In the age of development, Yemen’s accelerating pace of life and reliance on technology in the midst of urbanization has led to a growing reluctance to care about ancestral Yemeni habits. This neglect threatens ancient Yemeni traditions with demise likely to come sooner rather than later. One prime example is the traditional style of oil pressing in Sana’a.
The Yemeni man used to be able to get acquire the finest natural oils through primitive means by extracting these liquids from various plants. Yemenis of yore used stones, wood and animals to make special and traditional machines to extract these oils from grains and plants. Centuries ago, Old Sana’a was a city replete with many local industries and products, and one of these was the oil industry. The city was home to over 90 oil extraction businesses, and these business covered the local consumption of oil.
After Yemen’s domestic oil market was opened to the rest of the world, a number of factors began applying a negative pressure to Yemen’s oil industry. Oils began entering the country from other sources; economy of scale began encouraging the founding of oil factories and electrical machinery for use in oil extraction. Because of these factors, many traditional oil presses have become limited to a specific category of clientele: those who believe in the effectiveness and usefulness of ancient inventions and solutions.
Atieh, a camel, lives in Old Sana’a. His workplace does not exceed ten square meters, and it also serves as his dining room and sleeping quarters. Atieh spends his entire life in this small room, put to work continuously with no time for fatigue or boredom. This place—called a Massara—is the traditional room in which a camel is used to power a small gristmill for oil extraction. Adorned with a pair of blinders over his eyes, the camel blindly circumambulates a large carved rock, whose foundation extends deep into the earth. These rocks are up to hundreds of years old, and very important in the production of natural oil.
Abdullah al-Heziazi, the owner of Atieh and his workplace, said that his Massara is over 150 years old. It was inherited from his grandparents and is Abdullah’s only current source of income. “My grandfather taught us that we cannot dispense with this Massara as some people did, and I refuse to sell it, no matter how attractive the offer,” he said.
Al-Heziazi said that Sana’a’s over-90 Massara’s have now dwindled to only five. He ascribes this decrease to people’s reluctance to buy natural oils in favor of chemical drugs. “Experience has shown, though, that oils are better for treatment. Many people find themselves returning to natural oils for cures. “
The traditional manufacture of oils falls among the authentic Yemeni industries known in Sana’a since ancient times. People still rely on traditional tools in this process, which are used together with the camel’s motion to run the black stone Massara.
Al-Heziazi said that the camel works six hours a day to extract five liters of oil. These oils are made from ingredients from across Yemen, including sesame seeds from Tehama, mustard from Yarim, and other seeds from Hodeidah, Bani Matar and Khawlan Farms.
Every kind of oil is used for a different purpose. The most famous oils are used in food and palliative treatment. Almond oil helps for stomach illness and mustard is used to treat nerves. Om Ahmed, a long-time purchaser of oils, said that since the time of her grandparents she has been traveling to the oil press to buy oil. In those days, oil was used used consistently by all people because it was the only treatment available for colds, rheumatism, skin diseases and arthritis.
“We believe in it because it is natural and better than treatments commonly used these days, and people were healthier in the past than they are now. We use these oils for hair, skin and for babies in their first month, when we anoint them with warm oil. Oil used to be one of the most important requirements in caring for newborns,” she added.
Despite its importance, people have started to look for cheaper things, and foreign medicines and oils are cheaper than those made in Sana’ani oil presses. Ali Hamoud, the owner of al-Amana Massara, said that the difficult economic situation has forced many Yemenis to stop buying oils. At the same time, the security situation has driven out much of oil pressers second clientele base: foreign tourists. He offered a specific message calling for better protection of Yemen’s oil presses.
“We are a small group, but we hold out a very important hope that responsible people will help the oil extractors. Because of the medical, cultural, and commercial importance of the Massara, we hope that competent authorities will take measures to protect and restore them. The Massara is an important cultural icon of Old Sana’a, and this message is addressed especially to the authorities and the local council to maintain Yemen’s historical cities.”