Yemen, the media’s new Afghanistan, hasn’t failed to make the headlines on a weekly basis for the past two months. Reputedly home to the world’s largest network of terrorist training camps, the country has finally found itself in the viewfinder of America’s roving war on terror. But behind the fog of hyperbolic headlines, who are the Yemenis and what is modern Yemen?
Sana’a, one of the world’s most beautiful cities, sits in the eye of the storm of Yemen’s current upheavals. Placid and yet elaborate, the city’s international outlook and historic prestige buffers it from much of the discord sensed in other parts of the country. Reputedly founded by one of Noah’s sons, local lore has it that the city is as old at the mountains in which it is nestled. As labyrinthine as Morocco’s imperial Fez, as architecturally atmospheric as Croatia’s Dubrovnik and with a history older than both cities combined, Sana’a sits at the heart of Yemen’s mountainous interior and has become an icon of ancient Arabia.
It took all of five minutes to realise that the warnings on the British, Australian and American Foreign Office websites were somewhat overstated. Despite the fact, or perhaps because, tourism in Sana’a is still foetal, the population of the city has an old-fashioned attitude to visitors; Yemen is one of the few countries in the world in which the comfort of outsiders remains the responsibility of everyone. Before we could scan the map, we’d been given tea, directed to the ancient Bab al-Yemen, offered a tour of region and had even got an invite to a prominent wedding that evening. Thanks to our army of guides, intrigued locals and students of English, we spent the afternoon being ferried from museum to tea shop to rooftop to souq with a guidebook-worth of information being flung at us from a host of the city’s amateur historians.
The city itself is a maze of pedestrian alleyways which all look the same. The further you walk, the more entangled you become, until you find yourself completely and utterly lost. The British travel writer Jonathan Raban wrote in his 1979 Arabia Through the Looking Glass: ‘Sana’a was functioning exactly as a labyrinth should: it was a close protective hive for insiders; but for an outsider it was a trap with no apparent means of escape.’ What he failed to mention is that the city’s population act as friendly sign posts, ferrying one lost tourist back to their hotel after another.
As the day descended into dusk we trawled through the different souqs stacked with sultanas, dates, Islamic metalwork and knives, each evolving out of the other in a tangle of passageways and underpasses that seemed to descend ever deeper into the recesses of the city. As the sun dipped behind the mountains encasing the city, the women disappeared from the street, and the Yemeni men surged towards us disfigured by bulging cheeks and glassy eyes. The evening qat session had officially begun.
Chewing qat, a reputed stimulant with origins in Ethiopia, is a pastime of over 80 percent of Yemeni men and a good proportion of the women. Unlike coffee or shisha, neither of which have really caught on in Yemen, the leaves are so time-consuming to ingest that, on average, Yemenis spend four hours each day cramming them into their mouths, losing the national economy an estimated 105 million working hours every week. Try to ban it, however, and the entire country would riot.
At the wedding to which were were invited that night, the bride was nowhere to be seen. Qat, on the other hand, was ubiquitous. After being herded into square at the heart of the city, the location of which would have been enough to entrap the Minotaur, a cacophony of close range fireworks and Chinese firecrackers were set off under the feet of a crowd that swayed from the extreme amounts of qat they were consuming. The groom was regally paraded on a throne, mouth open like a new-born chick to the offerings of the dark green leaves, while the squeal of the band made the air dense with noise.
As the evening progressed and the fireworks were finished, the party followed the band into a qat hall, and took up the serious business of chewing. To a novice, qat leaves taste like ivy and rip open the inside of your mouth. The whole process is rather revolting, the aim being to crunch up as much as you possibly can and then gerbil-like store it in your cheeks (the stimulant passes into your bloodstream through the capillaries on the inside of your mouth) while periodically ejecting saliva and making very sure you don’t swallow the lot. By midnight I’d swallowed everything and had managed to dribble green gunk all over my shirt. The effect was a sleepless night and the onset of depression as the sun rose at 6am.
The following day, haggard from the night before, we accepted an invite to head out of the city and see some of Yemen’s legendary villages in the Haraz Mountains. For centuries the Haraz Mountains acted as an impenetrable fortress, protecting Yemen’s interior from meddling foreigners. Today, locals are slightly less suspicious of visitors, though the reception is markedly cooler than that in Sana’a. The barren landscape of Yemen is harsh; parched rocks rise out of the volcanic moonscape and the desert is littered with bones. The only cultivation here occurs in the gullies of ravines, where the land is lucky enough to boast modest hydration.
Whereas the architecture of Sana’a aims for the spectacular, the architecture of the villages of the Haraz Mountains go for camouflage. Fortified communities cluster on rocky outcrops, the houses stalagmite-like extensions of the rock faces on which they perch. Wadi Dhahr, the former summer palace of Sana’a’s early twentieth century leader Imam Yahya, has become something of a symbol of Yemen. Erupting out of an enormous boulder, the first two stories of the building sit inside the rock itself, while the rest of the building rises shard-like in traditional Yemeni fashion, dominating the hamlet below it.
A few dozen kilometres outside Sana’a sits Thilla, a village that studs a great pillar of rock so that it looks like a barnacle encrusted stone. The village was once an important theological centre, though now the entire village seems engaged in the miniscule and periodic tourist trade. UNESCO has been funding a renovation of the ancient cobbled pavements in the village, and Thilla has been cleared of the modern trash that has engulfed like an avalanche many of Yemen’s villages, refuse collection being a luxury that most of the country’s population cannot afford. With almost as many mosques as houses, the village exists under the auspices of the competing Muezzin cries.
Although by no means the most beautiful village, one of the most interesting is Kawkaban, a fortified citadel dramatically situated on the broken edge of an escarpment high up in the Haraz Mountains. The village was once known for its thriving music school, although it was equally famous for being the place to which the surrounding villagers could flee in times of a siege. With massive grain silos and vast water storage facilities, the village could easily barricade itself away from the conflict below until the threat had passed. Indeed, it was such a stronghold that it wasn’t until the advent of air power during the civil war of 1960 that Kawkaban was finally conquered and incorporated into the country.
While visually stunning, the villages of the Haraz Mountains seemed to have lost out to the magnetic pull of the nearby capital. Sana’a is the fastest growing city in the world, and is one of the few places in the country where the expectations of the Yemeni youth can be met. Villages that once held out against armies of invaders are now battling to hold their residents in, turning ghost-like as their inhabitants dribble away.
We spend the last night chewing qat with the numerous guides that make our hotel their base, talking politics, religion and a variety of other topics that are habitually faux pas. The Yemenis who work in tourism are open, interested and intrigued by the outside world. One of them is fluent in Japanese; another is learning Italian. Two of them have been to Ethiopia. All speak English.
The conversation turns, somewhat awkwardly owing to the amount of qat in our cheeks, to international concerns over the safety of tourists in Yemen. Kais, the hotel proprietor, is insistent. ‘There are some places that are safe and there are some places that are not safe, even for Yemenis. But kidnapping here is not something bad. You get kidnapped because the tribe wants something from the government, and the hostages are released unharmed. They are treated like guests and well looked after.’ After spending a long weekend among some of the friendliest people in the Middle East, I can think of worse places to be held captive.
Sana’a’s top five
While Sana’a as a whole is one of the most beautiful cities on earth, any trip to Yemen’s capital would be a waste without seeing the following:
1,000 years old and the grand entrance to the old city, it is easy to see why Yemen was so difficult to conquer.
Though it translates as salt market, this labyrinthine souq sells everything from mobile phones to dried fruit, scarves and plenty of souvenirs.
One of the largest in the world, the mosque towers over the city and is an important centre of Islamic scholarship. Unless you are a Muslim, however, you are not allowed in.
One of the largest in the Arabian Peninsula and one of the best, it is home to artefacts from the pre-Islamic Kingdoms of Saba and Hadramawt.
Burj Al Salam Hotel
One of the city’s top hotels hidden in the heart of the old city, it is also one of the tallest. The rooftop restaurant is the best place to see in sunset, when the city burns in the golden light.
Need to know
Jazeera Airways flies three times a week between Bahrain and Sana’a www.jazeeraairways.com
Where to stay
Sana’a Nights Hotel
A reasonably priced option in the heart of the old town housed in one of Sana’a’s historic buildings.
For more information about Sana’a and travelling in Yemen, contact Kais Ahmen Alkalisi at firstname.lastname@example.org or Abdulwadood Al Abasi at email@example.com.