The girl spied us outside the museum and hurried to our sides. She wore the black abaya all Yemeni women wore, but her headdress and veil were a stunning white, a unique combination that made me pause. The girl jumped at my hesitation.
Would we like a tour guide?
My roommate and I glanced at each other. We had already said no to several young men and boys offering to guide us through Queen Arwa’s museum in Jibla.
“La, shukran,” we chorused, turning down the girl and heading for the entryway. She followed at our heels.
“I speak good English,” she offered. “Spanish. Italian. I know many things about Queen Arwa.”
She tugged at my sleeve and I looked into her eyes for the first time. They were smiling, crinkling at the corners, sparkling brown and full of life. She couldn’t be more than eleven or twelve.
“Tamam,” I agreed, hoping I wouldn’t regret it.
The girl took us into the brownstone building and we began.
My roommate and I met a couple of Egyptian guys shortly after I moved to Yemen. Besides keeping the oddest hours I’d ever seen, they loved joking about my roommate’s name, which translated to Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba.
“You must have a queen’s name, too,” they insisted. “We’ll call you Arwa.”
I’d never heard of Queen Arwa, but apparently she was a queen in her own right. Our young guide expounded on Arwa’s life as she led us through the shadowy interior of the old three story house converted into this tiny village’s central attraction.
When Arwa’s parents died, she was adopted by her aunt and uncle, a king and queen of the Sulayhi dynasty. She married their son, had four children of her own, and eventually saw each of them die. When the king died and her husband proved to be an inept ruler, Arwa rose to power. She moved her palace from Sanaa, the capital, to tiny Jibla.
From Jibla, she ruled benevolently. By our guide’s account, she was beloved by her people. She loved learning and established schools for girls as well as boys, a stunning decision made centuries before modern feminism. She encouraged her people to farm the terraced mountainsides of her country and had several aqueducts built to provide water for the palace and village. This Arwa was some namesake of mine.
We reached the outdoor terrace on the second floor and stepped outside into sunshine so bright our eyes watered. Arwa’s green terraced mountainsides surrounded the village. Our guide pointed out the red tower of the mosque next door, another of Arwa’s accomplishments.
I gazed out over this ancient village whose ties to a great queen lay hidden behind the veil of a young girl. My roommate asked to take a picture and the girl shyly agreed.
“Shukran,” she thanked us when we’d snapped the photo and shown her the result on the digital camera’s tiny screen. Her eyes smiled again, even though once we left the museum, she would never see the photo again.
I shook my head. “No,” I told this young Arwa. “Shukran-lik.”
My thanks to you.