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Eery adult in Al-Ashrafiyyah village is an artisan. Allah has blessed each of us with a unique skill. We all enjoy using our hands to make beautiful things. Potters create useful and practical containers; many village women weave wonderful sturdy baskets of all sizes; and stone masons carefully cut and shape blocks out of solid rock.
This is our mafraj or sitting room on the top floor of our house. The coloured glass windows here are made by another group of very special artisans. Even today, the window designs are still traditional. Years ago, however, many window panes were not of glass. Thin sheets of pale yellow stone called alabaster were cut out and placed in the upper window openings to soften the direct sunlight. We still have one circular alabaster window pane left in our house. Can you see it?
We use the mafraj when guests come to visit. On 'eid days, we greet our relatives, neighbours and friends here. It is always my job to light the incense burner. The room soon fills with the beautiful odour of burning frankincense.
My father is a hafidh al-qur'arr, he memorized the entire Qur'an before his tenth birthday, masha Allah. I am not a hafidh, but I do like to sit in the mafraj and read from my grandfather's beautiful, large hand-written Qur'an. It was written about two hundred years ago by a master calligrapher in San'a, our country's capital city.
Two or three thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans used vast amounts of expensive frankincense and myrrh to burn before their idols. Southern Arabia, and Yemen, in particular, was the source of such incense.
Frankincense bushes still grow in the lower valleys not far from our village. My uncle uses a special tool to cut the bark of the small trees at regular intervals. A milky white sap (called laban in Arabic) emerges. When the beads of frankincense harden into a green or yellow resin, they are scraped off the tree. After harvesting, my uncle sells the frankincense in the local market.
Frankincense is carefully bought and pieces are burned in a traditional incense burner called a majmarah. Majmarahs, like the one in the picture, are made by local potters. The design has not changed in hundreds of years. Our majmarah looks like a cup with a handle. It is lime-washed and then painted with colourful inks.
Because incense is expensive to buy, villagers use it only on special occasions such as at weddings and during the two 'eids when we welcome guests in our mafraj. My grandmother, however, continues to use small pieces of frankincense as a medicine for upset stomachs. She also believes that a mixture of frankincense, olive oil and honey added to water relieves rheumatism. She always reminds me that this traditional cure is better than any drug from a modern pharmacy!
My father likes to burn a small piece of frankincense every Friday morning. We perfume our best Friday clothes before going to the mosque and my father even puts his beard over the majmarah !
As in many other parts of Dar al-Islam, traditional weekly markets are held in the mountain valleys of Yemen. Each Saturday, after the dawn prayers, a large and colourful market just outside Al-Ashrafiyyah village attracts hundreds of people.
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