KNOWN as the ancient Land of Sheba and Arabia Felix, Yemen is as exotic as one can only imagine with its natural beauty and otherworldly charm.
The first thing that hit me as I came out of Sana’a airport -- in tow with my photographer, travel companion, and tour guide Ali Mushaima – was a sea of humanity of turbaned men and boys jostling for space, looking for their loved ones with their large, beseeching and haunting eyes.
We were whisked away by Ali – a Bahraini who is passionate about Yemen and its people – to our waiting Land Cruiser, where our Yemeni driver proudly displayed a curved jambiya dagger at his waist – which is worn by almost all the male population – and greeted us with a swollen cheek, the result of chewing qat leaves that come from a local shrub and have a mildly narcotic effect.
Chewing qat while engaging in lively chatter is a national past-time, with many men spending sometimes up to three quarters of their salary on this cash crop, and this, in a country where at least 50 per cent of the population is unemployed. Poverty is rampant in Yemen, but you begin to realise early on that this country has a lot to offer – from unique architecture to amazing landscapes and from breathtaking mountain scenery to unspoilt beaches, as well as good simple food and of course, friendly people.
However, centuries of poverty and uncertainty have not rendered its people thrifty and prudent. On the contrary, any object of value is viewed as a gift from God, wealth is not to be saved but spread around, so that when it is gone, those who have received a portion of it might share something of their own in return.
Driving through the capital Sana’a is like being transported into another era and I couldn’t help falling in love with the city’s old buildings, some of which were built around the time Columbus arrived in America, and that look like giant gingerbread houses, as ground alabaster, mixed with water and plastered around the exterior windows and doorframes like icing on a cake, convey the distinct impression of edible-looking edifices, which one only seems to read about in storybooks.
Legend has it that Sana’a was founded by Sam, the son of Noah and the ancestor of all Semites, including the Arabs and Jews. After the Great Flood, Sam wandered south from Mount Arafat (in modern-day eastern Turkey). Traversing the Arabian Peninsula, he came upon a high plain some 50 miles long from north to south and 10 miles wide. The land seemed productive and the air refreshing, and he began to sink a well. But as he laboured, a bird swooped down, snatched the plumb line in its bill, and dropped it at the foot of the Jebel Nuqum mountain several miles away. Sam dug his well there instead and a town grew around it, originally named Sam, then Azal, after Sam’s brother. It later came to be called Sana’a, indicating an abundance of craft workshops.
The city evolved into a prominent centre for Islamic learning, with the town’s Great Mosque standing today largely intact since its construction in the first half of the seventh century AD.
In fact, Sana’a has been around since at least the second century AD and up until the early 1960s the city still nestled within its ancient walls, surrounded by verdant fields. Old Sana’a is very unique, with beauty in every corner, including intricate building façades such as friezes, beautiful windows with delicate fretwork and coloured panes, mashrabiyyas (closed balconies), and pretty stained glass windows that twinkle in the light. Mosque minarets rise above the tower houses, and the city boasts numerous hamams (bath houses), some dating back from the time of the Ottoman occupation of Yemen in the 1800s.
In typical Sanaani houses, the first floor is equipped with a hand-cranked flourmill, shallow compartments for storing grain and a well. Bedrooms are situated on the second floor, while a meeting room with large windows and a view of the town make up the third floor, both facing south to take advantage of the sun’s warmth. The upper storey contains the kitchen and bathroom, facing north so that the predominant winds disperse odours, and apparently, the value of a home drop considerably in this orientation is not respected.
Even though new buildings are sprouting up daily around Old Sana’a, with the original mud wall of the city long gone, thankfully it has not lost vestiges of its former self.
The corridors winding through the vast Suq Al-Milh (salt market) — which covers an area of 47,000 sqm and has over 1,700 shops — still convey visitors back to the Middle Ages and families and neighbourhoods remain close-knit, and the locals still stare in wonder at foreigners.
My first evening in Sana’a, spent relaxing on the rooftop of the six-storey Taj Talha hotel, was sheer magic. Originally a palace built in the 18th century and popular with regular tourists and those who prefer “roughing it” in more authentic surrounds, the hotel offers magnificent panoramic views of Old Sana’a and lies very close to the suq (traditional market). It was a beautiful evening and as I gazed out of the open windows and watched the twinkling lights from beautiful dwellings clustered together, while listening to the call to prayer, the feeling was almost otherworldly.
I felt like Sheherazade from 1001 Arabian Nights, reclining on comfortable cushions and sipping heavily sweetened tea, surveying people walking through tight alleyways and then disappearing into the shadows. It was magical, and I felt at peace, listening to the sounds of people winding down for the day.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
On our second day we all got up bright and early and left our hotel, the Sheraton Hotel Sana’a, one of the few five-star hotels in the country located near the American Embassy, to tour Manakha and Al Hajjarah, which lie around 120 km from the capital.
The drive to Manakha was long and arduous and because we travelled on winding mountain roads, the Land Cruiser felt like a popcorn maker as we bounced about for what seemed like an eternity. We passed dusty towns, coffee and qat plantations, wheat and cornfields, as well as lush and dry areas, stopping a couple of times to fill our car up with water, take photographs of the surreal scenery and people, including startlingly beautiful children, goatherds and farmers. By the time we arrived in Manakha for lunch we were starving and ready to sample traditional Yemeni fare that consisted of delicious oven-baked bread and spicy, delicious unidentified vegetable stews that came bubbling in superheated stone bowls. Dessert came in the form of sweetened fried bread pieces meant to be eaten in small bites with endless cups of tea.
Al Hajjarah, which is built in the mountains and is one of the most-visited villages in Yemen, is a real sight to behold and is famous for its Jewish dwellings and handicrafts. The steep, labyrinthine alleyways were full of children guiding us along the way, as we surely would have got lost without these helpful guides, who were surprisingly multi-lingual. Apparently, more than 2,000 people reside in this village’s stone-built homes, and even though their lives are lived in very austere conditions, everyone we met looked happy and content.
Back in Sana’a after another long journey, Ali took us to Al-Shaibani, a popular local restaurant for a true taste of Yemen where we indulged in a satisfying meal of extra-large pizza-size bread, sprinkled with black seeds and accompanied by the universal Yemeni appetiser, zahawuk, a kind of salsa made from green chilli, tomatoes, garlic and locally-made feta cheese. However, this restaurant is actually famous for its extravagantly seasoned and barbecued hamour fish brought in fresh from the Red Sea. Our dessert included locally grown bananas dipped in delicious local honey.
SHOP TILL YOU DROP
The following day was dedicated to some serious shopping in Suq Al-Milh, that sells everything you can think of, from expensive Hadrami honey (top-quality Yemeni honey is considered by Arabs to be a general panacea and a strong aphrodisiac) to fresh spices and intricate traditional silver jewellery to beautiful handicrafts and fabrics. Additional traditional treasures include colourful fabric and baskets, jambiyas, waterpipes (otherwise known as mada’a or shisha), incense, qamariya windows inlaid with brightly coloured glass, appetising fresh and dry fruit and nuts — including the most delicious raisins I have ever eaten — as well as lanterns and gypsum models embodying Sana’a’s beautiful architecture.
Shopping in Yemen is a cultural and social experience and is one of the most pleasurable things one can do. Bargaining is a must, as it is easy to let go and buy everything in sight without attempting to bring prices down, which frankly, requires patience and a certain level of expertise that I unfortunately don’t possess.
I had a beautiful two-tone amber necklace made for me at Mohammed Humood Al Saygal and Brothers Silversmith, the biggest shop in Suq Al-Milh’s silver quarter. Every type of traditional silver article you can imagine is sold here, with the owner Humood an authority on Yemen’s silver industry.
Setting out on our last day of our holiday we stumbled across a handicrafts centre in the middle of Old Sana’a which produces a wonderful range of hand-embroidered purses, handbags and trousers. The centre is a women’s cooperative, and I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw their gorgeous and vibrantly coloured purses. I immediately snapped up as many as I could grab in a buying frenzy, as have seen beautiful handicrafts from all parts of the globe, yet rarely encountered anything as stunning as the purses I bought that day.
Although it is a household name, most people around the globe don’t realise that when they are drinking mocha coffee, they are enjoying a little taste of Yemen. Despite the massive decline of coffee cultivation in the country since its heyday, which lasted until the middle of the 19th century, what little coffee Yemen still grows has retained its quality as the best in the world. I bought several kilos back home with me as gifts, however, I prefer drinking qishr, an infusion of coffee husks without the beans, flavoured with various spices, which Yemenis seem to prefer to actual coffee as well.
Supper was a grand affair at the five-star Taj Sheba Hotel’s Bilquis coffee shop. We dined on spicy Indian food with Taha Al-Mahbashi, the executive director of the Yemen Tourism Promotion Board, hotel management and other guests discussing the country’s attractions, as well as the challenges it currently faces in improving Yemen’s image abroad as a major tourist destination.
Yemen, says Taha, is being introduced to new markets, including Russia, Japan, and the Arabian Gulf. “Our traffic from Europe is terrific and we hope to increase the existing number of tourists from that region, who are already enamoured with the country. In fact, Yemen is fully aware of tourism’s economic benefits, and by educating the masses about how important it is for their future, we are confident that all we have to offer, including a unique mix of history, heritage and culture, will draw people from far and wide to experience the country for themselves,” he says.
Taha is also keen to woo more foreign investment into Yemen, as a better infrastructure in the country is needed, as well as the preservation of heritage sites and structures, old cities and monuments.
There are many remote places in Yemen I would have liked to visit, including the mountainous abode of the Flower Men in the northeast – where the men spend their days applying make-up and searching for sweet-smelling flowers to wrap around their heads – and the 70-mile long island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, many of whose inhabitants are nomads and fishermen who live in mountain caves, and which until recently was closed off to the rest of the world for several months each year during the rainy season.
But I had run out of time.
As I left the country, I remembered the Yemeni people I’d met. They may all live in the new millennium but they still have their ancient civilisation intimately tied to their spirit.