Last year when I was in Thailand, I met a Yemeni man named Hussein. I had only heard a little about Yemen because a friend of mine here in the States had always wanted to go and raved about the architecture there. And, of course, it had been in the news with the USS Cole attack. So, I didn’t know much, but I was intrigued and certainly impressed by how friendly, well educated, and worldly this gentleman was. He also loved George W. Bush and this I found very odd. But I listened because when someone from the Middle East likes George one has to wonder! Basically, he felt the US had rid Iraq of a “butcher” and that pleased him. I now know that Sadaam was quite popular in Yemen before the war because he helped the country financially and always allowed the Yemeni people to work and study in Iraq.
Upon my return to the US from Thailand, I received an email from my occasional travel companion, Carmen, a German doctor that I had met in Mongolia in 2005. We had gone to Morocco together in 2006, but I was never able to find an English keyboard at an internet cafe, so I never wrote about that trip. Anyway, Carmen said that she wanted us to go to Yemen that year. What a small world it is! and what wonderful “coincidences” happen when you travel! I, of course, immediately agreed and then had the pleasure of telling Hussein that, lo and behold, I would be coming to visit him!
After my initial excitement however, I began to worry. The media here and the State Department had dreary warnings about Yemen. Not only was the country reported to have had killings of tourists, they were nearly famous for kidnappings! There is ongoing conflict between the many tribes there and the government. Yemen had only just recently become a republic in the 1990’s after a long and brutal civil war. The tribes kidnap tourists to try and pressure the government to build roads, schools, hospitals, or to provide satellite dishes. Part of me was actually rather curious about being kidnapped as, reportedly, folks were treated quite well.
One cannot really travel alone in Yemen because of the roads, limited mass transit and, of course, the potential danger. Therefore, you have to go on a tour. Carmen and I joined up with a Dutch company called Djoser that was leading a group of fifteen Germans, plus me. I checked out another company here in the US, and they do not go to Yemen due to the difficulty in obtaining a visa, which I did have trouble getting. Unlike the Germans, I had to provide a health history, proof of health insurance, and a letter from my doctor saying I was fit for travel. I don’t know why; perhaps they have had bad experiences with sick Americans.
Not only did I work hard to get a visa, but I also had quite the challenge finding guide books about the place. I ended up with a Lonely Planet guide for Yemen from 1996 and one of the Arabian Peninsula from 2004. After overcoming all these challenges, I at last arrived in Frankfurt to meet the group and leave for Sana’a, the capitol of Yemen. It turned out to be cheaper to fly from the US to Europe and then to Yemen, rather than direct to Yemen. The tour included airfare from Frankfurt, three weeks accommodation, breakfast, transportation, and all required military escorts. The total was about $2,000 which I thought was quite reasonable (albeit more than I usually spend) given the circumstances. We flew on Yemenia airline and everything was the usual except one interesting detail: The screens continually showed where Mecca was with a picture of an airplane, an arrow and the distance. This is for the prayers which the Muslims do five times each day facing Mecca.
4:30am… ALLAHhhhhhhhh! The call to prayer blasts all over the city from a multitude of PA systems. It is sunrise, I roll over and grab my earplugs… If lucky, my hotel room has a fan or AC running to drown out the deafening city sounds. Every room has a symbol on the wall showing the way to Mecca to pray. I pray for a little peace and quiet but also ponder this custom that has infiltrated the culture of Islamic countries completely. Can you imagine church bells ringing five times a day and everyone stopping what they are doing to pray? In some ways it might be nice to stop and notice, give thanks, pause, relax… but everyone in their own way and with an appreciation for Nature and the Planet and not just for a particular ideology that does not necessarily manifest itself in good works right here and now.
Somewhere between 6am and 8am, depending on the “program” for the day, I get up. A few times we have had quite nice rooms. Usually the bed is hard, the pillows hard, and everything is dilapidated, dusty and just plain worn out. The showers usually have their own heater and sometimes it works… dripping, hot and cold mixed… but wet and refreshing. I brush my teeth with bottled water, put on one of the two changes of clothes and just don’t breathe too deeply.
Breakfast for tourists… same ol, same ol… White roll-like bread, hard boiled egg, processed triangle cheese, strawberry jam, Nescafe and orange juice from concentrate. The Yemeni breakfast is a great dish called “fool”… spicy beans and flat bread… I prefer this actually. They eat with their hands (tourists get spoons.) Often they sit on the floor and we are put in chairs… We get kleenex as napkins and every place has a sink with laundry detergent powder to use as soap.
The toilets are “Turkish” style: a ceramic hole in the ground, and also doesn’t have paper, just a spigot for water… you rinse yourself and the ceramic hole in the floor… voila, a tree is saved.
“Yala yala!!!” means a lot of things like “okay” or “let’s go,” and the sixteen of us load into four landrovers with our drivers; Achmed, Muhammad, Walid and Sale. I am lucky to be in the one with the guide, Arif, so we get to ask him a lot of questions. Of course Carmen has to translate everything since Arif doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak German or Arabic! He is really funny and sweet and very knowledgeable. He loves his country and shares that enthusiasm.
Trying to pull the cars out into the streets, wow, I don’t know if I can describe these scenes. Even early, it is so packed, so noisy (mostly from the gazillion honking cars), you can barely hear yourself speak. There might be donkeys or camels pulling carts about. There are a million shops with everything from food, perfume, clothes, household goods, tools, hookahs, all packed into tiny shops lined up next to each other. And then the streets are filled with more stalls or wheelbarrows or folks just sitting there selling or watching.
There are children everywhere and the women are completely covered in a black garment called an abeyaa. The little boys play foosball or soccer in the streets after school. And Fridays are like our Sundays, so every internet cafe is full of kids playing video games! The young girls going to school wear green abeyaa uniforms and they don’t have to have their faces covered. It is an ongoing argument whether or not the Quran says women must cover their faces or not. The south of Yemen is less strict than the north. The south was run by the Turks, the British, or the Soviets at different times. The north are more tribal and therefore more strict unless it is in the western part of the country which has more African influence, so the women there often have more colorful coverings. I have spoken with some women here and they say they prefer being covered; They feel more “comfortable”. It apparently is more anonymous. They can look out and not be seen, and they get less harassment from the men.
Yemen is mostly known for its amazing architecture and this changes depending on where you are. Sana’a is most famous because of its “Old City,” an Unesco World Heritage site. The city is packed inside a protective wall with the occasional arched gated entrances. The buildings are all a red color painted with intricate white stucco designs.
The windows, called takhrim, are made from alabaster and stained glass. And then there are the doors; Every one seems different, either wooden and carved, or metal with bright colors and artistic overlays. The old cities always have the souqs or markets. These are all the shops already mentioned just crammed into an even smaller space. Tiny pathways either cobblestoned or still just dirt.
At one point in the trip, we went to the grand daddy of all souqs, Bayt al Faqih. Yes, you are probably pronouncing it properly… “Faqih, Faqih…” I thought our guide Arif was teasing me and I could not stop lauging. This is one of the oldest souqs in Yemen and happens every Friday as it has for hundreds of years. There are thousands of stalls here and so many people, you can barely walk or breathe. Each section has its own personality. The multicolored grains and spices in enormous woven baskets are weighed out with centuries old methods and tools. The food section has huge fryers filled with splattering oil frying batter covered whatevers. The textiles, the tools, the kitchen wares, the plastic shoes, the music… and the hooka shisha (their version of tobacco) pipes, which are much bigger than those I saw in Morocco, having inhalation tubes which are thicker and longer. And then the healers treating half naked men being suctioned with little plastic cups to get the “bad blood” out of them, or getting cut on their foreheads, or having Quarn prayers wrapped around their arms. The qat section is always the busiest…
Now, as you you can probably guess, alcohol and drugs are not allowed here in a Muslim country. What they do instead is chew qat (pronounced “got”) and woah! Is it ever the major event in Yemen! Evidently it also occurs in Ethiopia and Kenya. It is growing everywhere, sold everywhere, and chewed daily. They say it has a mild stimulating effect but everyone looks totally stoned on it. They buy bags of this stuff starting at around two in the afternoon and then sit around and chew until one side of the cheek is packed with it. It is a status symbol to have the biggest cheek as it indicates affluence and stamina. Evidently, qat is a real problem here for the economy as the men will spend up to half of their meager income on qat, not to mention how little work gets done while sitting around chewing. In addition, most of the available water goes to grow the qat trees in this desert country, creating a dangerous water shortage.
After the qat section of the souq we encounter the grossest part of all, the meat department. Here, chains hang down with partially skinned carcasses dangling. There is a calf head, eyes open, below its body. Then, the thighs of a camel (which they do eat here), or chickens sqawking, tied together watching their brothers be stripped and quartered. All around the ground the entrails are being devoured by scrawny, filthy, ravenous dogs and cats, growling and hissing with eyes flitting about. I really don’t mind this open slaughtering.
In fact, I think if you are going to eat these animals, which I do, you should know and appreciate where your meal comes from and give thanks to that animal for giving its life. Soon after the butcher section, we get to see the live animal section. Mostly cows, goats, chickens, some donkeys and camels. And speaking of camels, they are often attached to a mill of sorts where it walks round and round to make cooking oil. Ah Faqih, Faqih… what an amazing place. Sadly, we also saw many disabled children being rolled around in wheelbarrows to beg for money. The wheelbarrow: the main way to get around in the souq.
In Sana’a we also got to try our first typical meal here, the salta. It is like a stew cooked in a wrought iron pot over an incredibly high hot flame. Restaurants here are usually open to the street and packed with men. Those that serve families have private curtained rooms so that the women can uncover their faces in order to shovel food in. Other common meal choices besides the salta are roasted chicken, lamb, and camel, lentils, beans, rice, and even pasta with a small blob of tomato paste, and a dish that is a thin layer of eggs on the bottom of a pan, and of course, bread. They have many kinds of bread here but the most common is a large flat one that is easily folded to be able to scoop up the rest of the meal. Meal times are never peaceful. The places are packed, everyone yelling and running around, with the waiter (if you can call him that) throwing pans of food onto the tables, usually with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. My favorite time was when Carmen ordered fish and bam! it is thrown head, tail, and all, right onto the table. I guess you have to order a plate, too, if you really want one.
To drink, you usually order bottled water. I have to say that plastic has not served this country well, and really, maybe not even the world… There is so much plastic trash, bottles and bags, around here it looks like there are plastic bag bushes and bottled earth. And, of course, one can always order Coke. In fact, I even found Mountain Dew! There is also alcohol-free beer, but why bother? And after every meal they drink tea. The tea is good but it is disappointing that a country that was famous for its coffee (Mocha came from here) now only serves Nescafe. I have witnessed this, sadly, all over the world… Amazing beans and Nescafe has ruined them and sold this crap back to a poor country at a profit. Yemen is also famous for its honey. The bees feed primarily on Acacia trees and I was told that some honey can sell for $300 a kilo! We only got to try honey on a delicious desert that is like sweet bread drenched in it.
Our first night in Sanaa we were spontaneously invited to a Bachelor party. Here, weddings, like just about everything, the men and women do separately. In fact, it is difficult to meet someone to marry. Usually the mothers arrange things. Inviting us, the men would put their hands on their heads which means, “we so welcome you, we would stand on our heads!” The men greet each other with multiple kisses on the cheeks and they frequently hold hands when walking down the street. Occasionally we saw what was obviously a married couple holding hands but, in general, men and women do not touch. There were two or three hundred men in the tent. Carmen and I were the only women, but evidently we are not really considered women, we are foreigners. The groom was in the back of the tent, seated on an elaborately decorated throne. The rest of the men were seated around the tent on pillows chewing qat. They played music for us on the traditional ud, which is like a big round guitar, and they danced. The most popular dance is done with the jambiyaa, a curved knife worn daily by most men in Yemen on the front of the body held by a colorful woven belt. The covers for these knives used to be made from rhinoceros horn until it almost caused their extinction, so now the covers are made from lime green or brown chiseled leather. The men wear a long white shirt down to their ankles and a western style coat jacket that is a carry over from British influence. They also wear a traditional scarf tied in a variety of ways on their heads or around their shoulders. At weddings, women wear long, bright beaded gowns, gold jewelry and lots of make up… All covered up by the black abeyya if there are any men around.