Ya nafs ma tishtahi: a pre-Ramadan tradition

This post comes from a guest contributor in San'a, who writes anonymously for personal and professional reasons.

In Yemen, on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan, many Yemenis gather with friends and family for a special celebration called “Ya nafs ma tishtahi,” which can be translated as, “O self, what do you desire?” It is a social tradition in which friends, loved ones, or colleagues gather to meet their collective wishes of food and beverages. Every attendee brings a dish, with gatherings often featuring dozens of types of sweets, cakes, traditional and foreign dishes, and all variety of drinks and beverages. The event lasts for at least 5 hours, during which attendees eat, chat, dance, play games, and even present some comedic skits.

It’s not known exactly when or how this tradition began, but it is a very old habit passed down through many generations in Yemen. Moreover, the tradition has evolved from a very simple family celebration to be wider. Thirty years ago, kids used to go out on the night before the eve of Ramadan and walk around their neighborhood singing “ya nafs ma tishtahi.”

In recent years this festive tradition has become much more than a “best last meal” before the Ramadan fast, and has become popular throughout Yemen. This celebration breaks the psychological barrier and paves the way to receive the month of Ramadan, and helps observers to be mentally prepared for abstention from eating and drinking. As for the social aspect, this practice is considered a social declaration of Ramadan, and it is necessary to prepare for the rituals that are completely different from the rest of the year, including the difference of food.

From a religious point of view, Ramadan is a reminder of the hunger and craving that poor people feel throughout the year. Despite the fact that this tradition is somewhat contrary to the Islamic rituals surrounding the holy month, everyone participates, including religious organizations.

The “ya nafs ma tishtahi” celebration has a feminine character and has traditionally been led by women. Men may enjoy eating “the remnants,” which are untouched and extra. Sometimes, women keep plates full of dishes and sweets that their husbands, brothers, or fathers most like. Nowadays though, young men enjoy this celebration, too. They gather and go to restaurants to enjoy the best food, then buy the best qat and chew it in celebration gatherings. Although this celebration can be costly, it has been practiced by rich and poor alike.

Recently, this tradition has become an important part of workplace culture as well. For instance, many employers use it to bring the employees and workers together; such informal gatherings with employees can convey hidden messages of incentives and encourage the sharing of thoughts and ideas. Raja, an NGO executive director, holds this event annually at work. “I want to bring the employees closer, and gain their loyalty and commitment,” she explains. Dr. Saleh, a department chief in a public hospital, allows the female employees to celebrate for an hour in their workplace, to share dishes with the rest of the male colleagues. “It is a good chance to strengthen the social ties with employees, and to boost their productivity and quality,” Dr. Saleh confirms.

This year, under the dire circumstances of war, most people will probably not hold this traditional event. Their first “desire” is peace. The financial difficulties the war has brought on make it even harder to think about celebrating Ramadan in the usual ways.