After visiting the capital, Sana’a, we headed North. The trip to the city of Sada had been cancelled due to tribal conflicts, and so we were only going as far as Shahara. On the way we stopped at a few villages. You could immediately see the difference in the architecture: much simpler mud buildings but still many stories tall to house the different parts of a family. The kitchen area downstairs, then the women’s quarters, then the extended family, and finally at the very top is the qat chewing room. This leg of the journey required a military escort provided by the government. Our boys were ages 14 to 18, barely had facial hair and were carrying Kalishnikovs and chewing qat. “Guns and qat” became the mantra of this trip. At the base of Shahara we had to switch vehicles and use the local tribes’ Toyota trucks, not only to support the tribe, but also because only these Toyotas could make it up the road! Now I have been on some rough terrain in my time but I have never been on roads like these: Thin, treacherous, and steep, with boulders and rocks… terrifying! We were told that Toyota designed these trucks specifically for this road and then made commercials about them! We rode in the back of the trucks with our military boys bouncing around with the butts of guns in our sides… And it was worth it.
Shahara is a village nearly three thousand meters up a mountain. It is common for the villages to be on the mountains: One, it is easier to protect; and Two, it frees up the mountain sides and valleys for planting in extensive, amazing terraces. Through the years, its location helped it to be a tribal base, holding out against many invaders until the advent of the airplane… Then it got bombed into semi-submission. The main attraction here is the last crossing of what used to be a three tiered stone bridge connecting the two mountains. It reminds you of an Indiana Jones movie and puts “Vertigo” to shame! Truly, it is an engineering miracle considering how ancient it is. Up here, as in every village, are cisterns that collect rainwater. The women, in their black garb, come daily to collect buckets of water which they filter with old T-shirts, then walk with brightly colored containers balanced on their heads over steep mountain paths. The accommodation here are called funduq, which are really just old multistoried homes converted into hotels. The men and women are separated and sleep on the floor, dorm style.
In all of these villages we visit, we are met by throngs of children yelling “kalem, kalem!” (pen, pen) or “sura, sura” (photo, photo). Of all the places I’ve travelled I have never encountered a people so eager to have their pictures taken (except the older women). And all they really want is to have you show it to them. Unfortunately, some are now figuring out that they can ask for money. In one village, again at the tippy top of a mountain, a woman dressed in black and surrounded by children waved Carmen and me over to her. We were shocked to have been approached by a woman! Through gestures and my little Instant Arabic book, we had a wonderful conversation about religion, our countries, our families and customs. She was so open she uncovered her face and even showed us scars on her belly! She then showed me how to properly wrap my head scarf so it would completely cover my face. When her son-in-law showed up, she quickly covered up and it was noticeable how she withdrew. We had gotten to have many conversations with men about the covering of women: One group of college boys told us that they felt women being covered helped the men to “control themselves.” During this conversation they also said that Muslims are adamantly against violence and do not agree with religious extremists. They accept all religious books and prophets which are said to have come from God, but, of course, believe that the Quran and Muhammad are the final, definitive ones. When talking about politics, they are able to separate out a people from its government, that was why it was okay for me to be from the U.S. They don’t really like their own president, as they believe he is not taking the country forward. Their president has a difficult time finding harmony between all the tribes and, as is so often the case, he steals or wastes a lot of money, for example, on a forty million dollar mosque rather than on schools or hospitals.
After Shahara, we headed east to Marib. Again, we needed a military escort due to conflict between the tribes and the government. We passed so many military checkpoints I lost count. These guys love to hand you their guns and take pictures with you! It also looks really strange to see them all with their old fashioned weapons and then a cell phone out in the middle of nowhere. They code the cities: Green = OK; Yellow = be careful and stay near the hotel; Red = danger, can’t leave the hotel. Marib was a Red zone, so we had to have the police with us to tour the city. Here, there are ancient temples over two thousand years old. Some believe the Queen of Sheba (also known as Belquis) came from here. The temples are also known as the Sun and Moon temples and are covered with Sabaean text. There is also an old dam which was built like the Panama canal lock system. Nearby there is a new dam which reportedly doesn’t get used much, again, due to political conflict. It is such a waste of water just sitting there evaporating. The old city of Marib is abandoned, the mud houses decaying, eerie and mystical in the setting sun with the far off sound of the fourth call to prayer. We stayed at a hotel called the Land of Two Paradises and, believe me, if you need two paradises what is up with the first one? Filthy, buggy, hot and miserable. It was a blessing to get up at 4am to cross the Ramlat as-Sab’atayn desert… This time with a Bedouin escort.
We were told we needed the escort because there were still land mines from the civil war and the Bedouins knew where they were. It must have been a wide free range, though, since we drove like crazy and seemed to have no particular path other than East. We stopped and ate with a family in their tents and hung out with the camels a bit. And then we went for a crazy dune ride which I was the only girl brave (or stupid) enough to do. It is trance-inducing in the desert and easy to become disoriented with only sand, mirages, dots of camels on the horizon and the dust stirred up by the Land Rovers.
After the desert we ended up in Wadi Hadramawt. Wadi means riverbed and usually has a river running through it, although most we saw had no water. There is a brief rainy season in the summer. But the valley is greener, with palm trees, acacia and much agriculture. A common sight is the girls covered in black and perhaps with the local style straw hat in the shape of a witch’s hat either working in the fields or leading a herd of goats around. This area is one of the more affluent governates due to its fertility. Even the people are heavier! The men wear sarongs from the Indonesian influence. Because of all the trade happening at the nearby ports many people emigrated and then eventually returned here. You can also see the Indonesian influence in the bright colorful flowers painted around the windows. But the most noticeable area here is the village of Shibam, also known as the “Manhattan of the Desert.” It is called this because shooting up out of the landscape are a patch of tall, thin, tightly packed mud “skyscrapers.” Although the multistoried building is common in Yemen, for some reason here, it really excelled. The inhabitants often don’t even go down to the street to get around but instead cross over the roofs! At times you will see blue eyes beaming out amongst the Arab faces. They lock with ours and smile at our inevitable genetic connection. Because of all the trade here, Yemen has been exposed to many cultures throughout its history. The Sunni and Shia seem to worship together in peace, there are still a few Jewish communities, remnants of Soviet style block houses remain, and we even saw a church.
Saying farewell to Wadi Hadramawt, we headed south toward the Indian Ocean to the port of Mukalla. I haven’t much good to say about this place… It was crowded, noisy and dirty. We were supposed to head from here back West along the coast to a fairly good sized city named Ataq. However, it became a Red Zone and was cancelled. This turned out to be a blessing. We went instead to a place called Bir Ali. Paradise! We stayed in mud huts that were open facing the pristine turquoise water and white sandy beach. It was a much needed pause in this fast-paced tour. Of course there were no locals to be seen, as, in bathing suits we might as well have been naked! The Yemeni people evidently fish but rarely swim and, needless to say, the women, if they were to swim would have to do so at a private pool. Speaking of which, I did go to a hammam (a bath house) once. I was the only foreigner and the center of attention. The hammams are like caves with warm water coming out at certain areas that the women gather around to scrub and wash their hair. It was a nice, albeit unusual way to finally meet the women here!
The next city, Aden, was the biggest port in the past and is now the winter capitol. It is a big fairly modern bustling city. We even went to a mall and I had to have a slice at the Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken were the only franchises I had seen here. Actually, I don’t like that franchises have not only taken over our country but are now attempting to take over the rest of the world. What a shame it will be if the entire planet looks like an Anywhere, USA strip mall! However, I will admit that the slice I had there was much more familiar than the Yemeni pizza I tried, which did not use tomato sauce and instead had some weird sweet sauce! It was here in Aden that I again noticed a cemetery that had no grave markers. I came to find out that in the Muslim religion, a person is to be buried but not marked so that all are remembered equally and humbly in death.
After Aden we headed North toward Sana’a and stopped in Taiz. Taiz is a big, old, loud, dirty city in the middle of a valley surrounded by mountains. We stayed here three nights using it as a hub to visit other nearby villages, and, I must say, it grows on you. It was here that I finally decided to try the qat. I figured it was the core cultural occurrence here and I should know why. So, I bought a $10 small bag of pre-picked leaves. Taiz is known for having the best qat in the country… But $10?! That is a lot of money here. Two hundred Rial is a (US) dollar. The average income is about $350 per year! Granted, gas costs about fifty cents a gallon and a meal about $3.00.But it just doesn’t add up. It turned out I couldn’t finish my bag although it is the usual amount for an evening. You can get cheaper qat especially if the leaves are still on the branches. Anyway, we went to a qat chewing parlor. It was decorated with plush couches and pillows, furry walls, many-colored fabrics and had lots of hookah scattered about. The guide, Arif, showed me what I was supposed to do: Basically, stick the leaves in one of your cheeks and chew. It tastes AWFUL! Bitter and nasty… But I kept chewing, determined to see what was up with this stuff. Arif suggested I drink a Coke with it to help it go down… You don’t swallow the bulk of it, just the juices. That is why the bulk builds up as a big wad in your cheek. Then, I tried to smoke the shisha to help with the horrible taste. I kept chewing and chewing and chewing… And nothing ever happened. Arif told me it could take up to three hours to feel the effect, and the “effect” is described as a “push.” They say it is a bit of a stimulant but I never felt anything and, honestly, mostly saw people just sit around and look zoned out. I made it about an hour and a half… And I just couldn’t take anymore… It was too boring just sitting there. I see why it is destroying the economy: what a complete waste of time.
During our stay in Taiz we visited quite a few villages. One was on top of Jebal Saber, the local mountain. Here the women wear bright wraps, often have their faces uncovered and do Henna on the hands and feet of the tourists. It is said that the women run quite a few of the businesses and have stayed more open because they could sell more goods to the military and men at the bottom of the mountain than their men could. We also went to Gibla where there was a beautiful old mosque, elaborately painted inside, and had been built by a queen who ruled there until she was ninety two! Another village, near the Red Sea, was called Khokah. The beach was disgusting with thousands of dead crabs, a dead dog and a dead flamingo. It was rather creepy but in keeping with the “Wild West” feel to the place, we stumbled upon what looked like a Harley convention, except the bikes were all Hondas… All decorated with sheep skins, rugs, bells, feathers, lights and beads. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, woah! We found what was called a “national park” and it had Yosemite-like cliffs, forests and oh my Allah, baboons!
Our three weeks were coming to an end and, I must say, I was feeling a little overwhelmed with this whirlwind tour. It seemed like we had seen every single village in the entire country… But there were even more surprises awaiting me. Our final village before returning to Sana’a was Manakah, again in a funduq on a sheer mountain side nearly at the peak. What was special about this place was the family that ran it: A man and his sons (women hidden at home again, darn it), ran this place. Not only did they cook and serve these amazing meals, but they danced and played some of the best music I had heard in Yemen. Now granted, you can’t beat Abou Bakr who is the number one singer from here, but next had to be this family. They played the ud and drums, but what was most astonishing was how loud they could clap and, even more than that, was the whistling! And then they would get up and dance. They did the jambiyaa (knife) dance, a dance with rifles, and one with their huge long sleeves of their white dresses. It reminded you almost of the Sufi dancers how they would just keep moving faster and faster and stare off into space as if in a trance. We all got to join in and again it made me wonder what the women do. I loved this family. They were so sweet and open. One of the boys asked me if America was in Asia, Africa or Europe. It was so refreshing to meet someone with no preconceived ideas about us.
I had met so many wonderful people here, and not just from Yemen. One couple on the tour was a German man and his Iranian wife. He had converted to Islam in order to marry her. They go to Iran every year to see her family. And I met a man from Jordan who said that Jordan was so progressive that I could just fly in, rent a car and drive wherever I wanted to. I visited a mental hospital, an autism clinic (since I am a psychiatric nurse) and spent wonderful afternoons with my friend Hussein’s family. Everywhere, I was enthusiastically welcomed and often showered with gifts. I thought back on my initial reservations for visiting this country, sighed, and felt very grateful that I had not succumbed to the propaganda we are fed here about the Middle East. I will continue to explore this area, so rich in history and passion, and to try to bridge the great gap that governments and politics create when in truth, as travel always teaches, we are all so alike.