Published: November 28th 2006November 28th 2006
You go all the way to Yemen and you don't even get kidnapped - we didn't get a sniff - talk about being short-changed, could have dined out on that tale for decades......
Supposedly the tribal perpetrators treat their 'guests' hospitably - it's a protest against the government rather than anything personal - but Jom wasn't too keen on going without a macchiato for a fortnight.....
It was funny to watch the reaction of fellow travellers and locals from throughout the Middle East when we told them we were heading to the home of the Queen of Sheba, Frankinscence and to where Noah supposedly launched his Ark - a mixture of awe and foreboding. Our Foreign and Commonwealth Office certainly isn't a big fan: "There is a high threat from terrorism and evidence that terrorists may target Western, including British, interests in Yemen. On 15 September oil installations near Ma’rib and Mukalla were attacked in simultaneous terrorist suicide operations that resulted in several casualties and further attacks cannot be ruled out. There have been a number of kidnappings of European nationals since mid-2005, with four French tourists captured on September 10th 2006 and held for two weeks."
Yemen - 'Arabia Felix' or 'Happy Arabia' to the Romans - was a fascinating place, but it was impossible to tell if the women were smiling; we only saw a handful of female faces in 10 days, the rest were just black shadows, sometimes with eyes. And yet, from time to time you would catch a glimpse of flouorescence protruding from beneath the burqas and you would remind yourself that women are the same the world over i.e. victims to fashion. Girls, can you imagine finally finding that perfect outfit after scouring Buchanan Street's boutiques all Saturday afternoon........only to be restricted to wearing it behind closed doors? I don't think so!
Sometimes you forget how lucky you are......
Sana'a is one of Arabia's oldest living cities, supposedly founded by Shem (one of Noah's three sons) 2,500 years ago, and is perhaps the best-preserved medieval city on the planet. The oldest buildings - some of which are over 400 years old - look like ancient skyscrapers, reaching several storeys high and decorated with elaborate friezes and intricately carved windows. The Souk is choc-a-block with craftsmen and vendors and even the odd camel, a delight to stroll around.
were spent sitting on the kerb at Bab Yemen (the principal entrance to the old city) encircled by groups of up to 50 men - and usually one translator - who were fascinated by the two white-os sipping tea and watching the world go by; we felt more famous than Michelle McManus! They took great joy in introducing us to the Yemeni institution that is chewing qat
a.k.a. the Catha edulis
plant, which has been used as a stimulant for centuries in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Qat consumption induces mild euphoria and excitement and individuals become very talkative - it's chemically similar to amphetamine and epinephrine - and is used daily by 60% of Yemeni men and 35% of women; rather like the Scots' relationship with the bevvy! Apparently, the average Yemeni spends 30% to 50% of their daily income on the stuff, and the best quality gear is called "Hemdani"
, not sure the Gers fans out there would agree......
Anyways, our chewing exploits were very short-lived (it was like munching grass) hence we didn't manage to emulate the locals who 'park' the vivid lime green remnants in their cheeks until they swell to popeye-like
proportions, not pretty.......alas none of the locals would allow us to photograph them 'chewing the qat' - they are verrry camera-shy and you often hear stories of women (including young girls) throwing stones at tourists who tried to take a quick snap. You wouldn't be in a hurry to give the blokes much backchat either, those jambiyas could do you some serious damage.....
Travelling across Yemen required cutting through a fair amount of red tape - certain areas are strictly off-limits to foreigners - thus we had to secure travel permits before we could fly eastwards to see Shibam - "The Manhattan of the Desert" - and Tarim (home to the tallest minaret in the country), both located in Wadi Hadramawt. The mudbrick tower houses in Shibam are an awesome sight, rising up to 9 storeys, and enclose narrow streets packed with kids, not to mention the local bairns.
Our drive southwards towards the port of Mukalla (the same one attacked by the terrorist suicide bombers) took us through some inspiring landscapes sprinkled with fortified villages, orange trees and famous bees; the most expensive honey in the world is produced in Wadi Dawan, or so they say.......the women
in this region wear unique witch-like straw hats when working the fields, it makes for a truly bizarre sight when combined with the burqa, almost like Halloween.....
Mukalla doesn't have any claim to fame or major attractions - we didn't see another tourist in 36 hours - but it had a cracking atmosphere, colourful locals, gorgeous sweetbread and a renowned signature dish (delicately-spiced roast fish) which we devoured with our fingers like gannets, beats a Ghiloni's fish supper any day!
Yemen marked our first real diversion 'off the beaten track' but it was more than worth all those strange looks and dire warnings: often the most interesting places are the most feared......
There are more photos below