Saturday, 20 November 2010

Yemen could be heaven

Source: by Tom Kelly, 20/11/2010

An enchanted Christmas at DisneyGrub's up in GrenadaIt’s an extraordinary land where its ancient nickname, Arabia Felix or Lucky Arabia, might ring true again. And we’d all be lucky to see it, writes Tom Kelly

MOSTLY I was eyed with a vaguely quizzical look. That was people’s reaction here when I mentioned I was about to visit Yemen. They’d heard of it, just about. Of course, that was a few weeks ago. Yemen has hardly been out of the headlines since. And for all the wrong reasons.
However, what hasn’t featured in the recent tsunami of bad news is that this ancient land, mentioned in the Book of Genesis and the Koran , has a capital that’s possibly the world’s oldest inhabited city. That it’s the home of the fabled Queen of Sheba, though her celebrity story is somewhat blurred by the vaseline of time. That Arabic coffee came from here, with Yemen’s Red Sea port of Mocha celebrated daily in cafes around the world. That the best frankincense came from here.

Yemen, I was to discover, is a land of surprises. Firstly, there’s the driving.
We race into the capital, Sana’a, slaloming freestyle between lanes, dodging oncoming traffic, when suddenly the Landcruiser is hurtling between sloping, brick-lined walls, like an oversized drain. It turns out, it is. Not unlike LA’s culverts famous from cop shows and the car duels in Grease , Sana’a has its Saila – literally a road-cum-canal which annually becomes a waterway in full flood in the monsoons. Later I see photos taken just months earlier of boys diving into deep rushing water off bridges I’d driven under.

But it’s the breathtaking Old City above that really startles. Tall, narrow, chocolate-brown buildings jostle for space, as streets only as wide as your wing mirrors swerve and twist tightly below. Their exposed brickwork is geometrically patterned, giving each an exquisite fingerprint. Randomly placed windows are delineated in white gypsum, often with intricate stained glass. Originally carved alabaster, they’re now cast plaster.

From the charming rooms of the Burj Al Salam hotel, a converted eight-storey tower house, my view is across a fantasy cityscape where ornate minarets gracefully punctuate the complex rectangularity. These didn’t seem so graceful, of course, when the 4am calls to prayer kicked out loudly across the city, and Sana’a’s many mosques resolutely refused to sync up.

Bab al-Yemen, the main entrance to the Old City and its thronged Souk al-Mihl (the Salt Souk), bears witness to the country’s vigorously contested past, with a large cannonball hole busted through the heavy gate. Every turn reveals a specialist sub-souk: this way, the air is heady with spices; there flanks of ornate Jambiyyas, the curved tribal knives thrust proudly in the broad belts of most Yemeni men, look like glimpses into an ancient armoury.

Shopkeepers sit up on their counters cross-legged, a ready sample of their wares proffered at the slightest eye contact. These master retailers could sell rain to the Irish. But business is down, they lament, no tourists.

One market bucks the trend: qat (pronounced ghat). In our terms, this is the local poison. It’s a mildly hallucinogenic plant that the entire male population chews after lunch. A day’s qat would be about the size of a supermarket salad bag and the leaves are slowly chewed, but crucially, not swallowed. Instead they squirrel away the chewed store in their cheeks until after a couple of hours, every traffic cop, shopkeeper and waiter looks like he’s stuffed a tennis ball in one distended cheek.

Night falls hard and fast, and the city’s main streets get a second wind, as traders set up along the pavement. Down a jammed cul-de-sac, street restaurants compete loudly for business. The chefs cook at what are effectively flame throwers, shooting spikes of fire a metre high. When the food arrives, the dishes are so hot, waiters gingerly carry them with pliers.

Fasulia, a spicy bean stew, is mopped up with delicious just-baked khobs bread the size of a coffee table. Spring onions are carefully trimmed and bundled as palette cleansers. A beer would be great, but needless to say, that’s not going to happen. There’s not a woman in sight, at least not a local.

A couple of hundred miles east of the capital lies the great Wadi Hadhramawt. From school geography, you may remember a wadi is a dried river bed. Those conjured up in dry pages then are pale imitators of the extraordinary landscape that Hadhramawt and its offshoot wadis encompass. This is like Arizona’s Monument Valley, where John Ford shot many a John Wayne movie and pesky injuns in the process. Towering, steep-walled canyons criss-cross the limestone Jol plateau, as eons of water have exploited the rock’s weaknesses, relentlessly filing and washing away. Flying overhead, you see tell-tale ribbons of vegetation trace the rivers’ now invisible beds along flat valley floors.

And on the ground, another extraordinary architectural vernacular is revealed. Towns and cities composed of more tall, compressed buildings, are pushed back against the soaring wadi walls, looking like they may have come from the imagination of a sci-fi writer. Most famous is Shibam, the so-called Manhattan of Mud or I prefer, the Chicago of the Desert. Mud-brick skyscrapers, up to eight and nine stories, crowd together, walled in, with a massive face of wadi cliff behind to take the breath away.

But other towns too, like Hajarin make one gasp. It wraps around a mighty promontory, climbing up and clinging to its sides, with houses as precariously balanced as Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. Inside, neighbouring homes are often connected by separate corridor bridges on the upper floors, so the women won’t be seen at street level en route to visit friends.

There’s a conservatism in Yemen that can be as breathtaking as the sights. From puberty, women wear full length black baltos, with matching veils and headscarves. Most show only their eyes, some not even, shielded by black gauze. Others wear gloves to cover the final inches of skin. This is their wardrobe for business, mothering, shopping, working, even in the fields under a baking sun. An English Al Jazeera producer we meet, who is there sprucing up her Arabic says when the girls are out together, like at a wedding she got to, with no men allowed, the gear would knock your eyes out.

However, in some communities, women can’t even appear in public in the grocery market; they can only shop for ladies clothes. And gold. In one town, a neighbourhood of gold jewellery shops is choc-a-block with black-veiled women. It’s their insurance in case of divorce, I’m told, the way to take a dowry with them. And they’re all doing business.

Arabia Felix Yemen was once called, Lucky Arabia, on account of its bountiful rainfall and verdant landscape. Even in 1000 BC it was known for its frankincense. Mugeeb, one of our guides, makes a tiny cut in a frankincense tree one day to show me the rich, sweet sap. Who’d have thought it comes from a tree? Myrrh too. Now it’s the poorest state in the Middle East – and it is poor – with little oil and diminishing water. Their luck is running thin.

We have an armed escort with us, AK47s casually slung about. They are obviously concerned for our safety which is both reassuring and not. There have been incidents. We take photos of Shibam at magic hour, as the sun slips down, from an elevated rocky outcrop where a South Korean tour party were victims of a suicide bomber last year. Another guide, Mohammed (call me “Vic”) had been kidnapped for 18 days with an English oil engineer a few years previously. Vic laughs it off and is writing a book with his co-kidnapee. While I’m there, there are reports of various embassies sending staff home.

Yemen undoubtedly is in flux. There’s a mini-civil war in the north, a secessionist struggle to the south, in the old Aden Protectorate, and allegedly al-Qaeda just behind you. Yet everywhere, people are welcoming in the Arabic tradition. Ask directions and you might easily find you’re led to your destination by an enthusiastic local. Kids want photos taken and all your spare stationery. Students practise their English on you. Every mispronounced salam is warmly responded to. There’s a Yemen of hard headlines and entirely another in her people.

BACK TO THE west of Sana’a, another startling landscape unfolds as the road hairpins through the Haraz Mountains. We seem to wait for the blind corners before overtaking laden-down lorries snailing these steep inclines. But the panoramas divert at every sweep. Slender terraces of cultivation step down for perhaps 1,000 metres or more, hugging the mountainsides as if so many 3D contour lines. And atop the mountains, fortress towns peer across at each other, hunched right to the edge, playing chicken with the vertiginous drops.

Kawkaban. Thula. Manakah. Al Hajjarah. The twisting climbs to them reward with one astonishing view after another. The only thing more convoluted than the roads that join them, is the phonetic free-association spelling of each placename. Even an unmissable photo op at signs for the town of Al Qaidah offers a few alternative spellings. Ewan McGregor is said to be starring in the upcoming movie of Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

In Hudaydah on the Red Sea, just a short sea hop across from Djibouti, an early morning visit to the fish market doesn’t feature salmon, but it has plenty of shark. Hammerhead, blue, white, some three metres long. Boys struggle to ferry them in wheelbarrows from boat to bidders. A swift incision sees the innards searched for embryos, a prized Asian delicacy, along with the fins, of course. The rest, quickly iced and off to local fish sellers.

Later in the day to a hot, humid market at Bayt al-Faqih, once key to coffee trade. A heaving sea of bodies, it’s like a Croke Park full house emptying through a maze, where one-third of the crowd are camels, goats, mules and chickens. I soon stop trying to remember everything that’s for sale to work out what’s not.

All life is here. Death too. Rows of blenders are churning out fresh fruit smoothies, while just metres away, a goat is skilfully butchered, hanging off the back of a van. At one narrow junction, about 30 horn-blasting 4x4 pickups are bumper to bumper facing double their number of dramatically pimped-up motorbike taxis in a loud, but one suspects regular, stand-off.

Afterwards in a Zabeed teahouse, lounging on low benches with glasses of sweet shay, there’s the offer of fragrant shisha pipes. Much of the town is at prayer in the mosque, but a few local men are here, starting on their bags of qat, chewing the fat. We exchange stories too, in the cool of the shade.

Yemen can cast a spell on the casual traveller. Not that I think many will be rushing to discover its many charms and surprises in the short term, at least. However, this an extraordinary land with a hospitable people where some time its ancient nickname, Arabia Felix, might ring true again. And we’d all be lucky to see it.

Getting there

Flights all the way with Turkish Airlines (see through Istanbul to Sana’a. Internal flights with Felix Airways (see

Tips for Yemen

Getting around
For many reasons, not least of which is security, use a local guide company. Bazara Travel ( looked after us superbly. Travel overland in Yemen is controlled by the Government, with permits required for anything other than local driving. Checkpoints everywhere police the paperwork. And driving is, let’s say, loose.

Burj Al Salam in Sana’a and Samah Palace in Seiyun have local charm; and Sofitel Al Saeed in Taiz could be a five-star anywhere.

Restaurants may look a little suspect, but the food was always tasty and generous. Antiseptic gel is a must as you generally eat with your fingers. Unwind with a regular shay with fresh mint. Though for a country once famous for it, Yemen coffee can be hard to find. Perhaps the hit of qat serves that end.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this article. I was in Sana'a for three months and I've never been anyhwere like Yemen. I think it's important that you post articles like this and Mr. Kelly writes articles like this so people can know what Yemen is like (and not only associate Yemen with Al-Qaeda).