day, Vice President al-Hādy took over as acting president. During the subsequent month, uncontrollable rumours spread regarding Saleh’s condition, his death, and the possibility of a transfer of power.
Eventually, on 7 July—the day of my arrival in Yemen—the president gave a speech. He appeared on television, heavily injured and burnt all over his body, and he talked to the Nation from a hospital in Saudi Arabia. Yemeni people, especially in Ṣanʿāʾ, greeted this speech with irrepressible joy and in their celebration and started shooting at the moon. This is how I ended up in the middle of a hailstorm of bullets during my first day in Ṣanʿāʾ; this was my first encounter with the Yemeni Arab Spring.
Similar, and worse, episodes of violence and joy occurred during my entire stay in Ṣanʿāʾ, which was until the end of December 2011. During this period, the capital city of Yemen was literally divided in three areas. The north of the city, especially al-Ḥaṣabah, was controlled by armed tribesmen led by the paramount sheikhs of Beīt al-Aḥmar, the leaders of the Ḥāshid confederation. The second area, the so-called ‘square’, was the site of the protests and the cradle of the Yemeni Arab Spring. It was a wide area, extending between the old and the new university on ‘Ring Road’ (ad-Dāʾiry), and it was controlled and ‘protected’ by ʿAlī Muḥsen al-Aḥmar, a major general of the Yemeni army, commander of the First Armed Division (known as ‘al-Firqah’). The third area was, more or less, the rest of the capital city, controlled by Ahmed ‘Ali Saleh, the son of the president and leader of the military division called The Republican Guard. The main camp of loyalists was in Taḥrīr Square.
Hence, Ṣanʿāʾ was under military occupation, and every night we could hear explosions and gunfire as a consequence of the clashes between the three factions. The youth and, more generally, the protesters occasionally demonstrated in the streets, spending most of their time sitting in the tents of the ‘square’, chewing qāt and eating food provided by unknown suppliers. Meanwhile, in Taḥrīr Square, the loyalists, the so-called balāṭijah, were spending their days in a similar fashion: chewing qāt and eating rice and chicken, without even bothering to engage in any sort of political activity.
My description is overtly sarcastic, since the first signs of a drifting of the political aims of the revolution were already in the wind. I remember the genuine enthusiasm that characterised—at that time—the purposes of many of my friends and the harsh disenchantment that would follow a few months later. Against the backdrop of this political turmoil, most of the people were concerned with more basic problems. The ‘revolution’ was a daily topic of conversation during qāt sessions, and a heated one. Supporters of the youth and supporters of the president faced each other every day, engaging in exhausting verbal fights. Yet ‘active’ participation was very limited, and behind the political scenes lurked serious economic issues. Many people, especially supporters of the president, were overtly engaging in a semantic battle to redefine the revolution as a crisis (azmah). They were not completely wrong.
Electricity, in Yemen, has always been a big issue. Yemenis have always been extremely ironic in this regard, mixing harsh critiques of the government with funny jokes about their situation. But in 2011 the situation became unbearable, leaving ‘normal’ people with only one or two hours of electricity per day. The government blamed the crisis on ‘the tribesmen’: either the ones from Ḥāshid that were concurrently putting the north of Ṣanʿāʾ to the sword or those from Maʾrib who had become a traditional scapegoat for any sort of Yemeni issue.
Whatever the cause, the blackouts paralysed Ṣanʿāʾ. The price of candles increased from 10 to 70 riyal; cold bottles of water were available at 100 riyal, two times the price of normal ones; many shop keepers purchased (Chinese) electric generators, just to realise that they could not afford the petrol to make them work. Meanwhile the capital was experiencing a drastic shortage of petrol and gas. Since the great majority of Yemeni houses are not served by gas pipelines, in most of the quarters people buy gas bottles from the ʿāqil (the representative of the quarter), exchanging them for their empties. For this reason, they are not free to buy as many bottles as they wish. During the crisis in 2011, the shortage of gas forced many families to buy from the black market, at higher prices. Yet the most dramatic problem was the shortage of petrol. Before the crisis, the price of one litre of petrol was 70 riyal. As with gas, petrol was available on the black market, at a price of around 600 riyal per litre.
In the countryside the situation was no better. Many Yemeni villages are not reachable by car, and of course they are not served by running water. While in the cities each house has its own tank, which is filled through pipelines or, usually, by water wagons, villages solely rely on the pumps which extract water from groundwater aquifers and pump it to the tanks. In Kuthreh, the village where I would stay the following year, people recalled the days of the crisis as a dramatic period. The houses and the mosques remained without water. Peasants could not irrigate qāt trees and, more importantly for Kuthreh, pear trees. One of the villagers, the owner of a gas station, was injured and robbed while on duty. The situation, in Kuthreh as in many other places, was mitigated through the recourse to ‘mediation’ (wasāṭah). One of the villagers, the personal guard of the Minister of Oil, mediated (tawassaṭ) to obtain a special supply for Kuthreh: 25,000 litres of petrol, at 90 riyal per litre.
1.2. Managing a birth during the crisis
Against the backdrop of the crisis, despite the climate of violence and promises of revolutionary change, most of my Yemeni friends from the old city of Ṣanʿāʾ, where I was living in those fast-moving days, were concerned with making a living.
When I use the verb ‘to live’, I am translating the Arabic ʿāsh, and I need to specify the semantic range of this term. Here, again, Ibn Khaldun can give us some useful insights. Debating on the ways, means and methods of making a living, Ibn Khaldun specifies that the noun maʿāsh, a verbal noun constructed from the verb ʿāsha, stands for ‘livelihood’, implying ‘the desire for sustenance and the effort to obtain it’. Subsequently, he adds an interesting comment: “The idea is that ʿaīsh (life) is obtained only through the things (that go into making a living), and they are therefore considered, with some exaggeration, ‘the place of life’.”
In contemporary spoken Arabic ʿaīsh immediately recalls the meaning of ‘bread’, as in the widespread formula beīnanā al-ʿaīsh wa-l-milḥ (literally, ‘between us the bread and the salt’), and the term maʿāsh is univocally referred to as one’s ‘salary’. In a sense, bread and, nowadays, one’s salary, are the places of life, because they are fundamental to making a living. They are, literally, sustenance, the very essence of rizq. Yet ‘making a living’ implies something more than the mere satisfaction of primary needs, and my interlocutors were highly aware of this subsidiary meaning of the expression. ‘To live’ is not just ‘to eat’ and the ‘things that go into making a living’ need to satisfy social necessities, not just biological ones.
Keeping this in mind, we can return to July 2011, the middle of the revolutionary crisis. When I arrived in Ṣanʿāʾ, one of my best friends, Qays, had just had a child, and another friend, Rashid, was about to have one. Having a child, in Yemen, is a social fact of the uttermost importance, a social fact that entails a number of rituals and practices that cover a period of 45 days. This period, with the related rituals and practices, is called wilād, and it is tremendously expensive. A traditional Yemeni proverb states: ‘Two weddings do not equate with a birth (ʿaruseīn wa lā wilād)’, referring explicitly to the expenses of the wilād, which are comparable to that of two marriages.
Qays’ economic situation, at the time of the wilād, was nearly desperate. He was a man of nearly 40 years of age who traced his origin to a small village called al-Bustān, in Beny Maṭar (a northern tribe located south-west of the capital). He considered himself a Southern Arab and a qabīly, as he came from the countryside. Yet he had lived and worked in the old city of Ṣanʿāʾ since he was a child. I first met him in 2006, when he was the manager of a famous hotel in the old city and a tour operator.
From 2009 onwards, tourism started to decrease drastically, mainly because of the continuous kidnappings, the menace (real or imaginary) of al-Qāʿedah and the ongoing war between the Yemeni government and the so-called ‘Ḥūthy movement’ in the north of the country. Qays’ experience during these difficulties was to lose everything he had built up: first his cars, then his hotel and eventually his house. In January 2011, when the Arab Spring exploded in Yemen, he started working as an interpreter for a British journalist, ending up as the main character in the world famous documentary The Reluctant Revolutionary. Despite this experience giving him room to breathe, in July 2011 Qays was 6 months late on the rent of his house and 2 months late on that of his office. Not a single possibility of income was available on the horizon, and the Yemeni crisis had reached one of its highest peaks. Yet he organised the wilād for his wife.
Here we need to spend some time to describe this social institution. The wilād starts right after the birth of the baby and lasts for forty five days during which sexual intercourse is forbidden. The wilād can be of two types: ‘open’ or ‘closed’. ‘Open’ means that every day the wālidah (the new mother) receives guests, bearing the responsibility of entertaining them. ‘Entertain’, here, means that—at the very least—she will provide madaʿāt to smoke, a servant to prepare them (usually a qashshāmah), tobacco (titin) for everyone and saūd, a special substance to give it aroma. This normally costs something like 6,000 / 7,000 riyal a day.
Due to his economic circumstances, Qays opted for a ‘closed’ wilād, and he made it shorter than 45 days, opening his house to guests after 30 days for yaūm al-wafā’ (the day of fulfilment). He negotiated the presence of a nashshādah, a religious singer, for 8,000 riyal (although she was asking 15,000 plus 2,000 riyal for qāt). He paid for the ḥammām (the turkish bathhouse) and the naqsh (a body decoration provided by the munaqqishah for 500 riyal) the day before al-wafāʾ. He rented a diadem and a necklace for his wife for 500 riyal.
During the 30 days of the wilād, Qays had to host and sustain his wife’s sister so that she could take care of her. It is not uncommon, in these circumstances, to let the wālidah stay in her mother’s house to be more comfortable and to receive guidance regarding the care of the baby. In Qays’ case, this turned out to be inconvenient because of the stingy attitude of his brother-in-law, (nasab) who immediately specified, “Salt and sugar are up to Qays (al-milḥ wa as-sukar maʿ Qays),” making Qays envision a nightmarish bill for the whole 30 days.
Moreover, the wālidah is provided a special meal every day: fattah (bread made from scraps of honey and butter), harīsh (cornmeal mush), broth and one kilo of ovine meat or one chicken. Moreover, juices, coffee, kīk and popcorn had to be provided for occasional visitors. Every week Qays had to buy 6 or 7 boxes of incense, sandalwood incense for the day of wafāʾ. Besides all this, of course, he had to buy everything needed by the baby (ṣarfat-al-wilād).
I still recall with anguish the days spent with Qays before the al-wafāʾ: his endless attempts to provide a respectable feast by negotiating the prices, borrowing money, delaying the debts, fleeing from the owner of the office and begging the owner of the house to be patient, to understand the situation.
Yet he succeeded. The money he obtained constituted part of what Yemenis would define as rizq, sustenance, and organising the wilād was considered by Qays a necessary part of his responsibilities.
As I have already mentioned, during the same period, another friend of mine, Rashid, was awaiting the birth of his baby. Every day we chewed qāt together by candle light in Quays’ office: me, Qays and Rashid. And while Qays was paranoid about the upcoming wafāʾ, Rashid was dealing with his mother-in-law (ʿammah) about ṣarfat al-wilād (the shopping); he had a long list of food and supplies needed for the baby and its mother, written on a small piece of paper. He was mechanically alternating managing the cleansing of qāt leaves, taking short sips of shaʿīr (a malt beverage) and making long, extenuating phone calls with his ʿammah, following which he was deleting or adding things to the list.
It is in this context that I had my first conversations on the topic of sustenance. Needless to say, I was worried for my friends. In hindsight, my attitude towards them was somehow paternalistic, but I could not believe the daily waste of money that I was witnessing. An extraordinary increase in the price of qāt was, in fact, one of the consequences of the crisis, and my friends—my broke friends—chewed every day.
Just a few days before the arrival of Rashid’s son, he had not purchased half the items on his shopping list, yet he was chewing 1,500/2,000 riyal worth of qāt every day and complaining about not having enough money. I remember the first time that I criticised him: “Your son is coming; how are you going to feed him?” He turned to me, ecstatically calm, and he said, “Look at what happened to Qays. He gained 140,000 riyal from the BBC, and then he got the money from you, right before the wilād. Rizq Allāh.”
Just a few days later he took his wife to the hospital for the delivery, and right after he came by the office to chew qāt with the two of us. He was completely broke. Qays told him, “God will give you the money; you are marzūq (al-fulūs ʿa-yiddī lak Allāh, ant marzūq).” Noticing, from my facial expression, that I was astonished, Rashid explained to me, “I have many friends; I am generous (karīm). Often I play [music] for free. Someone will give me the money that I need. Allāhu Karīm (God is generous).” Thus he sketched for me the general features of an ethic of piety and dependence:
Rashid: For example, God makes use of this [person] for this [person]. Now Qays doesn’t have [money]. God will put it in my heart to give him. Do you understand? Because [God’s] name is ‘justice’. We, the people, we are always discussing—and this is remembered in the Koran. We don’t try to listen piously, to see what is right. But it’s never difficult. Never, never, never. And then you feel a peace that has no comparison. It never happens a day that you feel tired or oppressed… You feel strong, you feel completely in peace […].
Luca: And why all the difficulties?
Rashid: Which difficulties? Say, “My Lord, help me!” He said like that. “If you turn to someone for help, turn to God.” Like Beny Isrāʾīl, they asked God even for the salt. Sometimes… We go and we say I don’t know what… First of all, my brother, says, “Oh Lord!” and then go. Like when you are sick. First of all say, “Oh Lord!” You pray, for example two rakaʿah, you say, “Oh Lord!” And then you go to the doctor. Like Mariam. (1) Did He put food in her mouth? No, He said, shake [the tree], and the dates fell. It means that you have to do something, you have to help yourself. He will help you, but it’s necessary that you help yourself. For example you ask, you do, you search…
Here the argument is twofold. Rashid describes the feelings of the believer when he entrusts himself to God: peace (rāḥah) and strength (quwwah). God is generous (karīm); He always listens to his servants, but they have to listen to what is right; they have to follow His guidance. Moreover, they cannot ‘be seated’; they have to move, to make an effort. The example of Mariam is enlightening, since she is an exemplary woman, the mother of the prophet Jesus. Yet even she had to shake the tree to get sustenance. A last point lurks behind Rashid’s first sentence: God inspires people and people act on His behalf. As the proverb says, “God provided me sustenance, and provides it through me (allahuma arzaqnī wa arzaq minnī).”
The overall picture that emerges from Rashid’s case is consonant with a perspective that emphasises what M. Watt has called “the majesty and omnipotence of God.”
It presupposes the possibility of the intervention of God in human affairs, but it leaves room for human action, action inspired by God’s guidance. Believers are not (or should not be) indolent, passive servants of God. Rather they are exhorted to act in two ways: first, they should worship God, that is to say: pray and remember Him (dhikr); and second, they should behave with other people in the ‘right’ way; for example, as Rashid emphasises, displaying generosity. This perspective, I argue, is generative rather than fatalistic; it informs human action.
1.3. Allāh fī-l-Yemen
How do Yemenis survive? How can a soldier, who earns 30,000 riyal a month and chews 600 riyal worth of qāt every day, make a living out of his salary? Why do people waste their money, rather than enacting budgeting strategies? These are just a few questions that I had in my mind during that period.
One day I discussed such topics with Lotf, a young man of my age that I first met in 2006. He hailed from Manākhah, moving to Ṣanʿāʾ when he was a teenager, to make a living. For our purposes, it is sufficient to know that during the crisis he was unemployed. He was living for free in Qays’ office, having been one of his former hotel employees.
Talking about poor people, generous people and desperate people, Lotf recalled a story that I had already heard many times without taking it seriously:
“Some people say that God exists in Yemen,” he told me laughing. “Some years ago, a foreign journalist visited Yemen, asking your same questions… People answered, “God is generous,” “God will help me,” and so on… So he titled the article God does exist in Yemen.”
Then he told me another story, to exemplify what he meant: “Even when I do not have a single riyal, even if I do not have a house, nor work, every day I eat.” He quoted a saying of the Prophet (ḥadīth), “If you entrust yourself to God, He will provide you sustenance (rizq) the way he provides it to the bird, feeding his hunger and filling his belly.” Hence, he continued: “One day I was wandering around, and I wanted to chew qāt. Tawakkalt ʿalā Allāh [I entrusted myself to God]. A friend of mine passed by, walking. I picked him up with the motorbike, and I delivered him to the qāt market. He paid me 1,000 riyal, and this way I chewed qāt.”
To make the point clearer, he added another story: “In our village, young people have started a collection [jammaʿiyyah] for weddings. One month, the one entitled to the money cancelled his wedding. So the next one in the list received 300,000 riyal from the jammaʿiyyah, and he had only one month to collect the remaining 700,000 riyal to get married. Tawakkal ʿalā Allāh. No one knows how he gathered the money, but after one month he got married.”
Just a few days later, by chance, I found an article in a newspaper, entitled: “Allāh fī-l-Yemen.” (2) Here follow some excerpts:
“It seems that in Yemen we got used to poverty, unemployment, hunger and filthy streets, while the crises follow one another over our heads. And you find out that many people here in Yemen got used to sitting next to garbage dumps or sites of explosions, and I do not understand one thing: how can they stay before those sights and next to that smell which would repel insects? […] I remember some words that I read in a translated book. Many years ago a European writer visited Yemen and conducted a survey to know how the Yemeni people make a living (yaʿīsh) with a small salary, many expenses and many family responsibilities. So the people replied to his question – which was, “From where do you get money when your salary is finished?” – in this way, “God will transfer it! My Lord will manage it; it’s up to God; God is generous…” They replied with expressions of dependence (alfāẓ ittikāliyah) and reliance (tawakkiliyah) of which we do not know the meaning, yet we just pronounce them. For this reason, the European called his book “God in Yemen.” (Allāh fī-l-Yemen)
“Yes, God gives and hence He simplifies, but He constricts for whom He wants; and God bestows, enriches or he makes poor whom He wants; and He protects, preserves and cures, or He makes sick, and He is the most Merciful. But we are a society that lacks a full understanding of the causes (al-asbāb) […].”
This text represents, of course, a particular perspective, a critique. Yet it depicts characters and situations in a way which is familiar, evocative, for Yemeni people. Altogether, it is a harsh attack on indolence. This is the point that I want to highlight here. How are Yemenis described in this article? They are people relying on God, people dependent on God. The author is criticising their passivity, their indolence, the fact that—rather than ‘moving’, rather than making an effort—they simply ascribe any event to God’s will. The author’s critique is somehow similar to the critique I directed towards Rashid and Qays. I looked at them as passive, lazy people. This attitude is effectively summarised in Arabic by the formula ‘tawakkalt ʿalā Allāh’. It implies submission to God by his servants, and basically it states, “If you ask God, He will give you sustenance.” (Hamdy, 2009)
Now this perspective might be well understood as fatalistic, or deterministic, and this is exactly the interpretation that we have taken into account through M. Watt’s work. Labelling an attitude as ‘fatalistic’ is, beyond doubt, a good way to make it familiar to a Western reader. Yet I suspect that this kind of labelling does not explain anything in terms of how social actors give meaning to their experience. Rather, it contributes to obscuring several meanings that lie under the surface.
Consider again the formula ‘tawakkalt ʿalā Allāh’. It does not mean that our sustenance, that our rizq, is pre-written, foreordained. Rather, it implies that the pious servant (ʿabd), the one who worships God and follows His guidance (ihdāʾ), will be ‘nourished like a bird’; but this is not an easy task and surely not a task for lazy people. So just to give an example, which was a rather common one: someone who sleeps at fajr time is not an exemplary servant; nor is the Muslim that does not fast during Ramaḍān. As we will see, being a pious servant is a necessary but insufficient condition to ask God for sustenance.
This is the first level on which the doctrine of sustenance pushes subjects to action, an action which is morally shaped by Islamic precepts.
A second point of interest is the philosophy of causation that underlies local notions of action. This point emerges from the last line of the article, when the author states that Yemenis lack a “[…] full understanding of the causes.”
We cannot fully develop this point here, but a brief explanation is needed. God’s knowledge is all-encompassing, and it holds past, present and future. Yet individuals are not compelled to act; they are free. As we have seen already, this assumption is widespread on the theological level and on the common sense one.
1.4. Ibtilāʾ or God’s Trial
Sometimes the good servant does not obtain sustenance, while the ‘disobedient’ one prospers. How do social actors deal with such events? In my experience, social actors are completely aware of this apparent contradiction, of this paradox in the logic of sustenance, and they readily admit and rationalise it.
Lotf gives us a clear sample of the meanings and symbols through which the exceptions to the logic of sustenance are turned into a constitutive part of the logic itself, providing a rational image of the world. In this operation of rationalisation, the notion of ibtilāʾ, whose semantic field suggests both the meaning of ‘putting someone to the test’ and that of ‘afflicting someone’, is crucial. In this perspective, the misfortunes of the pious, virtuous servant of God are interpreted as a trial that directly descends from God Himself.
Lotf’s narrative depicts Job as an emblematic figure, the personification of the virtue of patience (aṣ-ṣabr). The story of Job is not fully recounted in the Koranic text; there are just a few verses and passages that refer to him. From these few verses we come to know that, in the Islamic tradition, Job is considered a prophet. We have, in particular, two set of verses that refer to the sufferings that he bore and that describe his steadfast to God (cf. 21: 83-84; 21: 41-44):
“And [mention] Job, when he called to his Lord, “Indeed, adversity has touched me, and you are the Most Merciful of the merciful.” So We responded to him and removed what afflicted him of adversity. And We gave him [back] his family and the like thereof with them as mercy from Us and a reminder for the worshippers [of Allah]. And [mention] Ishmael and Idrees and Dhul-Kifl; all were of the patient”. (3)
“And remember Our servant Job, when he called to his Lord, “Indeed, Satan has touched me with hardship and torment.” [So he was told], “Strike [the ground] with your foot; this is a [spring for] a cool bath and drink.” And We granted him his family and a like [number] with them as mercy from Us and a reminder for those of understanding. [We said], “And take in your hand a bunch [of grass] and strike with it and do not break your oath.” Indeed, We found him patient, an excellent servant. Indeed, he was one repeatedly turning back [to Allah ]”. (4)
Job’s story is well-known and thoroughly described in the Christian tradition. The Islamic version is not very different and is recounted in many collections that depict the life histories of the Prophets, the so-called ‘Stories of the Prophets’ which, in Yemen, are available on every street corner, and are often recounted during qāt sessions, taught in the mosques or represented in main stream soap operas. Lotf, like many of my interlocutors, had a fragmentary idea of Job’s story, assembled through these heterogeneous sources. Yet the focal point of the story seems to be clear, both in our conversations and in the Koranic text.
Consider the first passage: Job emerges as a Prophet among the Prophets, all of whom are described from the perspective of their leading virtue: patience. Ismaʿil, Idris, Jonah, Zachary and Mariam, are described, one after another, by their steadfast obedience to God and exalted for their motivating virtue: patience.
Describing the notion of ‘trial’, ibtilāʾ, we have reached a point of pivotal interest for our discussion. What emerges from the notion of trial is that the whole ideology of rizq needs to take reality into account and justify it. The ‘sustenance model’ describes the world as it is. It does not envision an ideal world, or a political path to reach it.
Rather, it states: “This is how everything works, so if you want to obtain sustenance do this and that.” This is, obviously, a “model of” (Geertz, 1973), since it claims to empirically (or cosmologically) describe ‘reality’, suggesting a moral pattern of behaviour from which only the individual (the Believer) will benefit.
(1) Here the reference is to the story of Mariam, as reported in the Qurʿān in surat Mariam (19).
(2) Al-Ahdal, A. 2011. Allāh fī-l-Yemen. Al-Jumhūriyyah, 28 Oct 2011, no. 15315.
(3) Sūrat-al-Anbyāʾ, 21: 83-85.
(4) Sūrat-aṣ-Ṣād, 38: 41-44.
Geertz, C., 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected essays. Basic Books, New York.
Hamdy, S.F., 2009. Islam, Fatalism, and Medical Intervention: Lessons from Egypt on the Cultivation of Forbearance (Sabr) and Reliance on God (Tawakkul). Anthropological Quarterly 82(1):173–196.